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Manila & Philippines Travel Guide 2005

This travel article gives an impression of visiting Manila and the Philippines in 2005. Since then, things have moved on, and so the picture given here should be regarded as a snapshot of a visit to the Philppines in the mid-2000s. On my next visit I will produce an updated Manila and Philippines Travel Guide for publication on this site.

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The question many prospective foreign visitors ask me is: "Is it safe to visit the Philippines". The answer is: "Yes, if you take care".

This advice could of course apply in any country in the world but there are issues specific to the Philippines.

Foreign media tend to portray the Philippines as a land of terrorism, disasters, political instability and poverty, but day to day reality is quite different.

Yes, terrorism has been a problem, but the military conflict is confined to remote areas of the south. Terrorist attacks in major cities have been small in scale and infrequent. Remember, the UK and US have suffered from terrorist attacks far bigger and more devastating than anything experienced in the Philippines. The chance of being involved in a terrorist incident in the Philippines is probably less than that of being mugged in certain parts of Manchester or New York. The government takes measures to reduce the threat, with security checks at shopping centres, airports, restaurants and other public places.

Yes, there have been disasters, but no more than in many other countries in this part of the world. Nevertheless it's a good idea to keep an eye out for the possibility of typhoons or volcanic eruptions, though they are few and far between. Earthquakes and tsunamis pose a threat everywhere in South East Asia but are less easy to predict. Be confident! For most people visiting the Philippines their trip passes off without incident.

Yes, there has been some political instability, but even when things have got rough, Filipinos put on a brave face, and are proud of their reputation for people power or peaceful protest. Under president Gloria Magapagal Arroyo, often referred to as GMA, the political situation has, apart from minor coup attempts, been relatively stable,

Yes, there is poverty in the Philippines, much of it extreme. A large section of the population there live under the minimum subsistence level as defined by international organisations. There are shanty towns, child beggars, pickpockets. But the problems are not as bad as in certain other countries of the region. And if you visit the shopping malls, hotels, boutiques and department stores of Manila, you'd almost think you were in America. The advice is probably the same as it would be if you were visiting Rome, Rio or parts of LA: Keep valuables out of sight. Don't walk around with large amounts of cash, and don't flash your money. Keep your mobile phone in a safe place - I didn't and it was stolen out of my pocket. I didn't begrudge the child thief who took it. I should have been more careful.

Food in the Philippines is an obsession. In Germany they drive too fast, in Britain they watch too much TV, in Ireland they drink too much, in the Philippines? They never seem to stop eating from early morning till late at night.

The food is interesting, varied and frequently delicious, though not always. My advice is: Choose carefully and you'll have a great culinary experience. Consume everything in sight and you may be in for a shock to the system. Avoid certain items that on closer inspection may not be quite so appealing. I would avoid salad and other cold foods rinsed by hand in water. Always drink bottled water that's been sealed. Eating at roadside cafes and street vendors is not a good idea. I know. Don't ask any further.

At restaurant chains such as Jolibee, Max's, Chow King, Super Bowl, Arrigato and others you'll find a great selection of food and drink at prices of around one third of the UK. The shopping malls in Manila have a very wide selection of food outlets, mostly of a very high standard. Good hotels and beach resorts offer international standards of cuisine. I've had some of the best meals ever in the Philippines but I'll leave it to you the visitor to discover the delights for yourself, reminding you as ever to take care.

In the Philippines you can't breeze out of the terminal building and hop on the airport express or city shuttle - There isn't one. No train, no monorail, not even an air-conditioned bus. If you have pre-booked hotel accommodation, an air-conditioned minibus will be provided, otherwise you'll need to take a taxi. Taxi drivers, if they suspect a person has just arrived from abroad, may well try to charge three six or ten times above the proper fare, so find out beforehand how much it should cost to get wherever you're going.

