Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Philippines with kids

The Philippines is second on our list of most favourite places we've been so far. We are beach dwellers as a family, and this country has them in spades. There is 7017 islands making up the Philippine archipelago, 2000 of them inhabited. If you can't find a pristine beach of glorious beauty amongst it, you aren't looking very hard! However there is so much more to see with much diversity of attractions. From the hanging coffins of Sigatoka, the underground river and breathtaking beauty of Palawan, Chocolate Hills and Tarsiers of Bohol and anything and everything in between. For example there are 37 volcanoes there, with 18 of them still active. Manila is home to Taal Volcano which is actually - and get this- a volcano, inside a lake, inside a volcano! Amazing. The Philippines is also fairly cheap, except for a few of the more famous touristy areas.

I wont sugar coat this, especially as our blog focuses on travelling with kids. There are dangerous parts of the Philippines for sure. The country experiences grinding poverty. The infrastructure is not always adequate. There is shocking pollution in some areas. If you exercise COMMON SENSE, do your research and heed relevant travel warnings, the rewards are there in absolute abundance however. Most tourist visits to the Philippines are trouble-free, if you don't go looking for it. We have been many times over the last 3 years with young children, and haven't had one spot of bother. Here is a few basic, general tips.

1. The Southern-most part of the Philippines towards Borneo is a 'no-go' zone for tourists. Government Agencies all over the world agree. South-west Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago are home to extreme Muslim separatist groups, and there is much conflict between military and insurgents. I'd stay away from Mindanao all-together. There is a high threat of kidnapping for ransom and terrorism.

2. Keep in mind that not just in this country, but in most other developing countries, the confronting poverty is most obvious in the cities. Many come from the smaller islands, and off the farms, looking for an easier life. What they find is no jobs or housing. This inevitably results in crime. This is also where the worst pollution can be found. Most beaches we encountered near the cities we didn't find suitable for swimming at all.

3. We like to go for a bit of a wander about the country in the safe areas. But leave the bigger journeys for our adventures without the kids. Largely, the roads in more isolated areas are often more pothole and washout than anything, and the road rules are largely indistinguishable by non-filipinos! The roads can be better than ours in some of the cities though.

4. Lastly, about 20 Typhoons hit here every year. Many very serious. So travel in the Typhoon season is not advisable.

Ok, so the negative stuff is done and dusted. In case you're now going WHY? does she think this is a place we'd want to go.... Here it is!

Boracay! Date travelled: January 2013 with the twins.

Oh what a destination. Extremely beautiful beaches and lots of activities/bars/restaurants and fun! This tiny island and its gorgeous 'White Beach' is famous the world over, and is a playground for just about everyone in South Korea (about 20 flights a day!). It has also long been popular with Europeans. We encountered a lot of Russians. I think that there is a danger of it becoming too popular for it's own good, like Kuta in Bali, and hope the government take some measures in the future to stop it getting ruined. We also love tiny Malapascua for a more pristine, waaay less crowded, and cheaper experience.  It's much harder to get to however and has much less to do. Boracay is relatively easy to travel to, and just hard to beat for all-round entertainment value and beauty. 

Boracay has three boat stations running along White Beach, which sort of act as markers. Accommodations to suit all budgets and tastes can be found here, but are generally grouped together amongst the Boat Stations. Boat Station 1 is the somewhat quieter end which we preferred with the kids. It is also home to the more luxurious resorts. Depending on your tastes, we find they are pretty outrageously priced for the Philippines, but lovely. Boat Station 2 is home to more moderately priced hotels/resorts and is where most of the action is concentrated. Bar after bar after restaurant etc Tonnes of fun. Can be a little noisy however. We  found a fantastic Filipino-run resort bordering Boat Station 1 and 2 that was perfect for us.

Patio Pacific Resort had huge family rooms, a restaurant, climbing wall, Karaoke bar, nice pool and gym. It was set one street back from the beach but was only a 2 minute walk through a safe, well-lit alley - no roads to cross.  The resort is split in two though, so make sure to ask for 'beach side' with kids, as the other side IS across a busy road. But there is always an attendant to stop traffic for you. Being set back a little, it was quieter and certainly cheaper. We paid roughly AUD $120 a night with breakfast for the four of us. Absolutely expensive for the rest of the Philippines (you can get a nice hut on the amazing beach, with a fan and running hot water in Malapacua for $20 a night) but Boracay has been listed in Top 10 beach lists over the years so the price has risen accordingly. You do have the extra ammenities to enjoy as well for the price. Depends on what you prefer however, you might want right on the beach and views, but will pay more, and do expect it to be a little noisy at night. Each to their own!

