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?

North Luzon

Luzon, home to Manila, is the largest island in the Philippines and the fifteenth largest in the world by land area. It is famous for volcanoes. colonial Spanish cities, the best and oldest rice terraces in the world and (last century) American military bases. I'm driving north, with Neil and driver Henry to explore. I've borrowed Henry from work. I've been strongly discouraged from driving in the Philippines. Apparently, if there is an accident and someone is hurt I will get lynched. Henry becomes more chatty as the journey progresses. We've dubbed him Henry the Navigator, as he isn't great at finding the way. To be fair, the signposting is pretty bad. and we have been subjected to endless misdirections from the helpful locals.

Bagiuo, Luzon, Philippines

North towards Bagiuo, a long day’s drive (because of the traffic) through Metro Manila, (mainly Quezon City which is larger than Manila itself) and skirting Manila Bay, which forms one of the best natural harbours in South East Asia. It’s just a shame it’s on the main hurricane route.

Past Pinatubo, which, with Taal and Mayon form the three most famous volcanoes in the Philippines. Its eruption in the 1990s was the most cataclysmic since Krakatoa. But it’s still a popular climbing excursion. Through Angeles, which latterly was home to the American Clarke Air Force Base and is now the Sin City of the Philippines, a red light district and magnet for solo male travellers. It also has an overlooked and pretty colonial Spanish centre.

Baguio, known as the “City of Pines,” is an attractive mountain town of universities and resorts, popular because the weather is usually cooler here.

Banaue

Continuing north to Banaue; to say this is a hidden gem is an understatement. The Ifugao Rice Terraces of the Ifugao peoples begin at the base of the Cordillera Mountain range, extending several thousand feet upwards and are known locally as the "Eighth Wonder of the World". Two of the terrace clusters, Bangaan and Batad, are designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Wikipedia says that their length, if put end to end, would encircle half of the globe. The terraces are thought (arguably) to be more than 2,000 years old. They are irrigated by means of mountain streams and springs that have been tapped and channelled into canals , which run downhill through the rice terraces.

Suffice it to say. that the rice terraces here are more ancient and far more magnificent than anything Bali has to offer, simply stunning, with their emerald dotted platforms running down the steep valleys. What’s more they’re virtually deserted, apart from the odd Ifugao attired in feathery millinery. The tourist shops provide an interesting foil to the stunning scenery. They are wonderfully chaotic, dusty treasure troves.

Sagada

Sagada, also in in the Cordillera Mountains, has still more plunging rice terraces, but is distinctive for the hanging coffins of Echo Valley, displayed high on the cliffs. Close by more centuries-old wooden coffins are stacked in burial sites in caves. The Lumiang Cave houses over 100 coffins the oldest date back over 500 years.

They are stacked in a macabre wall nine layers high an eye-catching wall at the entrance of the cave that rises nine layers high. It has been estimated that the oldest coffins are around 500 years old. There are different theories as to why they're placed at the entrance. Daylight may help to ward off evil spirits. The coffins are small, in length. It's thought that the bodies were laid in a foetal position - you exit life as you you came in. We have to take a jeep to get up here. the road is too bad for normal vehicles. But it's a fascinating visit.

Santa Maria

Heading north through La Union province, into the Ilocos Region of Luzon now. This is where we find the renamed colonial architecture of the Philippines - mainly churches. Santa Maria Parish Church is one of a group of four Baroque churches awarded UNESCO status. Its grand full title is The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption. It's sturdy rather than beautiful built of bricks and mortar atop a hill so as to keep a wary out for the Chinese and Muslim invaders. Friars and soldiers lived here together.

Vigan, Luzon, Philippines

Next stop, on the west coast, is Vigan, with its preserved Spanish colonial and Asian architecture. Vigan is picture perfect with its cobblestone streets, malecón, horse-drawn carriages (calesas), bell towers and rustic mansions. The highlight for me is the white baroque cathedral of St Paul, with its distinctive triangular façade and Plaza Burgos, known for its street-food stalls. Others would say it's the classic Calle Crisologo, with over 200 houses still preserved from the Spanish Colonial period. Vigan has also received the UNESCO accolade.

The streets are lined with life size statuary, saints alongside Bugs Bunny. Live chickens in a basket amidst them. Some nuns roll by in a calesa. This is where we sample bibingka, a Filipino baked rice cake, which is traditionally cooked in a terracotta oven lined with banana leaves. The Filipinos eat it for breakfast or as a merienda (mid-afternoon snack) especially at Christmas. (Christmas goes on a long time in the Philippines. You can often hear carols in September.)

Paoay

A little further north and another important religious building. the Roman Catholic Saint Augustine Church, commonly known as the Paoay Church, at Paoay, in Ilocos Norte. It was completed in 1710, and is another solid building, with huge buttresses. Nevertheless, it's still picturesque, with its bell tower alongside. The bell towers were built separately in case of earthquakes.

The other tourist must-see here is the Malacañang of the North. It was Ferdinand Marcos' home, when he was president and is now a presidential museum. It was built by the Philippine Tourism Authority in 1977, in time for Ferdinand Marcos's 60th birthday. He was born in Sarrat, not so far away, and this area is very much a Marcos stronghold, despite all the attendant corruption.

Laoag, Luzon, Philippines

North, some more. Laoag is the capital of Ilocos Norte region (the regions are subdivided into barangays) and home to the capitol building. Another place rich in history, with its numerous colonial ancestral homes. The Laoag Cathedral was built in 1612 by Augustinian friars to replace a wooden chapel.

