I’m Giving the Philippines a Second Chance

Luzon Philippines travel

Over time your travel memories usually get more selective and more positive. You tend to nudge out the unpleasant parts and focus on the beautiful scenes, the helpful people, the great experiences.

That’s never really happened for me when it comes to the Philippines.

After 18 years have passed, what I remember is kids incessantly asking us for money while their parents smiled. I picture whole towns fashioned from unpainted cinderblocks and corrugated tin. I remember (literally) ratty hotels, overwhelming garbage, and some of the most uncomfortable transportation of my life. When I look back at my journal entries from there, when I was backpacking around the world for a third time, I find lots of entries like this:

After we sat around and sweated for an hour past the scheduled time waiting for the bus to get sufficiently crammed with humanity, we finally took off. The driver decided that was a terrific time to stop for gas. On second thought there were a few more inches left inside, so he drove around and picked up five more passengers. There was a crack across the whole windshield and the back door wouldn’t close. Every 20 minutes or so he stopped to put more water in the radiator and return to where he sat—a folded cardboard box on top of a bar that once held a seat. About an hour in they blew a tire and had to replace it, so we stood in the sun beside the road. Then a half hour later a second one blew. Same routine. As we were thinking we might make it to our destination with no more stops, a third blowout. This was the same tire they’d bought earlier to replace the first blown one. While we waited this time there was an argument about something the driver’s helper saw underneath. A cut inner tube and some wire seemed to take care of whatever was wrong with the axle.

That’s actually one of the milder ones. More often there’s a journal description like this from the Chocolate Hills:

There were no private rooms left in the only hotel around, so we took two beds in the dorm: a dirty, ugly place with a layer of dust on everything. Cigarette butts covered the floor and the foam mattresses were breaking apart as they tried to escape from their worn naugahyde coverings. Since the floor was even dirtier than the floor of the bus we had come here on, we put our bags on an empty bed and braced ourselves for the bathroom. It was the usual wet, stinky hovel, but was deplorable even by Philippine standards. Despite the room being co-ed, there was no door on the shower. You had to stand on milk crates while cleaning up because the drain was clogged. (Permanently, or from laziness?)

Now granted we were on a backpacker budget, but we’d been on a budget like that for years, including in poorer countries like Laos and Nepal. There was something about the Philippines that had us truly questioning our own sanity when we opted for a six-week visa.

Philippines sign

“I know exactly what you mean,” said another fellow traveler when she had listened to us rant for 15 minutes straight about how everything had sucked except Batad and a few beach days on Bohol. “You need to forget whatever else you have planned and head straight to Palawan. Spend the rest of your time there until your flight out of the country.”

We did, and she was right.

We had to endure a few days in Cebu City (which we nicknamed Pee-eww City) before the ferry left, but the rest of our time we experienced postcard views and good food instead of bare concrete ugliness and lukewarm mystery meat. My best enduring memory trying to push out the rest is this:

Palawan travel Philippines

Now I’m going back.

I’ve been invited to speak at the Travel Bloggers Exchange Asia conference, which is in Manila this year. I’m not really expecting Manila to be much better than I remember, but this time I’ll be in a real hotel instead of a $12 guesthouse with no air conditioning and a barely functioning cold water shower. That improvement alone should make a huge difference. Before we were using a guidebook, recommendations, and our feet to find a place to stay each night. Now I can use a site like Traveloka to pick from hundreds of hotels, seeing photos and reviews.

I probably won’t have to walk 10 blocks in the tropical heat with a backpack on my back to catch a bus out of town. When I travel around a bit after the conference, I’ll be going somewhere I can fly to and won’t be on a re-purposed school bus that breaks down every hour or two. If I go to Palawan, the airport has probably improved since I was there because here’s what I said about it then:

Our plane to Manila is delayed an hour, despite blue skies all over according to weather on the small TV on the wall. There were no x-ray machines so they had to painstakingly inspect everyone’s luggage by hand. There’s no bar, no restaurant, not even a snack stand. It looks like all the newsstand sells is Christian books and in between election results there’s sappy Christian pop on the crackling radio. There aren’t enough seats, so half the people are sitting on cinderblocks. The toilets in the main waiting area are all out of order. Maybe it’s a good thing we’re all sweating profusely in this concrete bunker from the lack of A-C. The airline people handed out sandwiches to appease us when announcing the delay: canned meat on white bread.

I won’t have time to get to the whale sharks of Donsol, but I’m hoping to get to Boracay. I didn’t there visit last time and it draws in visitors from all over Asia. It’ll look something like this:

Boracay Philippines

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Mer S

I’ll trade my new images of the Philippines for the old ones and finally push out all the negativity.

Just like people, some destinations need a second chance. Watch our Facebook feed in mid-October for the rest of this story…

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