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All About The Philippines

The 7,000 islands which comprise the Philippines are the forgotten islands of South-East Asia: they're off the main overland route and have never attracted great numbers of tourists. There's no doubt that the country has lost out economically because of this, but its reputation as the basket case of Asia is now thoroughly outdated. The political upheavals that have plagued the Philippines are also a thing of the past, and the image of Steady Eddy at the helm has replaced that of a dictator's wife with a gargantuan shoe fetish. Most of the Philippines is laid back, stable and relatively safe. The country likes to promote itself as the place where `Asia wears a smile' and the locals are, by and large, an exceptionally friendly and helpful bunch. On top of this, transport is cheap, the food is good, accommodation is plentiful and (for the monolinguistic) English is widely spoken.

Facts at a Glance
Facts for the Traveller
Off the Beaten Track
Getting There & Away
Getting Around

Facts at a Glance

Full country name: Republic of the Philippines
Area: 115,446 sq mi(A little bigger than Arizona, USA)
Population: 72 million (growth rate 2.5%)
Capital city: Manila (pop: 10 million)
People: Predominantly descendants of Malays, Chinese and Muslim minorities and a number of mestizos (Filipino-Spanish or Filipino-Americans)
Language: Pilipino (Tagalog) and English plus numerous widely spoken indigenous languages, some Spanish
Religion: 82% Roman Catholic, 9% Protestant, 5% Muslim, 3% Buddhist
Government: Republic
President: Joseph "Erap" Ejercito Estrada


The Philippines consists of 7107 islands in the western Pacific Ocean, only 2000 of which are inhabited. Luzon and Mindanao are by far the largest, and comprise roughly 66% of the country's area. Only about 1000 islands are larger than 1/2 sq mile or 250 acre and 2500 aren't even named. The Philippines' nearest neighbours are Taiwan (north), Eastern Malaysia and Brunei (south-west), and Indonesia (south).

The archipelago has a volcanic topography and experiences frequent seismic activity. There are 37 volcanoes in the archipelago and the highest peak is Mt Apo 9691ft(2954m) in Mindanao. About half the country is under cultivation and about a third remains forested, despite tree-felling and slash-and-burn agriculture. There are more than a 1000 species of birds and animals, notably wild dwarf buffalo, mouse deer, crocodiles and pythons. There are over 10,000 species of trees, shrubs and ferns, the most common of which are palms and bamboos.

The Philippines are hot and humid year-round. The weather pattern across the archipelago is complex, but can be roughly divided into the dry season (January to June) and the wet season (July to December). The average annual temperature is 77°F(25°C). The best time to visit is between December and May, but avoid Manila in May when temperatures can reach 105°F(41°C).


The first inhabitants of the Philippines arrived up to 300,000 years ago, probably migrating over a land bridge from the Asian mainland. The Negrito or Aeta arrived 25,000 years ago, but they were driven back by several waves of immigrants from Indonesia, followed by maritime immigrations of Malayan people. In 1380, the Arab-taught Makdum arrived in the Sulu archipelago and began to establish what became a powerful Islamic sphere of influence over the next hundred years.

Ferdinand Magellan arrived in 1521 and claimed the archipelago for Spain. Magellan was killed by local chiefs who quite naturally disapproved of this notion. Ruy Lopez de Villalobos followed in 1543 and named the territory Filipinas after Philip II of Spain. Permanent Spanish occupation began in 1565, and by 1571 the entire country, except for the strictly Islamic Sulu archipelago, was under Spanish control.

A Filipino independence movement grew in the 19th century and Filipinos fought on the side of the Americans in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. When the Spanish were defeated, General Aguinaldo declared the Philippines independent. The USA, however, had other plans, and promptly purchased the islands from the Spanish for US$20 million. The USA eventually recognised the Filipinos' desire for independence and Manuel L Quezon was sworn in as President of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935 as part of a transitional phase pending full independence. Japan invaded the Philippines in 1942 brutally interrupting this process and ruled until the USA re-invaded two years later. The Philippines received full independence in 1946.

