Welcome to the Philippines!

As a former Spanish, and subsequently American, colony – the Philippines feels like a bit of an outlier amongst other South East Asian countries. People talk fluent English (it’s their second language) with a faint American accent, homegrown fast food brands and BBQ meats are huge, customer service is chipper, and people like to party, fuelled by giant strong beers and the country’s key export spirit, Tanduay Rum. Compared to other parts of Asia, dominated by Buddhism and Islam, the Philippines feels different. As Christians, they have more relaxed attitudes to drinking and dress. People are naturally outgoing and friendly, and will welcome you into their groups – of friends or family – with an exuberant energy.

More than anything else, we found Filipinos to be incredibly warm and resilient. We walked through parks in Manila where families live sleeping on mats, but they’d still stop to say good morning to us as we trawled past. When we got caught in storms on tiny islands, we’d huddle round and listen to someone play guitar until the storm passed. Only in the Philippines did we really get to know the locals who we crossed paths with on our tourist trail. We went drinking all night on the beach with our diving instructors; we met a great girl on the bus and ended up staying at her Aunt’s hostel over Christmas (and ate a family meal with them on the beach on our first night); we had long conversations with ladies on their market stalls; we had coffees with families in homestays. You might think this is typical of Asia, but the difference in the Philippines is that they’re not just seeing you as a walking dollar sign. They’re genuinely interested in you and want to show you hospitality!

We still experienced some of the same niggles as we found in other parts of Asia – tuktuk drivers tourist-taxing us, for example – but the difference is that they’ll freely admit they’re trying to charge you more, and once you call them out (which we often did!) they’d crack up with their mates, and end up giving you the more reasonable (not quite) local price. Filipinos wear their hearts on their sleeves.

We also loved the Philippines for its cultural quirks. Whilst a lot of Asia is losing its cultural essence (aside from tourist sites that can be monetised) as it becomes increasingly Westernised, the Philippines feels like a culture all of its own. You will find fighting cocks transported on ferries; they have a wonderfully hardcore love of karaoke (the bars there are excellent – you will be worshipped for your singing, no matter how bad; in fact it’s almost illegal to laugh or boo); families take excessive picnics to the beach (and will probably give you their left overs). Jeepnies – leftover jeeps from US’ heyday converted into bright decorated trucks used as local transport – are symbolic of the Philippines’ gung-ho, colourful charm.

Tragically since we travelled, many stories have been dominating the news about President Duterte and his ruthless war on drugs, as well as Isis occupation on a Southern island. We can only hope that these terrible times will pass and the Filipino hardy spirit will prevail, as it truly was our favourite Asian country. Its natural beauty alone would be enough for it to qualify, but it was the people that really made it a joy to travel through.

How to pack for a year out backpacking if you’re a girl

Faced with only a 60L backpack and a year (well, 18 months!) travel to prepare for,  it was a pretty tough gig to think of how to pack everything one might need for travels in both South America and South East Asia. After some long hard thinking (and solid testing over the 18 months) I’d recommend the following…

The basics
These are the things you’ll fall back on on a daily basis, and I wouldn’t leave home without them…

Pants!– I’d take approx 10 pairs as this is how may days it’s likely to take before you run out of clothes, then you can do a quick hand wash in the sink with hand soap/detergent granules. Sounds basic but it works!

Shorts/dungarees – 2 or 3 pairs. Great for hiking, sight seeing in hot countries, and what I wear most days. I’m normally a pretty girly girl but in most places girls don’t get dressed up in pretty skirts and dresses so you feel a bit over-dressed in these, and shorts are a good middle-ground. Ditto dungarees.

Strappy tops and t-shirts – you need a good mix of these so you can a) work on your tan and feel a little more glammed up (strappies) and b) recover from your failed tanning attempts (sunburn!) and cover up on too-hot days. Only 100% cotton, no artificial fabrics, or you’ll sweat through your top in a matter of hours! (Primark, I’m looking at you). Not a good look, trust me. Include some baggier ones for Asia where you’re likely to get more stares in remote places.

Comfy dresses – essential! I have a long cotton beach dress that I bought in Bali a few years back and it’s one of my favourite items. It looks good enough to wear at dinner, but is also comfy and can be worn without a bra. I wear it on overnight buses because it’s warm, to travel in, on lazy days… whenever really. Day dresses are also good when you want to don some lippy and step up your look a little! Knee length dresses with t-shirt tops are also great for temples/churches/to cover up burn or protect from the sun.

Cardies/light hoodies – For when it’s slightly chillier I generally have a couple of cardies in bright, versatile colours for the evenings. That’s usually enough. Hoodies – specifically Uniqlo heat tech – are really great for layering on chillier days/night buses also.

SCARF!! – I can’t emphasise enough how important this one is. An old, pretty pashmina style scarf is essential and so, so versatile. A make-shift blanket for cooler situations, a sunburn cover-up, a cute little neck scarf when rolled thin. Choose a really bright beautiful one, and base your wardrobe colour scheme around this. Finishes off any outfit. I ended up with a couple after the 18 months.