Boat Station 3 is home to the cheaper backpacker style accommodations. We can thoroughly recommend Dave's Straw Hat Inn for value, with great hut-style rooms. You can stay there with the kids no problem. Its clean, pretty and set amongst nice gardens. They serve the best gigantic mango pancakes here too!

It is a bit of a walk from the action at Boat Station 2 though. You can get a trycicle cab which will take you to it and it costs very little. They are only allowed to the border of Boat Station 2, and no further, due to congestion. You would have to get out and walk the rest through 2 and on to 1 if desired. It's not that far anyway.

There is just so much to do in Boracay, I can't rave enough about it. We were never without plenty to do for the whole family.



Thats one of my 5 year-olds in there... ummmm... I nearly had a heart-attack, but she loved it! I probably would recommend it for older kids though. After seeing her do it, I thought it was a bit too extreme. It goes pretty fast!

A small theme-park called 'Happy Land'..

It was very entertaining for us to see them empty the water out of the log ride and then refill it EVERY TIME we wanted a ride. haha! I felt really guilty and tried to ride it a few times in a row. We'd run off to ride something else, and tell them we'd be back in a minute and not to empty it, but would come back and wait for them to turn a valve on and refill it AGAIN. Strange, but part of the stuff that makes travel to foreign places so very interesting!

Mermaid lessons! from the Philippine Mermaid Academy.
(Yep you read it right).

The famous night time Ferris wheel in Dmall.

Bungy Trampolining on White Beach.

Massages Galore!

There is also beautiful boat tours around the island on Paraws, Bangka boats and larger motorised ones. Cliff diving as well for the more adventurous. There is of course a plethora of bars and restaurants for all tastes and budgets to keep you busy.. The best thing is, because of the prices compared to those at home, you can afford to let you hair down a little!

There is a restaurant in particular worth mentioning, although NOT because of the food unfortunately...
The Hobbit House was very interesting. It is an establishment staffed only by 'little people'. There is one in Manila too. Whether or not its to your taste, there is no denying that in a developing country like the Philippines, it provides employment for people who would otherwise find it difficult indeed to survive.

Most Australians might have a tendency to feel a bit uneasy at first, but honestly its not a freak show as much as a quaint oddity. We just went with it and enjoyed it for what it was in the knowledge that our patronage paid their wages. My kids were OVER THE MOON! They could not believe Hobbits were for real they said! Some of them were actually smaller than my 5 year-olds too. 

 Boracay really comes alive at night, so we made use of child-minding (the mum of a resort receptionist yay!) and went out on our own too!!

There is also a tour called the 'Boracay Pub Crawl', which is a guided tour through bars, and features plenty of included alcohol, a t-shirt and games on the beach etc. We did it and loved it. Lots of different ages and nationalities. Have to say that despite any lack of responsible service of alcohol laws (in fact they try to get you to drink as much as possible ie Cocomangas '15 and still standing' shot challenge!) we never encountered any issues - fighting, drunken people etc at all.


Me. (if only the kids could see me now... NOT!) I sure had fun though!!!...

There are actually several other beaches on Boracay other than White Beach. Bulabog Beach is the second most popular, and is where the windsurfing and kite boarding takes place. We went to two however that we thought were even more amazing than White Beach!

Puka Beach

 Wow, oh WOW! is this beach beautiful. So named because the sand is littered with Puka shells. These are the little white ones with holes in the middle, made famous in the 70's when Elizabeth Taylor wore them. Also popular with surfies in the 80's. This beach is not great for kids to swim at though. It looks fairly calm on the surface, but has treacherous currents and a big drop off right at the waters edge. Its is lovely enough to enjoy a day lazing on it for sure however, as we did!


This was our absolute favourite beach. Much, MUCH quieter than White Beach. Perfectly safe and calm for the littlies. Stupendously gorgeous.

Back at White Beach and at the end of every day there are stunning sunsets to enjoy. Just perfect to relax and contemplate how lucky you are right now...




Sigh... Salamat Boracay. We'll be back!

Cebu City & Bohol Island. Date travelled: January 2010 with all four kids.

