Top Places to Visit in The Philippines & Reasons to VisitDo you believe in making your travel matter? Are you thinking about a long haul trip this year? If so, would you consider The Philippines? In 2013 Typhoon Haiyan wreaked destruction on The Philippines and demolished fragile settlements. But while parts of this vulnerable nation were temporarily beaten, its spirit remained unbroken. We took the family to two top places to visit in the Philippines – the central islands of Cebu and Bohol. And we found sunshine and spirit where we least expected it; in the eyes of the locals…
An easy introduction to Asia
To me and my Western family, The Philippines feels like a cross between Asia and home. Despite the plethora of local languages I am surprised to find everyone speaks English, all of the road signs are readable too and there’s a strong familiar American influence in many bars and restaurants, a result of the American occupation in World War 2. But the prices are more Asian and once on the ground the country is great value for a family holiday and definitely worth the long haul flight if you are able to stay for 10 days, a fortnight or more. Like any good Asian destination, getting around is an adventure; with colourful jeepneys, clogged cities (Manila is notorious) and taxis where seat belts can be a luxury and prices extremely negotiable.
Islands of adventure
For an adventurous family who loves nature the islands of The Philippines are a gift. Each offers something a little bit different; from Siquijor, the island of mystic healing, to Camiguin, the volcano island. On Bohol and Cebu we pack in diverse adrenaline filled attractions at some of the eco-adventure parks and with some of the local tour operators. We zipwire over forest and rivers, we climb tree roots, we walk around a the top of a skyscraper on a glass walkway, we try a bike zipline, cycling on a trapeze wire above the famous Chocolate Hills, balance Paper Kite butterflies on our noses and bump around on traditional wooden bancas. Here’s a taste of adventures Philippine style.
But it’s the people that make it
But to me nothing is as exhilarating as chatting to the locals. We travel to the Philippines as part of Expedia’s Travel that Matters campaign. In my head I thought we would visit the islands to bring them our Western cash and give our kids a good time. In reality I am the one who gains, and not in a way I expect. I start to question my own values and priorities. I hug my family to me, wonder how often I smile at home. Really smile. I’m reminded how much I have to smile about, and I ask myself if I could keep doing it if I had as little as some of these people do.
A vulnerable nation with a strong spirit
There are 7,107 islands in The Philippines and each has its own music, spirit, landscape, personality and community. Some have dense and sprawling cities, others are packed with rural villages. But they are all are vulnerable to the elements and the elements are getting more unpredictable. Last year the super typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) followed on the back of a particularly destructive earthquake in Bohol.
At Bohol’s Loboc River Resort they’ve got back to normal. But back to normal has involved a complete rebuild of all their lodges after their stylish holiday resort was flattened. Owner Zynn Varquez has designed the new lodges herself; with luxury fittings and personal touches. She takes me around the brand new suites and then shows me her organic garden, pulling off bits of plant so I can taste the herbs. She tells me her husband Ondoy didn’t cry when he saw their lodge rooms had been destroyed; “He cried when he saw the church,” she says. I see what she means when I view it for myself.
We feed the resort’s Macau monkeys together. There are lots of animals on site, they are part of the resort’s attractions and activities; from the fireflies you can spot at night dancing above the pool and river to the water buffalo that lumber about in the grass. Zynn tells me some of the rescue monkeys were wary of humans again for months after the typhoon and earthquake. “It was like they blamed us for what had happened, as though we failed to protect them.”
Resilient, family oriented people
The Philippines is a resilient country. It needs to be; in a typical year about 20 typhoons pass through the region with 6-8 making landfall. Our guide Maria Gracia Tachado (Grace) tells us many people lead a simple life, based around home and family. You get a sense of family and its importance everywhere you go in Cebu and Bohol; a cab driver on the way to the airport tells me the roof of his house was blown away in the typhoon, but his ten children were safe. “I lost everything.” he says, looking at me through the mirror, “And I lost nothing,” he adds with a grin.
Grace works for Travel Village, a small company established for 25 years that pioneered local tourism in Bohol. She says a lot of Filipino values are passed down through generations. “Philippines are clannish. They stick with the family.” For Grace it’s the beautiful island of Bohol that lifts her spirits when she gets down. And when she says it you feel it.
