The Most Common Mistakes Westerners Make When They Visit The Philippines

Visit The Philippines

Visit The Philippines – The original article had been written by .

When I read his article about the Caribbean, I had to laugh and saw so many parallels with the Philippines. I had to to adapt it to my own observations here on our small island in the Bohol sea.

Booking a trip to the Philippines seems simple enough. The islands are just a longer hop and then it’s sunshine. A 30 days visa-waiver is given for free. All you need to do is jump on a plane, hail a taxi, beach yourself on a patch of sand, and wait for people to start fanning you.

But as you’re happily, blissfully letting your guard down, you have to be prepared for a totally foreign experience. In this former American colony the rules are so different. First-time visitors naturally make a lot of mistakes, and even when you’ve been going for as many years as I have, you keep finding more to make. In hopes that you don’t, I’ll share with you the stuff you need to do (and not do) to make the most of your trip.

Assuming everyone speaks English

Even if you’re not so big on stuff like “history,” you should know that the Philippines were colonized by the Spain and the USA. People in the Philippines speak 92 completely different official languages. In cities and tourist spots many speak an excellent and accent-free American-English. But in remote places you either get a bright smile or a permanent “Yes, sir”. You will never hear a “No”. This is, like in many Asian cultures, considered to be impolite. There are many ways to say no, without pronouncing this ugly word.

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Treating every island the same

Perhaps your first trip to the Philippines was off the side of a cruise ship in Boracay, and you assume the entire Philippines is white beaches and wonderful resorts. Or maybe you went to the Batanes Islands and figured the whole region was a more humid Hawaii. But the more you travel in the Philippines, the more you realize no two islands are alike, even within the same region. Some are rough, mountainous jungle islands like Camiguin. Some are densely populated islands with large cities like Cebu. Others are turquoise water and white beach paradises like Panglao or Boracay.

The geography, culture, and people of each island are very different, and your experience will be new every time you get of a plane or ferry. So don’t sell the region short by saying “seen one, seen ’em all.”

Thinking anything will run at American speeds

Filipinos live on islands, and as such are never in much of a hurry to do anything. (You’re surrounded by ocean, so where you gonna go?) It’s folly to expect waiters to attend to your table quickly, or bartenders to hustle to get you another Piña Colada, or hotel staff to go faster than a saunter. If you’re a high-strung American accustomed to Starbucks whipping up your chai latte in two minutes, you might find the Philippines to be a bit frustrating.

Also, time is a relative term in the Philippines. If someone tells you they’ll be there at 1pm, that could legitimately mean any time between 1-3. The only time that’s kept strictly here is quitting time, so when a shop says it closes at 5, don’t show up at 5:02 expecting anyone to be there.

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Trying to drive

OK, the Philippines drive on the right side like most western countries. But that’s about all they have in common with the western style of driving.
Most islands have no traffic lights, which means you’ll need to learn to navigate around all the other vehicles at a road crossing. You’ll also find that traffic laws in the Philippines are mere suggestions, and things like yields and stopping at stop signs are a coin flip. On the mountainous islands, you’ll find yourself traversing steep hills on single-lane roads that can best be described as “semi-paved,” and when you encounter a car coming down a hairpin turn as you go up, a rush of panic will set in. It’s a great way to bring a ton of anxiety into what’s supposed to be a relaxing vacation, so do yourself a favor and hire a driver, a taxi or a multicab when you need to go places. And in case you were wondering, no, there is no Uber on most of the Philippines’ islands.

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Not carrying cash

For whatever reason, Westerners presume carrying cash is obsolete, as if every business in the world is equipped with high-speed internet and access to PayPal. Not on the islands, homie. Yes, your bigger resorts, hotels, and restaurants all take cards. But when you want to stop into that funky roadside bar for a painkiller, or eat some fish a local just reeled out of the ocean, those guys don’t exactly have Squares on their iPads.

What’s more, not every island in the Philippines is equipped to take US dollars or euros. So always check ahead on local currency, and grab a couple hundred dollars’ worth before you arrive on your Robinson’s island. Many of the islands run on tips, too, and if you’re not topping off your bartenders, servers, guides, and porters, that Philippines level of service will deteriorate accordingly. Some restaurants have started to add a 10 percent service charge on their bills.

Visit The Philippines: Local airlines, ferries buses

Schedules are sometimes published on the Internet. Sometimes you find a pinned sheet with the latest schedules in the port, airport or bus terminal. Very often you find nothing. Schedules are made by the captains and drivers. Have you ever seen a plane taking off 30 minutes before schedule? In the Philippines the birds fly, when the last pax is boarded. Ferries and buses often leave, when the ship or bus is full – not before. When doing island hopping, think of a full day to reach your next destination. This avoids stress.

