Manila is only 180 euros and 90 minutes away, and internal flights, of which we took 3, cost 30 to 40 euros each. You need them to get around a country of over 7,000 islands.
Public transport rules. On one journey down the island of Cebu, it was an hour before I saw a car coming the other way.
Short journeys are by tricycle taxi - a motorbike (or occasionally bicycle) with elaborate sidecar. Longer journeys by jeepney – a highly decorated stretch version of a WW2 jeep.
In Thailand they could get 4 on a motorbike, and here it was 5. On the tricycles I saw up to 8.
And jeepneys, which should hold maybe 18 inside, well over 30 - the locals on the roof accepted their windy ride with resignation, for a tourist like me it was like being at the funfair.
Things most obviously lacking: cash and socks.
Cash: Supermarkets sell individual sachets of shampoo, washing powder, coffee etc (Thanks Amanda for pointing that out) and there’s no need for a ‘maximum 12 items’ till, as that’s everyone! Petrol stations sell pre-filled one-litre coke bottles full of petrol, and no-one has change for a 100 peso (1.60 euros) note, though this was obviously sometimes a tactic to get an extra tip. Socks: Those with money wear sandals. Those with less, flip-flops. Those with none, nothing.
The barefoot kids in Donsol knew two words of English - "hello" and "money". The kids in flip-flops on the working beach in non-touristy Legaspi were genuinely lovely - smiling, laughing and asking our names, but never asked for anything. The richer kids in sandals in the restaurant later had the sulky faces of western teenagers.
Everything gets repaired and reused. The oldest motorbikes and TVs are still going, and shops selling piles of second-hand sandals were common (for those that want to elevate their status from flip-flop wearers, I suppose)
The most common language is Tagalog. Having been occupied by the Spanish and the Americans, now a third of the words they use are Spanish or English. I heard an advert on the radio something like this:
“Tagalog tagalog tagalog más barato tagalog tagalog safe and effective tagalog tagalog.”
The natural beauty highlights we experienced: volcanoes and marine life. We took a boat then trekked up Taal Volcano to see, in the flooded crater: an island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island in the South China Sea. We also started out at 4am to trek up Mt. Mayon, the most perfectly formed volcano in the world, apparently, but were beaten back by the weather - the only bad day we had.
Having back-packed for the first few days, staying in cheap guest houses with, more often than not, cold showers, it was pretty nice staying in a luxury dive resort.
We both snorkelled and scuba-dived, and the feeling of swimming next to a majestic 10 metre-long Whale Shark, or being 5 metres below the surface, engulfed in a shoal of tens (hundreds?) of thousands of sardines, is indescribable.
Philippine food is nothing to write home about, or in a blog, so I’ll stop there, except to say even a begging dog turned down some scraps I gave him.
Talking of dogs – mangy describes the vast majority, but they must also be smarter than those at home. They live and sleep in the street, but never seem to get run over.
The beer, San Miguel, is better than the Spanish version and ridiculously cheap. And it makes you realise how much profit drinks companies make in the west when they can sell bottles of Coke for 10 pesos (16 cents)
Maybe this is why soft drinks, along with religion, are held in such high esteem. I saw a hand-written advert outside corner shop. Coca-cola – Gift of God.
They love to sing. Karaoke bars are everywhere with tone-deaf locals keeping us awake at night. And supermarkets play loud slushy English pop songs, accompanied by the shelf-fillers, cashiers, even gun-toting security guards on the door – all singing along! Truly bizarre.
And finally, if you want to play golf in Manila, try the Wack Wack Golf Club. Though you might think twice about sending your children to the Bolocboloc Elementary School.