Leggings! – I carry two pairs, so you always have some clean… Or cleaner! One for travel/slobbing, one for daywear. Great for cooler evenings, high altitude locations, or trekking to protect from stray vines. Grey or black/neutrals. Again Uniqlo heat tech are worth their weight in gold here as they keep you warm or cool depending on your body temperature.

Kimono – this is super handy for when you need to dash out to the toilet in the middle of the night, or whenever you can’t be bothered to dress. You will almost certainly be in a ‘shared bathroom’ situation on your travels, and I’ve found my silky kimono (that I got for 2 quid from Oxfam) has been indispensable whilst travelling.

Shoes – you really need 2 pairs of shoes. Comfy sandals, and comfy pumps. Emphasis on the comfort! You will be walking hours a day – sightseeing, round town, to and from transport, falling out of bars, etc! You need comfort. If you pack heels, you won’t wear them. I have Hush Puppies – both sandals and loafers. They’re dreamy comfy, no matter how far I walk. I also have hiking boots which are essential for National Parks (which are EVERYWHERE in South America) and jungle/volcano hikes in Asia so plan ahead if you’ll need these. I wore mine out completely in the 18 months. Jelly sandals/flipflops are also a great shout for swimming in/clambering over rocks / avoiding sea urchins in Asia.

Lightweight cover-up – despite lots of sunshine in both South America and South East Asia, there are also significant cold patches! If you’re going to national parks, it’s freezing in the evenings. Hiking volcanoes, glaciers… things you’ll definitely get into when travelling (even if you don’t think so before!) require lightweight cover. I swear by Uniqlo – they have great heat tech tops (long sleeve is great for sun/cold) and leggings which I wore permanently whilst hiking, as well as lightweight heat tech fleeces and padded down jackets. Definitely include a wooly hat or beret too – you will use it!

Microfibre towel – they’re amazing, light, tiny, and dry in about 5 minutes. Plus they come in loads of cute colours.

Swim gear – You’ll need more swimwear than you think (especially if you’re hitting Asia). Two bikinis/swimsuits minimum (as one will always be wet) plus kaftan, sarong, beach towel to lie on (so you don’t have to dry yourself with a sandy towel!)

Sun gear – I know they can be a bit lame, but a sun hat is crucial for a lot of hotter countries (especially if you’re fair!) Think mum’s beach hat in the 90s – the wider the brim the better. Also sunglasses – prescription if you’re short sighted makes all the difference for seeing wildlife in trees, detail of the relief work at Angkor Wat etc.!

‘Traveller’ clothes – you’ll no doubt pick these up en route so leave some space. I’m talking cute llama wool jumpers (South America), cotton hippy trousers that are ideal for temples in Asia. Clothes are so cheap abroad, so if you don’t have the above stuff (or you just want to mix it up as I did partway through) – leave space, and be prepared to throw away anything you take. I donated a jacket, shoes, and some dresses that got baggy through handwashing, en route.

… plus the obvious – sunglasses, sunscreen, SPF lipbalm and SPF moisturiser, etc etc. If you’re thinking about nail varnish, I’ve worn a glittery pink one that’s worked out well as you can’t really see where it’s chipped and you can just keep reapplying on the sly when it looks worse for wear! I also ended up buying more nail varnish en route but maybe that’s just me! You can buy pretty much everything as you go toiletries-wise, but tampons are less prevalent in Asia so I’d stock up where you can!

Oh and a comfy women’s backpack to put it all in! – it DOES make a difference. I have a Baughaus women’s 60L hiking backpack, and it sits perfectly on the hips and has tons of padding. I wore it on a 5 day hike packed three quarters full and it was still comfy by the end. Plus it’s purple!

And here are some thoughts on things that I’ve brought with me and hardly used, so you can learn from my pitfalls!

‘Dressy dresses’ – dresses I’d wear to parties, club nights, swank restaurants back home. You just won’t wear them on travels. You get stares on the streets for your day dresses, so anything short, bold or dressy is probably overkill. Even on our weekly ‘date nights’ where we hit fancier restaurants, they don’t merit dressing up! Maybe take one, then make it work for all occasions. I carted a little black dress around that I wore ONCE in 18 months. What a waste of space!

Accessories – I LOVE jewellery. Especially gold, vintage-inspired statement jewellery and colourful costume jewellery, but you just won’t wear it. I brought three gold necklaces and rings with me, and barely touched them. For a few reasons: comfort (it’s hot and humid, you don’t want green marks on your skin from fake gold or extra things making you sweat); safety (you don’t want to look too blingy and attract pickpockets), and also…sheer dam laziness! The same goes for makeup. I gave up on that in week 2. Now mascara is a pretty big deal! So you won’t need all that make-up removal gear either! Instant space saver 🙂

Overall, I’d say go with your instincts. But basic rules – keep it simple, comfortable, colour coordinate your wardrobe so it’s easy to pull together, and enjoy the liberation that comes with a more laid back attitude to dressing! Now excuse me whilst I go and buy some of those travelly pantaloon trousers…

Ciao for now!