DESTINATIONS in between islands

Mega Guide: 30 lessons from a month adrift in the Philippine Archipelago

An opinionated mega-guide based on 12 Philippines islands experienced in a month's travel.
Sometimes this is as crowded as it gets in the Philippines.

After a month of being adrift in between islands in the Philippine archipelago, here are some observations from the travel experiences I’ve had which might come in handy if you are planning an affordable trip to a country which can offer tranquil places with fun things to do and beautiful places to see. Here’s my opinionated mega-guide to being adrift in the Philippine archipelago.

The auditory landscape is what I noticed most prominently because as an introvert, I read a lot and write daily, and sound seems to interrupt the necessary concentration for these daily parts of my day.

Be prepared for roosters crowing at all times

There are three major reasons why chickens are raised in almost every home in the countryside of the Philippines. First, chicken is a great source of protein for a mostly carnivorous cuisine. Both eggs and chicken meat feature in many local dishes.

Second, Filipinos are into cockfighting as a sport (sadly, sometimes it is to the death). Because of this favorite pastime, fighting roosters are everywhere.

A man on the bus to Negros had a crowing rooster in a bag on his lap. On each of the 12 islands I’ve visited here, there has been a rooster crowing even at 1 am. In fact, roosters crow any time.

Roosters and a hen, Guimaras.

Videoke and karaoke is a thing

Filipinos love singing, and there is great business in selling karaoke and videoke machines in every mall where they are found in the section on Household Appliances.

On more than one occasion, I have been witness to videoke used in a home. It seems not to matter whether the singer can reach the high notes with ease. (Should you be part of a videoke or karaoke session, do not comment ironically on the singing. No one will laugh or understand the irony. Consider yourself advised.)

Fiestas last for more than 24 hours

When I was on Bantayan, Barangay Pooc had their fiesta. A fiesta is a a celebration of the birthday of a Catholic Saint. The celebration is a time for social gatherings, lots of feasts and events involving pageants, performances, a village disco, and speaker systems. Since the guesthouse was in that area, I could hear everything that was part of the festivities.

Hearing was the only option since the sound system was turned up at maximum volume. I heard the thumping bass of the morning selection, which started early, around 6am, paused only to play the National Anthem around 8am, and continued throughout the day. And night, ending at 1am.

Also, on the second day which was a Sunday, the entire village prayed the rosary via loud speaker system for three hours.

Then it was back to thumping bass and some ballads until 1am.

During fiestas, the entire community shows up to the events.

Loud music

Some people will play very loud music from their homes so the whole city can hear, on weekends. This happens in many islands. Travelers I’ve met who have homes in the Philippines which they visit once or twice a year can attest to this.

Some resorts also subscribe to the philosophy that playing music all day from speakers all around the resort adds to the experience of all the resort dwellers. One such experience was in one of the most peaceful islands I’ve been, Guimaras, at the Reyman Resort. Nice beach, but house music all day?

If like me, you prefer to relax by pausing in silence and solitude, away from the demands of the rat race in your home city, I would advise resort brochures advertising ‘karaoke rooms for rent.’ The walls are thin.

Loud speaking people are not necessarily fighting

The first time I heard two women in a public place, inside the passenger cabin of a ferry, having a conversation, I thought they were arguing from the volume at which they volleyed phrases at each other.

I later learned they were not arguing when they laughed at something they said.

They were less than a meter apart from one another.

Other than the auditory landscape of the experiences in the Philippines, I also gained some insight into some ‘soft’ skills that will come in handy as you travel around the islands.

Be persistent with communication

What I’ve noticed is that communication is vague or incomplete when someone answers a question or provides general information.

I bought a wifi router which allowed me to use it on all islands with a pre-paid amount or ‘load’ as it’s called locally. The package was supposed to give me 10GB free for the first week and then it would start charging against the ‘load’ I had pre-paid of PHP999 (U$19.46 or thereabouts, the rate flunctuates day to day). That’s what the salespeople told me when I purchased the router.

I left the shop and seven days later, the router would not allow me to connect to the web, even though the signal was at its highest, and a network diagnostic told me the server was not responding. So I went back to the shop where I bought it.

