Philippines overland travel guide

Batad rice terraces

The Batad rice terraces

The Philippines is an island nation which doesn’t really work that readily as part of a wider overland route (though there is one ferry connection to Malaysian Borneo (see below) so you could fly in to Manila, travel south and depart by ferry, or vice versa). Furthermore, domestic overland travel is challenging due to the geography and infrastructure. That said, it’s a beautiful place with friendly people and great beaches & scuba diving (some of the best diving I’ve done), and well worth a visit.

How to travel to and from the Philippines overland (sea)

As an island nation with no land borders, the only way you can reach the Philippines without flying is by sea, but this isn’t easily done unless you’re on a cruise ship. In terms of public maritime transportation there’s just the one international ferry route, from the southern Filipino island of Mindanao to Malaysian Borneo. I was considering taking this route when I left the Philippines, but ended up flying to Thailand to catch up with someone.

If you want to take this ferry, it runs between Zamboanga and Malaysia’s Sandakan. Be aware that it crosses the Sulu Sea, home to pirate and militant groups, and that Mindanao has seen a long-running and violent separatist insurgency; take this into account when planning your route, and if you do go that way double-check the present situation before travelling to the area.

Beach sunset on Bohol

Overland travel within the Philippines

…kicked my ass a bit, to be honest. The mountainous archipelagic  geography and the far from ideal infrastructure combine for some fairly tough overlanding; I was travelling alone at that point, having already been on the road for around 8 months (including overlanding from the UK to Japan), and I found that I wasn’t rolling with the punches and dealing with the frustrations as well as usual. Some of the places I visited were absolute gems, but I found I didn’t enjoy the country as much as I perhaps should have and didn’t enjoy the crazy overland journeys in my usual masochistic fashion – and that was mostly my fault for refusing to fly when I probably should have. You definitely need your most calm and patient hat on for overlanding here; this is a country where flying makes a massive difference, and if you’re not hellbent on surface-level tranport then planes will save you a lot of time and hassle.

Jeepneys

Jeepneys, a popular form of short-distance transportation in the cities, also used for trips between neighbouring towns in rural areas

If you do want to do the Philippines overland, it’s by road on the islands and by sea between them; safety isn’t paramount in either case, and some of the mountain roads are equal parts spectacular and terrifying! On my way to Banaue (for the Batad rice terraces) I took a bus from Baguio to Bontoc… the bus was a banged out old clapper and the road wound its through the mountains around blind hairpins atop alarming precipices, I was the only passenger, and the driver didn’t exactly take it easy. It was pretty scary at times, but man was it beautiful. I don’t think I’d chance a night bus in the Philippines though.

Baguio - Bontoc road

Scenery on the bus ride north of Baguio

There’s a whole range of vessels plying the waters from island to island; Cebu, Bohol, and Negros islands are connected by nice, fast, modern hydrofoils and so are easy to move between. On the other hand, I actually decided against boarding a boat from Masbate to Panay (for Boracay); it was to be a five hour crossing, it was a crappy little boat, and thunderstorms were raging over the water; if you don’t think it looks safe, don’t get on it. I’d just come from Masbate City by minivan, and turned round and went straight back… the van going back was full of crates of fish, and I eventually arrived back where I’d started, stinking like a fishmonger; not the most successful day! The following day I instead took the big overnight ferry from there to Cebu; she looked seaworthy, but there turned out to be so many people on board that again it didn’t feel good. We made it without mishap, but disasters do happen and overcrowding is often a factor. It’s hard to avoid really, but follow your gut and if it really seems dodgy just change your route or consider flying.

Bohol's Chocolate Drop Hills

The Chocolate Drop Hills, Bohol

Some Philippines Highlights

The Batad rice terraces. Amazing.

Scuba diving – the Philippines has some of the best diving I’ve done (I dived Bohol and Cebu)

Swimming with whale sharks in Donsol.

Lovely beaches can be found all over the country – I went to the famous ones on Boracay and Bohol.

Palawan – I didn’t go, but it looks amazing.

Swimming with whale sharks in Donsol

Whale shark, Donsol. Hard to get a good picture!

Resources and Useful Links for Visiting the Philippines

World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance that you can buy even if you’re already overseas (this is a key point, as I once learned the hard way when I got pickpocketed in Bangkok). Also check out their scuba cover if you’re planning on some diving.

Lonely Planet Philippines

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