My favourite countries – The Philippines (Part One)

The EarlybirdAdventures, Asia

I have been to the Philippines twice. The first time in 1994 for 3 weeks and the second time in 2005 for 3 months. I love this country and still feel a strong connection to the place, even though I haven’t been there for the best part of 20 years. Visiting the Philippines as a young naive man in the 1990s represented a coming of age for me. Breaking out of my shell, realising what the world has to offer and opening up limitless possibilities for me.

This part one of the story will cover the my first visit in 1994.

Why Philippines?

I actually visited the Philippines completely by accident. I had been trying to get an English teaching job in Hong Kong and was hating it. My sister was in Japan teaching English there and invited me to come over. I quickly got a job, but had to wait 2 months for the work visa to come through before I could start working. Having already been backpacking around South East Asia for some months and quite broke, I decided it would be better to go to a cheap country for a couple of months and return when my visa was ready.

I had to fly back to Hong Kong and buy a ticket there. Hong Kong was a bucket shop for cheap tickets all over Asia. Remember, there was no internet or flight booking websites. You had to buy everything through dodgy travel agents. I thought about India, but it was monsoon time. I decided instead to go to Vietnam, which I had heard was just opening to tourism for the first time. The only flight available was with Philippine Air with a overnight stay in Manila. I asked the agent if I could extend that one night. He replied, sure you can extend to 3 weeks (the maximum allowed for a tourist visa at that time). So, effectively, I got the Philippines for free. What an amazing stroke of luck that turned out to be.

There was also a Vietnamese embassy in Manila, where I could sort out my tourist visa (there being no Vietnamese embassy in Hong Kong). Everything was falling into place perfectly. I would fly to Manila, hang out in the Philippines for a few weeks, get my visa for Vietnam, fly to Vietnam for a month and then back to Japan via Hong Kong to start my new job.

Off the beaten track

This was my first solo trip out of New Zealand and initially I had grand plans to get off the tourist trail and go to obscure, little-visited countries like Myanmar (Burma). But once I got to South East Asia, I realised that, when travelling alone for the first time, it was much easier to stick to the well beaten path. In Thailand, for example, you could easily meet other young travellers in backpacker hangouts like Kao San Road in Bangkok.

This was also the pre-internet era. There was no instant information at our fingertips like we have today with our smartphones and mobile internet. Guidebooks like the Lonely Planet and word of mouth from other tourists were the only reliable sources of information.

Today the Philippines is well discovered and is on the map of all the hippest Instagram influencers staying in luxury villas with private pool and diving into lagoons with their gopros.

Back in 1994, it was a totally different story. Very few tourists dared to visit the Philippines. This was because the Philippines was constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons. The Philippines was seen as a dangerous and corrupt place, constantly hit by natural disasters.

For decades following independence from Spanish and American colonial rule, the Philippines had been ruled by a brutal dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos ruled with an iron fist. He and his wife Imelda allegedly stole $billions from the state coffers. Imelda was famous for having a collection of thousands of shoes. They lived a life of luxury while not far from the presidential palace, people lived on a mountain of rubbish, which they rummaged through during the day hoping to find some piece of metal to sell for a few cents. Following a popular uprising, the so-called People’s Revolution, Marcos was replaced and the wife of his former political rival, whom he had had murdered, took over power. Despite high hopes for the future, democratically elected populists proved to be corrupt. This constant political instability lead to the Philippines having a reputation as a place not safe to visit.

Secondly, the Philippines geographically is a series of islands. You have to make a special effort to go there, whereas the rest of South East Asia is well connected by bus and train routes. These days things are considerably easier with the emergence of budget air travel.

Lastly, to add to the misfortune of the poor Philippinos, the country is constantly hit with typhoons, floods and other natural disasters. This was yet another deterrent to tourists.

Manila. Photo by JC Gellidon on Unsplash


When I arrived in Manila, there was a monsoon and heavy rain. From the airport to the downtown, you must drive down this long seaside boulevard. I took a taxi and the driver was quite talkative – a bit too chatty – but I put up with it. Then, we got into this horrendous traffic jam. We were at an intersection and it was complete chaos. People were ignoring the traffic lights and no police had yet turned up to direct traffic. It was impossible. As soon as a gap in the traffic appeared, instead of letting cars through the gap, a car coming in the adjacent direction would block its progress by inching forward, preventing the car from driving on, but only gaining milimeters for itself. My taxi driver started to get in to a rage and was yelling and screaming at these idiots drivers. This lasted for 6 hours. I could not get out and walk because the water was knee deep on the road. Welcome to Manila.

Manila used to be a well dodgy place. I went to the downtown area which had been famous for strip bars, prostitution and drugs, but a new mayor had come in and completely cleaned the place up. It was pretty tame and just had a few tourist restaurants.

