What Every Foreigner Needs to Know Before Visiting the Philippines

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Visiting the Philippines? Here are the things that you need to know!

I’ve visited and lived in many different countries around the world, and each one has its own quirks and idiosyncrasies. The Philippines is no different. For one, despite its Asian location, it is the most western among its neighboring countries—the result of 377 years of Spanish rule and 48 years as an American colony.

The archipelago is populated by over 100 million people, all of whom speak any one of the 170 languages or dialects unique to each region. English is widely spoken here, which is why it has become a haven for BPOs looking to hire English speaking call center agents with neutral accents. Of course, I didn’t mind it either to learn that I could easily get around without needing to learn a new language.

If you plan to visit for a short vacation or stay indefinitely, let me share a few things I learned as an expat living in the Philippines.

1. Filipinos have a soft spot for foreigners.

For the most part, expats here are treated pretty well, the ones with lighter skin tones especially. This is either because they’re considered exotic (even though they’re not exactly few or far between in the Philippines) or they reflect characteristics commonly associated with mass media and popular culture. Thanks, Hollywood!

Kids will always smile whenever they see a foreighner
Kids will always smile whenever they see a foreighner

I’ve also noticed from the various billboards across EDSA and primetime TV ads that most popular celebrities have lighter skin tones. Not to mention how hard it is to find a moisturizer that doesn’t contain any skin whitening ingredients. So yeah, I’m sure skin tone plays a part.

Having said that, don’t let the adulation get to your head too easily. Filipinos are easily turned off by cocky behavior. They value the art of forming good interpersonal relations here, which is called “pakikisama” in Filipino. Just be on your best behavior around here, and you’ll be treated like family.

2. They are extremely religious, but also highly tolerant of other beliefs.

Over 80% of Filipinos are Catholic, mostly concentrated in the Luzon and Visayas regions, while the rest follow the Islamic faith or other religions like Buddhism. Most Muslims live in the Mindanao area.

Catholic Church in Bohol Philippines
Catholic Church in Bohol Philippines

Sundays are sacred days of worship for many families, many of whom flock to their churches to attend mass on weekends. However, they are also extremely tolerant to adherents of other religious beliefs or those who follow a different faith. This just goes to show that you don’t need to be imposing to live the spiritual life, something a few other countries could benefit from by learning.

3. It is a relatively safe country to live in, despite what you read on the news.

With so much attention being placed on newly elected President Duterte’s policies and statements lately, it’s understandable for many foreigners to be concerned about safety. What you should keep in mind is that the media predominantly covers topics centered on crime and violence, especially since the induction of the new president, so it’s easy to think public safety is a real problem. But let me assure you, it’s not nearly as bad as you might have been told.

Visit the Philippines
Visit the Philippines

I’ve been living here for almost a year, and I’ve never felt like my safety has been at risk. Just be mindful of your belongings when you’re outside, stay in well-lit areas, and you’ll be fine. A good rule of thumb is if you don’t go around looking for trouble, chances are you won’t find any.

The most beautiful places in the Philippines like Palawan have zero crime-rate. If you’re in the Philippines traveling is a must. Besides, science says it’s good for you!

4. Eating here is a national past time.

If you visit a typical Filipino household, the first thing they’ll ask you is, “Have you eaten?” You’ll also be hearing “kain na” being said a lot, which is Filipino for “let’s eat!”

Philippine Mangoes
Philippine Mangoes

Saying that they love to eat is an understatement. Filipinos, for the most part, are adventurous eaters and will feel insulted if you don’t partake of the meal they’ve prepared for you. Adobo is a popular dish that’s always present in any fiesta and is also considered a staple food that you’ll find in most houses. Oh, and did I mention that it’s freakin’ awesome?

5. So is karaoke.

Without exception, all Filipinos are excellent singers. I have yet to encounter a native born and bred true blue Pinoy who cannot carry a tune. That’s a pretty big deal because, in most of the other countries I’ve done karaoke in (Japan being an exception), it’s hard to find a single person who isn’t tone deaf, myself included.

Karaoke in the Philippines
Karaoke in the Philippines

You’re bound to be given the mic in a gathering at some point while you’re here, so might as well learn how to sing your favorite karaoke standard. Just steer clear of “My Way” if you don’t want to run into trouble in public places.

6. They have the longest Christmas season in the world.

Don’t be surprised if you hear Jingle Bells blasting on the speakers at your nearest mall as early as September. They celebrate Christmas by the onset of the “ber” months all throughout the first few weeks of the following year.

Christmas Lantern Vendor
Christmas Lantern Vendor By Keith Bacongco – Lanterns anyone?, CC BY 2.0

You’ll also notice that the Christmas decorations go up early too. But who’s complaining? I love the festive season, and unless you’re channeling the spirit of the Grinch, you will too.

7. Don’t bother bringing a jacket or sweater, even during the colder months.

The Philippines is located just above the equator, and you will definitely feel the humidity as soon as you get off the airplane.

Boracay Summer All Year Round
Boracay Summer All Year Round

It is generally warm and wet here, averaging about 26-27 degrees Celsius, while the coastal areas and beach destinations can hover around the 28-30 degree mark year-round. An exemption to this rule are the mountainous regions in Baguio or Sagada, which are colder than the lowland areas.

An umbrella, raincoat, and waterproof boots can be useful considering how it averages about 19 typhoons on an annual basis. The hot seasons happen around March to May, while wet season begins from June to November, and it gets slightly cooler from December to February.

8. If you’re in Manila, the traffic takes a little getting used to.

If I were to have a single complaint about living here, it would have to be the traffic. But after a while, people just get used to it and leave the house a little earlier (sometimes up to an hour or so).

Traffic Jam in the Philippines
Traffic Jam in the Philippines

On the bright side, no one’s going to argue with you, if say, you’re late because traffic was bad.

Wrapping Things Up

The mixture of Malay, Chinese, American, and Spanish influences can be seen in the Filipino’s day to day life. From their varying appearances to the colorful jeepneys plying the streets, their fondness for mall hopping, up to their exciting outdoor activities, you’re bound to find something both familiar and exotic somewhere throughout these beautiful 7,500+ islands, give or take the tides.

So, if you decide to stay or visit the Philippines, take a tip from me and remember these points. It’ll make your trip all the more enjoyable. The island is nothing short of amazing, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I’ve been having the time of my life, and there’s still so much I haven’t done.

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