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Amongst all Asian countries visited so far, the Philippines have definitely challenged our expectations the most – here, the pre-existent local culture and centuries of Spanish and American occupation gave rise to an interesting mix of traditions and cultural bias and got us by surprise. Who knew Filipinos are even more Catholics than many Italians and very much Westernized despite their isolated geographical position? Keep reading for more.
Floating restaurant boats along Lomboc River on Cebu Island, Philippines
RELIGION AND FESTIVITIES
More than 80% of Filipinos are catholic (due to the country’s Spanish colonization between 1500 and 1700) and almost every “barangay” (neighborhood in Tagalog language or Filipino) or village has a church – it can be either a white church-like building or a house with open metal grill walls and some chairs and a table used as an altar at the very back of the room. Every Sunday you can hear the mass and people praying or singing.
Filipinos are devoted Catholics and this reflects in their daily life – for example, they paint Bible paragraphs or God-related content on their tricycles, on buses, on walls…. We even saw one Filipino worker repeatedly make the cross sign when he got a bad cut on his hand.
They are also very sensitive to religious talk – one of our Filipino friends posted on Facebook her perplexity about the Catholic church and had to publicly apologize for her post after receiving many indignant comments from other Filipinos.
All festivities are obviously following the Catholic calendar (check this website here - Public Holidays) and Christmas is huge in the Philippines – they start playing Christmas songs and decorate all houses, shops, hotels from October onwards. Easter is also much celebrated in the whole country and some regions have big parades with the representation of Christ crucifixion (sometimes even for real!).
Christmas tree and Prayer room in the terminal waiting room, Philippines
Most Filipinos are very attached to their family which often also includes distant relatives and even close friends. Elder people are taken in high regard and we saw more than one person taking their grandparent’s hand and touch their head with it as a sign of respect.
Family is sometimes so important that the oldest sister or brother has to take care of their younger sibling even economically. One of our Filipino friends decided to renounce to university and start working after high-school so she could help her sibling financially during their studies.
It is not unusual to live with all your relatives under the same roof and sharing what you have with your family is very common. When we were working for a Filipino eco-resort in the forest of Busuanga Island, the owner would employ many of his relatives and dearest friends at his resort and share food and communal areas with them.
Picture time during our volunteering experience on Popotan Island in the Philippines
Despite being notoriously small and not very tall, many Filipinos are passionate about basketball and you will find a basketball court in every village where young and old “boys” alike play at any time of the day. The main reason why basketball is so popular can probably be traced back to the American occupation of the Philippines - basketball reached popularity especially after the Filipino team won the 1913 Far Eastern Games.
Basketball match in the Philippines
Filipinos turn even more enthusiastic about Sabong, the 6,000-year old sport of cockfighting which is a legal billion dollar industry in the country and kills about 30 millions roosters per year. Virtually every house has a backyard with a cage or small wooden roof and attached to it by a chain is a beautiful fighting cock. Despite the usually unethical treatment of the cocks and the opposition of many animal right organizations to Sabong, this sport is still very popular.
A beautiful cock used for Sarong or cockfighting, Philippines
It is almost impossible to visit Philippines without encounter a Karaoke (or better videoke) session taking place in someone’s backyard or in specific pubs – you can hear them singing miles away. Filipinos love singing, that’s for sure, and some people practice any time of the day or night. As Karaoke is taken very seriously, try not to put anyone down for their poor performance as it will be perceived as very impolite.
Live music session at Villa Sandra on Malapascua Island, Philippines
GREETINGS, GESTURES & THANK YOU
A generic “hello” is understoodby every Filipino – they usually add “madam” or “sir” afterwards as a sign of respect. Greetings are usually common for tourist businesses, however, some older people might just stare at you without greeting back (children are usually more friendly and curious and they’ll come talking to you if not shy).
Hand shaking or welcoming ceremonies when introduced to a Filipino are not common – it seemed to us they are not extremely excited when meeting a foreigner as they are probably used to too many tourists and “white people” visiting their country. Filipinos will eventually open up the more you stay with them - it can take several days unless they are used to travel and deal with tourists.
“Thank you” is not widely used, you might receive a smile back for your help - we noticed they don’t thank each other either, therefore we assumed it must something cultural like in Nepal where there is no translation for “thank you” – SEE MORE ABOUT NEPAL HERE
Filipinos’ gestures are very peculiar and subtle – they mostly use their face mimic (and not hand gestures) to communicate simple things like pointing lips to an object to indicate the position of the object they’re talking about or raising eyebrows to indicate agreement or understanding.
