When we arrived in the Philippines we had no idea what to expect in terms of culture, costs, or anything else. I guess I kind of expected something similar to Bali. And in some ways it is. But in so many ways it is so different. It’s a truly beautiful place – one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been – and I will be back again as there are so many islands to explore I only scraped the surface! There is so much we had to learn the hard way when we arrived so I thought I’d lay it out for you and hopefully make it that bit easier for you, if you are planning on visiting! We stayed in very basic, affordable places and found the majority on booking.com for an average of £10/night.
The Culture and lifestyle
As I mentioned, I was expecting something a bit similar to Bali, which is a very easy place to travel, they are so used to tourists and the Balinese are so friendly and ready to help. There isn’t much crime but there is some pushiness when it comes to market stall sellers and street sellers etc. Whereas in the Philippines the people are very friendly and helpful however we did have some experiences, especially in hotels with staff who have been so rude and dismissive. We experienced a lot of cat calling and there are a lot of people begging on the street, a lot who are children and again they can be extremely pushy and it can feel a bit overwhelming at times. In some cities there are a lot of police, security and a general vibe that doesn’t feel quite as safe as Bali. Saying this we also met some lovely natives who we miss already!
Money – Bring cash (English pounds/your native currency) to exchange at a Travel money bureau if you can. Exchange rates in the UK are so bad however trying to get money in the Philippines without cash is difficult! We only had our bank cards however the ATM’s often only accept US bank cards. They also have a maximum withdrawal per day and a fee each time you take money out. Do not use the ATM’s at the airport if you can avoid it! There are plenty of ATM’s in the cities which will have a much smaller fee. Most machines charge 250 pesos (£4) to withdraw up to 10,000 pesos (£160) per day.
The smaller towns and small islands don’t have many cash points. There is often 1 or 2 or sometimes none so you need to pre-prepare before you leave the cities. Only BPI banks accepted our Monzo cards so it did limit us a lot! I’d advise testing out your card at a few machines so you know which bank works for you. We managed to always get enough cash out to last us until the next city but you do need to plan ahead.
Sim Card – As soon as you go through customs there will be people selling SIM cards. I got a GLOBE SIM which cost 1500 peso (£25) for 17GB of data. GLOBE seems to be the best network rather than SMART as there was GLOBE signal pretty much everywhere, even in the middle of the ocean! You can top up your SIM up with ‘loads’. For example you can load 200 pesos onto your number and this will allow you to buy different packages. For example you can buy unlimited data for 5 days for 200 pesos or unlimited data for one month for 999 pesos. It’s extremely cheap and you can do it at a lot of stalls or shops – just look for GLOBE SIM signs.
Transport – The most common form of transport is tricycles – a motorbike with a side car. These are very cheap, for example in El Nido, it cost around 15 pesos (25p) per person for a 5 minute journey. They will fit your luggage on the back too. Make sure you ask a local/your hotel staff what you should expect to pay as many will try to rip you off as soon as they realise you are not a local.
When travelling longer journeys there are usually shared vans you can book online on with your hotel. These cost around £10- £20 for a 2-4 hour drive. If you have huge cases like we did you might need to book an extra seat to make sure there is room for your case.
In some cities you can get taxis – you might be able to hail one from the road otherwise there is an app similar to UBER, called GRAB. It works in a very similar way and you confirm your fair before you ride. However not all places will allow you to use GRAB, there are signs around some places strictly prohibiting GRAB cars so it will depend where you are.
You can hire a bike from most hotels, or if not there are a lot of bike hire shops around. It costs on average £5/day to hire a motorbike. Which I’d highly recommend doing in the small quieter towns and islands.
Boat Trips – One of the main highlights of our trip was the Big Dream Boat Man Boat trip we went on from Coron. It takes you around the most beautiful places around Coron at times when there are no other tourists – truly the best way to see places. I wrote a whole blog post on that if you’re interested which goes through the route and everything you need to know.
In terms of day tours, there are 4 different tours, A, B, C, D. With most people recommending A and C to be the best ones. These are the ones we did and the places were beautiful. However it is nothing like doing the private tour with Big Dream Boat Man as there are hundreds of other tourists. The boat tour guides on these day trips tend to ‘force fun’ and push for tips too.
