GETTING AROUND IN THE PHILIPPINES
Transport in the Philippines can be a little intimidating. Like many countries, not only are there safety concerns and language barriers, real or fake, there is always the risk of some light corruption through to outright, blatant thievery. There are also different perspectives on time management. While many of us expect a 9:00AM bus to leave at 9:00AM, others consider this to be more of a guideline.
Most people who have travelled have a story or three about local transport. Whether it is getting into the first taxi from the airport, only to have someone laugh at how much you were ripped off, or finding out the boat transport is an old ferry that takes 6 hours longer than you thought, or getting into a tuk-tuk only to be taken to the nearest tailor or jeweller and told with a shameless smile that you should have a look around.
Whatever it is, the entire adventure needs to be faced head on. You need to get somewhere, preferably without walking, and that means dealing the with people who specialise in getting you from one place to another, while making as much money as they can from you. It is an interesting game and the best way to approach it is with a smile and some understanding. It is all part of the excitement of travel.
Here are some of the ways I saw for getting around in the Philippines. Of course I haven’t visited all of it, so I imagine there are variations and differences. I’m also sure some people will have different ideas about what is meant by the term ‘best’.
You have to travel in a jeepney at least once or you can’t say you’ve been to the Philippines. The stories go that after the war ended, there were a large number of jeeps leftover. The American military, being what it is, sold or gifted the jeeps to the Filipinos. The Filipinos, being what they are, figured the Americans were selling themselves short and decided with a few modifications, they could fit more people into them. Essentially this involved cutting them in half and stretching them out.
Some have long bench seats running the length, others have bench seats facing forward. They’re not the most comfortable way to travel, but they’re fairly well priced. If nothing else, they’re a great way to get close and friendly with some locals. You will no doubt be asked to hand coins forward to the driver or deliver change back to the passenger.
They are common throughout a lot of the Philippines and they’re recognised around the world as such. Unfortunately, if you’re a bit of a greenie like me, these things are gas guzzling assholes of the transportation world. One of these consumes as much fossil fuel as a 64 person, air conditioned bus. As such, they will eventually be phased out as the Philippines starts trying to tackle it’s mounting smog problem.
The Jeepneys have regulated prices, and established routes. The drivers are required to be licensed, so they generally know where they’re going and shouldn’t charge you too much. Of course this doesn’t mean they all are.
And can you believe I didn’t get a single photo of a Jeepney. Travel blog fail.
Tricycles are one of the more common modes of transport for short to medium distances around much of the Philippines. Basically someone took the idea of the motorbike sidecar and expanded on it so instead of holding one extra person, it can hold eight; encased in a steel cage of death that can hurtle along the unpaved roads at piss-your-pants speeds sending roosters, dogs and small children flying and leaving carnage and destruction in its wake, except uphill, where it will slow to a crawl so lethargic you can barely consider it moving at all.
Given the number of these things on the road, and I use the term ‘road’ loosely, it is often best to keep one’s eyes fixed firmly on a point on the horizon and one’s mind preparing an exit strategy whilst repeatedly whispering the phone number of your insurance company like a mantra. With all the grace of a giant mechanical bumblebee, they will rattle, jounce and shake you to wherever you need to go, assuming you are able to convey the destination to your driver.
The drivers switch between reassuring smiles and fierce determination as if controlling these cumbersome beasts is part machinery, and part pure willpower. In smaller places, such as El Nido and Coron, the drivers are surprisingly honest and will generally all rip you off for similar amounts.
If you travel around the Philippines, then you will definitely run into them, hopefully not literally. They fill the void of tuk-tuks and rickshaws; the void that is sorely left empty in the western world. Small, affordable and insanely dangerous. I cannot help but love them.
As with any city, there are taxis. Most of these will operate without meters, and drivers may refuse to use them even if they have them. I have a feeling it is to evade having to pay tax to the government as much because they’ll get a significantly smaller fare. Agree to the cost before you get in and make sure the drivers know where they’re going.
Be aware as well, a lot of taxis will have the seatbelt buckle tucked away under the seat where it is of no use to anyone. This is standard procedure. Seatbelts show a remarkable lack of trust in your driver anyway.