Ferdinand Marcos was elected president in 1965, declared martial law in 1972 and ruled virtually as a dictator until 1986. His regime was attacked by both communist and Muslim guerrillas, and he was accused of ballot-rigging and fraud. The assassination of prominent opposition figure Benigno Aquino in 1983 sparked massive anti-government protests. A snap election in 1986 saw the opposition parties rally around Aquino's widow, Cory. Both parties claimed victory, but Aquino was widely believed to have polled most votes. She initiated a programme of nonviolent civil unrest which resulted in Marcos fleeing the country.

Aquino re-established the democratic institutions of the country, but failed to tackle economic problems or win over the military and the powerful Filipino elite. US strategic influence in the country diminished following the 1991 Mt Pinatubo eruption which destroyed the US Clark Air Base, and after the Philippine Senate refused to ratify the lease on the Subic Bay Naval Station. Aquino survived seven coups in six years and was succeeded by her Defence Minister Fidel Ramos in 1992. Ramos has attempted to revitalise the economy, attract foreign investment, cleanse corruption and expand provision of utilities.

The Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front signed a peace accord in September 1996 ending, formally at least, the MNLF's 24-year struggle for autonomy in Mindanao. The peace agreement foresaw the MLNF being granted considerable autonomy in many of island's provinces. Peace in the area remains elusive however following the rise of a splinter group, the militant Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which opposes the agreement. The government continues to conduct military operations in MILF-held areas in Basilan and Sulu.

Economic Profile

GDP: US$173 billion
World GDP ranking: 40th
GDP per head: US$2660
Annual growth: 3%
Inflation: 8%
Major products/industries: Electronic and electrical products, clothing
Major trading partners: USA, Japan, Taiwan


The Philippines has developed a mixed culture from the blending of foreign influences with native elements. Today, the Muslims, and some of the isolated tribes, are the only people whose culture remains unadulterated by Spanish and American influences.

Although traditional theatre, literature and kundimans (love songs) in the national language have experienced a resurgence since Cory Aquino's People Power movement, visitors are more likely to witness beauty contests, lurid soap operas, violent and sentimental Filipino movies, and local bands perfectly imitating Western pop tunes.

About 10% of Filipinos (the so-called cultural minority groups or tribal Filipinos) retain their traditional culture. There are some 60 ethnological groups, ranging from the Badjao of the Sulu archipelago, who are sea gypsies, to the head-hunting Kalinga in the north of Bontoc.

The Philippines is the only Christian country in Asia. Over 90% of the population claim to follow Christian faiths. The largest of the minority religious groups are the Muslims, who live chiefly on Mindanao and in the Sulu archipelago. There is also a Philippine Independence Church, some Buddhists, and a small number of animists.

The geography and history of the Philippines have conspired to produce a multiplicity of languages, some 80 dialects in total. The concept of a national language developed after the Spanish-American War in 1898 and Tagalog was declared the national language in 1936. There were several other contenders for this role, including Cebuano, Hiligaynon and Ilocano. A compromise reached in 1973 confirmed Pilipino as the national language. This is based on Tagalog, but has linguistic elements of other Philippine languages. Despite this, English remains the language of commerce and politics in the Philippines.

Filipino cuisine has Chinese, Malay and Spanish influences. Popular morning and afternoon snacks are called merienda, and pulutan (small morsels) are served with alcoholic drinks. Barbecued sticks of meat or seafood are popular evening snacks. Standard dishes, always served with rice, include meat and vegetables cooked with vinegar and garlic, grilled grouper, meat stews and a huge variety of soups - rice, noodle, beef, chicken, liver, kneecap, offal and sour vegetable. Side dishes include strips of unripened papaya, fermented fish or shrimp paste and bite-sized pieces of crispy pig skin. Halo-halo is a dessert made from crushed ice mixed with sweets and fruits and smothered in evaporated milk.