To do any of the tours you have to pay a 200 pesos (just over £3) environmental fee (only once) and each tour costs 1200 pesos. There are a couple of hidden fees. On tour A once you get to the big lagoon you if you want to go and see it you have to hire a kayak – 250 pesos for a 2 person kayak. On Tour C one of the last stops is Martin Luke Island and Church which costs 100 pesos if you want to get onto the island. I vlogged our day trips and there’s more information on that video on my Youtube Channel.
Tips for the Day Boat tours
I would advise to take a t-shirt to snorkel in as most people on the trip got burnt! You are in and out of the water so much you can’t really wear suncream.
Plastic water bottles aren’t allowed so make sure you have a non-plastic bottle. Water is supplied on the boat however if you drink a lot I would take your own!
There is often plenty of phone reception out at sea although on tour C – the tour which goes furthest away, signal was very limited.
Take boat shoes and a dry bag because there are some parts where you will need to walk over rocks and if you want to take your phone/camera to the islands a dry bag is the safest way!
There are no toilets on the boat or the islands – just the sea!
Mosquitoes – there are A LOT. Make sure you stock up on deet spray (50% up). We haven’t found any this strong whilst being here – the strongest is 20% so make sure to bring it with you. I hate the texture of this stuff but being bitten a million times is so much worse so it’s one of those things you learn to deal with!
‘Sun shirts’ – Bring some sun shirts! This of course depends on how prone to burning you are but we have found we lived in our shirts. It is so so hot that you literally melt and it’s so easy to get burnt. We found oversized shirts are breezy and protect you from burning. Clothes get stained with suncream too so bring a few cheap shirts you don’t mind ruining.
Water – The water is not clean at all. Even the tiniest bit used to brush your teeth can make you so ill so be careful! Use bottled water to brush your teeth. Be careful in the shower not to swallow any too! Be wary of salads and fruit that might have been washed in the water and double check if your ice is mineral water!
Showers and Toilets – Get used to cold showers and filling up a bucket to flush the toilet! Depending where you are – smaller islands are worse and of course bigger cities have better systems – the shower is often cold water with not much pressure and occasionally on really remote islands it might even be salt water from the sea or a hose pipe hanging from the ceiling. Majority of the toilets are only flushable by pouring water down them!
As I mentioned I will be back to the Philippines as I loved it so much and there is so many more places to explore! We were there for 6 weeks. Initially flew into Manila and then pretty much straight out to Palawan Island where we visited Coron, El Nido, Port Barton and Puerto Princessa:
We had one night before going on the Big Dream Boat Man Boat Trip for 3 nights, then back to Coron for 1 more night. I wouldn’t say you need long here as the main thing to do is go on the boat trips! The town does come alive at night with restaurants and bars.
This is where we did the day tours form. We stayed for 1 night in Island front cottages before moving into the centre of town at Balay Paragua Annex which we loved. We were able to walk everywhere and because of this I think El Nido was one of my favourite places. Some good restaurants/cafes include – Taste, CB’s caf (Great pancakes and good WiFi), Amos – good chopsuey and fish fried, Habibi – good chicken stir fry!
We stayed in a place called Yellow Hauz. Which has very friendly staff and a shower with water pressure! Mabuti Eat and Chill and Gorgonzolas (pizza) are great restaurants. There are 1 or two ATM’s in this town and loads of puppies everywhere which we loved. From here you can go over to White Beach too which is beautiful!
Next we flew over to Cebu to explore Cebu Island before flying over to Siargao Island!
This was probably our least favourite place of all! It didn’t help that I had an ear infection whilst here but the people are rather unfriendly (generalisation!) and there was a lot of cat calling.
Moalboal is probably the most south place you want to stay as it gets less and less touristy further than this. It’s a very small and cute little town and you can easily drive down to places from here such as Kawasan falls.
We flew from Cebu to Siargao and by far this was my favourite place! I would advise renting a bike whilst your here and exploring at your own pace. There is so much to see here and it’s beautiful!!