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 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!
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.
I boarded my second Malaysia Airlines flight for this trip in the afternoon and I was now en route to Philippines.
I took a break from staring outside my window to eat some peanuts.
It got cloudy after this, so I lowered the shades and caught up on some sleep.
So after nearly a total of 8 hours of flying, I was finally in Philippines. Phew, long journey!
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 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.
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.
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: