I’ve had a few inquiries about what life is really like in the Philippines. I hope the following informs and educates.
1. You’ll get beaten, robbed, shot and left in a gutter to die the moment you step off the plane.
The Philippines has a reputation for being the Wild West, but even the Wild West wasn’t really. There are sketchy areas but there are also calm and quiet places. Outside the big cities, life is as slow and relaxed as you’d expect on tropical islands. People are friendly. Street crime is rare. Even the dogs lying in the midday sun are too lazy to bark.
This is not to say that you can throw caution to the wind. It is important to dress down, carry only the cash you need for the day, and avoid getting into an argument with a local that may result in him losing face. Stay in well-lit, populated areas. Do not be drunk. Keep your bag in front of you rather than behind, and it should be a cheap bag. Don’t carry a bag at night.
If someone does wave a gun in your face, give them your money and they’ll go away. This is hardly an everyday occurrence – pickpockets on jeepneys are by far the most likely threat you’ll encounter.
How careful you need to be depends on where you are. In the back blocks of Manila, behave as you would in Detroit. In a small, quiet town you can probably ignore most of this advice and you’ll be fine. As you stay longer, you’ll figure out the situation and observe what the locals do.
Break-ins are a problem. Stay in fairly secure accommodation and hide or lock your valuables away in a safe or at least a locked suitcase. Keep a sturdy implement by your bed just in case, but it is unlikely that you’ll ever use it.
Actual shootings are much rarer, and usually relate to (a) infidelity, (b) a business/political/personal dispute or (c) the police assassinating a known drug dealer.
If you sleep with a guy’s wife he’s allowed to shoot you. So don’t do that. If they are formally separated then he’s not meant to touch you.
Disputes are sometimes settled by hiring gunmen to come and shoot you. Don’t get into a business, personal or political dispute.
Keep in mind that it is not just Filipinos you need to watch out for. This is a country that does not always attract the cream of foreign society, and some of the expats are violent lunatics. The Hell’s Angels are active. Love triangles can end in disaster. The last Australian who got shot, was murdered by another Australian.
If you stay in the Philippines long enough or are careless then it’s likely you’ll get something pinched. You probably won’t get beaten or murdered. Most places here are safer than decaying urban areas of the US.
2. The girls luuurve foreign guys.
Be aware there are two aspects to this. The first is a genuine fascination for foreign men, sometimes including non-whites. The women often find us tall, handsome and exotic, reminding them of Hollywood stars. Any young guy (<40) or older guy in good shape is going to attract attention.
The other aspect, of course, is financial. You’ll see plenty of young women with Western partners who are way older than them and often not in fantastic shape or especially attractive. I saw one woman with a guy who looked like the boss of the orcs from The Lord of the Rings.
This is because most Filipinos are very poor. They are not starving, but many eat low quality food like white rice and scraps of chicken deep fried in endlessly reused palm oil. People are small because of a lack of protein. Often they do not eat a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, sometimes because they do not have access to a kitchen.
Many Filipinos live in very basic accommodation that a Westerner would not consider suitable for human habitation. While they live in a beautiful country, many have never visited even nearby tourist attractions like small islands or mountain resorts because it is too expensive or they are too busy working.
Marrying a foreigner who is retiring on his half-mill dramatically changes the lifestyle of the wife. Those looking for a girlfriend or a wife will find one.
The story that goes with the image is here.
3. Filipinas make the best wives and girlfriends.
Girlfriends vary greatly, and as with anywhere you’ll need to NEXT a few clowns in order to find your princess.
As for wives, those who marry someone not too madly out of their league generally seem happy. That is, a sixty year old who marries an average twenty-eight old is likely to have some success. The same man who marries a twenty year old stunner is likely to get taken for a ride, or at the very least get his heart broken as she runs around town. Sure you can do well here, but be reasonable.
Note that Filipinos age faster than Europeans. That twenty-eight year old wife will not look at all out of place with her older husband after ten years.