New Year's Day is celebrated with great vigour and plenty of fireworks. On 9 January, the Black Nazarene Procession, the largest procession in the country, carries a life-size, blackwood statue of Jesus through the streets of Quiapo. The Filipino version of Mardi Gras is the three-day Ati-Atihan, celebrated in Kalibo on Panay in the third week in January. On Good Friday, there are many scourges throughout the country, which have become popular attractions, especially those at San Fernando and Antipolo, near Manila. There are more processions on Flores de Mayo in May, this time in honour of the Virgin Mary. Independence Day is celebrated on 12 June with military parades. There are local festivals taking place just about every week of the year somewhere in the Philippines.

Facts for the Traveller

Visas: 21-day visas are issued on arrival. 59-day visas can be obtained in advance and cost around US$35
Health risks: cholera, hepatitis, malaria, rabies
Currency: Peso
Exchange rate: US$1 = 40 pesos as of 11/27/99
Relative costs:

  • Cheap meal: US$2
  • Restaurant meal: US$4
  • Cheap room: US$4
  • Hotel room: US$10
Time: UTC plus eight hours
Electricity: 220V, 60 Hz
Weights & Measures: Metric
Tourism: 1.2 million visitors per year


The Philippines' government and the Moro National Liberation Front signed a peace accord in September 1996 ending, formally at least, the MNLF's 24-year military struggle for autonomy in Mindanao. The peace agreement foresaw the MLNF being granted considerable autonomy in many of Mindanao's provinces. However, peace in the region remains elusive following the rise of a splinter group, the militant Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which opposes the agreement. The government continues to conduct military operations against MILF-held areas in Basilan and Sulu. Contact your embassy in the Philippines for the latest update on the security situation.

The Philippines archipelago is serviced by a flotilla of ferries, some of them little more than rickety tubs that are often overcrowded and under serviced. There are 100 ferry accidents a year in the Philippines, many of them involving high numbers of fatalities. Legislators have begun to call for the death penalty for negligent operators whose boats sink, but this is unlikely to improve the sea worthiness of many vessels. If you feel uncomfortable boarding a ferry that looks shonky, leaky and overcrowded, look for an alternative boat or catch a plane.



The capital of the Philippines, sprawls around Manila Bay. The Spanish remains in Intramuros are one of the few historic sights which survived the bitter fighting at the end of WW II. The 20ft(6m) high, 42ft(13m) thick walls are all that remain of the walled city. Other sights include the church of San Augustin, the Roman Catholic Cathedral and Fort Santiago. Matabungkay and Nasugbu are the closest popular beaches to the city. Most people, however, use Manila simply as a transit point. If you do spend time here, it has countless reasonably priced restaurants, pubs and folk clubs. Girlie bars are an unfortunate fact of life. Cheap guesthouses can be found in Ermita.


The spectacular rice terraces around Banaue, in north Luzon, have been described (like a lot of other places) as the eighth wonder of the world. Carved out of the hillside by Ifugao tribespeople 2000 to 3000 years ago, these remarkable terraces stretch like stepping stones to the sky - some reaching an altitude of 4921ft(1500m).


The island of Boracay, off the north-western tip of Panay, regularly appears in those `Best Beaches of the World' lists that travel rags are so fond of compiling. Unchecked tourist development has, however, caused waste disposal problems. Environmental tests in 1997 found the water off Boracay to be contaminated and unsafe to swim in. Follow-up tests declared the waters to be within acceptable pollution limits and Boracay's beaches certainly look pristine. Puerto Galera, on the island of Mindoro is now destined to be the place to laze around in the sun. Puraran, on Catanduanes, off Luzon, has a beautiful beach, reef and surf, but currents can be dangerous.

