The Philippines’ culture is an excellent mix of both Eastern and Western influences. Visitors can be a bit daunted by the norms and cultures, but the Philippines is an easy travel destination. With its very carefree and soothing environment, great weather, and a smorgasbord of values, beliefs, and practices, the Philippines truly is a “must-go on” your bucket list.
Tourists are not expected by Filipinos to be already familiar with the local customs; knowing a few basics “do’s and don’ts” can help you quickly adapt to local practices and traditions during your travel. Knowing these customs will help you along the way to travel worry-free and make the most out of your experience in this great country.
Here are some pointers every traveler should be aware of when traveling to the Philippines to make the most out of your stay.
The Philippines is the most prominent Christian country in Asia.
According to a Philippines local newspaper outlet, the Philippines is the bastion of Christianity in Asia and the fifth in the whole world. Christianity was introduced and preached to the Filipinos during the Spanish occupation and still remains the country’s biggest religious denomination. It has taken a considerable part in the Filipino culture, beliefs, and practices.
Do not be disrespectful of the strong Christian values and beliefs of the Filipinos. Never make fun of something that is related to religion, as this is very offensive, primarily in provincial areas. Some churches in the Philippines are considered tourist spots, be mindful that they are deemed hallowed grounds. Some of these churches are Basílica Menor del Santo Niño de Cebú in Cebu, San Jose de Ivana Church in Batanes, and Baclayon Church in Bohol.
Do not miss out on the religious significance of some tourist-worthy events in the Philippines, such as festivals. Look into the background of each festival, like Sinulog, so you can be more familiar with the Filipino ways of how Filipinos worship and celebrate Christianity.
Be respectful to the Filipino elders.
The Filipinos show great respect for their elders. Using honorifics such as “po” and “opo” are incorporated in the Tagalog language. Filipinos never address elders by their first name. Instead, they use titles such as “Lolo” for grandfather, “Lola” for grandmother, “Tatay/Ama” for father, and “Nanay/Ina” for mother.
Filipinos would also use honorific titles for older siblings such as “Kuya” for older brothers and “Ate” for older sisters. Please take note that Filipinos often use this as a sign of respect to the person they are addressing when talking to strangers. For example, you may notice that locals may call a male street vendor “Kuya” even when they are not blood-related.
One of Filipinos’ unique ways to show respect is through “pagmano” – an act of slightly bowing to the elder, taking his/her hand, and touching it lightly to your forehead. Pagmano is a simple gesture but holds a great significance in showing respect to the elders.
Locals may not expect these honorific acts, but they will expect the value of respect from any visitors. As the golden rule teaches us, “let us treat others the way we would like to be treated,” and it is guaranteed that Filipinos would still treat you better.
Accept the genuine Filipino hospitality.
Never shy away, especially when Filipinos are trying to show hospitality. As the Philippines is well known to be one of the most hospitable countries, expect to get along with the Filipino people. The locals embrace the culture of “pakikisama” or treating others well.
As part of their general culture, Filipinos will try their best to make a good first impression. You’ll be surprised that people will immediately call you “friend” right away. Some locals will throw welcome parties for visitors where anyone from their community is invited, especially in rural areas.
When visiting places where there are festivals, expect a higher level of hospitality. In some areas, houses are mostly open to strangers where anyone can go in and grab a full course meal. Filipinos tend to be extravagant, especially when celebrating such occasions or festivals like Sinulog in Cebu, Ati-Atihan in Aklan, Panagbenga Festival in Baguio City, MassKara Festival in Bacolod, and Kadayawan Festival in Davao.
Do not be surprised if you make friends along the way.
Do not take all invitations too literary.
Filipinos, when they start eating, would invite others to join them. You would hear them say, “Kain tayo!” – or “Come, join us, eat!”. They’ll often offer to share what they have with others as an act of being nice. These invitations, while pleasing as it may sound, should not always be taken literally. Look for queues on whether they mean it or not.
For example, as mentioned earlier, at festivals, Filipinos will definitely invite everyone inside their homes for a meal. Still, a person with his/her packed lunch saying “Kain Tayo!” definitely means that it was only an effort to be nice.