In general, Filipinas are proud of being feminine, cooking, keeping house and looking after her husband and kids. She is likely to be less happy if she is expected to take on onerous outside work. They usually avoid dramatic confrontation and try to put on a happy face, so I actually recommend you be more beta than usual and console her if you’ve gone a bit too far and pissed her off. This is a country where a gentler approach usually works best.
Do not expect your Filipina wife to engage in deep conversations about technical and philosophical subjects. They are more interested in their own families, local news, social media and pop culture. If this is a deal-breaker for you, consider the deal pre-broken.
It ought to go without saying, bringing a Filipina wife back to your Western country to live is likely to result in her assimilating to the Western zeitgeist, and all that that entails.
4. The Philippines is dirty, crowded, ugly and polluted.
This description mostly matches Manila. Get outside of that shithole and you’ll find a wonderful archipelago full of waterfalls, coral reefs, jungles, beaches, mountains and charming villages.
Manila and, to a lesser extent, Cebu City, are insane. The traffic is so bad that you can barely get anywhere. Taking a short taxi trip to a local museum might occupy your whole day.
In smaller cities the traffic is not so bad, and in the country it is fine, but be aware that the driving is chaotic everywhere. It takes some getting used to, but once you understand how it works you’ll be fine. Hopefully.
Some people never manage to leave the city, which is why they end up with such a bad impression of the place. Get out of town to literally anywhere else and you will have a totally different experience. Every little island has its own adventures and delights waiting for the intrepid.
5. Duterte is scary and he’ll shoot you.
Duterte will not shoot you unless you’re dealing drugs. Taking drugs might also put you at risk, as might being around people who are doing drugs. Have nothing to do with drugs or druggies and you’ll be fine.
This is not like Cambodia where you can do what you like and pay a small bribe to get out trouble if you need to. They are deadly serious about drugs. Don’t even talk about drugs in public, and if someone else is talking about them, offering them, or might be on them, move away.
The police are also shooting other presumed criminals without trial, be they burglars, murderers or National People’s Army members (commie insurgents).
From a Western perspective, Duterte might seem like a bit of a nut, but consider this case for illustration:
Some morons were getting around town on a motorbike, randomly stabbing people. They’d ride up to a crowd, stab the nearest person, then ride off as fast as they could. Both men and women suffered injuries but no one was killed.
There were rumours flying around about their motivations, as there always are, but these ought to be taken with much salt. The story was that the stabbings were some kind of stupid fraternity initiation rite. Who knows.
Tracing a motorcycle back to a nearby village, the police eventually questioned a young man for some hours but later released him due to lack of evidence.
Laster that day, masked vigilantes set upon the man, shot him, then buried a knife in his skull. Police had no leads on who these vigilantes might have been, but just saying, no one’s ever seen the vigilantes and the police in the same room . . .
A Westerner will think, why not just compile the evidence against him and take him to court? Well, they don’t have the same resources to investigate, many people along the way might be bribed, it would take forever for the case to get to court because it would be endlessly delayed, and by the time he was sentenced he might be due for release anyway.
The justice system is so inept and expensive, people are happier with swift vigilante justice or with the rough justice dished out by local baranguy officials who are armed only with handcuffs and a big stick. No courts, no lawyers, no bribes, just sort it out there and then.
Duterte remains very popular because the crime rate has plummeted throughout the country and previously risky areas are now frequented by families well into the evening. That’s how it is.
6. The food is terrible.
The food at local eateries tends to be cooked in bad oil, then sits in warm containers all day in the tropical sun with flies all around, flea-bitten semi-stray dogs lying nearby, etc.
More expensive restaurants are much safer. Once you’re paying $5 – $10 for a meal then it should be fine. However, these sorts of dishes rarely have many vegetables. If travelling, you’ll often find that you are malnourished and need something more. Staying in an AirBNB and cooking for yourself, together with cutting up fresh fruit, is the easiest solution. Most places have good markets plus some more expensive supermarkets.
