Philippines 2011: Flying over South China Sea for the first time

Planning a trip to the Philippines began with the most unlikeliest of inspirations — an e-mail forward from my father. Not even a good official one, but one of those e-mails that had numerous ‘fwd: FW: Fwd:’ before the actual subject line of ‘can you believe Philippines has such beauty?!’ followed by numerous exclamation marks.

I usually disregard the images I find in such e-mails as they’re usually not from the country they claim to be but upon checking up some of the names of the places they showcased, I was quite surprised about how little I knew of their existence!

It dawned to me I knew very little about Philippines, this despite having grown up in the Middle East where (just like Indians) millions of them come to work. As a kid, all I knew about Filipinos is that a lot of them work in fast food joints or play in a band — and they don’t have the letter ‘F’ in their vocabulary. So I would often hear “500 pils” instead of “500 fils” when asked for change.

I learnt of Banaue and its famous rice terraces, the beautiful beaches of Boracay and Palawan, but the place that made me wish I was there was the remote island of Batanes. It was then, early 2010, I decided to consider making a trip to Philippines.

It was quite challenge really, because trying to study the geography of Philippines wasn’t easy.

Philippines country regions provinces map
(Image source: Wikipedia)

Philippines is an archipelago of 7,107 islands. Sure, many of those thousands are really tiny to even identify on a map but still, getting around the country isn’t easy. It requires some learning beforehand. Since it’s not a landlocked country like most of Thailand, you have to commute via road, ferry, and airlines just to get to certain places within the country.

I initially thought of clubbing Philippines & Thailand last year but it was proving to be quite expensive. So I decided to give Philippines it’s own time.

That time was early this year, when things weren’t looking too good at my workplace. We all knew what was coming our way with the fate of the office and so, instead of prepping up my resume and looking for another job, I researched more on Philippines instead 🙂 When things became official in March and we all knew we were going to be laid off, I booked my tickets!

I tried Air Asia first but at around INR19k, it wasn’t as cheap as I thought it would be. Plus the timings were inconvenient. I land late at night and my connecting flight would have been at 7am the next morning. No way I was going to spend that long at KL LCCT! So I checked all the usual Indian travel websites and got the best deal from Travelocity for a Malaysia Airlines flight at Rs. 26,153 ($584/€411) return. Yes, it was more than Air Asia, but it was going to be convenient, so I didn’t mind paying a bit extra for that. Also, I would get proper meals, land at KLIA and not the present warehousebudget terminal. More importantly, the time I had to wait for my connecting flight was lesser.

Philippines Airlines had just launched their direct flight service to New Delhi (only), but it was quite expensive, so flying the Philippines national carrier was not a possibility.

Next came the visa. When I researched on the tourist visa, I was happy to find out Philippines offer a 21-day visa-on-arrival for a 147 nations! Great, I thought… until I scanned down the list and couldn’t find India one among those 147 countries -_-

So I ended up at the website of the Philippines embassy in New Delhi and found out I have to pay Rs. 2320 for a tourist visa (and for just 21 days). Since I couldn’t fly to Delhi just to get a visa, I had to get it done through an agent. Some agents wouldn’t even do it, and one moron even asked for Rs. 10,000 as service charges! But I walked into the nearby Thomas cook office in Koramangala (inside Raheja Arcade) and got my visa processed by paying their Rs. 1000 service charge. At Rs. 3320, this was the most I had spent on a South East Asian visa so far, and that too for a single entry visa. My multiple entry Singapore visa for 2 years cost just Rs. 1800 and my 1 year Malaysia visa cost just Rs. 1500. Thailand was free visa-on-arrival the two times I went.

