Before studying abroad, I never had a clear image of what the Philippines was like. My perception of this country prior to my visit was greatly influenced by the stunning photos of ethereal lagoons and hidden beaches posted on Instagram by various travel bloggers. However, I was also aware of the Spanish influence and the history of corruption in the Philippines.
The first city I visited was Manila. As the plane descended and I looked out my window at the enormous city packed with buildings, my stomach grumbled for Jollibee and sisig (it still is right now!). My top goals for this trip were to try as many Filipino dishes as I could, observe the Spanish influence in Manila, get a local’s perspective of Manila, and try to survive the inevitable mosquito bites. After exiting the airport in Makati (a city in Manila), I felt the humidity immediately thicken the air. I thought I would be prepared for the humidity after living in Hong Kong for a month by then and spending many summers in Taiwan growing up. However, the late September air explained the lush landscape that Philippines is well known for.
My first few impressions of Manila in the car ride to the hostel were the bustling streets filled with cars and motorcycles, the fearless pedestrians who crossed these wide streets, and the countless Catholic churches. It was interesting to see the unique characteristics that differentiated each city in Asia from each other. At first glance, every city holds the same qualities of dense population, busy traffic, and crowded buildings. However, after walking around, I noticed the Spanish ruins with their distinct stone foundations that were destroyed during World War II as well as the Spanish colonial architecture in Intramuros.
One of the most vivid memories I have of Manila was the stark contrast in development between two barangays (neighborhoods). As I walked along the street dividing the two areas, I saw the homes locals had built inside of rundown buildings and shacks on the left and the striking skyscrapers and high-end malls on the right. I was aware of the high income inequality in the Philippines, but I was not expecting this division to be so apparent. However, it was heartwarming to see the strong familial bond that the locals shared. Although they may not be able to share in the fruits of urban development, it was clear that the tight-knit communities enjoyed the wealth of familial happiness.
My trip to Palawan was completely different from Manila. This was one of the prime locations where travel bloggers went to capture the hidden gems of the Philippines. The descent into the Puerto Princesa International Airport was very different from the view of Manila: the tropical scenery filled with various shades of green reflected the lack of industrialization that Manila had undergone. This untouched beauty only just recently experienced an increase in tourism from the opening of its first international airport (Puerto Princesa) in 2017.
As I explored the islands off of Palawan’s east coast, I was reminded of my similar adventures on Thailand’s islands of snorkeling, drinking coconuts, and conversing with locals on rickshaw rides. However, the level of pollution in Palawan was noticeably lower than the islands in Thailand. The lower rate of international tourism in the Philippines protects its verdant hills and glossy teal waves from the level of pollution that Thailand faces.
One of the highlights during this trip was getting the privilege to float in the enchanting waters of El Nido‘s Hidden Beach. This small beach’s waters were protected from the powerful waves of Bacuit Bay by a strip of towering rocks, hence the name Hidden Beach. The short journey to get there was a terrifying experience since the only way was to swim from the deep open waters and through a small channel, but the contrasting gentle waters past these strong waves were blissful and worth the journey. Unfortunately, I was unable to bring my phone to capture this paradise since I had to swim!
I am definitely grateful for the time I spent in the Philippines and for the opportunity to learn more about this country. I may not be immune to the brutal mosquito bites, but the warmth and hospitality I received from the locals was heartwarming. As for my future travels, I hope that I can come back and visit other parts of the Philippines!