Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Backpacking in the Philippines: Practical Tips


Before 2009, finding a cheap accommodation in Manila or in the Philippines for that matter was limited to renting rooms for the night. Your options were actually confined to finding budget hotels in your preferred tourist destination, especially when you are taking a pit stop in Manila.

But backpackers or cheap accommodation in Manila and in key cities or tourist spots in the country has become more accessible now. Even if you wish to hit the beach, some cottages in Boracay, for instance, cater to tourists who are comfortable with staying in a dormitory with other transient individuals. In the metropolis, Malate dominates the scene as there are probably more than 5 hostel owners offering bed and breakfast accommodation for itinerant beings. Makati City, which is the entertainment and financial capital of Metro Manila, already boasts of a new and excellent backpacking joint called OUR MELTING POT. Indeed, these are a welcome development for many because even traditional cheap accommodations in the country can get fairly high come summer season -- March to June. Whereas in the case of hostels, prices are relatively stable.


Another good thing about traveling to the Philippines is the purchasing power of foreign-dominated notes. Your dollar or Brit pound or Euro or Yen can go a long LONG way.

The average conversions (depending on forex rates) are like:
• 1 US Dollar - PhP (Philippine Peso): PhP 48-50
• 1 Brit Pound - PhP: PhP 90+
• 1 Euro - PhP: PhP 65+

So for like, a thousand dollars, that's equivalent to about 48,000+ pesos (or Php 90,000+ if you use Brit pounds) can cover everything: from food to transports, to lodging and night life and souvenirs.


Language barrier is not a problem, especially if you know English. The country's long history of colonization produced modern-day Filipinos who are very comfortable with the English language. (The native language is also rich in Spanish-derived words.) You would be surprised that even the seemingly uneducated beggars on the street can converse with you in English. For the more adventurous ones, learning the language of the local which is Filipino, and the primary dialects Tagalog and Visaya may come in handy when huggling for the best deals in the course of your travel. It can be pretty difficult at first to learn. But if you're a veteran backpacker, you'll get the hang of it in a little time. Buying a phrasebook helps but it's very rare to find one about the Philippines.


Local transportation (that is, the obscure towns near the good sites and not the big cosmopolitan cities like Manila and Cebu) is cheap. For prices that range from 5 to 20 pesos, you can travel by tricycle (the Philippine version of Bangkok's 'tuk-tuk'), jeepney, or any local transport modes. Buses are cheap as well while taxis command relatively higher prices depending on their routes. Traveling from any of the major islands would mean taking an extra flight which can cost a bit for foreign tourists if you don't book your trip early. Two weeks planning, however, would help you secure the cheapest deal from Philippine Airlines' econolight fares. For those who prefer another mode of transporation apart from taking commercial planes, the ferry (one trusted carrier is Superferry) can also be an enjoyable experience. However, a tight schedule should propel a traveler to take domestic flights to be able to maximize your time in the country.


As for food, the dishes are amazingly numerous and varied. Anywhere you go, there will always be a different culinary delight to please your palate. Few foreign travelers would be able to escape the challenge posed by your local friend or acquaintance in relation to eating the renowned "aborted duckling" or "balut". It's actually duck egg with a nearly formed embryo of a duckling inside. Pinoys usually laugh when tourists try it and then hurl at the sight of what they're about to eat. Even then, it's a culinary experience you wouldn't want to pass up, no matter how icky it looks! It's mostly sold on the streets where available, along with other local delicacies (all of which are within your prescribed budget). Apart from that, the rest of the Philippine cuisine is deliciously whacked! If you have a sweet tooth, definitely you will have a feast. One Caucasian friend remarked that she's not eaten as much sweets in her 30 years of existence as she did staying in the Philippines for nearly a week. The native delicacies are irresistible. Even if you have excellent self-control, it would be difficult to say no to local friends offering you all sorts of stuff, while at the same time demonstrating to you that the Filipino warmth is simply unbeatable in any part of the world.

Travel Advice

Common sense will also tell you that any streetwise backpacker will never show BLING. Dress down, chances are you'll fit in quite nicely. Also, it's always a big help if you smile most of the time. Filipinos are really true to form: hospitable and friendly. And then there are the rip-off artists and travel scams. Be cautious at the same time. Local customs such as a simple smile and thank you will help a lot.

Finally, the best thing to do when you come here would be to drink it all in. The sights are amazing and everything is just great. But if you are a tourist on a budget, everything starts with finding a cheap accommodation in manila.

(paraphrased and edited version of the post of J. Brent Esarza, 20 Feb 2005)

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