By Juhi Bansal
Related: Planning a Trip to Boracay
K and I are experts in planning last minute trips and that’s largely because we are incapable of planning ahead. But, even we outdid ourselves with the trip to the Philippines! We got our tickets done exactly 3 days before we were supposed to fly out. Ofcourse, we had no doubt it will be as fun as any other trip (well planned or not!)
Philippines is the perfect example of “small but packs a punch”. From pristine white sand beaches to blue-green waters to nature trails, mountains to rice terraces to volcanoes to lip smacking food- the Philippines has everything you need from a quick getaway.
October to February is high season since the mercury drops and the weather is good. However, September and March-April are shoulder months and good time to visit as well.
I particularly liked how warm Filipinos were. They smile, are always forthcoming and service is second nature to them. Almost everyone speaks English. Also, they are always looking for a reason to celebrate. It’s not birthdays in Philippines it’s birth months and almost wherever we went in Philippines, the moment they got to know it was Iy’s birthday a few days ago- they always wanted to make it special. It is probably the only country that has a countdown to Christmas that starts at over 100 days! Can you believe it!
They like to refer to strangers (particularly vendors and service staff) as “boss” our equivalent of “bhaiya” in India!
Philippines is also one of the cheaper places to holiday. Rupee holds a good exchange value and things are generally priced comfortably. If you are not looking for extra ordinary luxury, a Filippino holiday will not leave a big dent in your pocket.
The Philippines was both an American and Spanish colony in the past and you see glimpses of that in the food, brands and the general culture around you.
There are no direct flights from India to the Philippines and that may be slightly off-putting. However, if you plan it well by taking a break in HK, Bangkok or Singapore or simply getting flights booked with minimum layovers, it’s not that much of a pain.
We flew directly from Ahmedabad to Bangkok and then from Bangkok to Manila. We had to take a visa on arrival in Bangkok because we changed airlines and it was a bit of an inconvenience considering if we had to scramble for paperwork last minute. Also, BKK airport refused to take card and foreign currency for things like visa fee and photobooth which frankly wasn’t something we were expecting.
You can get a free visa on arrival for 2 weeks if you have a valid US or Schengen visa. No paperwork required apart from stay bookings and return ticket. However, we ended up taking Thai visa on arrival twice and paying for it!).
1 Philippine peso (PP) is equivalent to about 1.4 INR. The Philippines is not an unreasonably expensive country. Most things cost as much as India and sometimes even cheaper. Like a full body massage at the best spas in Boracay were anywhere between 800 to 1200 PP. I was getting a massage done almost everyday!
Manila is the capital of Philippines and the most populated. You see a stark contrast between the outskirts and Metro Manila quite like Aamchi Mumbai. It’s perfect for a city break- from nightlife to fun eateries to shopping- it has everything! Ofcourse the traffic may get on your nerves at times but it’s nothing you’ve not seen in Mumbai. Manila is the cultural centre of the Philippines and influences of the Spanish, Chinese and Americans who have long lived in the city alongside the native Filipinos.
Where to Stay
Manila Bay may be your best bet. About an hour away from the International airport- this is where the most development has happened. We stayed in Taguig with our very kind friends! There were some fun malls and eateries all in walking radius. You may also look at Makati,
Intamuros literally means “inside the walls”. It is the old-Spanish quarter of Manila and the cobbled streets are dotted with elaborate houses. Intramuros gives you an insight into the Spanish- Filipino history. You can easily do it on foot but I would suggest hiring a kalesa (horse cart) to get the best experience. They have fixed prices and you can haggle a bit (I paid P1200 for a 1.5 hours tour) and I must say it was a fun ride. The kalesa drivers are more than happy to wait for you at the different sites and will never hurry you up.
Some things that you must do in Intramuros:
Fort Santiago and the Rizal Shrine
San Agustin Church and Museum
(this is the only building left standing in Intramuros after the WWII bombings!)
Plaza San Luis
Look/ walk around and don’t forget to stop by at Barbara’s! (read Food in Manila for more details).
Don’t forget to try the local transport- Jeepneys, Ferrari, kalesa- they are all extremely fun. Also, do try halo-halo!
Vegetarian Food in Manila
I’ve talked about some local Filipino food in my Boracay article. Manila is as cosmopolitan as they get which means you have a whole lot of choice when it comes to food and partying. You name the cuisine and it’s there!
Some places that we tried and loved are:
Din Tai Fung: our favourite in almost all countries- one of the few places where you can get a wide variety of vegetarian Oriental fare. Must try- Xiao Long Bao!
Barbara’s Heritage Restaurant: It is as touristy as it can get but I loved the vibe! From live music- guitarists come and serenade you right on your table- to a wide choice of buffet- Barbara’s was a fun outing to Intramuros.
Paella and sangrias- need I say more. Don’t forget to try the beetroot ravioli!
Backroom (speakeasy): Manila is full of speakeasies. Backroom is a part of the Ministry of Crab. I loved the innovative drinks and flavours. Must try!
Perfect for a lazy brunch. The black rice bowls are to die for! Iyra loved the gnochetti mac and cheese. Yum!
Others places to see in the Philippines
Between Manila and Boracay you would need atleast 7-8 days. Since we had only 8 days we did Boracay and Manila but we do plan to go back to explore more.
If you have more days I would suggest doing one more island like Cebu or Palawan (flight from Manila) and taking a couple of trips to Batad rice terraces (direct bus from Manila), an active volcano (there are several but you could do a day trip to Tagatay Taal volcano from Manila) or the Chocolate hills (flight from Manila).