Thursday, August 24, 2017

August 23 – Final Thoughts on the Philippines

We took the final photograph of the trip in our hotel room, wearing our backpacks, similar to one we took on the last morning of our previous trip to SE Asia. The taxi picked us up at 5:30 am, right on time, and from there our path went from Bohol airport to Manila to Vancouver to Toronto. Total elapsed time of around 30 hours, give or take a blurry hour or two. The worst part of the trip was going through an idiotic immigration process in Toronto (they have machines that are supposed to automate the whole thing, but after doing that you still have to wait in line to see a customs agent) and then having to wait for nearly two hours at the luggage carousel for our bags because the baggage handlers are on strike. Yay unions!

Let me share some final thoughts on the Philippines. I am extremely glad that we decided to spend the final week of our trip in the Philippines, because I think we got at least an initial look into what this country has to offer, and we have a much better idea of what to expect for a future trip. The Philippines is very, very different than all of the other countries we’ve visited in SE Asia as it feels like it could just as comfortably be located somewhere in Latin America.

This country is an island place. As previously described, the one city we visited – Cebu City – was horrible, and without a doubt the worst place we visited on this trip. The Philippines is all about the islands and beaches, which are indeed spectacular. Many travelers we met here were on their third or fourth trip to the Philippines, so there is so much to explore that you will never run out, no matter how many times you visit, and if you are into diving then this multiplies the options. But unlike so many other countries in the region, there is no defined backpacker trail, which is a standard route through the country that the vast majority of travelers take. Here it is not like that, and information on the various islands and how to get around is really not that easy to find - at least not nearly as easy as it has been in other countries. I think we got lucky in choosing the Bohol and Panglao region as there was enough to do to keep us busy, but was still not overly crowded and gave us the opportunity for some real beach chill-out time.

Accommodation in the Philippines is more expensive and of a lower quality than Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand. If you want to stay near a pristine beach, it seems you either have to pay a fortune to stay at fancy hotel, or you pay way too much for a crummy hovel. At least this is the impression we got from the travelers we met during our time there and our own experiences searching for accommodation bore this out, although we did get really lucky with the beach hotel we did find.

Food in the Philippines leaves something to be desired. This is something that you hear mentioned over and over again in the travel books and blogs, and it is certainly true. The problem for me was that it’s just too much like the food we generally eat in the Americas – lots of greasy meat and heavy, starchy sides. Fried chicken, fried pork, grilled pork bellies, and chicken cordon bleu accompanied by potatoes, fried rice, bread, or overcooked vegetables were typical menu items. I am sure that at the top level restaurants you can get fantastic food, but all of the restaurants we ate at were very mediocre (although they were cheap - only slightly more expensive than what we paid in other countries). This was a shock coming from Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam where you have to look hard to find a bad meal. And here’s the clearest evidence yet that this kind of food is simply bad for you – as soon as we stepped off the plane in the Philippines we noticed a lot of obese people. This was something we simply did not see in any of the other countries, so it must be related to the diet, as the Filipinos worked just as hard and seemed as physically active as those in other countries. Even more reason for us to try and adjust our diets at home.

Lastly, how did we find the people? Well, the Filipinos were very kind, friendly, smiley, and willing to help, and we liked them a lot. But quite often, there seemed to be a bit of an edge just under the surface that we never once felt with the people in Vietnam and Cambodia. For example, we may not have been directly lied to, but we were certainly misled by a number of people during our time there, usually from hotel staff, but also a few others. But we also met some people that were absolutely honest, genuine and went out of their way to help, such as the tour guide who took us on the countryside tour in Bohol – he was amazing. The best way I can think to describe this, is when you are dealing face to face with hotel staff in most places, they are always very smiley. Now, you walk away for a few seconds and then turn back to look at that person. In Vietnam and Cambodia they would still be smiling. In Philippines (just like it usually is in Canada, the US, and Europe) they would not be. This really stuck with me. The Philippines reminded me of home in this regard, where you are not always sure if people are being genuine with you.  In Vietnam and Cambodia, the idea that people were not being genuine just never occurred to me. That is what made the people there so special. But I have a feeling that we simply did not spend enough time in the Philippines, nor cover enough ground, nor meet enough people to have a reliable opinion on this.

Would we go back to the Philippines? Yes, we would. There are a thousand amazing places to discover there and we’d love to go back, but we would do everything possible to avoid the cities and their horrible traffic problems. Being able to explore this country in our own boat would be amazing, so maybe that is something we will aim for in the future.

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