My travel period was from 16th April to 4th May and I chose the dates keeping in mind the main focus of my trip was to photograph the Easter crucifixions in San Fernando. The rest of my itinerary would see me visit the largest American war cemetery outside of the United States, traverse throughout the Ifugao province for my fix of rice terrace farms, see coffins hung on hill sides, Cebu, see odd-shaped hills in Bohol and finally enjoy the natural beauty of Palawan island. I was looking for ‘interesting’ with this trip, so I ruled out Boracay — the nation’s most popular island destination, and the most touristy. Unfortunately, Batanes was out of this trip plan as well, simply because it was too expensive to even get there. No budget carrier (and Philippines has enough of them) flies to Batanes and even those that do only fly if they get enough passengers. Batanes is that remote an island.

As days passed by, I felt a bit nervous and kept having second thoughts about spending a lot of money during uncertain times. Sure, the Philippines currency value was the same as the Indian rupee, so that really helped! But still, here I was, going on vacation when all my colleagues were busy job hunting. Plus, I was going to be visiting a new country, one that like Thailand (to the eyes of the ignorant) has a sketchy reputation. I knew what I was going to see, and I was looking forward to see if they live up to the hype, but still…

One ray of hope that eased me up a bit came my way two weeks before my departure date when one of my readers left me a comment telling me how much she appreciated my website and that I “should visit the Philippines sometime!”

🙂

That blessing of a reader couldn’t have come at a better time and after we got in touch, she would be of great help to me, even helping me out with some bookings. I felt much better knowing I had a local contact, which always helps!

Leaving Bangalore airport Malaysia Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur
Now I was ready to fly!
Malaysia Airlines seafood meal Bangalore flight
I had pre-booked a seafood meal for a change and while the tuna and veggies were good, I couldn't help but envy my co-passengers with their 'regular' meals enjoying their creamy desserts and chocolates when all I got was cold fruits. It's as though Malaysia gimped on the rest of the meal given how much fish costs. Sucks
Kuala Lumpur international airport tower Malaysia
Selamat pagi* Malaysia! (*Good morning)
Kuala Lumpur International Airport KLIA gates
I landed on time and took this around 7:45am
Kuala Lumpur International airport duty free liqour Malaysia
This was my first time in Kuala Lumpur International airport as last year I flew Air Asia
Kuala Lumpur airport KLIA Harrods store Malaysia
There's a mini-Harrods (Impressed with how sharp this photo came out)
Kuala Lumpur International Airport Cadbury store Malaysia
They have an exclusive Cadbury store here too
Kuala Lumpur International airport duty free Malaysia
I loitered around the Duty Free for a while

Post loitering, I found my gate and sat in front of it. I tried to catch some sleep but ended up going online to kill time for the next 4 hours.

KLIA grey skies Malaysia morning
It was grey skies even until noon in Sepang

I boarded my second Malaysia Airlines flight for this trip in the afternoon and I was now en route to Philippines.

Sepang city Malaysia flight aerial view takeoff
Selamat tinggal Malaysia!

Sepang city Malaysia flight aerial view from skyMalaysia flight aerial view farm fields

Leaving Malaysian shores aerial view flight
Leaving Malaysian shores...
South China sea spotted clouds blue water
... and flew over the South China Sea for the first time
South China sea cloud over islands
Which was a welcome pleasant change of scene for me

I took a break from staring outside my window to eat some peanuts.

Malaysia Airlines salted peanuts allergy information
Well... duh 🙂
South China sea small hilly island aerial
Back to staring out into the blue
South China sea islands aerial photograph
Beautiful
South China sea huge cloud over islands aerial photography
Awesome
Malaysia Airlines meal packaging Manila flight
Okay, break time. Lunch had arrived!
Malaysia Airlines seafood meal Manila flight
Seafood meal again. Tuna steak and veggies again. 'Regular' meals came with Cadbury chocolates besides pudding for dessert. I got dried raisins. Seriously -_-
South China sea line clouds aerial view island
Meal done, back to blue

South China sea spotted clouds from plane

South China sea oval island aerial photograph
Submerged?

South China sea ring island submerged aerial photograph

South China Sea boomerang island submerged aerial photograph
Needless to say, I really enjoyed this flight

South China sea small island submerged aerial photograph

South China sea moon afternoon aerial photograph
Hello moon...

It got cloudy after this, so I lowered the shades and caught up on some sleep.