Tourism is up and coming here, with new hotels being constructed. There's even a McDonalds. My Lonely Planet hasn't caught up yet. We've followed instructions to find accommodation and ended up in a school camp. There are weaving demonstrations, cane wine, local vinegar and melons and mangoes galore. And, as is often the case in the Philippines, there are some signs that are amusing to us westerners - in this case a hospital offering assorted types of circumcision: 'Summer time is circumcision time.....,'

Right on the tip of Luzon, is the white-sand beach resort of Pagudpud. The Marcos-era mansions contrast with the photogenic but poorer rural dwellings in the stilt villages here. The food isn't yet tourist standard either. It's truly terrible. Our soup is cabbage water and chicken stock. I'm beginning to wish I hadn't by passed the McDonalds.

It's a long way back to Manila (560 kilometres) and Henry is exhausted. I risk it and take to the wheel. Next stop, El Nido.

EDSA

I’m planning to go to Kalibo for the weekend with Elaine. The biggest festival in the Philippines is held there annually - the Ati-Atihan. Just about to sneak out of school at noon to go to the airport in Manila, when we are told the anti Estrada riots are blocking the route (see Manila Envelope).

Kalibo

Eventually, to the airport. Arrive there to a phone call from Lyn. Karsten from Bohol has arrived at school to see me. What timing – he is only in town for one night on his way to Puerto Gallera.

From one demonstration/festival to another. “Erap Resign” signs all over Kalibo, a city on Panay Island. Only tricycle taxis here and Hugo, the drunk Swiss hotel owner meets us with one and takes us back to our bungalow style room. The Hibiscus, pretty, but well out of town. Well at least we’ll be away from all the noise.

The Ati-Atihan Festival

The Kalibo Ati-Atihan Festival, is held every January in honour of the Santo Niño (Holy Child ). As the Fiesta de Santo Niño, the event goes back a long way, to at least the seventeenth century, when the Spanish sought to strengthen ties to the local church. However, it's thought that its origins trace back to animist celebrations. The tourist board have promoted the festival (and others) over the years, so that they have come more to emulate the Rio Carnival and tribal gatherings, like Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea. Exotic costumes, body paint, music and dancing have been incorporated.

They also changed the name to Ati-Atihan, which means "to imitate the Ati people". This reflects another belief, that the celebration is to thank the indigenous people of Panay, for their care and welcome, to settlers. Just to make things even more complicated, part of the festival re-enacts the handing over of Panay to the Spanish by the local tribes.

The Ati-Atihan Festival is also known as the "Mother of All Philippine Festivals.". I have high expectations.

The Ati-Atihan Festival - Friday

On Friday evening, there is dancing, in a big arena covered in flags and banners. Roll out the Barrel and The Birdie Song at least a dozen times. Without a drop of alcohol, I end up leading snake dances all round, hordes of Filipinos tagging behind. Every time I make an escape they drag me back in. Elaine hides and builds up a file of evidence on her camera.

The Ati-Atihan Festival - Sadsad Saturday

Then, to the carnival proper. The programme says the main parade is at 7.30 a.m. We take a tricycle to the main square at 8.30. Nothing happening. I ask a stallholder, who peers through balloons and feathered tribal masks at me. He says it starts at nine. I say “It is nine”. He says " Maybe 10 then". About 9.30 we hear faint sounds of drumming and the tinkling of percussion and the parades begin. This seems to be a time for massing in the Plaza and we perch, on a wall there for really good views of the parade known as Sadsad., which is also what the locals call their way of dancing where the foot is momentarily dragged along the ground in tune to the beat played by the marching bands.

Endless costumed revellers, marching bands, tribal dancers, snake charmers, grotesque papier mache animals, decorated floats (Mary and Jesus statues in various forms, but usually a plastic modern doll) and hundreds of other outfits – witches/ skeletons/lion fish/a bright pink paunch in a nappy. These groups process round and round the square all morning - absolutely fascinating -though we hear the birdie song rather too many times again. There are very few foreigners here. I am definitely a novelty, as I am interviewed for TV four different times, by different channels. It's a shame that I can’t watch it. Or maybe not.

Lunch in a restaurant, facing the Plaza. ‘Sorry chicken’s off Ma’am. Sorry the last coconut’s just gone Ma’am”.

Too Much Rain and Too Much Alcohol

Then it begins to rain, pouring down, through the plastic roof in buckets and into buckets. The street outside is like a lagoon. The parade begins again, while it is still teeming. This procession includes all the previous tribal groups and more besides, businesses, banks, all marching along, jigging to The Birdie Song.

Another text message. ‘We are at the gates of the palace – face to face with pro Erap police”. Erap has finally given in and left the palace. Half naked men cavort, with Erap Resigns in white paint, all over their backs. Gloria Arroyo is being sworn in as the new president, even as he leaves. Celebrations in Manila, and even bigger ones here.

We watch, our hair becoming progressively more sodden and a veritable river running down my back. This march goes on for three hours. Fantastic, though the revellers are also becoming progressively drunk, carrying large bottles of phosphorescently gleaming green spirits, strapped to their waists, as well as the large metal drums. As they drink, they lose their inhibitions and keep approaching, making thumbs up signs, smacking palms and trying to persuade us to join their groups. One man, who said he was “a sailor”, sweeps me way and won’t let go of me. Every time I try to slip away, he grabs me again and says not to worry, he is a good man. Eventually, I hide in the cathedral alongside the main plaza.

Exhausted by now. Back to the hotel for a nap and then out to a Chinese meal and visits to the night market. Finally, to last night’s dance arena, but too packed to move tonight – very sad. A spectacular firework display. Roman candles that split up like pools of wiggling sperm, as they shoot away. Home to bed and our peaceful area. It is unfortunate that Elaine snores.

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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