Be sure to always double check the meaning of their face mimic though, as we had more than one misunderstanding with a very nice Filipino guy who was working with us during our volunteering experience – we offered to cook for everyone on some evenings and he was raising his eyebrows in agreement and we only found out he already cooked a full meal over open fire after we finished our cooking in the kitchen too.
Beautiful sunset on Malapascua Island, Philippines
The dress code in the Philippines is very relaxed, especially in cities where all, young and old, people dress Western-style. Filipinos must have been influenced particularly by Americans during their occupation of the country and still are, as t-shirts with English writings and bermudas are a common sight here.
Despite this freedom it’s interesting how some Filipino still cover themselves with t-shirts when swimming – it might be to stay fresh and wet under the hot Summer climate? They are certainly more conservative in covering themselves (especially women) than Westerns.
And despite this freedom, tourists must always be dressed appropriately and respectfully, particularly in public places – Filipinos are open-minded about dress-code but still not accustomed to topless or g-string. Also do not walk bare chest or with your swimsuit in maritime towns.
Swinging on Lio Beach, El Nido, Palawan
OPPOSITE SEX RELATIONSHIPS
Despite their strong Catholic belief, the Philippines are open to opposite sex relationships and “bakla” (male to female transgenders) are not an unusual sight and are not discriminated and more socially accepted here than in some Western societies. Despite centuries of Spanish colonization and Christianization, pre-colonial animist traditions such as acceptance of bakla still survived into the modern era. Therefore, there are many gay-friendly bars and discotheques and many famous TV personalities in the Philippines are drag queens.
Do not bargain on fixed price items - Typical shop in the Philippines
Bargaining is usual practice for taxi drivers and for shop keepers which do not have price tags on products. As with all bargaining never accept the first price offered by the seller - the real price can be up to half or less than what they first proposed, so keep negotiating until both you and the seller are satisfied.
You can also bargain a little for activities’ and tours’ discount, especially if you are in a big group.
Main shop malls and bigger shops have fixed prices – do not try to bargain here or for entrance fees at tourist attractions.
TIP – As a general rule it’s better to have the taxi drivers use the meter. However, after a few taxi rides we noticed that using the meter is cheaper only for short rides. Due to how the meter works (PHP40 to start the journey and then every kilometer adds PHP20 and every minute PHP30, so you will see the meter jumps up when you reach a minute) it is actually better to bargain the price for longer rides.
Do not bargain for a Jeepney ride - it has a fixed price based on the distance, sometimes as low as PHP7 per person
LITTERING, SMOKING & POLLUTION
In comparison to other Asian countries we didn’t find the Philippines to be extremely littered, however improper waste management is definitely a problem. Once garbage finishes into the bin, it does seem Filipinos feel they’ve done their bit and it’s not their concern anymore. However, more times than not, this garbage ends up in big dumpsites where it will sooner or later burn for auto-combustion under the hot sun, polluting the atmosphere. Some Filipinos even burn their own garbage in their courtyard to get rid of it.
Because the Philippines are all islands, garbage transported by waves and currents often lands on its pristine white beaches and keeps piling unless resorts and restaurants keep their private stripes of beach clean for customers. So public beaches can be quite littered even though people are not leaving their garbage around.
We also noticed many Filipinos smoke lots of cigarettes and, independently of the fact that it’s quite unhealthy especially in those quantities, cigarette butts are not properly disposed and end up in the long list of small (and big) things which litter the streets and beautiful beaches of the Philippines.
Unfortunately, in addition to littering, cities and touristy hubs have to deal with big hordes of traffic and, hence, air pollution, especially at peak times (morning and late afternoon before and after work) and being stuck in the traffic can be very frustrating on the way to the airport or ferry terminal, so make sure you calculate some buffer time before check ins.
Amazing view over Busuanga Island - unfortunately the smoke on the background is coming from the auto combustion of garbage at the dump site
CHILDREN AND BEGGARS
Filipino children grow up with English television cartoons and programs so you will be surprised of the amount of things they understand – some will be more fluent in English than others, even though they don’t go to school regularly. Unfortunately, many children are not even registered at birth or to a school so they will go to school as it pleases them – you can find lots of school-aged children around the streets during the day, sometimes helping in selling at small shops or selling kind of popsicles.
