Philippines Expat Health Insurance Guide
By anyone’s measure the Philippines is an impressive country. Consisting of 7,107 different islands, covering an area of 115,000 square miles, the Philippines is the 12th most populated country in the world, with the 5th longest coastline and over 100 different recognized languages. Unsurprisingly, for the adventurous visitor the islands that make up the Philippines represent a rich patchwork of regional cultures and geographic variations that simply beg to be explored further.
The Philippines is an archipelago of islands which largely enjoys a hot and humid tropical climate. Three different seasons are recognized in the Philippines. First of all is the hot, dry season which is experienced between March and May. Next, between June and November, comes the rainy season. Lastly a cool and dry season is experienced between December and February.
The Philippines are located on the so-called “ring of fire” and as a result they regularly experience extreme climatic conditions. An average of 20 typhoons hit the country each year, while earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are not uncommon. Lastly in the rainy season sudden torrential downpours are typical, which can make travelling somewhat problematic.
All this seismic activity does have a positive side though. The Philippines are estimated to have the world’s largest deposits of copper, and the second largest deposits of gold in the world. This rich mineral bounty has helped the Philippines to fund considerable growth and development over recent decades, bringing itself sharply into the 21st century.
The Philippines are also now the 2nd largest producer of geothermal energy in the world, which has helped to reduce pollution and protect the natural wonders which abound here. There are now estimated to be 100 mammals and 170 birds found nowhere else in the world.
As a nationality, Filipinos are well-known for their hospitality. Many travellers find the friendliness of locals almost overwhelming, particularly in comparison to many other South East Asian countries.
While the Philippines are now recognized as an independent sovereign state, it is interesting to note the effect that Spanish colonization has had on the country. For one, the Philippines is one of the few strongholds in South East Asia of Roman Catholicism. In many ways public holidays here are what any other Western traveller might expect, with long Christmas celebrations and an Easter break as prime examples.
In addition to this, much Spanish colonial architecture remains and, combined with the churches and cathedrals, it has been noted by some travellers that you could be forgiven for thinking you were in South America rather than Asia when visiting the Philippines.
At the time of the occupation, Spanish names were often handed out to the native peoples by force, and a surprising number of these still survive to this day. When you get to know the local Filipinos you are therefore likely to stumble across plenty of Spanish names, though be aware that these don’t always represent Spanish descent.
Lastly, foodies will be pleased to note that eating out can be considered a national pastime here, and that as a result the Philippines benefit from a broad and delicious range of foods, further splintered by the country’s geographic island diversity.
One of the real benefits for Westerners is that so much of the Filipino population speaks fluent English. Most visitors find to their pleasure that even most children speak excellent English meaning that it is very easy to communicate. Indeed, the only area where you may find yourself having problems are in the most rural areas.
Indeed, officially speaking there are two national languages in the Philippines; English and the native Filipino.
However it is interesting to note that this doesn’t necessarily give you the full linguistic picture. Such is the diversity of people across the many islands that make up the Philippines, officials have identified 175 recognized languages being used by native Filipinos. This just goes to show how much of a cultural melting pot the Philippines have become, drawing in ethnic groups from all across South East Asia, not to mention previous colonization by both the Spanish and the Americans.
Indeed, in terms of the Spanish it is fascinating to learn that while much Spanish culture has remained in the Philippines, the Spanish language has largely disappeared from everyday use.
As a network of over seven thousand islands the first concern when it comes to getting around is travelling from one island to another. While there are a limited number of internal flights these tend to favour the largest and most populous areas. If you either want to explore more distant islands or balk at the prices being charged for plane tickets there is also a network of boats servicing locals and tourists alike.
Generally speaking visitors are advised to seek safe passage with one of the larger and better-known ferry companies, whose vessels are typically better maintained than independent operators. Should you have hired a car it will often be possible to take this on just such ferries, making them an even more practical mode of transportation.
In terms of travelling around a specific island there are a number of options. For one, expats and travellers alike may hire a car on production of an international driving license. That said, Westerners may be surprised by the poor quality of driving experienced in the Philippines. Furthermore, it has been suggested by some authorities that driving after dark should be considered off-limits due to the regular muggings that occur at night – especially along unlit rural roads.
What is perhaps more practical can be to hire not just a car but also a driver. The costs of such an exercise are typically comparable to hiring a car to drive yourself, but rids you of the trouble that driving in the Philippines can represent.
There are of course other options. Taxis are generally cheap and reliable with many drivers going out of their way to help polite visitors. That said, as with any other industry, there will always be a few bad apples. In the Philippines a common “trick” seems to be not turning the meter on, and then attempting to charge tourists several times the going rate for a journey on arrival at their destination.
To counteract this ensure that the taxi driver has his or her meter running or demand that it is turned on. If the driver refuses or claims it is broken (as is common) then you are better to exit the vehicle and find an alternative driver with more scruples. Note that taxis are only to be found in larger cities; in more rural areas you will be lucky to see a single taxi, ruling them out for travellers seeking to explore further afield.
If you want a true taste of the Philippines then consider travelling by Jeepney. This mode of transport has become something of a national institution to Filipinos and truly no trip here would be complete without at least one journey in one.
When US forces pulled out of the Philippines at the end of the Second World War they left behind a surplus of unwanted army Jeeps. The creative Filipinos painted these vehicles with gaudy colours, and essentially began using them like taxis, turning them into the brightest form of transport around.
