The Philippines: Asia’s Best Kept Secret

My trip to the islands, travel writing, and Manny Pacquiao

Like an airplane meal that doesn’t taste like plastic, my trip to the Philippines was unexpected, enjoyable, and hotter than it should’ve been.

It was spontaneous. I booked my flight just two days ahead. A good friend of mine, Kim, had invited me out to the island of Negros for a visit with her local relatives. They live on the outskirts of the coastal city, Dumaguete.

A couple red-eye, cramped flights later — from Hong Kong to Manila for a 4-hour layover, then Manila to Dumaguete — I arrived. I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac as the sun began peeking over the horizon, a welcome sight for my sleep-deprived eyes. It was barely 5:00 AM.

Photo by Author

The island of Negros is in the Southern half of the archipelago. Summer here is hot. I had told Kim I could meet her and her family where they were staying, confident in my ability to find a ride from the airport.

Unbeknownst to me, Dumaguete’s airport is but a runway and a small building about the size of a couple school classrooms. “Airport” really oversells it.

Airport transportation is limited to motorcycles with a sidecar attached to them — tricycles — and Jeepneys, which resemble pickup trucks with parallel benches in the back. Tricycles fit six to eight people on the sidecar — normal for locals, lunacy to foreign onlookers. Jeepneys reach capacity at a shade over 20 people, all scrunched together.

Taxis and Uber were absent; there was neither a train nor bus nearby. Luckily, Kim had insisted the day before that she and her uncle pick me up at the airport. Without them, I would have been walking quite aimlessly through the green island shrubbery encircling the airport, likely for several days.

When greeting others in the Philippines, you “bless” them. Rather than shaking hands with someone, you take the back of their hand and touch it to your own forehead. It’s a traditional sign of respect, a practice shared throughout the Philippines. Though I am conspicuously foreign, I received several approving smiles from Kim’s relatives when I blessed them.

The people of the “Pearl of the Orient Sea” are lovely, and their mellifluous language plays no small part. I had never heard any Tagalog before this trip. The vocabulary rings heavy with Spanish influence, given the Philippines was a Spanish colony once upon a time.

The name itself comes from King Philip II of Spain, coined in the 16th century. Years of falling asleep in high school Spanish helped me understand the Tagalog word ‘gwapo’ (for those of you who took sign language or German: ‘gwapo’ = ‘guapo’ in Spanish).

Photo by Author

Kim’s family and I stayed in Amlan Paradise Resort. A quaint, gated abode that could accommodate maybe a dozen or so guests, three dozen if the guests aren’t strangers. The resort had well-watered grass, white linen tablecloths, and a pool. It was within spitting distance of the Cebu Strait.

Mosquitoes flew abound but the sunshine and palm trees made bug bites easy to ignore. The humidity lay over us like a heavy quilt, though the ocean breeze interfered as if ruffling the covers.

It surprised me to see Kim’s family already awake when we arrived. In the Philippines, they explained, everyone rises with the sun naturally or because of the crowing roosters. It made sense. It isn’t exactly a first-world place; people wake up when it’s light and go to sleep when it’s dark.

Light pollution here is like a rumor from faraway lands. Even the street lamps seemed dim, as if matted over to not intrude upon the darkness.

Photo by Author

Several mango smoothies later, we found ourselves on a rickety and crowded bus to Dumaguete Port.

We were heading to a neighboring island, Siquijor, for a day trip. In an effort to let in fresh air, the bus windows were down. This just made for a dusty ride. Squeezed against me on my left was a mother holding a portable fan and a chubby infant (presumably hers). To my right was a lady gripping what appeared to be several months worth of groceries.

The four of us shared knee space for the better part of an hour and my shoulders compressed well above my ears. We sweat profusely.

The hour boat ride to Siquijor (pronounced “SEE-KEE-WHORE” — excuse my French) passed quicker than the return trip. Our anticipation warped time in our favor. Myself, along with Kim, her sisters, and a group of relatives and friends all went on an island tour.

We wedged ourselves into Jeepneys and our knees bumped perpetually. The open-air style allowed us to see the sights unobstructed, albeit at high-speeds and without seat belts.

Siquijor is lush with bright foliage and slouching palm trees. We drove past great stretches of residential areas: green acres dotted with tawdry shacks, damaged vehicles, and rusted motorbikes.

Some scenes resembled a favela but with more space between bungalows.

Compared to the US or the UK, these would pass for sub-poverty establishments. Here in the Philippines, it seemed regular.

People waved at us as we drove by these shanty collections of housing; each wave accompanied a smile.