Within cities, the most ubiquitous and colourful form of transport is the Jeepney. These customised US Army-surplus jeeps are as much a part of the street scene as the red Routemaster in London. Each jeepney plies a certain route, normally painted on the side of the vehicle. But unless you know where you're going, jumping on a Jeepney may be a risky experience, especially if you're on your own. Apart from bumping your head on the low interior roof or falling off the end, there's the possibility of being relieved of money or personal items. The tricycle is another cheap and noisy option, which puts you right in the middle of the action, just inches away from wheels, belching exhaust pipes and begging hands. What I'm trying to say is: Take a taxi.

Between cities there are a number of options, but the two I would strongly recommend are: 1) Plane and 2) Minibus arranged by your tour operator. If you're feeling adventurous you could take one of the many long distance buses that link cities by road. There is a train service but it has been sadly neglected. An accident in late 2004 may have been caused by thieves unscrewing the rails and selling them as scrap metal. There are the ferries and superferries which link together the cities and islands of this vast archipelago, but if you're on a short trip, there isn't the time, and in bad weather I'd rather be on dry land.

You may have heard stories of kidnappings of foreign tourists and wealthy business people. I was alarmed on one trip to see a sign warning of bandits, but these occurrences are rare, especially nowadays.

I would always recommend 1) and 2) above because: They cater for foreign tourists. They are reliable. They get you to your destination quickly. Manila's domestic airport is a state of the art facility, and the planes operated by Cebu Pacific, Philippine Airlines and other companies are efficient and have a good safety record,

If you're tempted to hire a car and join in the exciting sport called 'Driving in the Philippines', I have one word of advice: Don't. When Manila's roads aren't gridlocked, traffic moves merrily along but there is apparently no regard for even the most basic principles of courtesy and safety. Signs on the Superhighway inform drivers this is a zone of traffic discipline and that violators will be apprehended, but if they were, the highway would be empty.

What would be illegal in other countries is normal practice on roads in the Philippines, but amazingly, I've never seen an accident - that's probably because the speeds are relatively low, and when everyone is driving equally badly, you have to take more care. If you did drive, your driving technique would probably be damaged for life, and if you were unlucky enough to have an accident and hurt someone, your legal position would probably be unclear. Roads in the Philippines sound and feel like drag racing tracks. The moral of the story is... Leave the driving to experienced locals.

And a word about the run down terminal building of Ninoy Aquino International Airport. It should already have been decommissioned, and there is a gleaming new terminal building just half a mile away, but it has been standing idle and empty for several years. The reason? An unresolved dispute between the government and the building contractor. Let's hope they settle it soon.

The Philippines is famous for its power outages or brown-outs - caused by a drop in the voltage making the lights go dim. Nowadays the situation is much better, and power cuts aren't as frequent as they used to be. In all shops and public places you'll find emergency lights powered by battery which will come on if the power goes off.

The thing to bear in mind as a foreign visitor is the plug size and the possibility of 'spikes' or surges in power. Visitors from America and countries using the American plug size need no adapter. Those coming from other parts of the world will need to buy an adapter and remember to bring it along everywhere. I forgot mine once, and became very frustrated.

If you're using a laptop or other computer equipment, it is advisable to use a surge protector to prevent damage to equipment. The power supply blew my old adapter, but the adapter of the Apple Powerbook G4 I use now seems able to withstand any surges in power. Be on the safe side. Get a surge protector. Portable ones are available in travel shops.

It won't be difficult to keep in contact with friends and relatives or check the news from home, because there are internet shops in virtually every town or city. For just a small amount you can surf the internet and speeds are getting faster and faster.

Wi-fi hotspots are becoming more and more common.

At our family home, there was a broadband connection and I was able to maintain my site, supply large photos to clients and surf the internet the same as anywhere else. Internet access is moving ahead, even though power and water supply can still be intermittent.

Water is a precious commodity in the Philippines and should be treated with respect. After visiting the Philippines you will no longer take for granted the abundance of water in more developed countries.

