Stepping out of the airport into the steamy tropical heat, you may well be greeted by a very friendly man who, before you even realise what is happening, has picked up your luggage, carried it about ten feet to the waiting taxi, before asking for a dollar for this unrequested service. Quite possibly he may also ask for a dollar for his smiling friend, who aside from standing nearby smiling, has done nothing at all.
Don’t let these guys put you off. This is a highly underrated travel destination. It’s a pity so many people are put off visiting the Philippines because of perceptions of pirates, kidnappings, murder, terrorist attacks or fear of drowning in yet another ferry disaster (though considering the number of ferries it takes to service a nation of over 7,100 islands, you’re probably more likely to get struck by lightning in your sleep).
The Australian Government travel website, Smartraveller, paints a rather alarmist picture of the Philippines, stating that travellers should ‘Exercise a high degree of caution’ throughout the nation, and have posted a ‘Do not travel’ advisory (the strongest warning) to the Southern areas of Central and Western Mindanao, and the Sulu Archipelago, near Malaysia (which is perhaps sound advice – the rest of the country though is as safe as anywhere for travelers who keep their wits about them).
My family and I flew into the central southern city of Cebu just before my daughter’s second birthday (one last chance for her to fly for free). It was early evening so we booked into a hotel near the airport. The staff were very friendly and offered to procure for us some drinking water or whatever we needed, saying that the risk of muggings and violence against tourists made it unsafe to venture out at night. The young man happily walked 50 feet to the convenience store and returned almost immediately with a gallon of drinking water. Then he asked me for a dollar.
The hotel room was fine though and we all just wanted to get some rest. The friendly guy at the reception desk downstairs sold me a beer from a small fridge before explaining that he did not have any change in the till, and that I should probably just buy a few more beers to make up the difference. I shouted the young fella a beer and sat on the hotel verandah watching the jeepneys (like overgrown tuk-tuks and possibly the most colourful vehicles in the galaxy) roll by. After a few more quick beers I retired and the young guy told me there was complementary coffee in our room for the morning.
We all slept well, and I set about making the morning coffee for my wife and I before continuing our travels. I dragged myself downstairs to reception to tell the friendly young fellow who apparently works there around the clock that the complementary coffee (standard fare in almost every hotel room in the known universe) was missing from our room. He apologised and said some coffee would be sent up immediately. A young woman did arrive almost immediately with two packets of instant coffee, then stood waiting a moment at the door for her tip. She then left quite quickly before I noticed there were no cups in which to put the coffee. I staggered downstairs once more to request that my wife and I not drink Nescafe from our hands. Again, I was met almost immediately back at the room by a different smiling young woman holding two cups and an expectant expression. The next two people to visit our hotel room brought with them two teaspoons, and the detachable lead for the kettle respectively. Having not yet had my morning coffee I thought I was showing considerable restraint by quietly explaining that there was no fucking way anyone else involved in this circus would be getting a tip.
We did a bit of sightseeing – to Magellan’s Cross (planted at the order of Ferdinand Magellan in a small chapel in Cebu a week before his death at the hands of Cebu natives in 1521), and the adjoining Basilica Minore del Santo Nino de Cebu (The oldest catholic church in an overwhelmingly catholic nation) which was built and rebuilt, reportedly partially of sea coral over a period of 200 years.
Before boarding the jet ferry for our next destination I wandered into a local supermarket and was amazed to purchase a half bottle of something almost resembling gin (it said gin on the label) plus a carton (a CARTON) of local cigarettes for a grand total of two American dollars (over $200 where I come from). The young woman behind the counter looked at me like I was raving mad – I just wanted to buy the cheapest almost-gin and fifteen-cent packets of cigarettes because I could.
“Sir,” said the pleasant young woman, “Wouldn’t you prefer Marlboro, or Dunhill?”
“No thanks, I would like to buy local cigarettes. Those ones up there,” I pointed behind her. “The cheapest ones”.
“Those cigarettes are bad for you,” she said, looking concerned.
“Yes, I know. Cigarettes are very bad for your health, that is true”.
“No sir, you don’t understand. These cigarettes might kill you… today,” she said with a glint in her eye.
I bought the cigarettes anyway. I wanted to know what a fifteen-cent packet of cigarettes was like (these were six times cheaper than the packs I had bought in North Korea a year earlier.
The cigarettes were indeed truly awful, as was whatever liquid contained in the bottle labelled ‘Gin’.
We boarded the ferry, which completely failed to catch fire or sink, and 90 minutes later arrived on the beautiful, famous island of Bohol. For the next ten days we did pretty much nothing but relax, eat, drink and swim at a nice little beach resort where again there appeared to be around six staff members for each guest. Just ordering a beer at the restaurant required dealing with four different people. One would take my order, another would bring me a beer, the next would present me with a bill, and the fourth would return with my change. Simply walking up to the bar, asking for a beer out of the fridge, then giving that person the correct amount of change (as I generally prefer to do) seemed highly confusing to them.
“Please sir, relax at your table and we will bring your you your beer” (Filipinos tend to call everybody ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’, whether you like it or not).
We made some friends while staying there at the resort. The wealthy Iranian family (one of whom is a famous television personality) were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. The retired Norwegian sex-tourist invited us to join him and his nineteen-year-old companion for a tour of the island. As she was a local, the resort’s $200 quote for a van hire and driver suddenly became $15. They were also quite nice, as was the Danish businessman and his Thai wife whose daughter is the same age as mine.
We saw the famous ‘Chocolate Hills’, these dome shaped hills (thousands of them), which resemble giant chocolate drops in the dry season when the hills turn brown.
And saw the Tarsier, said to be the world’s smallest primate – found only in the Philippines and predominantly on the island of Bohol.
All in all, it was a great 10 days, and I heard something there that I’ve never heard anywhere else in my travels. Almost everywhere I’ve ever been, people say things like, “You should have been here 20 years ago. This place was so much better back then” (this has always led the pessimist in me to believe the world, and humanity in general, is in steady decline).
On the island of Bohol however, I was told several times that we were lucky to have arrived before tourism destroys the place. Apparently the diving on this island is fantastic, developers are planning to turn it into the next Boracay, and plans were underway for the construction of an international airport.
Apparently the airport was green-lighted in September 2012, so if you’re jaded by Thailand or Bali, Bohol is well worth a look – probably sooner rather than later.