South China sea mountains above clouds aerial photograph
Woke up an hour later to the announcement we were approaching Manila
Entering mainland Philippines shores aerial photograph
Hello Philippines

Philippines Central Luzon hills aerial photography Philippines Manila shores aerial photography

Philippines Manila aerial photography
Manila city
Manila port Philippines aerial photography
Manila port
Manila city evening aerial photograph
Metro Manila is the 8th most populous metro in Asia

Manila city from plane aerial photograph

Manila sunset from plane Philippines
It was nearing 5pm in Philippines
Manila Taguig city building construction Philippines
The flight was a bit early... which is never a bad thing (as long as the traffic control clears it)
About to land manila international airport
About to land

Landing Ninoy Aquino International Airport Manila Philippines

Landed Ninoy Aquino International Airport Manila Philippines
Ninoy Aquino International Airport

So after nearly a total of 8 hours of flying, I was finally in Philippines. Phew, long journey!

Arrival Ninoy Aquino International Airport Manila Philippines
How's the airport? Quite old and in much need for an upgrade. Well, at least Terminal I was in.

I got my passport stamped, got my bags rather quickly, converted some dollars and I was out in around 15 minutes. The first thing I wanted to do was get a local SIM and fortunately Globe was handing out free SIMs (though they were mostly for OFWs*).

I hired a pre-paid yellow taxi (which would later turn out to be a mistake) and asked him to take me to Kabayan Hotel in Pasay, which was close to the airport. I chose Kabayan as it was a popular recommendation online. Plus, I didn’t want to spend too much time in traffic just to get to touristy Makati.

But despite how close the hotel looked on the map from the airport, getting there still took nearly 45 minutes in evening traffic. It cost 250 pesos ($5/€4) which is far more than what I thought it would cost. Anyway, I went to the hotel reception, booked a single room for myself and checked in.

Kabayan Hotel single room Manila Philippines
My A/C single room, PHP950 per night ($22/€15)

Kabayan is pretty cool. They have rooms ranging from dorms all the way up to deluxe rooms and from prices starting as low PHP610, they are very popular. And get this, you get complimentary breakfast and lunch! They also have free wi-fi among other great amenities.

Kabayan hotel rooms Manila Philippines
The toilets and shower rooms are down the hall and in between (clean and well kept)

Oh by the way, they don’t use the word toilets much in Philippines, instead it’s ‘Comfort Rooms’ or ‘CR’ 🙂

I stepped out again because I needed to buy some credit for the Globe SIM so that I could inform my family of my safe arrival. Since I was out, I decided to grab dinner early. It soon struck me just how much fast food Filipinos eat. Mc Donalds and homegrown Jollibee was everywhere — and they both had multiple branches within meters of each other — and all of them were doing brisk buisness! As the fast food chains are too chicken to sell beef burgers here in India (due to religious politics), a good ol’ cheeseburger was what I was craving. I picked up a burger from Jollibee, a doughnut from 7-11 and some water.

The area I was in was quite a busy part of town as it was a major hub for transportation, so you get everything you need as far as convenience stores, supermarkets and eateries go. It’s also a very noisy area, mostly because of the jeepneys.

But Kabayan does a good job of cutting out the noise once you’re inside the hotel. I took a nice warm bath and then had my dinner. I called my aforementioned reader (whose name is Aimee) and we spoke for a while. She told me the pre-paid yellow taxi at the airport are priced way more than the usual taxis I could have gotten had I just walked a bit further out. Also, there were frequent airport buses that drop people to Pasay and back. Oh well, rookie mistake.

Kabayan hotel single pad LCD tv Manila Philippines
Unlike many hotels in this price range, Kabayan has a good selection of channels which even included Zee TV (the only Indian channel though)

Given that I hadn’t slept properly in nearly 24 hours, I called it an early night.

I couldn’t wait for tomorrow to begin!