The pinnacle of land transport are private and air conditioned vans. While they definitely sound more comfortable, and generally are, with their cool air and pleasantly cushioned seats, be prepared for a bit of speed. That last sentence is a HUGE understatement.
If you have been on the road through South East Asia, you will know what I mean when I mention how a lot of transport drivers will speed to point of ridiculousness, drive on the wrong side of the road, and pass on seemingly blind corners, while chatting on a cellphone and smoking a cigarette. But hey, I’m still alive, and what is life without a little risk?
We caught a van from Puerto Princesa to Port Barton. It was crazy enough for it to be a discussion point with everyone else I spoke to. Conversations went along the lines of “So did you come in through Puerto Princesa? How did you find the van ride?” Black clouds roll over blanketing the sun. A high pitched wailing erupts from a girl who has curled into the foetal position. Maniacal laughter can be heard between peals of thunder. A man starts crying and rocking, repeatedly whispering “it’s OK. He can’t pass anyone here”.
There are buses around. I know because I saw some. I wasn’t able to figure out where they travel to or from, but they seem to run much like the jeepneys, except slower. There were two kinds, standing in startling contrast to each other.
One was a nicely streamlined, air-conditioned rock star of a bus. I bet the passengers looked down from their lofty height, cool air blowing their perfect hair away from sweat free foreheads and laughed at our small tricycle struggling it’s way up small rise, as we choked on dust and flying ants.
The other looked like an old greyhound bus from America in the 1960s. All the luggage was piled on top and lashed down. Open windows provided the only cooling and from this hung the arms and faces of the passengers. I believe they were still looking down at us and laughing as we struggled up another small rise.
SCOOTERS AND MOTORBIKES
Of course, you can also hire your own scooters. I didn’t do this as I like my knees in the condition they are in and I have already left sizeable amounts of skin in both Thailand and Bali. I will leave it to those whom have yet to fully experience the enjoyment that is being overtaken by a van on a dry and dusty dirt road in 38 degree heat.
To be entirely honest, I don’t see the point in hiring a scooter while you’re there. I do not think you will get anything from it that you couldn’t get from hiring a driver to take you around. Not only will you be significantly safer, you’ll also be giving some money to the people.
BOATS AND FERRIES
The Philippines is an archipelago with over 7,000 islands. You will most likely have to get on board a boat at some point while you’re there. Resorts and hotels will often be on neighbouring islands and all the tours are generally boat tours…with snorkelling and swimming. If you hate all these things, well I suppose you hate fun too.
Check out the reviews on the ferries before you go. Not only are they sometimes slow, but some have reputations for overcrowding. Also, keep an eye on the weather. It’s fine when the seas are flat, but given the sea is somewhat unpredictable, you may find yourself on a 12 hour watery rollercoaster with several hundred other vommy victims. Take a dry bag.
Lastly, there are planes for travel between those islands that have airports. There are a number of smaller airlines operating within the Philippines, from small seaplanes to the larger carriers, Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific. There are a lot of people who are nervous flyers so I don’t joke about flying.
I have been asked to include a special note here about Manila Airport, Ninoy Aquino. There are four terminals. It is impossible to walk between them. There is a free shuttle though. It leaves every 15-20 minutes. Do not believe anyone, especially the taxi drivers, who says it doesn’t exist. It does. You do not want to take your time getting between the terminals, nor do you want to take your time getting to the airport itself. Leave your hotel 3-4 hours before your flight leaves, regardless of whether you’ve checked in online or not. The traffic in Manila is shit all the time. 7am, 11am, 3pm, 6pm midnight, 3am. Whatever the time, it will be busy.
Some of the carriers include
Cebu Pacific – I’ve flown with them internally a few times and they’ve been pretty good.
Philippine Airlines – I haven’t tried them however they’re one of the major carriers.
Air Juan – Operate seaplanes to the smaller islands. I know nothing about them other than they fly seaplanes. SEAPLANES!
I haven’t checked the safety records of any of these, so you’ll have to do your own homework if get a bit wild-eyed when flying.
Be aware, a lot of flights operate through Manila. This airport is extremely busy and there are often delays when travelling to or from Manila Airport. Also be aware, there are a number of smaller regional airports that do not have runway lighting, so the airport cannot operate after dark. Your delayed flight may not be able to land or take off!