Still, getting around could be a little intimidating. Luckily, there is this great and cheap transport system there call the Jeepneys. These are old American jeeps left over from WWII which have been done up, lengthened and converted into urban transportation. Like mini-vans in other parts of the world, they run specific routes and you jump on and off. They were completely safe to travel in and once you got the hang of the routes, a very convenient and cheap way to get around town and travel like the locals.

Many of the jeepneys are decorated elaborately with brights colours, all kinds of lights and special horns. You can also take them on longer intercity routes. For extra long distances, it would probably be recommended to take a bus.

Nurse scam

One day, I was in a fancy shopping center in Manila. I was just hanging around and this older guy approached me. Normally, I wouldn’t entertain a conversation with some dodgy guy on the street, but this dude seemed ok and we were in a safe place in broad daylight. The dude asked me where I was from. When I said, New Zealand, he told me his sister was living and working in New Zealand. Not totally inconceivable as New Zealand has a high immigrant population and many Philippinos get jobs abroad and send remittances home.

He proceeded to roll off a whole heap of facts about Christchurch, the city in New Zealand where his sister allegedly lived. I was really impressed by his knowledge and was even taken in for a few moments. Then, he made his move: “But, New Zealand is so dangerous!” Why, of course not, I automatically blurted out. Really? Oh, but our mother is so worried! What about a cup of tea round at our house….. . As soon as the offer of a cup of tea arises, it’s time to bail.

Later back at my hostel, I started to tell my story. There was an older (let’s say experienced) gentleman there and he immediately interrupted me – let me guess… the sister… she works in the hospital, right? I said, “How did you know?!” They do thorough research, these scammers. You probably come from New Zealand, Australia, Canada or England. They chose a popular city and research it down the local library (remember, this is the pre-internet period).

Jeepney. Photo by Yannes Kiefer on Unsplash


Boracay is an island in the Philippines and is the most popular tourist attractions in the country. And for good reason. The main beach is 4 kms of gorgeous soft white sand. I have been all over the world and seen all the best beaches in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe. I consider Boracay to be the best I’ve ever seen.

Boracay is these days quite developed and had to be closed for restoration for a year just before the pandemic broke out. Back then, it was almost completely untouched. There were few accommodation options and only a couple of bars and restaurants on the beach. In fact, it was so deserted that you needed a torch to walk along the beach at night to get from the one restaurant to the one bar, it was so dark!

Crazy drinking binge with local Philippino guys

One day I had this bizarre experience with the owner of my guesthouse. He invited me to go with him to a remote beach on the other side of the island. We went in his motorcycle with sidecar (the local mode of transport). We got to the beach quite early and went to a shack where some of his mates were drinking. They had already been drinking heavily and were quite hammered.

They invited me to start drinking with them. I obliged and by the afternoon, we were all quite fucked. Then, my host got out this special bottle of local alcohol. It was a bottle full of fermented lizards and other creepy crawlies. Upon drinking it, it seemed to have some kind of strong stimulant effect. He started to have manic delusions like he was so strong and powerful (not) and handsome (he had really bad skin). Finally, it was time to go back and it was now dark. As the beach was quite far from the village where we were staying, I had no choice but to endure a white-knuckle ride in his sidecar. Whatever was in the alcohol made him think he was invincible and that we would not crash as we raced round blind corners with me hanging on for dear life! So many times I have risked my life getting on a motorcycle or rickshaw with some drunk idiot in the middle of nowhere in some third world country. These days I have a rule never to get on a motorbike.

I had planned to stay a week or so in Boracay, then head back to Manila to drop my passport in the Vietnamese embassy. I arrived back in Manila on the weekend. I dropped the passport in the embassy on the Mon and had to go back the following Friday to pick it up. My flight to Vietnam was on the Saturday.

Boracay. Photo by Hannah Sibayan on Unsplash

Puerto Galera – seedy dive resort

I didn’t want to spend the rest of the week in Manila, but due to time contraints, I had to choose somewhere not too far away. I went with Puerto Galera, another beach resort, but reachable from Manila. The Philippines is famous for diving and Puerto Galera is a well-known dive spot. It was also super seedy with a lot of prostitution and sleazy go-go bars. Disguting, shameless old white dudes with hot young girlfriends. Having already been in Thailand and being completely shocked by the horrible exploitation of these young women, I was now witnessing it again in the Philippines.

Following WWII, the Americans maintained army bases in the Philippines and prostitution boomed in neighbouring cities to serve the high demand from the US soldiers stationed there. The cities of Angeles City and Olongapo remained major centers for sex tourism even today, long after the closure of the army bases.