The sales people were very helpful. And, I learned some extra information. I was supposed to register online to the package of the PHP999 ‘load’ before it would work.

That would have been useful to know and save me a trip to the mall.

I’ve learned that when there is information I need, that I have to break it down into subtopics and ask a question for every subtopic, thoroughly, in order to receive the complete information I seek.

Get to bus depots and ports early, and be patient

Many travelers have written about this. When taking a bus or ferry, get to the depot or the port early. When transportation is full, if it fills up before the published departure time, that vehicle will leave.

That means you might want to get to the bus depot or the port very early, about 90 minutes to two hours before the published departure time, in case there are a lot of passengers.

This means exercising what Chris Guilebeau calls the ‘traveler’s mantra’ of patience.

Tricycles are not comfortable

The tricycle is ubiquitous in smaller towns and smaller islands as the main means of getting from A to B. The tricycles are cabs attached to motorbikes and can hold up to 4 people (although I have been on one with seven people squeezed in, two of them behind the driver who had to scoot up to the fuel tank).

Because of the design, tricycles are not very comfortable rides. If you are taking one for less than a five-kilometer ride, the constant jarring of the vehicle might be bearable. Avoid the tricycle for distances more than a few blocks. Unless of course, you have no other choice.

On motorbike is the best way to see an island

Getting around on motorbike is best on the islands. You can usually find rental motorbikes at the piers and near the bus depots, or from a guest house or hotel. Rental costs a range of PHP 250-350 for 24 hours. They often don’t come with fuel, so make sure you gas up before taking a serious jaunt around an island.

A note on fueling up in some islands: on some islands, gas stations are few and far between. Fortunately, if you feel low on fuel you might find retailers on the roadside with yellow liquid inside repurposed cola liter-bottles with the labels often scraped off.

That’s petrol for sale.

Locals make the best guides

The guidebook is not something we follow to the letter; it’s dated and things might have changed since the travel writer was here on assignment for that edition. It’s also not necessary to travel with a tour guide from an agency as you can easily find things out if you speak English.

One thing I’ve learned is to ask the travelers who are locally based or the locals who work in the cafés, restaurants or hotels and guesthouses where they would go if they had a day off and opportunity to go sightseeing on their own island.

That’s how I’ve found many secret beaches and coves in the 12 islands I’ve visited. They will also tell you where to eat the best food, and sometimes they might even invite you to hang out with them, and that can be some of the most fun evenings you might have on that island. (For more information, see numbers 2 and 4 above.)

Accommodations with the word ‘resort’ in their names might not be what you think they are

For people who like resorts and understand this concept as a large place offering several restaurants, one or two pools, buffet meals three times a day, and spa and fitness facilities, there may be some miscommunication when you read that a hotel on an island is a ‘resort.’

Many places to stay that call themselves ‘beach resort’ do not offer these above mentioned services. There are some places in the more established islands like Cebu and Batangas which have full resort amenities offered, but most island accommodations advertising themselves as resorts are cottages with one restaurant offering a la carte meals and maybe set breakfast menus. There is no spa, no pool and no gym.

A beach ‘resort’ on Bantayan’s Santa Fe beach.

April is local high season and will be crowded and noisy

Schools in the Philippines run from June to end of March. That means April and May are the holiday times for local families, if they take their children on holiday.

A beach hotel in Guimaras which has cottages for whole families (sleeps 7, the brochure says) also boasts ‘private karaoke rooms.’ When I scouted Guimaras, visiting several beaches that had soft powdery sand for miles in January, the beaches were virtually empty except for hotel staff.

That hotel which has plenty of cottages and several karaoke rooms explained that April is their high season, when whole families come to enjoy the sea and the karaoke, usually the former in the day time and the latter at night.

A surprisingly large percentage of expats do business and live on the islands

Not all foreigners who have made the Philippines their homes are married to local residents. Some of the businesses I happened to visit, mostly restaurants and hotels, are owned and operated by people from all over the world who have invested in permanent homes in the Philippines. Some of the places I’ve stayed are owned by Europeans who have taken the advice from Forbes magazine from a few years back that the islands are a pretty good place for retirement. In Guimaras, the Czech Beach House is owned by a couple from Czech Republic. There’s a Norwegian place on Siquijor, an Italian owned place where I had a wonderful meal and espresso, and some of the dive outfits on more than one island are run by Americans or British divers.