Sometimes children will ask for money or food even though they are not beggars– they just see tourists as “rich and wealthy” and are playing the part. Absolutely do not give them any money as this can turn into a dangerous habit for these children.
A big issue which is common to other South-East Asian countries is children sexual abuse– the current government is fighting criminality harder than ever, however, it can still be difficult to identify and track down criminal nets, especially when they are not in the open air such as children abuse.
We did not encounter many beggars, who live mostly in big cities, but in many cases they were so tired and poor, they were not even begging, just sleeping at the side of the street. They are usually harmless to tourists but be aware of night walks or deserted alleys. Unfortunately, many people in the Philippines (without necessarily being homeless) live in extremely poor conditions and petty crimes can be their only source of income, especially in big cities like Manila.
Filipino children playing in the street, El Nido (Palawan)
The following considerations are obviously based on our own experience - other islands or cities might offer a better or worse choice of ingredients.
TO KNOW MORE ABOUT TYPICAL FILIPINO DISHES, CHECK OUT THIS POST
Food Etiquette - There is no specific food etiquettein the Philippines – they do not even have a word or sentence to say “enjoy your meal”. They just say “let’s eat” and as soon as food touches the table, they start eating whatever it’s served without complaining, without too many ceremonies.
Restaurants - Portions served at restaurants are sometimes small and do not reflect the price paid. Waiting times can also be rather long. In more than one occasion, some meals on the menu were not available and that left us with little choice. In some cases, we ordered a meal just to discover when we were served that the fries which accompanied the burger were not available or we have been served something different from what we ordered – and the restaurant didn’t even make up for their error and claimed we had to pay the full price or the higher price of the erroneously served meal.
Dried fish on Malapascua Island (Cebu), Philippines
Homestay – On Busuanga island we have stayed with a Filipino family for one week, helping them to map their land and planning a campsite and walking tracks in the area. We seriously loved to contribute to their projects and see how a family in the Philippines lives. We were eating as they do and that was definitely part of the experience. In general, we noticed the portions are usually very small and consist of mainly meat or fish in curry sauces (vegetables are not at all present sometimes in their diet and there is no much variety of vegetables used in Filipino cuisine). Rice is the main staple and is usually cooked in a big pot for everybody and served in big dishes to share. Breakfast mainly consists of rice or eggs (scrambled or fried), white bread toasts and a piece of fruit.
We had to buy our own fruits, soups and snacks to integrate lunch and dinner. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, malnutrition amongst the population, especially amongst children, is still an issue in the Philippines – there is definitely a lack in vitamins, proteins and many nutrients in their diet; in addition, junk food consumption is well widespread and can lead to life-threatening chronic diseases already at a very young age.
WORRIED ABOUT FOOD SAFETY IN THE PHILIPPINES? CHECK OUT OUR TIPS HERE
Vegetarian or Vegan - The Philippines can be a challenging country for vegetarians, not to mention, for vegans. We found very few places which served acceptable vegetarian or vegan food, charging more than normal restaurants, and they were always busy with tourists, not necessarily vegetarian but just in search of a healthier meal.
FIND OUT OUR FAVOURITE VEGAN/VEGETARIAN RESTAURANTS IN THE PHILIPPINES HERE
Delicious Thai dish at Shaka Restaurant on Panglao Island, Philippines
Self-Catering - We have cooked for ourselves on several occasions during our volunteering experiences in Coron and we have found most common vegetables and fruits at the local market at rather inexpensive prices. Rice (and sometimes pasta) is easily found and cheap while other cereals such as chick peas or lentils are hard to find. Do not expect any cheese and also sauce variety other than DelMonte tomato sauces. We luckily found a small supermarket in Coron town which was selling breakfast cereals and oats, biscuits and other packaged items (such as olive oil, salt and sugar, peanut butter and jam).
We avoided meat or fish at the market as it’s sold in very poor hygienic conditions and it does not look that tasty or fleshy.
Meat stall in Coron town market, Philippines
TOILETS & BATHROOM FACILITIES
Toilets in the Philippines vary a lot – the majority of accommodations and restaurants have sit toilets with flush, however, in most remote areas and cheap or tented accommodation you might have to deal with water buckets to flush the toilet.
