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has suffered in the tourism stakes because of its position on the map. Imelda Marcos once said it was "hamburgered" geographically. What she meant was that the Philippines receives fewer visitors than other Southeast Asian countries - about two million a year compared to Thailand's six million - because it is not part of the Southeast Asian mainland. Travellers on the traditional Asian trails tend to get as far as Thailand or Hong Kong, but ignore the Philippines because it involves an extra flight, albeit it a short one, across the South China Sea.
Perversely, it is this very lack of mass tourism that makes the Philippines such an appealing destination. If you want to explore, and if you are ready to cope with some eccentric infrastructure and a distinctly laid-back attitude towards the passage of time, the Philippines has more to offer than many of its neighbours.
The Philippines is a big country in a small package. It is the second largest archipelago in the world, with
(sixty percent of them uninhabited) and 58,390km of coastline, all in a land mass no bigger than Arizona. Filipinos refer to it as their string of pearls. Your biggest problem is likely to be deciding which of the pearls to see first.
Most flights from outside the country land in the capital,
, which is choked with traffic and dilapidated, but also has some of the ritziest shopping malls and most spectacular nightlife in Asia. JM Nakpil Street in Malate on a Friday night is a sight to behold. Beatnik poets mingle with film stars, models, swaggering transvestites and a smattering of expats to create a good-natured outdoor rave that makes all other raves look tame by comparison.
For connoisseurs of beaches, the central
is an island-hoppers' paradise, with white sand everywhere and unspoiled fishing
where there's nothing to do at night except watch the fireflies, listen to the geckos, and perhaps share a bottle of local Tanduay rum.
, one hour to the southwest of Manila by plane or an overnight journey by ferry, is an unforgettable wilderness of diamond-blue lagoons, volcanic lakes and first-rate scuba diving. In the
of the far north live tribes who make propitiatory offerings to rice gods and whose way of life has barely changed since they first settled there around 500BC. One of the few concessions they have made to modernity is to give up headhunting.
The Philippines will turn every notion you ever had of Asia on its head. Centuries of
have resulted in a delightfully schizophrenic country of potent but conflicting influences. When Magellan placed a sovereign hand on the Philippines on behalf of King Philip of Spain in 1521, he brought with him Catholicism, European architecture and the
ethic. When monsoon rains swamp the streets, or when volcanoes erupt, a Filipino's usual reaction is to smile, throw up their hands, and say
- "what will be will be".
Three centuries after Magellan, in 1898, there was another bizarre twist in the country's colonial history when
bought the Philippines from Spain for US$20 million, part of the booty from a war the two powers had fought over Cuba. It was from America that the Philippines got its town planning, its constitution, and its passion for basketball, beauty pageants and pizza. Independence was finally granted on July 4, 1946, making the Philippines Asia's first real democracy, a fact most Filipinos remain fiercely proud of.
But it was the events of the 1980s that brought the Philippines to the general attention of the rest of the world. In 1972,
President Ferdinand Marcos
decided to overstay his welcome in Malacanang Palace by declaring martial law. When Marcos's lifelong political rival,
, was assassinated at Manila airport in August 1983, patience with the dictator ran out. What followed was nothing short of momentous: a "people power" revolution to kick out Marcos and his ambitious wife Imelda. In February 1986, they fled to Hawaii, where Ferdinand died in exile. Imelda's famous shoe collection was turned into a museum exhibit, but has since been boxed up and put into storage.
Then, of course, there are the
themselves. It has become hackneyed to describe the Philippines as the land where Asia wears a smile, but there's no denying it's true. Filipinos are a gregarious and accommodating lot. Graciousness and warmth seem to be built into their genes. English is widely spoken, even in the provinces, and everywhere you go you will be greeted with the honorific "ma'am" or "sir".
Filipinos are also passionate, sometimes hot-headedly so. They love food, they love life and they love romance. The Philippines is a passion play writ large and nowhere is this more evident than in the hundreds of
and religious ceremonies that are held every year. Some are flamboyant and theatrical, like the
in Kalibo and the
Parade of Pigs
in Batangas. Others have their origins in the Scriptures and are solemn. One of the most famous religious events, and one of the most controversial, is the
crucifixion of flagellants
held every Easter at San Fernando in Pampanga. Holy Week is a sacred holiday for Filipinos and tens of thousands head north from Manila to hill stations like Baguio.
two distinct seasons
in the Philippines, the wet (southwest monsoon) and the dry (northeast monsoon). The
runs from May to October and the dry from November to April. The wet season is best avoided, as the country is hit by an average of seven typhoons and affected by fifteen. These cyclonic storms are more of an inconvenience than an outright threat, with flights cancelled and roads made impassable by floodwaters, even in the capital.
November and December
are the coolest months, with daytime temperatures of around 28°C, while March,
April and May
are very hot: expect temperatures to peak at 35°C. Watch out for
Christmas and Easter
when the whole of the Philippines hits the road and getting a seat on a bus or plane can be difficult.
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