Cebu City is home to many luxurious resorts as well as some famous attractions. This was the very first time I had ventured to the Philippines and taken the kids, so I chose to stay in a 5 star resort. These are horrendously expensive by this country's standards, and you can find good quality accommodation for way less. I sort of figured that even though pricey, it was still well below what we'd pay in Australia, and I wouldn't be able to afford to stay in a similar resort back home - so why not???? Shangri-la Mactan Island on the outskirts of Cebu City is mind-boggling. Pools that go on literally FOREVER, beautiful grounds, plenty of activities, fantastic food, first-rate kids clubs, babysitters and a nice private man-made beach.

The Philippines are famous for it's colourful Jeepneys. Each one has a set route written on the side and costs very little.We ventured out in one with the two oldest kids a short way to a nearby monument. Lots of fun. I wouldn't advise going a long distance with kids however, as people do get robbed on these. Being in a city, crime is present, and as an obvious tourist you are targets. Use taxis instead.

For history buffs Cebu City is home to Magellans Cross, Fort San Pedro and the monument to Lapu-Lapu. Lapu-Lapu was the ruler of Mactan Island, and was the only leader in the whole of the Philippine Archipelago to resist Spanish colonisation. He was actually responsible for the death of Magellan.

From Mactan you can also go out on day-trips to some islands on a Bangka boat. These are available at the dock, but we just organised one through the resort and got a private chef from the resort to accompany us! Once again, these are the things you can afford to do there, that I'd never be able to at home. It cost less than $200. You'd be able to bargain for something cheaper outside the resort.

We went only to the closest island Pandanon. The trip to the island is truly beautiful, the water so clear. The little island is beautiful as well. Unfortunately, as I mention previously, being close to Cebu City, parts of it are shockingly polluted. One side of the island was covered in so much washed up rubbish, it looked like a tip. Such a pity. Once renowned for snorkelling, the coral is all dead too. I was told though that the coral near the islands further out was still alright, and great for snorkelling.

The best thing I liked about this area was Bohol Island. This place is exceptional we thought. It is becoming more known and good, luxurious boutique resorts are popping up there now. Its is only a 45 minute ride on fast, modern ferry from the mainland.

It is home to the strange, but wondrous Chocolate Hills near the city of Carmen. There is 1200+ of these mounds! A 'must-see', it was incredibly fantastic and in my top 5 of coolest things I've ever seen.

And the weird looking, but oh-so-cute googly-eyed Tarsier. We visited them at a small sanctuary for a minimal fee, which goes towards their conservation. We loved, LOVED these. My little girls especially...

You can take a tour down the Loboc River on a barge that serves a buffet lunch and has live music. It was cheap and I recommend it. The best part was stopping at other barges along the way to watch river tribes sing and dance for donations. The scenery was lovely, the water an unusual and pretty shade of green, and the lunch was good.

There is also an amazing 500 year-old church built by Spanish Jesuit missionaries at Baclayon on the Island. It is considered to be one of the oldest in the Philippines and is made with crushed coral and an approximately 1 million egg  whites! It's beautiful, and has certainly stood the test of time!

(By the way... can you see the ghost of Padre Pio on the wall above my head? Our tour guide pointed it out. Its a famous image devoted Catholic Filipinos flock to take pictures of).

For the adrenalin junkies, there is an extreme zip-line on Bohol gaining some fame called the 'sui-slide'. Fast and long. I didn't give it a try, but would like too!

All of the above activities we did in one day with four kids. Our twins were only 2 then, and in nappies still. There was no rushing, as Bohol is not a huge island. We caught the ferry back to the mainland and was back at our resort before dark. We had organised a whole day tour through a tour company. But having been there, I'd say it really isn't neccessary. At the port you could hire a readily available van and driver yourself for much less. As first timers, and with all the kids, we just wanted to make sure the van we had was safe, the guide knowledgeable etc Once again, the tour was cheap by Aussie standards anyway. If visiting again, i'd probably not stay in Cebu, but on Bohol itself. Not keen on the cities, like I said before, the beaches on Bohol are nice too.

Salamat Bohol!

What's next you ask?... A family adventure to Malapscua, followed by a trip to Palawan at a later date. Watch this space!

By the way.. I find the Philippines has a bit of a reputation for sleaze etc. The Philippines, like a lot of Asia does have the girly bars and prostitution is rife. Thailand is very popular with Aussie Tourists and families, and I encountered much more sleaze there. I saw things in Thai bars as a tourist, that is simply not done, or allowed, in the Philippines. There is not even topless bars, they must have bikinis on. Mostly, they are at least nominal Roman Catholics. Extreme poverty has eventuated a sort of compromise with the Filipinos and their beliefs I guess... its better not to starve. Like Thailand, if it bothers you, just don't go into places likely to offend you, and you won't know its there anyway.

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