In big hotels, resorts and residential developments, water is freely available. It's probably better not to drink it. Bottled water is available everywhere. In more remote locations, water may be more scarce. It may just trickle out of the tap, or the supply may only be available at certain hours in the day. That's why in many bathrooms and toilets - often referred to American-style as Comfort Rooms or the letters CR - you'll find assorted buckets to store water.

Use it sparingly. Despite the shortage of water and the lack of resources, I've found that sanitary facilities are often kept heroically clean. The government has a policy to encourage hand-washing. Most restaurants have a hand-wash basin as well as toilet facilities.

It may be useful to bring baby-wipes or moistened towels to keep hands clean when water is scarce.

The Philippine peso is the unit of currency, and in early 2005 was hovering at around 100 pesos to the pound, equivalent to 1.85 US dollars. One US dollar bought 54 pesos, a euro around 72 pesos. In mid-2007 a pound bought 92 pesos, a dollar 45 and a euro 63. All in all the exchange rate is favourable to visitors from North America and Western Europe. I calculate prices for food and other items in Manila is about one third as compared to the UK, and in the provinces it may even be one fifth. The difference with prices in the US is probably not so extreme.

Credit cards can in theory be used anywhere, but we encountered a problem at a hotel whose card machine declared our UK-based visa and Mastercards to be 'not authorized'. We had to go to a cash machine some 5 miles away and withdraw money to pay our hotel bill.

Credit card fraud is widespread in the Philippines, and that may be the reason for the problem, though it would seem to me they are making life difficult for the wrong set of people. As stated, it is probably a good idea to book transport and accommodation as part of a tour package, leaving smaller amounts to be paid in cash.

And as I mentioned, always be careful with cards and cash. Keep them out of sight and be very careful at all times, unless you are happy to make an impromptu contribution to the Filipino economy.

The great blessing of the Philippines is the fact that most people, heavens be praised, speak English, and very well indeed. Even in the remotest parts of the country, people will welcome you cheerfully and chat to you in English. It's a legacy of the period of American dominance that English was taken to heart by the people of the Philippines. There are English language newspapers, tv stations, radio stations. Politicians give speeches in English. Signs everywhere are in English. And there's a practical reason why the language is so useful. The Philippines has a huge number of dialects and separate languages, entirely unrelated to the national language Tagalog, patriotically called Filipino.

What this means for the visitor is: Relax! Unlike the unintelligible signs, puzzled looks and frustrated shouting and wild arm gesticulations which may be a part of the experience of visiting certain other countries of the Asia Pacific Region, in the Philippines you'll have few language problems and may even feel like you're not in a foreign country at all.

You might like to have a go at learning a few words in the native language, Tagalog. The word you'll no doubt encounter most often is Mabuhay! Which means 'Live' or 'May you live long!' and can be used both as a greeting and to say goodbye.

So I'll say Mabuhay and hope you enjoy your trip to the Philippines. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact. I would like to add an FAQ section to this page so please state if you don't want your question to be published.

You'll find further info on the Wow Philippines travel essentials page, but I invite you to compare the information on that page and the ones given here and decide which is more truthful and practical!

Aidan O'Rourke is a local interest / travel photographer and writer. He has travelled extensively in the Philippines and other parts of south east Asia, and is married to Ann, originally from Manila, and has one daughter Adele, born 2001. If you have any questions about visiting or vacationing in the Philippines, please contact me!

I have just taken up a job in Manila, Ortigas Centre and I leave next Friday.

Being a woman, my hairdryer and straighteners etc are very important to me and I want to ensure I get the right power adapter. I simply presumed that my current power adapters would work: I've used them in Cyprus and Turkey. Is that the case? Any other advice would be fantastic??

The plug sockets in the Philippines use the American standard, so I think you would need to get a UK > America adapter. I'd advise brining a couple of UK multi-socket adapters for your electrical appliances, and plugging them into a UK > America adapter.

Otherwise, keep your wits about you and you will have a great time

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2005-02-27

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