Lastly while there is a large bus network in the Philippines trying to navigate them can be next to impossible for non-nationals. The reason for this is that the many bus companies involved don’t share information, meaning that there is no central source of information or time tables. If you opt to try travelling by bus your best bet is to ask for advice in your hotel in order to ensure you end up at the correct eventual destination.
The Filipino healthcare system is unusual in that it is primarily serviced by private hospitals and clinics; very few state-funded medical establishments exist. This is not necessarily a bad thing as these privately-run hospitals generally offer far higher standards of care than their state-run alternatives.
Indeed, the standards found in many private hospitals is good enough that the Philippines have become an important destination for medical tourism. People flock here from around the world to enjoy Western-standard medical care at South East Asian prices. The doctors here are typically highly trained and fluent in English, assuring you of a comfortable visit.
That said, the fact that almost all medical care is paid for by private citizens means that travel insurance should be considered essential.
In the case of emergency care being necessary ring 117 from within the Philippines and request an ambulance.
In terms of preventative medicine, visitors to the Philippines are at risk of contracting both malaria and dengue fever. Travellers are therefore advised to seek vaccinations in plenty of time before leaving home so as to ensure immunity.
In a throwback from the Spanish colonization, the national currency of the Philippines is known as the peso.
ATMs are commonplace in most towns and cities though be aware that not all of them actively accept international debt cards. Alternatively you may need to actually enter a bank and withdraw money directly with the teller using your credit or debit card, or by cashing traveller’s checks. Note that many banks remain closed over the weekend and on national holidays so visitors are advised to plan their cash needs in advance so as to avoid any unfortunate situations.
Broadly speaking fewer businesses accept credit cards than in many other countries so should not be relied upon.
The Philippines has historically put a large emphasis on education. Literacy rates in the country are very high indeed, with many teenagers completing further education before moving into the work place. The downside is that many expats find that their degree is not quite as exclusive as they first anticipated in a country where so many nationals complete degree-level qualifications.
At the very least twelve years of schooling is compulsory, with the school year running from June to March. Sadly, if you’re considering sending your children to a Filipino school there is another side to education in the Philippines of which you should be aware.
Even to this day schools remain largely under-funded and over-crowded, meaning that the experience can be rather different to what Western-raised school children may be familiar with. You should also be aware that schools often teach as much in Filipino as they do in English, which can lead to problems with expat children adjusting to the change and keeping up with their studies.
Generally speaking most expats therefore opt to send their children to one of the many highly-regarded international schools which may be found in larger cities like Manila.
Food & Drink
The huge diversity of people that make up what we know as “the Philippines” has created a diverse and multi-faceted cuisine that many visitors find very appealing indeed.
Popular dishes include a hearty meat stew known as adobo and lechon or suckling roasted pig, often served with freshly-boiled rice and vegetables. Rather less palatable to Western-palettes is “balut” – a hard-boiled egg complete with under-developed chick embryo inside. Crunching through the bones, gristle and stunted feathers of a baby bird inside an egg shell is perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea.
It is worth noting that unlike many other countries in South East Asia the Filipinos typically do not eat with chopsticks and instead rely more commonly on a fork and spoon to consume their meals. Once again this can help to limit the culture shock felt by first-time visitors.
Note that tap water in the Philippines is generally not considered safe to drink. You should aim to consume bottled water, or to boil tap water for several minutes to remove impurities before its consumption.
It is unfortunate that such a beautiful country, filled with so many friendly people, has a number of safety issues that visitors should be aware of. Levels of crime in the Philippines are relatively high with gun crime still commonplace. Robbery and street crime are the most common forms, particularly in more urban areas.
Armed hold-ups in public buildings and on buses are also sadly not uncommon, which is one reason why so many expats opt to drive or take registered taxis rather than rely on the public transport.
There is also a small yet powerful Muslim extremist population who have been known to carry out terrorist attacks in the past. The general advice at present is to avoid the southern-most islands where the problems typically occur. Visitors are advised to check with their foreign office before travel to be aware of current trouble hotspots.
Lastly be aware of the natural disasters that can occur in an area rich in volcanoes and typhoons. Some months will naturally be better for travel than others, and travellers should keep an eye on local news in order to remain alert to any potential threats.
Places to Visit
With over 7,000 islands to choose from it should come as no surprise that the Philippines offers visitors a wealth of experiences. Here are some of the most famous sites to be found in this incredible country.
El Nido’s shallow, clear waters and jungle-clothed rocky outcrops give the impression of the Thai paradise enjoyed by Leonardi DiCaprio in The Beach. El Nido is considered to be one of the very best diving sites in all of the Philippines and passionate divers flock here from around the world to enjoy the spectacle. It has been said that the best description of diving here is to imagine yourself inside a tropical fish tank.
If you’ve ever looked at those pictures of tropical paradises and promised yourself that one day you’d spend time lying on a white sand beach, relaxing under a palm tree, next to a warm turquoise ocean then Boracay is all this and more. A tropical island paradise, Boracay is the perfect answer to the stresses and strains of modern life.
World Heritage Site Vigan is known around the world as one of the best-preserved original Hispanic towns in the world. From its cobbled streets to the perfectly-preserved buildings, a visit to Vigan allows you to immerse yourself in a bygone world.
Known for their colour in the dry season, when the vegetation wilts and turns a chocolatey-brown colour, this collection of more than a 1000 unusually-shaped hills is one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of the Philippines. The vast array of conical hills, surrounded by lush forest, creates a thoroughly unique spectacle to visit; no wonder then that the area is currently being considered for World Heritage status.
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Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Argentina please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.