On the other hand, simple dishes that Filipinos mostly cook at home are often very good. Sour soup with pork and vegetables (below). Chicken curry. Barbecue fish. These dishes are often considered too humble to go out for, but are much healthier and more delicious. Take up any opportunity to visit someone’s home for dinner, or even learn how to cook them yourself.
Occasionally, decent restaurants will have their own versions of these. I remember a pizza place that had a few traditional, local dishes for the grampas who refuse to eat that weird foreign food. Check out the whole menu and ask about things you don’t recognize – they use the vernacular.
At its best Filipino food does not beat Thai or Chinese, but it’s pretty good. You just have to find it.
7. The Philippines is crazy cheap.
You could live here on USD $1,000 a month, but it would not be much fun. You might be in a fan room (no aircon), rarely go out to eat, not do much touristy stuff like diving or island hopping, and you’d constantly be struggling to keep up with visa expenses. For older gents in this position, medical bills can be a killer.
There are Westerners who live on that amount, usually on a US military pension.
[Edit: since writing this I have found my self living on around $800 per month. However, this is because I’m stuck here during lockdown and have nothing to spend my money on because everything is closed and travel is impossible. I mostly live on rice and fish from the local market and my hobbies are reading and going to the beach.]
A grand a month would be a middle-class income for locals, but you need to keep this in perspective. Locals would be living with extended family, often in a traditional home or cheap boarding house that lacks the mod-cons Westerners are accustomed to.
People living in traditional accommodation typically bathe with a bucket and flush the toilet by pouring water into the bowl. Many people must go to the local well to bathe and wash their clothes. This is why such places are cheap.
A house or apartment of a livable size, with aircon, half-way decent WiFi, running hot and cold water, kitchen, power, bathroom, and flushing toilet will cost around USD $500 per month. Less (around $300) if you rent long-term or in a more remote area. Much more in Makati.
As mentioned earlier, you can eat out for next to nothing, but you’ll pay a toll. Some of those grizzled vets have grown accustomed to cantina food, but the normal person will need to spend at least $5 to eat out safely.
Cooking at home can be very cheap if you are using local ingredients from the market. Once you start using imported goods like beef or nice cheese, your costs will multiply rapidly.
Fun activities can be expensive. While far cheaper than many places in the world, diving will be a major expense if it’s your regular hobby. Hiring a boat to go snorkelling, island hopping etc. can be pricey. Serious hiking can require hiring an official guide. Travelling around and seeing the sights will be much more expensive than staying home.
Retirees can live cheap in the Philippines if they tend the garden and watch TV. If you want to get out and do many things, your expenses will rise accordingly.
I would say a comfortable, frugal lifestyle can be lived on around $1,500 per month. This is fine for a bogan like me who are used to minor Third World discomforts. For fairly high income earners accustomed to the finer things in life and not willing to rough it any more than necessary, you’d better budget around $2,000.
8. A bonus, little known fact:
While it is not a myth, there is one big thing about the Philippines that very few people know.
The Philippines is one of the friendliest, most cheerful places on earth.
People consider it a moral duty to wipe those blues away and smile through the pain. Even in floods you’ll find people trying to find the funny side.
Foreigners are popular with people all ages. Old people will smile. Toddlers will call out, ‘Hello, friend!’ Strangers are always happy to have a chat. In some countries I have found this to be confrontational rather than friendly, but in the Philippines it is totally innocent. This makes it a very pleasant place to spend time in.
In return, it’s expected that you be friendly right back. You have to say hello to those toddlers or their parents will be disappointed. You might get sick of it, but that’s how it is.
After all, this is the rule for all Filipinos, not just you. Foreigners get extra attention, but locals are also very friendly to each other and this is considered good manners.
I hope I’ve clarified some things for you about the Philippines. I’m not putting myself out as an expert – I’ve just lived here for a while. No doubt Luisman will correct me about whatever I got wrong.
* * * * *
I’m flogging a book:
Also available on many other platforms.