There is no regulatory system for real estate investments

Talking to a lot of the foreign shareholders and owners of establishments, as well as local business people, I found out that there is no system for real estate appraisal. Which means that everyone can set the price of their land for sale or lease without a standard to base it on.

A property for sale on an island near Guimaras was going for 22 million PHP (about U$423,000 and change). The house was around 100 square meters and made of cement and bamboo. It had a combination roofing of thatching and corrugated sheets. It had no road leading to it and was only accessible by boat or banca. Groceries and water had to be shipped in by boat or banca. In case of emergencies, the nearest hospital took a boat ride of 25 minutes or more depending on the tide and a vehicle ride (tricycle, car, jeepney) for another half hour.

Seemed overpriced for the infrastructure.

And of course I learned about eating in the Philippines. Early in my travel I experienced Dinagyang in Iloilo on Panay Island. (Panay is also the gateway to Boracay from a town called Caticlan.) During Dinagyang, I was alarmed by the unnaturally red meat being sold on the street as snacks and the enthusiastic consumption of the red colored meat and other more recognizable portions of meat.

Red barbecue, upper right hand corner.

That time during Dinagyang was the first impression. Here’s the rest of what I learned.

Fastfood joint Jollibee is everywhere and they are always full

Siquijor didn’t have one, but there are banners all along the highway that advertise Coming Soon! with the smiling mascot bee.

Food is mostly fried, and sweet

A lot of food places like to serve fried chicken, fried pork, fried fish. Non-fried foods taste sweet.

An insider told me that the barbecue marinades in almost all restaurants include a generous portion of soda as part of the sauce – Sprite or Coca Cola.

A restaurant in Aklan, Panay Island serving barbecue, fried dishes, and sugary drinks.

Diabetes is common and so is soda consumption

An article in a local paper reported last January 5, 2019 that there are an estimated 5 million diabetes patients in this country of 100 million. The country ranks 5th in Asia Pacific with incidences of the disease.

Most local people accompany meals and snacks with sugary drinks.

Barbecue is king

There are barbecue places everywhere. Barbecue chicken, barbecue pork, barbecue seafood. One of the most popular places in cities, other than Jollibee, is Mang Inasal, with a barbecue based menu. Local eateries also serve mostly barbecue.

It’s hard to get a salad or vegetable dish that is not in a stew

For someone who likes vegetables, it is very difficult to get a salad with raw vegetables and one that is not slathered in mayonnaise or some other zillion-calorie dressing.

Most vegetables are cooked for a long time in some kind of gravy sauce.

There are some places that offer fresh salads on the menu, and a caution would be that if these restaurants either are open air (open to the street) or do not have designated knives for meat, poultry and vegetables like one might in their own kitchen, there is a high chance of stomach upset.

I had a Greek salad on Bantayan island and spent the better part of the next 24 hours sick.

The thing is, how will we ever know how the kitchen operates? And, how long do we have to forego ordering a fresh salad? Flexibility will save the day with mindful choices.

Lesson learned, I asked one kitchen to boil a local green leafy vegetable into boiling water for three minutes and serve it with some salt, and I had a pretty good vegetable meal.

I learned to ask for steamed vegetables. This one has eggplant, okra and sweet potato leaves.

Everything comes with rice

Everything you order comes with rice unless you specifically tell the waiter or waitress taking your order that you do not need it so it’s not wasted.

It’s surprisingly difficult to find tropical fruits in abundance

It was also surprising that there are few tropical fruits for sale in large supermarkets. Most fruits that are readily available in the city supermarkets are bananas which are grown locally, and sometimes mangoes. Most of the displays at fruit stalls and grocery stores are apples, the apple-pear hybrid, and watermelons from China.

I was expecting more mangosteen, avocado, and dragon fruit, given the climate that is perfect for growing these fruits. It was really difficult to find avocado. And, the dragon fruit is rare and every expensive by local standards. In a month I have only seen one dozen mangosteens for sale at a Robinson’s supermarket and they were shriveled and hard.

