The other Southeast Asia, the Philippines is where Asia and Europe collide, over a sprawl of sand-circled tropical islands. Here, Catholic traditions meld with animist rituals and Islamic customs, creating a surreal melting pot that is unlike anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
You can thank the Spanish for the European influence, tangible in everything from the names of towns and barrios (neighbourhoods) to restaurant menus, where roast pork and paella are as common as noodles and seafood. Later, the Americans imposed their own vision and values – you can thank the US for the fast food chains, the love of pop music, and the rainbow-coloured jeepneys that serve as local buses, evolved from military jeeps left behind from WWII.
With 7,107 islands, it’s hardly surprising that many of the Philippines’ most stunning attractions can be found in or around the sea. Boracay and other islands are ringed by some of the world’s most immaculate beaches and the waters offshore are a diver’s paradise, with pristine reefs, astounding tropical fish, migrating whale sharks and wrecks from WWII.
There’s much more, though. Away from the beaches are jungles, mountains, volcanoes and hidden caverns ripe for exploration. The volcanic nature of the islands is highly obvious – natural hot springs bubble up across the Philippines and the pyramid peaks of live volcanoes such as Mount Mayon call out to trekkers who don’t mind living dangerously.
It can’t be denied that the Philippines has a seedy side – but it’s easy to avoid this gloomy scene and find more wholesome nightlife, where live bands perform note-perfect covers of any song you could name and even the smallest, palm-thatched village has a karaoke bar.
This isn’t a country that stages dozens of phoney cultural shows for tourists, and the islands’ vividly colourful festivals (of which there are many) are predominantly aimed at locals. So it’s down to individual visitors to strike up conversations and discover a country where East meets West and traditional culture meets the modern world in a crash of colour and confetti.