I refused to enter these go-go bars and there seemed to be one “legitimate” club in the town. As soon as I entered, I had the 2 hottest girls in bar completed for my attention. I thought at one stage, they would start a cat fight!

In the end, I hooked up with one of them. Although no money was exchanged or even solicited, I still felt like pretty bad about the situation. Some women expect “tips”. You are expected to pay for dinner or even buy some gifts. Often these gifts are taken straight to the local pawn shop (found in every town in the Philippines) to exchange for cash. Conversation at dinner is really limited due to the language barrier.

There was a guy living in the same guest house as me. He was a retired Australian dude – old, ugly, fat, red face (from drug abuse, no doubt). He had this hot local girlfriend who lived with him as his in-house maid and whore. Many of these women come from extreme poverty and are single mothers. The Philippines is a catholic country and many dudes don’t use contraception. They bang up these poors girls, then do the runner, leaving them no choice but to turn to prostitution to support their babies. I overheard this dude saying to his girlfriend how lucky she was that he provided her with “nice” digs and a nice dress to wear!

Running out of money and almost being thrown in prison!

At the time, no ATMs would accept foreign cards in the Philippines. I had only my credit card as a source of income. I would go to the bank and get a cash advance on the credit card, using my passport as ID. As I had to give up my passport at the Vietnamese embassy, I had to make sure I had enough cash to get me through the following days until I was back in Manila. There, I would pick up my passport, stay one more night, then fly out the following day.

Back in the 1990s, the airport tax was not usually included in the ticket price and was something that had to be paid at the airport in cash prior to departure. In this case, it was $25. Inability to pay would usually result in over-staying and some fine. But in the Philippines, you would be thrown in the cells! I guess to give the message not to fuck around with the Philippino authorities.

I had withdrawn what I thought was going to be plenty, but when I arrived in Puerto Galera, it soon became evident that I had seriously underestimated the money needed to survive the following days. Despite staying in basic guest house, with only a bucket for a shower and eating mostly street food, I was forced to spend the money I had set aside to pay the airport tax. This, just to be able to afford the transport back to Manila.

The day of the trip back to Manila turned out to be one of my worst travelling experiences ever. All completely avoidable had I planned better. I had to get up at 5am to get the bus/boat/bus back to Manila. I got back to Manila pretty hot and tired, but still in plenty of time to pick up my passport and get to the bank to make a cash advance. I got to the embassy and was standing in line waiting to collect my passport. I was the only white guy in the line. When I got to the front, the dude behind the counter found my passport, checked the photo to confirm it was me, and was about to hand it to me, when he said: “where is your ticket?” I said, what ticket? I had completely forgotten, they had given me a ticket with a number on it present upon collection. He refused to give me the passport. I though, oh fuck, what did I do with that? I had to go all the way back to my hostel, where I had put most of my gear in storage in my large backpack. I threw everything out of the bag and luckily found the ticket in some shorts pocket.

Ok, that was a pain, I thought, but I still have plenty of time. I got back to the embassy and was again waiting in line. I got talking to a guy in the queue. I was telling about my ordeal, but at least everything would be ok because I still had plenty of time, it now being 14:45 and the banks close at 16:00. He said, no! On Fridays, the banks close at 15:00! Fuck!! I ran to the front of the queue, threw down my ticket and grabbed my passport.

I raced outside and jumped into a taxi. Massive traffic jam. I had to run the remaining 8 or so blocks in 35 degree heat to get to the bank. It was 16:05. People were still in the bank doing their business. The security guard refused to let me in! Every bank has a security guard with a gun. There was no way this guy was going to let me into the bank despite my pleading with him. He said, there’s another branch in the business district which is open until 17:00.

Now desperation is setting in. I had to take 2 or 3 Jeepneys to get across town to the business district. I found the branch. Of course, it was a commercial branch with no retail banking services. I was fucked. Ok, I still had my credit card, so I could book into a hotel and pay for accommodation and food. But I was surely going to prison, as I would not be able pay the airport tax, the banks all being closed on the weekend.

In a state of great despair, I started to wander aimlessly around this business district. There were some upmarket shopping malls there. I saw an ATM. I thought, fuck it, I will try this one, even though every single other ATM had failed to work with my card. Usually, you would go through the motions of entering in your PIN and the amount you want to withdraw, only for the machine to reject your card right at the end. This time I went through the same process expecting a similar outcome. Except this time, instead of rejecting my card, I heard the delectable sound of bank notes being counted and passed through the slot to me! Eureka! I guess this fancy mall was the first place in the country to have installed machines accepting international cards.

This first trip gave me a taste of the Philippines. I don’t usually visit the same country twice, but I was determined to go back one day and see more of the country. That story will be told in part two. Stay tuned.

Photo by Cris Tagupa on Unsplash