Just try to be a bit more sensitive and observant when Filipinos invite you to anything.
Do not refuse if invited for the third time.
If Filipinos do invite you to do something for the third time, they mean it. Accept the invitation or politely refuse if you don’t want to do it. It is important to note that Filipinos have great value for fellowship and friendship and expect everyone, even foreigners, the same attitude. Remember that they are not just trying to annoy you by being pushy.
When accepting such invitations, the best thing is that you will most likely get to have that one unique experience that you can take home with you. For example, if you are invited to eat “balut” (a duck egg delicacy sold as street food), you might want to take on the challenge or kindly refuse by saying “busog na po ako” which means you are already full.
In the subject of refusing, if you do feel uncomfortable, you can always decline kindly and politely. Filipinos are very understanding and would not want to cause any harm or discomfort as well. Also, keep in mind never to come out too strong, especially when you disagree or refuse.
Do not be offended; be careful not to offend others.
While Filipinos are generally happy people, some may get easily offended. You may sometimes find that Filipino humor does not fit yours. For example, Filipinos may imitate or laugh at your fluent English accent. They do not mean to insult you, but instead, they find something different and amusing in a good way.
When dealing with Filipinos in rural areas, be more cautious about what you say, especially when commenting on something personal. People in the provinces tend to be more sensitive and easily offended than those who live in busy cities.
Again in the subject of not offending, locals in each area may have different unique customs. For example, it is a tradition to wash your feet in some rural areas before entering a house. Observe the locals in the area and generally try to imitate what they do, especially in unfamiliar situations.
Be considerate with the Filipino accent.
The Philippines is regarded as a friendly country for English speakers. However, you can never expect all Filipinos to be excellent in speaking English. According to a 2018 report by the EF’s English Proficiency Index, the Philippines proudly takes the 14th place among the non-native English-speaking countries worldwide. As such, you may notice that the principal business centers in the Philippines cater to English speaking call-center support for large multinational corporations.
Filipinos always have English as one of the primary medium of education in the Philippines. Thus, Filipinos are very familiar with the English language, especially for those who live around major cities. It is safe to assume that you can find at least one English speaker anywhere you go.
Generally, many Filipinos know the English language and can speak it fluently. Though the same cannot be expected for all the places that you might visit in the country. For example, some provinces may be far from the cities where usually proper education is hardly accessible. These areas tend to have difficulties in speaking or understanding English.
Some may struggle with a native English accent or pronunciation. Try using more simple words, and more importantly, do not make fun of their effort to communicate in a non-native language.
Understand and avoid “Filipino Time.”
When being punctual is perfectly acceptable in the Philippines, sometimes it’s not best to arrive way too early for informal gatherings. Historically, this is also known as the part of the “mañana habit,” which “mañana” coming from the Spanish word “tomorrow.” It means delaying something that needs to be done right away, taken from the Spanish rule’s influence in the past.
Nowadays, the traffic and lack of public transportation in peak hours are to blame for Filipinos being late to planned events. It is very apparent, especially when you are visiting Metro Manila during rush hours. To avoid getting late yourself, plan on an hour or so in traveling to your destination so you can have enough time for any logistic inconvenience.
Note that formal events such as business meetings, debut, weddings, concerts, and shows with definite schedules begin right on schedule. Although delays may occur, plane arrivals and departures usually happen on schedule.
Do not get involved in rallies and public demonstrations.
When it comes to gatherings, the Bureau of Immigration (BI) states that foreigners are prohibited from joining or participating in any political rallies or demonstrations in the Philippines. Joining them would strongly be considered as an act of meddling with the Philippine internal affairs. Tourists can be blacklisted or deported regardless of age, gender, or nationality.
Never get involved in any political demonstration in the Philippines – Doesn’t matter if they are often colorful, intriguing, and exciting. If you have the urge to take a public demonstration photo, keep a very safe distance from the activity or better don’t take any pictures at all. Be careful of what you might post online, especially when making commentaries on the Philippine government.
