A Brief History of the Philippines

Spanish colonisation began with the arrival of Miguel López de Legazpi's expedition on February 13, 1565, from Mexico. After this, the colony was directly governed by Spain, eventually unifying a country that was previously an agglomeration of small kingdoms and sultanates in a perpetual state of minor wars. Spanish rule was never entirely accepted however and ended in 1898, with Spain's defeat in the Spanish–American War. The Philippines then became a territory of the United States, entering another struggle for independence, from a country they had mistakenly thought was their ally against Spain.

The Filipinos had just agreed their Independence, when the Japanese began their occupation during World War II, arriving only a few hours after their attack on Pearl Harbor. However, the Philippines proved to be the bloodiest theatre of the war for the invaders with at least 498,600 Japanese troops killed in fighting the combined Filipino reserves. Approximately, 10,000 U.S. soldiers were missing in action in the Philippines, when the war ended, more than in any other country in the Pacific or Europe. An estimated one million Filipinos were dead.

When the war ended the Americans were welcomed back. Independence eventually went ahead, with the Philippines continuing to be heavily economically reliant on America.

Facts and Factoids

  • The Philippines is the second-largest archipelago in the world, with approximately 7,500 islands, only 2,000 of them inhabited and nearly 5,000 still unnamed on global maps.
  • The Puerta Princesa Subterranean River Deep on the island of Palawan is the world's longest navigable underground river (24 kilometres)
  • The country is named after King Philip II of Spain.
  • About 11% of the population of the Philippines – more than 11 million people – work overseas and send money home.
  • There are at least 175 languages spoken in the Philippines. Most people speak English and the most commonly spoken language is Tagalog.
  • Jeepneys are the most common mode of public transport. After World War II, American troops left behind thousands of surplus Jeeps. These were converted them into colourful, slogan bedecked transport vehicles that can hold up to 20 people at one time.
  • The Philippines is home to three of the ten largest shopping malls in the world

Is the Philippines a Poor Country?

More than a quarter of the Philippines' 105.7 million people live in dire poverty. This is a polarised society and there are few opportunities for social mobility, whilst there is rapid population growth. The rural areas are notably poor, but there are large shanty towns in many of the urban areas as well.

Is the Philippines a Safe Country to Visit?

The Philippines is a relatively safe country to visit if you heed FCO advice (and this always tends towards the cautious). There has been terrorist activity with some kidnapping in the south and west towards the ocean borders with Indonesia, so these areas are best avoided - check for the latest guidance.

  • The people are delightful and very friendly, but because of the poverty there is a great deal of petty crime. Keep a constant eye on your belongings and don't travel alone on the jeepney taxis in Manila, unless you can hold firmly onto your valuables the whole ride.
  • Be prepared to 'pay extra' to get things done. Unless you grease palms very little will happen - though the people will still smile.
  • Don't drive yourself. Labour is cheap and a driver won't add much to the cost of a car. If there is an accident and a foreigner is at the wheel there will be a lynching.

What to Do in the Philippines?

This is a fascinating and beautiful country, with incredibly sociable people, a contender for one of the most interesting countries in the world.

The highlight is possibly the rice terraces of Luzon - more magnificent and more ancient rice terraces, than the ones in Bali.

But also consider:

  • Manila - it's a concrete jungle, but a fascinating one and besides, you can't get anywhere without transiting Manila.
  • Boracay - the commercial but gorgeous White Beach
  • Colonial Vigan, also in north Luzon
  • El Nido and the subterranean river of Palawan for snorkelling and diving in a sublime setting
  • Bohol and the Chocolate Hills for scenery, beaches and tarsiers
  • Puerto Galera for diving
  • Siquijor for more diving and witches' spells
  • Kalibo for the annual spectacle of the Ati-Atihan Festival
  • Volcano climbing - on foot or horseback - Tiny Taal, lively Pinatubo and perfect cone shaped Mayon, all throw down their individual gauntlets.
  • There are plenty more islands and diving if you exhaust this list - swimming with whale sharks at Donsol?

Getting to Bohol in a Typhoon

Packing for a trip to Bohol island in the Visayas. There is a typhoon alert out in Visayas.