Inside of the dragonfruit. It is a highly nutritious fruit with lots of vitamin C.

Except in Manila, it’s easier to get a cold beer than a good cup of coffee

Manila, which for me is mostly Makati, has a level 3 second or third wave coffee culture (depending on who you ask).

According to a roaster from Sydney who lives in the Philippines now, the coffee culture in Makati has recently accelerated. Around that part of Metro Manila, one can find dozens of cafés serving cold brew and other specialty coffees. There is a barista competition. There are workshops on coffee and milk chemistry.

In the islands of other provinces, it’s pretty much instant 3-in-one packets stirred into hot water unless you specifically look for a restaurant like the Maro Polo in Siquijor, Italian owned and serving a nice espresso.

Of course you can always go to a five-star hotel for a PHP200 (or more) cup of brewed coffee. If you wish.

Afternoon siesta is a real deal

There’s a real culture of sleeping in the afternoons. After lunch, people take naps.

The capacity of a vehicle for which it was designed is often maxed and exceeded

On Guimaras, 21 people rode a 12-seater van.

Since I arrived in the islands, there were about 6 days when I did not have any access to the internet.

It has a long way to go to support a digital nomad life

The accessibility to the internet is spotty in a few islands I’ve visited. Because most of the work I do depends on consistent access to the web, I would have to echo some other bloggers’ assessment that the most beautiful places in the Philippine islands are still unable to support a digital nomadic lifestyle.

There are few tour buses full of selfie-stick toting tourists

But for people who want to get off the grid for a while, the islands are a great place to escape the crowds.

Footprint at sunset, on one of Siquijor’s empty stretches of beach.

Coastal conservation is taken seriously

Another observation is that there is an active conservation of the bountiful marine environments in the Philippines. The diversity of sea life in some dive spots like Siquijor and Apo Island in the Central part of the Philippines have birthed some of the most dedicated and systematic marine conservation and coastal conservation research and activity in the region.

Boracay Island, which most travelers have heard of, was closed down for many months to clean it up. The millions of tourists who have visited Boracay since its discovery by the rest of the world had ruined many of the sea life conditions and degraded the environment on the island. The government called it a ‘cesspool’ and took measures to amend the damage.

The island is open again, with new regulations in place to limit activity from the tourism so it doesn’t happen again.

Boracay is not the only beautiful island

Boracay might be famous, but it is not the only beautiful island in the archipelago. I’ve only been to 12, and I have to say that out of the 12, I would rank Bantayan, Guimaras and Siquijor right up there with Boracay with powdery sand beaches and clear, clean waters.

It is a safe and friendly country

Some of the news that we’ve gotten from the world media about the Philippines have been scary. Kidnappings and killings from the decades of guerilla movements in the South, for example. If we based our travel on headlines, we would have very few places in the world we could go.

I think that there is smart trust, an attitude wherein one is always mindful while simultaneously having positive presuppositions of people. A mindful traveler for example, might avoid bars where there are signs saying LEAVE FIREARMS AT THE DOOR or walking alone in the dark in certain neighborhoods or late at night. But that’s true for many places in the world.

The Philippines is a safe and friendly country. I have not needed to use my safety whistle at all, and I have walked for tens of kilometers in small towns and big cities both. The people I have met have been helpful and quite a number have gone beyond the norm to help me out.

I was alone on this beach except for a couple of stray dogs.

There are many secret beaches beyond the tourist trail

A resourceful traveler can find a secret beach on many islands. In Guimaras, I circumnavigated the island and found four beaches where the only companions I had were chickens freely roaming the dunes.

On Bantayan, there were very few people on many of the stretches of white sand that it was easy to find a personal spot for the day.

And in Siquijor, areas outside the usual tourist trail provided days when the beach was all mine for the day.

Sunrise on an empty beach.

The lessons I’ve learned adrift between islands in the Philippines have convinced me that it is a great place to visit.

In an archipelago with 7641 total islands and 2000 of them inhabited, that leaves a lot of options, a lot of anticipation, and much potential for many more months of joyful travel.

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