Plane, Train, Automobile or Jeepney!
Phil Hopkins, Travel & Arts Correspondent
This week we are running a series of features on the Philippines. Our theatre and travel man, Phil Hopkins, has been on an amazing three-week adventure to the other side of the world, and here recounts his journey to this country of more than 7,000 islands. Today he hands out a few tips on how to travel smartly in order to ensure the best possible experience.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step or, in the case of destination Philippines, with a bus ride from the outskirts of Leeds to the city centre rail station!
However, before an 'adventure style' journey starts - here I am thinking 'remote' or Third World - there is always the paranoia of wondering whether or not you have packed everything you need; the mosquito spray, Swiss Army knife, Tilley hat with the Beau Geste rear drop down (to prevent neck burn!), inflatable neck cushion and the myriad of wires which now seem to be a modern necessity; phone charger and booster, notebook (a PC's too big!), laptop, bank security fobs, and Samsung S6 phone also doubling as a camera. Phew!
Smart travelling, a bit like eloquent conversation, is an art form, and a balance has to be struck between cost, adventure and sensible planning! And be aware of your weight limit or any in-country advisories prevailing at the time of your journey, certainly when going off-piste, so to speak.
For example, Manila's Ninoy Aquino International Airport hit the news when corrupt baggage handlers were discovered planting bullets in the luggage of unsuspecting tourists with the aim of soliciting bribes. Don't go? Not at all! Just get your bag shrink wrapped in cellophane before you depart the UK! That problem's been sorted so panic ye not, but the message is simple. Be aware, be savvy, be street wise!
Got an early flight? Then get to your airport the night before. You would be amazed by how many people decide to save on an overnight hotel in favour of an early start on the day of their flight. However, if you have a puncture or any unexpected delay you are dead in the water. I only did it once!
Pre Flight Hotel
This time, I decided to book into the Holiday Inn Express at Manchester Airport at around £79, depending on availability and the website used to book your room.
This is not one of the hotels immediately opposite any of Manchester Airport's three terminals, in fact it is a few minutes away. However, there is a shuttle bus which costs £3 each way - £6 if you arrive at a more unsociable hour - and which is easily summonsed using the 'yellow phone' at the foot of the escalators near the main rail exit.
You'll get a good night's sleep, have access to food - don't expect Marco Pierre White! - and be decanted at your terminal in good time for your following day's flight......all at a fraction of the cost of staying at one of the hotels very close to your terminal. Or you can stump up and have the comfort of knowing that you will probably be able to see your departure lounge before you fall asleep! Choice is everything.
The 15.5-hour flight to Singapore, courtesy of Singapore Airlines was excellent. The airline runs a total of 28 weekly flights out of Heathrow and Manchester Airports to Manila, 12 to Cebu, 9 to Davao, and three to Kalibo (for Boracay).....a total of 52 weekly flights to four destinations in the Philippines. There are also connecting flights from regional airports into Europe and onward, courtesy of partner airline, KLM.
The beauty of Singapore Airlines - unlike some others - is that each seat has its own tv screen with a vast array of in-flight entertainment. When I flew with a different airline to Manila, the eight hour connecting flight from Abu Dhabi had zero in-flight entertainment unless you had your own Notebook / laptop with which to hook up to the plane's entertainment system; not ideal!
Food is also very good, the hostesses first class and the overall experience excellent. The lay over at Singapore's Changi International Airport was a couple of hours with the prospect of a further four hours to Davao's International Airport using SilkAir, a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines. However, it is also an opportunity to sample the airline's lounge complete with showers, newspapers, drinks, food; the complete hospitality service. Flying back to Manchester the plan was to return out of Manila.
Despite all protestations to the contrary, I felt reasonably refreshed when we actually reached Davao. This Southern Philippines city has been the preserve of President elect and former local mayor, Rodrigo Duterte for nigh on 20 years, the politician with the iron fist, said to have introduced law and order to the city by cleaning up its drug and crime problem.
Such is his legacy that taxi drivers are noted for doing something very normal in the West.....turning their meters on, unlike their counterparts in Manila. In short you get a fair, safe ride at the going rate when you hail a cab in Davao.
Moving round the Philippines can be adventurous, or tiring, depending on how you view it and sometimes, it's as if people commute any way they can. The train network is limited to say the least and, in some areas, you don't even have an integrated bus network, more a network of cabs, motorised tricycles and the ubiquitous jeepney, a key feature of the Manila and wider country landscape.
Travelling large distances - Davao to Manila for instance - is either a two-hour internal flight with the prospect of stops en-route should you so wish, or a long bus / taxi journey. To put it into context, my taxi journey from Banaue in North Luzon to Manila, approximately 219 miles, was estimated at 7 hours and 30 minutes on the internet. Reality? Nigh on 13 hours because of traffic and delays!
So, realistically, if you want to move fast then book an air ticket, however, don't be too quick to discount the car because that's part of the Filipino adventure. It's how you see the real country up close and personal.... with the aid of a chatty driver!
But, whichever method of transportation you opt for, carry an inflatable neck cushion at all times. Ever tried to catch forty winks on the train only to keep waking every time your head slips to one side? Try doing that in a car for 13 hours and you will be exhausted at the end of your journey!
To some extent, mode of transport in the Philippines really does vary depending on where you are. When I was in Davao I travelled a further two hours to neighbouring Tagum City to meet a friend. There was one major hotel, the 'Big 8' where I was advised to use motorised tricycles to get around. In the event the family I met ended up taking me to their place in a 10 seater, open air taxi, not unlike one of India's or Kathmandu's tuk tuks!
Needless to say, the Philippines is not your average 'Western' country but, then again, would you want it to be? You go there for an experience.
However, if a journey to this country sounds anything less than inspiring, then remember the words of Mark Twain before you condemn yourself to a life of Benidorm, Tenerife and Blackpool: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do." Bon voyage!
Long distance car journeys can be arduous, twisting and slow. Take a neck cushion or something to make your sleeping position comfortable! Car headrests are notoriously poor!
On long journeys take regular breaks. No heroics!
Make sure you have got bottled water with you in the car.
Do your homework on taxis. They're great in Davao and taxi drivers there know better than to try and rip you off, largely thanks to the iron fist of Mayor Duterte. Manila cabbies are not as charitable. Either agree a rate before you get into the cab or make sure the meter is running. Cabbies should, by law, put their meters on. They often don't!
Jeepneys are brilliant and cost coppers but make sure you know how to shout Ma Bayad (my fare) and Ma Para (my stop). Jeepneys stop wherever you want, within reason, so you DO need to know where to get off!
(in-country travel agency / nationwide city guides / Travel & Hotel Bookings)
Manchester to Davao (return) in economy - from £790pp
Manchester to Manila (return) in economy - from £795pp
Manchester to Davao, returning Manila to Manchester - from £795pp
Plane, Train, Automobile or Jeepney!, 30th May 2016, 15:43 PM