Helen and (husband) Stewart have booked the trip and made the arrangements. We eventually leave for our flight to Cebu. There's an onward ferry to Bohol from Cebu City port. The traffic to the airport in Manila is terrible, as everyone prepares to move out for the forthcoming national holidays. A usually 15 minute journey turns into an hour and it begins to look as if we will miss our plane. We finally arrive at the terminus feeling we have minutes to spare. Unfortunately, we are turned away as is the wrong terminus. PAL has their own. Helen is extremely embarrassed and by the time we have found a taxi and got to the right terminus the desk is closed. The next flights are all very full so Helen and Stewart offer to come back early next morning (2 a.m.) to get stand by tickets for the next days flights and I go back to Merville.

We catch the 7.30 flight with number one stand by tickets. The flight is hard work for a wimp like me. The turbulence from the impending typhoon is so bad that not even the airhostesses are allowed to stand up and I spend the whole journey in a cold sweat. We make our connection to the ferry at Cebu with spare time, only to discover that most of the crossings have been cancelled due to the weather. Our crossing is cleared for departure but is preceded by a number of announcements “This will be a rough crossing” . I take two seasick pills, but in the event it is nothing like as bad as the plane. The two hour journey is more exhilarating, than frightening, though the ferry does yaw considerably. Several passengers are making use of their paper bags.

Bohol

Bohol province has one main island, named Bohol (the Filipinos call it 'God's Little Paradise') and 75 smaller ones. A taxi carries us across Bohol to Alona Beach on Panglao Island, just off the coast from the capital, Tagbilaran. Panglao is renowned for its diving. It features on those unreliable Top Ten in the World Lists. Here, all is peace and sunshine. Little rattan huts on the beach and a superb restaurant with wonderful tamarind flavoured sweet and sour. We relax and sunbathe and stroll along the sand.

The Reefs of Bohol

On the beach, the water has cleared enough after the typhoon, to go snorkelling on the house reef. Like many of the local reefs it has suffered from dynamite fishing and (though to a lesser extent than in the Maldives) to bleaching of the coral, because of the warming of El Nino. The crown of thorns starfish is a problem here also, as in other parts of the world. The shellfish that eats it has been totally depleted by hunting, so as to obtain its beautiful shell. Crown of thorns eats coral and has no other natural enemies. Karsten, a lanky Viking diving instructor, lectures us for hours about all these problems and vents his disgust at the way in which the locals clean the local weed off the beach by scooping it up and burying it. Nevertheless I see a big grouper, shoals of bright zebra fish and a black and white sea snake. The latter are poisonous, but have very small teeth.

Spend the evenings till late drinking in the Safety Stop bar with Karsten. The generator explodes, sending sparks all down the beach.

The Chocolate Hills of Bohol

A taxi to the must-see Chocolate Hills of Bohol, which are greenish at this time of year. They are an amazing clump of 1268 hills, rising directly from the ground. They are awe inspiring, in the same league as the Taj Mahal. We sit and drank in the atmosphere, from a platform perched on the top of one of the hills.

The Philippine Tarsier

Lunch in the restaurant before moving on to see the tiny local monkey called tarsiers down by the river. They are endemic to the Philippines and are only the size of a fist. They have huge eyes, which are fixed in their heads, so they can rotate their heads 180 degrees instead. I would have said interesting rather than cute. Many of the locals believe they are evil spirits and they have been stoned and hunted to the point of extinction. It doesn't help that they are solitary animals, preyed on by cats and owls. We visit a reintroduction project. The monkeys crouch on my hand and then leap six feet back into their open cage.

A Cockfight

The scenery is beautiful and breath-taking – paddy fields, green swathed mountains, white beaches and glimpses of sea views though mangroves and palm trees. We watch the caribao cattle ploughing and crowds of children emerging from school, in uniform. The tranquillity is marred somewhat by a local cockfight. This is possibly the most ancient of all sports. The pitting of cocks against each other was brought to Greece by the Persians, although most experts agree that it originated in Southeast Asia. Bets are exchanged, around the cockpit, to shrill shouts and much excitement. Five inch blades are attached to the roosters' left legs. Blood is spilled.

Time to return to Manila.

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