Other Attractions

There are countless spectacular sights scattered throughout the archipelago, including the strange Chocolate Hills of Bohol in the Visayas; the volcanic crater Lake Taal, south of Manila; the burial caves of Sagada, 11mi(18km) from Bontoc; the easygoing port city of Cebu, where Magellan marked the beginning of Christianity in the Philippines by erecting a cross; and 5,000 uninhabited islands to explore.

Off the Beaten Track

Remote Islands

For real Robinson Crusoe fare, try the islands north of Bohol. Around Gutob Bay, between Culion and Busuanga islands, try Dibutonay, Maltatayoc and Horse islands. The Batanes Islands in the north are surprisingly unspoilt and differ from other Philippines islands because of their isolation. They offer the chance to visit remote villages, where you may even get to stay with the mayor.


In north Luzon, Vigan displays precious remnants of the splendid architectural legacy of the Spaniards. The well-preserved colonial structures create a unique 17th-century European atmosphere. The town has several museums, thanks to it being the birthplace of several national heroes.


On the island of Samar, in the Visayas, Viriato lies along one of the most scenic coastal roads in the country. The road runs past mountains, steep cliffs, distant islands and scenic boat-filled bays. The town also boasts a large waterfall and good hiking opportunities.

Lake Sebu

A beautiful inland sea on the island of Mindanao, the lake is nested into the southern Tiruray Highlands at an altitude of almost 984ft(300m). The chance to delve into traditional lifestyles and culture, rather than modern attractions, are the highlights in this remote area. The local tribespeople, the T'boli, live in almost total seclusion and are known for the quality of their brassware and weaving. Their Saturday market is especially colourful.


Several hotels in Angeles offer tours to Mt Pinatubo which erupted violently in 1991 and left an amazing landscape. Walk among the ravines, drive up in a jeep or arrange an aerial tour. You can also climb Mayon, in southern Luzon, which has been described as the world's most perfect volcanic cone. This 8038ft(2450m) active volcano has erupted four times since 1968, the last time in February 1993. It takes several days to climb and guides can be found in Legaspi. Other appealing climbs include the Mt Taal, south of Manila, described as the smallest and most dangerous volcano in the world; and the Philippines' highest peak, Mt Apo, on Mindanao.

There are wonderful trekking opportunities along Luzon's Pacific Coast, especially in Bikol and Quezon provinces. For those who want to escape motorised transport completely, nothing beats walking on Batan Island or Lubang, where the horse cart still retains its place as the primary mode of transport. Wildlife enthusiasts should visit Calauit Island, where the wildlife sanctuary has been breeding African animals successfully for nearly 20 years. Giraffes, zebras and gazelles can be seen.

With 7000 islands, the Philippines has a wealth of opportunities for diving and snorkelling. Favoured spots are Boracay, Alona Beach (Bohol), Puerto Princesa (Palawan) and the island of Apo. Canoeists can shoot the rapids in Pagsanjan, 44mi(70k) south-east of Manila. If the river looks familiar in places, that's because Coppola filmed parts of Apocalypse Now on the river. Spelunkers can explore Palawan's Underground River, a 5mi(8km) long meandering network of caves.

Getting There & Away

Basically the only way to get to the Philippines is by plane; Manila and Cebu are the only major entry points. There are flights between the Philippines and plenty of Asian cities, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. There are also flights between Davao in Mindanao and Manado on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Departure tax is US$20; confirm onward flights at least 72 hours before departure.

Getting Around

There are several airlines offering internal flights between Philippine cities. There is only one operating railway line, from Manila to Naga in southern Luzon, so long-distance buses are the main overland alternative. There are plenty of ferries and boats operating between islands, though the safety and quality of services vary . Car rental is also available, and international agencies have offices in most major cities. Local transport includes jeepneys (originally reconstructed jeeps), metered taxis, PU-Cabs (small taxis without meters), tricycles (motorbikes with sidecars) and trishaws.

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