——–

Please note: In this series of posts, I won’t be mentioning conversion rates for Indian rupees as both Philippines Peso (PHP/₱) and the Indian Rupee are more or less on a 1:1 value ratio. So Rs. 100 is like PHP98. Therefore only US dollar and Euro conversion rates will be mentioned.

*OFW = Overseas Filipino Workers; similar to NRI (Non-Resident Indian)

Other posts in this series:

Philippines 2011: Day 1 — Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Fort Bonifacio

Philippines 2011: Day 2 – Banaue rice terraces; trekking to Batad village

Philippines 2011: Day 3 – Banaue town; heading to Sagada via Bontoc

Philippines 2011: Day 3 – Sagada’s Lumiang burial cave, Sumaguing cave, Hanging Coffins of Echo valley

Philippines 2011: Leaving Sagada for Baguio, and arriving in Angeles city (Days 4 & 5)

Philippines 2011: Day 6 – Good Friday in San Fernando, San Pedro Cutud Lenten Rites

Philippines 2011: Day 7 – Leaving Angeles City for Manila, Mall of Asia

Philippines 2011: Day 8 – Manila tour: Rizal Park, Intramuros, Manila Cathedral, China Town

Philippines 2011: Day 9 – Cebu: Fort San Pedro, Basilica of Santo Niño, Taoist Temple

Philippines 2011: Day 10 – Bohol tour: Chocolate Hills, Loboc river cruise, Tarsiers, churches

Philippines 2011: Day 11 – Arriving in Puerto Princesa, Palawan

Philippines 2011: Day 12 – Puerto Princesa Underground River tour, Palawan

Philippines 2011: Day 13 – Puerto Princesa to El Nido by bus

Philippines 2011: Day 14 – El Nido island hopping tour A and sunset at Las Cabanas beach, Palawan

Philippines 2011: Back to Manila, shopping, and my final thoughts about the country  (Final post)

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11 Comments

  • Janice

    07/09/2011

    Hey Mithun,

    Found your site while researching my trip to Penang. Excellent photos and travel write-ups! I’m glad you gave the Philippines (my home country) a shot. (I chuckled at your description of Terminal 1 – that place does suck! Terminals 2 and 3 are much much better).

    Cheers
    Janice

    [Reply]

    Mithun Divakaran Reply:

    Yes, I’m glad I came to Philippines as well. Mostly because it turned out to be my best trip ever! 🙂 (You’ll see when I’m done with my posts) Love the country and the people.

    Hope my Penang post was useful to you in some way. I only managed to do one day in Penang.

    [Reply]

  • Dr Vikram

    08/09/2011

    Hi Mithun

    Excellent topic, loved the details, Thank you for sharing.

    [Reply]

  • Ed

    29/09/2011

    hi mithum,

    I’m really glad you gave the my country a shot. We’ve so much more to offer! Thanks for sharing your stories and I’m digging your articles as well as your photos!

    Thanks,
    Ed

    [Reply]

    Mithun Divakaran Reply:

    Thank you… and I have another week more of posts to write about! 🙂

    [Reply]

  • Batang Lakwatsero

    06/12/2011

    just started reading your blog series about the Philippines..

    it’s nice to read travel experiences about my beloved country, especially when it is from a non-Filipino..

    will surely follow your Philippines series.

    [Reply]

  • doi

    06/12/2011

    funny reminder on that allergy info. lol

    [Reply]

  • Pingback: An Idea, a Book, and a Link.

  • Joyce

    31/03/2015

    Hi Mithun,

    Thank you so much for all your sharing about Philippines. It was very attractive from all the photos you have posted here. Is it safe to travel alone for female tourist?

    Joyce

    [Reply]

    Mithun Divakaran Reply:

    I would say it is generally safe for women to travel solo in Philippines. Everywhere I went to, I felt safe. I mean, I choose not to stay at seedy areas, so that’s there. In general, Philippines is safe.

    [Reply]

  • Charline

    20/06/2015

    Hello! I’ve been reading your web site for some time now and finally got the bravery to go
    ahead and give you a shout out from Porter Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep
    up the good work!

    [Reply]

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