Bugoy Bikers in Bohol
“Filipinos are glass half full people. If their houses get flooded and they can only save the TV then they smile because they still have something. And it is a really genuine smile,” agrees German Jens Funk who came to bike in The Philippines 12 years ago and ended up staying. Jens wrote the only biking guide book about the country he now calls home, started a company called Bugoy Bikers and now runs biking tours around the islands. He says his guests are always disarmed by the warmth of the locals. “Everyone wants to talk with you and everyone laughs. They are always laughing.”
Biking in Olango
On one of his biking tours around the island of Olango, kids run alongside us. Street stall owners wave. Mothers grin as they hitch babies onto their backs. These people don’t have much, but they are willing to offer us their world. On a holiday weekend we have to leave a fiesta in the small village of Batuan when we simply can’t eat any more food. If we stay any longer we feel we might burst. At local fiestas you don’t even need an invitation to join the feast in people’s homes. Everyone is welcome. And their town and city the best Philippine festivals and fiestas can be 24 hour dance offs. They say there’s a festival almost everyday somewhere in the Philippines. I guess that doesn’t leave much time for feeling down.
Smiling and singing
In the restaurant at lunchtime at Loboc River Resort we eat delicious local food while Ondoy entertains us on the piano. He gives his wife a nod and she joins in, singing softly. A love song to each other across the room. It is a beautiful moment and memory. And then, in true Filipino style they beckon me to join in. (It’s not a surprise, the whole nation is obsessed with karaoke and even local officials jump up at the first few notes!) And at this moment in time, as the monkeys swing through the trees, the fireflies flit above the river and our voices come together, it’s hard to imagine anything else has ever happened here.
A music man in a music town
In the grounds of a tumbledown building in Loboc, wiggly lines of children fill a gazebo. They hold instruments but there are no music stands; each child pins their sheet music on the hair or T shirt of the child in front. Some play well, some not so well, and some look like they’re only there because their big sister is in the band. The Loboc Youth Ambassador Band practices each song several times and the sound is ragged and joyful. Their maestro and teacher Rene Balbin bounces around like Tigger with a big stick and a wide smile. He bangs the stick against the poles of the gazebo and at times he looks like he may bash a musician. When a musical phrase comes together he almost loses the stick. Just listen to Rene speak and you’ll soon feel his passion for music, the kids he teaches and his beloved musical Loboc.
All eyes on the maestro
Everyone watches Rene. And I watch him too. He’s magnetic. I’ve heard better music elsewhere. The sun is hot and I am sticky. Yet his is a siren song. At the end I am moved to hand over some money. In truth it’s small change to me yet here in Loboc on the island of Bohol this money could give a child a second hand instrument. And mastering a tune on an instrument can put them on a path to securing a scholarship to school, or setting them up with a professional career as a musician like thousands of their compatriots working resorts, clubs and cruise ships around the Philippines and the world. Music really can help lift these kids out of poverty and create a different future. Down the line, my coin in the bucket has a real chance of making a difference. Because it is going straight to a project. Not to government or to an agency. This feels like a golden circle of tourism.
It makes a difference to me too. I get to take home a memory. Of almost weeping at the jagged rendition of ‘Yesterday’. Of my own son being loaned a trumpet and hustled into the thick of the band. Because that’s all part of the inclusive Filipino spirit and the national passion for music. Music is just one of the ways that Filipino people express themselves, make a living and help themselves and others get through the challenges that are thrown at them.
Tourists matter to the Philippines
Sometimes holidays are about getting on a plane and staying in a hotel or resort. Sometimes they’re just about relaxing. But sometimes travel can be more than that. Sometimes it’s about connecting. About supporting communities and about helping them get back on their feet when they’ve had a knock. Sometimes you can have an impact on the lives of the people you visit. And sometimes they can have a profound impact on you. If you choose to spend your holiday budget wisely and where it is needed, sometimes you can take home lasting memories and make a difference. Sometimes you can make travel matter
Note: We visited The Philippines as part of a collaboration with Expedia for their Travel That Matters campaign to support regeneration of the tourist economy. All the research, views, experience, photography and videography are, as ever, entirely our own.