Depending on Wi-Fi and cell service

Seriously, you’re in the Philippines to relax and unwind. So worrying about Wi-Fi should be right below dinner condiments on your list of concerns. However, if you just CAN’T leave the office at the office, don’t expect to be able to log on anytime you want.

Sure, in some places like the big cities and most common tourist islands you can find restaurants and coffee shops with Wi-Fi. But on some less developed islands, your hotel might be your only point of connectivity unless you have an international data plan for your phone or have bought a local prepaid SIM card. You can buy load almost anywhere. Just ask the woman at the next sari-sari store.

Even then, the islands are primarily covered by two providers: Smart and Globe. They work well enough, but on mountainous islands — especially away from population centers — you’ll be out of range on a good portion of the island. Just relax, take a couple vacation days, and don’t spend your whole trip searching for a signal.

Asking for directions

In the USA or in Europe, you ask for directions and people tell you stuff like, “Go down four blocks to Main St, make a right, then make a left on Elm.” In the Philippines, it goes something like this:

“You take the road down a bit, go up a hill, then around a corner. You gonna see a goat there. Go past the goat to the red car and make a left. Go three houses down to the coconut tree and make a right. Then just before you get to the old bangka, you’ll see a driveway on the left. That’s the spot.”

If you can decipher such directions, then this might not be so hard for you. If not, understand driving here is tough, and the GPS on your phone might not work off-line. So, remember that advice about taking taxis or tricycles? Use it.

Checking luggage

If the words “Domestic flight” or “Seaborne” appear anywhere on your “Visit The Philippines” itinerary, make sure you’ve got a toothbrush and a change of clothes in your carry-on. Because your bag may be two days or even more behind you.

Philippines’ airlines aren’t careless with your luggage, per se. It’s just that such small planes have surprisingly low weight restrictions. For some islands the maximum weight can be as low as 10 or 20 kilograms. Even if you literally see your bag on the tarmac as you board your plane, there is no guarantee it’s getting on with you. So carry on everything as you leave home and just resign yourself to buying sunscreen when you arrive.

Not talking to locals

Filipinos are, by and large, the world’s friendliest people. Do they legitimately love western tourists? Hard to say, but their laid-back demeanor, broad smiles, and hearty laughs make for some of the best conversations you’ll ever have with locals while traveling abroad. Yes, the Philippines are still a developing nation, but aside from a handful of neighborhoods in the larger cities, the islands are very safe. And not taking the time to get to know the people here is missing out on one of the best parts of visiting. Do absolutely not go to the central-west and south-west of Mindanao. A trip to the wonderful Sulu Sea islands would very probably be a one way trip.

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Spending all your time at the resort

We get it. Sometimes on a “Visit The Philippines” vacation all you want to do is flop on a white sandy beach and drink sweet, watered-down all-inclusive drinks. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But then you don’t need to Visit The Philippines, you can also do that literally anywhere in Florida, Italy or Mallorca. So if you’re plunking down the money to go to the islands, see some more of them. The big mountainous islands in the Visayas are full of rugged wilderness the likes of which you won’t see stateside. Bigger islands like Luzon, Cebu, and Mindanao have thriving cities where you can explore a new culture before returning to the comfort of your resort.

Even the flatter, less cosmopolitan islands like Leyte, Samar or Bohol have cool stuff to see outside the resorts. Whether it’s a seaside seafood shack or a little-known live music venue, do a little research on the island before you go, and make a point to dip into it before you leave. You’ll find that’ll be the part of your trip you talk about most when you get back home, all tanned and relaxed.

[Editor’s comment]: Matt Meltzer’s article “The Most Common Mistakes Americans Make When They Visit the Caribbean” moved these other couples of islands high up in my bucket list. I have the feeling, I won’t be a stranger over there. It will be funny to continue the comparison …


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2 Responses

  1. Frank says:

    Really generic stuff that’s been said again and again on various blogs. Nothing new?

    • waebi says:

      Hi Frank,
      You are right, nothing new?
      I am just now writing my little story “Ten years after” and yes there aren’t many things new to tell.
      – I’ve seen 3 presidents. Nothing new!
      – I’ve seen many new resorts in Boracay, Panglao, El Nido: Some things new!
      – Cebu Pacific now flies now to many small islands. For some people new!
      – And for you over in Cebu, the new terminal 2 being built just now. Soon being new!

      The article I adapted to the Philippines, is intended for foreigners visiting the Philippines for the first time.
      Of course, old-timers, longtime residents, like you and me, read such writing with a smile. Nothing new! Isn’t it?

      Nothing new, but slowly progressing. It’s still more fun here.
      Cheers, waebi

      PS: If you’d like to contribute with more up to date information.
      Consider to be invited. Send just a short message.

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