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.