Do not drive in Metro Manila unless you need to
Driving around Metro Manila can be a bit confusing. Even if you would use a navigation app, you might find yourself either cruising the smallest streets you’ve ever seen in your life or, the worst-case scenario, you would end up on closed roads due to repairs. The app typically tries to avoid public transportation volume such as jeepneys, tricycles, motorbikes, buses, and sometimes horse carriages!
If you need to drive, especially around the cities, it is best to get someone who is familiar with the area. There are lots of car rental companies that offer friendly drivers that you can avail especially in cities. You can also ask for a taxi if you are staying at a hotel.
A more practical approach would be using a ride-hailing app like Grab (an app like Uber). There also some apps you can download that let you hire a motorbike to help you get around the cities and go through traffic with ease (check out Angkas, Joyride, and MoveIt). These are available in Google Play Store and Apple App Store.
Do not catch attention to yourself when walking around.
You may not avoid this since you are traveling as a foreigner, but it’s best to maintain a low profile when traveling the Philippines to avoid sketchy situations. The most important tip is to travel light. When moving around, don’t bring your entire luggage with you. Try a small backpack instead of all the essentials that you might need for the day.
Make sure that you don’t bring too much money with you. Bring only enough with a few extras. Do not forget to exchange your money for some small bills and a few changes as this will save you when making small purchases in convenience stores. Note that the Philippines generally have just been introduced to cashless payments recently, so chances are if you are visiting provinces, you might still have to pay in cash.
As part of maintaining a low profile, try not to look too much like a tourist. If necessary, put away your camera, wear light clothing or dress for the occasion, avoid traveling alone in the dark, and do not provoke locals.
Always bring toilet paper everywhere you go.
The Filipinos are not very fond of using toilet paper. Instead, they would use a bucket of water and “tabo” (basically it is a small water pail with a horizontal handle used as a scoop to get some water from a pail) to clean up after they’re done doing their business. Sometimes, if you’re a bit luckier, you might find a water bidet (a hose attachment with trigger) installed in public restrooms.
When you travel by bus to provincial areas, there are bus stops where you have to pay to use a toilet. Using public restrooms in these stations will typically charge you about 5 or 10 Philippine Pesos (about $0.10 – $0.20). The charge will depend on what you will do. The collected money is for maintaining the restrooms. Just have a couple of coins ready for this occasion.
Sometimes when toilet papers are standard in prominent public places like malls and airports, you should have yours ready at all times. Make sure that you at least have a roll in your backpack. We would also recommend bringing some toilet seat sanitizers just when you encounter a less maintained toilet facility.
Do not get scammed on transportation prices.
Some public transportation, especially taxis, tend to charge foreigners more because they know that you are not familiar with the area. To avoid being overcharged, you can ask a few locals you might be traveling with about how much the typical cost would take you from point A to point B. Consider that as a reference to how much you should expect to be charged.
When riding a taxi, make sure that the meter is running correctly. Also, check if the taxis have an appropriate government seal to ensure that the meter has not been tampered. All taxis have the actual phone numbers of authorities printed somewhere in the car so use them when encountering a bogus driver. You can also see those phone numbers in other modes of public transportation.
As mentioned earlier, you can also use Grab or other ride-hailing apps when going around. These apps have fixed prices upon booking, and you can score discounts from coupons and promo codes. To register for an account of these apps, you might need your Philippine phone number. Not only will it save you some bucks, but it will also be a bit more convenient catching a ride this way.
Do not skip trying out the food.
Filipino food culture is a lot more diverse than it seems. It is a mix of both Western and Eastern cultures. Some even consider that Filipino cuisine was one of the earliest versions of fusion food. Do not get intimidated by the cuisine’s bizarre naming – you won’t know if it’s delicious unless you have tried.
One of the significant portions of Filipino food is rice. As a Southeast Asian country, Filipinos tend to eat almost anything with rice. Because of that, Filipinos even have lots of words associated with rice. There’s “palay” for harvested rice, “bigas” for uncooked rice, “kanin” for cooked rice, “sinangag” for fried rice, “tutong” for burnt rice, and also “bahaw” for leftover cold rice. Rice will always come with one or two meals called “ulam.”