What “normal” means in another world, in another standard of living, makes you think. Things like where you hail from, the things you complain about, the things you wish you had but didn’t — trifles, really. It made me reconsider my perceptions of wealth, of abundance, of what constitutes “enough” of something.

Kim’s sister even pointed out the rib cages of the cows we passed. (Never before have I seen a cow that could use a couple cheeseburgers.) These ironical, skinny bovines seemed to ridicule the Western notion of “well-fed.” And yet, Filipino people are some of the warmest, most hospitable people I’ve met.

It seemed obvious that, here, money isn’t the barometer for a life well lived.

Our stop at the Cambugahay Falls woke me from my reverie. Down a steep staircase was a watering hole. Waterfalls and rope swings manned by locals adorned the water. The overhanging trees dampened the sunlight, which shone through like a glass mosaic.

The water shimmered with a soft blue and the overhanging trees dampened the sunlight above. The bustle and activity prevents me from calling this place serene, though ‘fun’ captures it well. The workers were young and muscular and smiling.

Like Las Vegas acrobats, they soared to dangerous heights above the water. Instead of letting go, they would glide back up to the high, wooden platforms, tucking their knees in.

I imagine they spend many long days here without much to do other than swing. Some of them looked young, no older than 16.

I swung a handful of times, failing to get even half as high as the locals. Customers included a mix of tourists and locals, giving Cambugahay a vibe of something short of a tourist trap but not quite a “locals only” refuge.

Photo by Author

One evening, a large group of us went out for drinks. Kim’s cousin, a local, ordered for everyone. Moments later, it dismayed me to see the server bring one bottle of gin with only one glass.

(‘There’s eight of us and this guy only orders for himself? So much for Filipino hospitality…’). He poured himself a shot and inhaled it with ease. Before I could call for another seven glasses, our hero poured another shot and passed it to his right.

My first lesson in Filipino-style nightlife: share the cup.

While germaphobes may abstain and object, imbibing with a shared goblet created instant camaraderie. Less dishes to wash is an added bonus.

But what about parties of 20 or 30? 50 or 100? Inebriation seems far easier when you don’t have to wait for someone to pour 30 glasses between each mouthful. But I digress.

The day of my departure happened to be the day of Manny Pacquiao’s fight versus Keith Thurman.

If you didn’t know, Pacquiao is a national treasure in the Philippines. He’s the most famous Filipino athlete, plus he serves as a Senator for the Philippines. There’s a lot of reasons locals love him.

I found myself, with about a dozen others, gathered together to watch the Pacquiao fight. We were all standing up, hunched over one guy sitting down.

He held a dusty smartphone in his hand. On the screen was a Facetime call to a friend of his, who happen to be streaming the fight on his laptop somewhere else.

We weren’t in a sports bar, but a parking lot. There were no waitresses with overdeveloped chests in tight tops serving us chicken wings. We had off-brand ice cream cones melting beneath that blanket of humidity.

The 3-inch screen engaged every one of us. It was a close match. Before they announced the champion, silence fell as if the entire nation held their breath.

Then Pacquiao won.

Up and down the street, I heard people cheering. Passionate cries filled the air. The fight was a fitting end to my trip.

Everyone sharing that tiny screen, all gathered close in spite of the heat. Everyone celebrated in unison, partaking in a collective release. Pacquiao’s victory was a chance for a whole nation to stand up as one.

The victory went well beyond the individual fighter; it resonated like a pebble upon a still lake.

Thank you Manny.

The first time I came to the Philippines was almost a year ago.

I had an extended layover in Manila on my way to Indonesia. It was night and the sky was like ink.

I saw a lot of old people sleeping, motionless and scattered as if someone emptied a box of dolls across a playroom. They arranged themselves in an eerie way. I remember slurping a sour mango smoothie while I killed time in a tattered cafe.

That place had seen better days.

I tried to explore outside the airport but some sketchy-looking characters persuaded me to return to the dormant elderly. I wasn’t sure I’d want to visit the Philippines again.

Though brief, the handful of days on the island of Negros convinced me otherwise. Kim and her family’s hospitality, on top of the Elysian beach and brush, is a hard combination to replicate.

Concluding with a stellar boxing match experience felt storybook. I was sad to leave.

As the plane took off, I looked out the window for a last glimpse of the islands below. The tan hue of the sands outlined each piece of the disjointed tableau.

As we rose higher, beaches disappeared until I could only discern the green splotches of land.

Clouds shrouded my view shortly after, leaving me to anticipate yet another layover in Manila.

Phil is a travel writer and editor. He currently lives and works in Hong Kong. If you liked this article, you can see more of his ideas on his travel blog and Instagram.

Bestselling travel writer. Columnist. Author. USC Annenberg School of Journalism.

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