New Zealand-born Anna Cleal is the Director of a brand new, pioneering company ‘Flip Flop Tours,’ which aims to give backpackers their first taste of the Philippines! She talks about how some backpackers may be put off visiting the 7,107 islands due to fears of safety, lack of travel information or general laziness to leave the landlocked circular South East Asian trail of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia! Here she tells us about the amazing travel opportunities for backpackers in the Philippines and dispels any doubts people may have about visiting the country…
How long have you been in South East Asia?
I first visited South East Asia after I finished University in 2006. I did the backpacking circuit through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand and absolutely fell in love with the place. It was my first time travelling to the developing world and it was a real eye opening, shaping time of my life. By 2008 I was back in South East more permanently.
How did you come to live in South East Asia?
To be honest it wasn’t travel but work that drew me to the Philippines in the first place. My civil engineering company had a few projects on in the southern island of Mindanao and I gladly took the opportunity to work overseas. I think it went something like this; “Do you want to get paid to go and work in the Philippines?” Me: “Hmm let me think about that one long and hard – YES!” Before this, I knew very little about the country. I remember reading that the Philippines had a population of over 80 million people and wondered why I’d never heard much about it!
With office mates in Mindanao.
What do you love about The Philippines?
Without hesitation, the people! Meeting Filipinos and connecting with the culture has been my absolute highlight. The Philippines is actually the second largest English speaking country in the world, so you can connect with locals at a personal level from day dot. I think this makes it a unique experience compared to other Asian countries. Filipinos are known to be incredibly accommodating and friendly people, maybe it’s something to do with the number of islands they have in their country! Second, it would have to be the beaches Oh so many beaches! I’m a summer person at heart so I just love it. Even after three years living here I’m still making new discoveries. There is so much to explore; tropical islands, amazing corals, underwater life, dramatic landscapes, rice fields, friendly locals living off the sea, mangoes, coconuts… paradise island life!
Where is your favourite place in The Philippines?
That’s a tough one. I think I have more favourite moments here, rather than favourite places. I’m not so much in ‘box-tick, sight-see mode’ but in ‘soak up, live-and-breathe-it mode’. Hopefully that will come through in the tour I’m currently creating. I think some of the best times you have when you are travelling are when something doesn’t go to plan and you end up in a random place having a random conversation that leaves a real impact on you. Those are the things you remember.
Why are backpackers maybe put off visiting The Philippines?
Most of the time I feel like people just haven’t heard much about it (which is criminal) but there are some bad reputations attached to the country as well. The southern island of Mindanao frequently gets media attention for violence, however it is important to remember that this is a very small part of the overall Philippines and there are so many places untouched by violence. There have also been well publicicised hostage situations in the past. I’d advise everyone to read through travel warnings and make their own decisions. All I can say is that I’ve been here for three years and I’ve found it an incredibly welcoming place where the people are genuinely helpful. My experiences have been only positive and I’ve met many other travellers that feel the same. The only other deterrent is perhaps accessibility. With people preferring to stick to the land-locked South East Asian countries where you travel everywhere by train or bus. However, this really shouldn’t be an issue as the reality is that you can fly from all of the Asian hubs like Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore or China for a really cheap rate. Just check out some of the Cebu Pacific deals or Air Asia going to Clark (just north of Manila).
Compared to other South East Asian countries – can you tell us about ease of travel / safety / costs?
I would say ease of travel is just as good as other parts of Asia, with the added bonus of English! It is harder to find information on the internet, and harder to find other people to meet and travel with, just because the Philippines isn’t so much on the backpacker radar yet – but that’s what I’m hoping the tour can overcome! SouthEastAsiaBackpacker.com has recently included the Philippines on their website, so I think this will be a great ‘go to’ spot for information. Cost wise, I would say that the Philippines is slightly more expensive in terms of accommodation than the rest of South East Asia, but food and drinks are the same. Safety wise, as I mentioned, I have never experienced a problem, but there are certainly areas to avoid, for example some inner suburb areas of Manila. Like travelling to any country you have to be careful and do your research beforehand.
The island of Bohol, Philippines
Tell us about “Flip Flop Tours” and what you hope to achieve?
I’m really passionate about travel and what we all learn when we travel. You step outside your way of life, enter someone else’s shoes, marvel at the differences, then realise despite all the cultural differences we’re actually all very similar. If you can get to that last stage I think that is the beauty of travelling. The focus of Flip Flop Tours is to get to know people in the Philippines. I recently spent three months volunteering in the island of Bohol in 2010 and from that point on I knew I wanted to come up with a tourism package that would be both beneficial to those coming into the country in what they learnt from the experience, and beneficial to locals through investing money into some of the smaller communities here. On the tour, people do spend some nights in beach resorts but more often we stay with locals. There are also community projects that we visit along the way. However, true to our name, we also realise the importance of relaxing and enjoying the beaches! The importance of donning your flip flops, kicking back and living that care free beach life we all love. Obviously the diving and snorkeling here is first class, so there is plenty of time to enjoy this aspect of the Philppines too. I wouldn’t say it’s a sight-seeing tour – I’d like to think that people will take more away from it than a bunch of photos in nice spots!
What destinations will ‘Flip Flop Tours’ cover?
The first tour package we have developed is an introduction to the Philippines. It’s a 12-day all inclusive package (food, accomommodation and transport.) When you enter the Philippines you receive an automatic 21-day visa so we envisage that people can come on the tour, meet other travellers, have a blast, and then do some independent travelling which I think is really important. The aim is to encourage people who may not have been confident enough to travel to the country alone, to find their feet in a group to begin with!
The tour covers five islands in the Visayan region of the Philippines. They are all close and accessible by boat / van / jeepney / tricycle so there isn’t too much travel time. The trip starts in Bohol then goes via Cebu to the small islands of Malapascua and Bantayan (at the northern tip of Cebu). We then travel to Bacolod City in Negros to get a taste of Philippines City life and finally travel through Panay (overnighting in Antique) and ending up in Boracay. Boracay is a real party island so we finish the tour with a bit of bang and let people go their own way from here. I’d definitely recommend that you check out our website Philippines Homestays for more info.
Where can backpackers go from here?
Boracay is a great place to idle but it’s also fairly commercial so if people want to get off the beaten track again quickly they can head to the nearby Romblon islands, catch a boat to Mindoro, or a flight back to Manila and then check out Palawan, the whale sharks of Donsol, North Luzon rice terraces, whatever! Internal flights are extremely cheap in the Philippines, and there are even cheaper overnight boats running from most of the ports. We can help customers plan the rest of their Philippines adventure but we also encourage people to find their own path in the country.
Where are some unmissable spots in The Philippines?
The Philippines in general is just a really unmissable place! Don’t miss it ok? Ok?! If you want any more information feel free to contact us through our website. I’m happy to share information about the Philippines even if it is unrelated to the tour. My only hope is that more backpackers have the opportunity to experience this place. I believe that travel in the developing world, done the right way, is an excellent means of supporting the local economy, giving people work, and changing your perspective on life.
That’s the Flip Flop way!
Visit Anna at Philippines Homestays