Some of the Filipino flavor dishes you should try are adobo (pork belly cooked with soy sauce and vinegar). Sinigang (pork/fish/beef sour and savory soup). Sisig (crispy diced pork mask), lechon (open-fire roasted pork). Halo-halo (ice dessert with beans and jellies in milk topped with a flan). And of course, the legendary balut (fertilized duck egg delicacy).
Keep in mind that almost every province in the Philippines has its signature dish, so make sure to try them all out. Don’t forget to take that Instagram worthy food photos as a plethora of sumptuous delicacies will greet you.
If you want to immerse yourself more into the Filipino dining culture, consider eating as Filipinos do – with your hands. If you are not sure of how to do it, you can ask anyone to teach you. It is easier and more fun than you think it is.
Never limit your visit to the Metro.
Visiting the big cities in the Philippines sure is a sight by itself. From its beautiful busy workday goodness to its night-life glamour, there are tons of things to try out and enjoy. In Metro Manila, you can go around visit tons of shopping malls as they are everywhere. However, do not plan to visit the major cities in the Philippines – you will miss a lot for sure.
There are heaps of places to go that are only a couple of hours away from the big city centers. For example, if you’re planning to stay at a hotel by the airport in Cebu city, you might consider planning to visit Oslob, shy of 3 hours away from Cebu, to check on the whale sharks.
The Philippines is home to 7,100 islands, and as such, there are lots of places to visit in your limited time when visiting. Fill your days with exhilarating activities in the country’s best natural sceneries that you can always see in the provinces. You will find yourself closer to nature as you chose to explore the beaches, caves, underground rivers, falls and hills, volcanoes, and mountains in the country.
Do not forget to take a lot of pictures and videos.
The Philippines, with its 7,000 islands, will reward you with breath-taking sceneries. Get your gears ready. You might need one or more camera setups depending on where you will visit and what you will be doing at your destination. Going around cities like Manila, try to bring a simpler setup to avoid the hassle of carrying around too much.
Ensure that your cameras and your phones are ready at all times, with an extra battery pack just in case. You would need this in visiting rural areas, especially when you go island hopping. Some tourist islands in the Philippines would not have electricity. Plan so you would have every moment captured.
The rural places in the Philippines are also great for astrophotography for those who are interested in it. You can expect to have minimal light pollution in remote areas. The best time for astrophotography in the Philippines is usually around November to December, where the night sky is relatively clear of clouds.
If you’re planning to visit the beaches, we recommend bringing a GoPro or anything similar, with you with adequate waterproofing equipment as there are usually diving spots. You can always ask the locals about the diving spots in the area, and they might offer you to rent out their boat for your perusal.
Dig deep into the culture
Visiting the Philippines is undoubtedly a very exhilarating experience. There are lots of things to get accustomed to. Do not forget to immerse yourself in the culture. Let yourself be more flexible in Filipino culture, values, traditions, and practices. You can also try to be a little bit more of a Filipino yourself. Trust me, Filipino people will love it.
As the Filipino tourism slogan says, “It’s more fun in the Philippines.” Do not leave with any regrets. Don’t leave any unticked items in your bucket list – and if you do, make sure you plan on coming back! Make the most out of your stay in the Philippines. You’ll find yourself craving for your next visit as you go through your souvenirs and pictures from the Philippines.
Who knows, you might decide and want to stay a little bit longer on your next visit to the paradise that is the Philippines. You might also choose to stay in the country for good as many others have done before.
Hopefully, this list clears up a few things of what it’s like to visit the Philippines and what you should do and avoid. Despite the number of things to keep in mind during your visit, the Philippines will surely have a significant special place in your heart. Remember that these things are all part of the Philippines’ offer – it’s part of the rich Filipino culture.
You’ll always find yourself in great appreciation for the Filipinos’ beauty and distinctiveness, and values.
If you are interested, here is a travel guide to the globe on Amazon.