As a general rule do not throw the toilet paper down the toilet, but dispose it in the dustbin inside the toilet stand. More importantly, bring toilet paper with you when travelling as it’s not always present in the toilets, especially shared or public ones.
Toilet paper is not always available in public toilets as local people use a small handheld nozzle, similar to a shower, to clean themselves after using the toilet. And we found this quite handy to be honest.
Hot shower is not always available, especially at cheap beach resorts where you do not really need a hot shower after a very sunny day spent at the seaside. The shower is not usually separated by the rest of the bathroom by any walls so get ready to wet your flipflops.
In more remote accommodations (such as the isolated island where we volunteered) you might have to deal with a bucket shower, which is definitely part of the experience.
Our natural shower - a waterfall close to Puerto Princesa, Philippines
Talking to other travelers in the Philippines, we found out “hidden” fees in the Philippines are very annoying for all tourists – we called these fees “hidden” because they were not at all obvious at the moment of booking of activities or tickets and are usually charged after the booking is already completed. Examples are all those small charges at check in at the airport or at the ferry terminal in addition to your ticket fare (for example, a fee for the handling of your luggage or a terminal fee), entrance fees to Conservation Areas not included in the tour price (which you were not told about before booking), minor fees to pay to enter the airport or port with a taxi and the list goes on.
Sometimes these “hidden” fees are really small, sometimes they are up to PHP200 p.p.. No matter the amount, you do not even receive a receipt in some cases and that makes you wonder where the money really goes. In any case, try to clarify with tour agencies and booking stalls if these fees are included in your ticket and if not, make sure to know the amount so to be prepared at the moment of payment.
Peaceful beach along Port Barton coastline - there is an entry fee to this beach and many others
In general, Filipino culture is very relaxed and that is quite pleasant if you’re on vacation and have no rush – you can soak up the relaxed atmosphere and slow your rhythm, freeing yourself from the stress accumulated back at home. However, it can get to the point of very long waits which can be quite frustrating if you’re living for a longer period in the country – more than once we waited for a long time to be served at the restaurants or shops though waiters or shop attendants were not serving anyone else.
Working in direct contact with many Filipinos during our volunteering experience we were really impressed with their resourcefulness – as money can be an issue for many Filipinos, they can build a house with shortage of material and they come up with ingenious ways of repairing boats or motorbikes, using spare parts from bikes or cars. On the other side, this can bring to a lack of quality which directly affects service from a tourist point of view. For example, fishermen boats called bangkas, used for transportation, break very easily because of poor maintenance. Houses are falling apart easily if rain is heavier than usually (not to count typhoons).
Cassio has caught dinner for us on Popotan Island during our volunteering experience, Philippines
Living together with Filipinos on an almost deserted island taught us simple ways of living like making tea on open fire, picking coconuts directly from the tree, spearfishing to have something to eat in the evening…. Even in less remote areas, Filipinos conduct very simple lives and are not obsessed with accumulating physical possessions - this makes you really re-evaluate our materialism back in the Western world. On the other hand, Filipinos from small villages might struggle to be organised when it comes to handle more complex situations, such as planning a day tour or designing a resort, because their daily life usually rotates around basic issues and they have probably left school at a very young age. Instead, Filipinos from cities usually have a university degree and are more business-orientated.
A very positive aspect which definitely helps local people interact with tourists is their knowledge of English which is usually pretty good, especially the younger the people are. In any case, double check what Filipinos mean when you are unsure of their English and repeat yourself more than you think it’s necessary, as we notice local people had a tendency to agree with you without really understanding what you’ve just said or did not listen entirely.
Playful child on Malapascua Island, Philippines - Children can usually speak English quite well
Least but not last, we enjoyed the more liberal and westernized culture in the Philippines in comparison to more conservative Asian countries such as Nepal or Sri Lanka where the dress and behavior code is very strict (LEARN MORE ABOUT NEPAL HERE). This is mostly due to centuries of exposure to Spanish and American colonization and influence. On the other hand, this is probably why Filipinos are deemed to be “less Asian” than other countries in Asia. Spanish influences are very obvious when it comes to the widespread Catholicism while American colonial period is evident in the ubiquitous presence of fast food chains in the country and the heavy use of English words by local people, such as numbers.
Tipping is not compulsoryin the Philippines and it’s not expected either. Obviously if you feel your guide, a waiter/waitress or a driver has done a particularly good job, nothing stops you from tipping or rounding up the cost of the meal or ride.