Choosing Your Guidebook to the Philippines

by Steven K. Bailey, Feb 1, 2002 | Destinations: Philippines / Manila

Of all the countries in Asia, I reckon the Philippines might be the one where you least need a guidebook. After all, Filipinos are friendly and more than willing to help foreigners in need. Even more importantly, perhaps, Filipinos speak English fluently and enthusiastically, especially in urban areas. A guidebook can seem somewhat superfluous in a country with millions of English-speaking people eager to help make your stay as trouble-free as possible. Having said that, a guidebook can still come in handy for everything from background history to detailed city maps.

Compared to Thailand or Vietnam, I find that the guidebook selection for the Philippines remains surprisingly limited. Fortunately, however, those guidebooks that are available offer some excellent choices. I recommend all of the guides listed below, though for different reasons, and hope my recommendations help you find the guide that's best for you. After all, like a good pair of walking shoes, you want your guidebook to be a perfect fit.

Practical and Functional: Lonely Planet's Philippines

Lonely Planet's guidebook goes by the purely functional title of Philippines ($21.99; 504 pgs.). Indeed, functionality and practicality have always been the hallmarks of Lonely Planet (LP) guidebooks, and the LP guide to the Philippines is certainly no exception to this rule. This highly detailed book is jammed with useful travel advice. The chapter on the metro Manila area, for example, describes over eighty hotels and nearly a hundred restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

Seven additional chapters follow the section on metro Manila and cover every region of the Philippines, from Batanes in the far north to Sulu in the deep south. The bulk of each chapter focuses on four related areas: how to get to a specific place, where to stay once you arrive, where to eat once you've found a room, and what to see and do once you've filled your belly. This simple and straightforward system allows Lonely Planet to present a huge amount of information in an easy-to-read format.

Other advantages to the LP guide include its small size, light weight, and sturdy cover and binding. The book won't add measurably to the weight of your bag, and it can withstand the abuse of rough travel. In fact, in fifteen years of using various LP guides I've never had one self-destruct.

If you're a traveler who relies on maps - and not all travelers do - then you'll certainly find the LP guide's ninety-six maps quite useful. These maps consist primarily of street maps, though plenty of large-scale maps depict various regions and a color map displays the entire country. In general, the city maps are accurate and reasonably easy to read if you're sitting down and can concentrate. On a busy street corner, however, you may find them too small and confusing to make much sense of. The maps are covered in numbers which correspond to numbered columns of un-alphabetized hotels, restaurants and other sites. This system allows Lonely Planet to pack in a lot of detail, but it also makes its maps tiresome to read.

The first Lonely Planet guide published back in 1973 was geared to the low-budget backpacker crowd. In recent years Lonely Planet has broadened its focus to include travelers with a bit more cash, but nonetheless all of its guides are designed for independent travelers with modest budgets. Consequently package tourists and well-heeled travelers may find Lonely Planet's guide to the Philippines to be of limited use.

Published in October 2000, Lonely Planet's Philippines remains reasonably up to date. According to Lonely Planet, a new team of writers completely overhauled the text and maps, so if you've used a past edition of this guide and found it lacking, you might want to check out this new and improved version.

The Competitor: Moon's Philippines Handbook

Moon Publications offers a travel guide with a title only marginally more imaginative than Lonely Planet's. Moon's Philippines Handbook ($18.95; 545 pgs.) is organized very much like the Lonely Planet guide, and contains much of the same information. Nonetheless, the two books are different in a number of significant ways.

For one thing, the Moon guide takes a more neutral tone compared to the LP guide, whose authors are not afraid to air their strong and generally leftwing opinions about everything from the US military to Manila's air pollution. This is a plus as far as I'm concerned, but other readers may prefer the more measured tone of Carl Parkes, author of the Moon guide.

In addition, the Moon guide has fewer maps, though I generally find them easier to figure out than those in the Lonely Planet guide. Moon maps tend to sacrifice detail for readability, which seems a fair trade-off. Best of all, key features are labeled directly on the maps themselves, so you don't have to fool around with a number system of the sort found on Lonely Planet maps. Moon's maps are simple enough that you might actually be able to navigate downtown Manila with one of their city maps in hand.

Maps aside, Moon just can't compare to Lonely Planet in terms of practical travel information. Whereas the LP guide lists twelve pages of accommodations in Manila, for example, the Moon guide offers only two pages. Likewise, Moon offers a mere two pages of dining options, whereas Lonely Planet provides eight.

Moon compensates for this significant disadvantage by offering smoother prose and excellent 'special topics.' Set off in boxes from the main text, these short pieces cover everything from the guitar factories of Mactan to the Benguet mummies. The LP guide features similar text boxes, but they are generally shorter and less detailed than what Moon offers.

If you're looking for a guide that offers a well-written overview of the Philippines backed by a limited amount of practical travel advice, then I recommend the Moon book. If you want a guide that covers the nuts and bolts of traveling around the country, then go for the LP guide.

Rough Guide Yet to Appear

Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, and Moon remain the Big Three of guidebooks to Asia. Surprisingly, however, Rough Guides has not yet published a guide to the Philippines. So if you're bound for Manila, I'm afraid you can't Rough It.

Local Viewpoints: Philippines in a Nutshell and Corregidor

I've always enjoyed locally written guidebooks because their perspective contrasts with the perspective of guidebooks produced by foreign visitors. On my last visit to the Philippines, for example, I picked up Philippines in a Nutshell (450 pesos/$9.00; 281 pgs.), a guidebook published by Arcilla Travel Guide, Inc., in January 2000. Interestingly, the book was written by Dirk J. Barreveld, a Dutchman who has lived in Cebu City since 1987.

Barreveld offers this accurate description of his book: "This guide is not a summary of what its writer likes, it is an overview, province by province, of what there is or what there is not. It is up to the visitor to chose [sic] what he likes and where to go."

Philippines in a Nutshell does not feature the smooth prose and good maps of the Moon guide. It is not loaded up with the practical travel advice of the LP guide, either, though it does offer a twenty-page section titled 'Facts for the Visitor.' Here you can learn about everything from the ins and outs of ATM machines to the amount of marijuana you have to carry to earn the death penalty (750 grams).

Another example of a locally produced guide is Corregidor, by Alfonso J. Aluit. This slim 131-page book recounts the history of Corregidor, a fortified island in Manila Bay that fell to the Japanese army in 1942 after a desperate defense by American and Filipino troops. I bought this book while visiting Corregidor, and having read several accounts of the fall of the island penned by American authors, I was eager to get an account from a Filipino writer.

Corregidor offers a fairly balanced account of the battle and its aftermath, backed by forty pages of black and white photos. The text is quirky and riddled with errors, but this doesn't prevent Aluit from providing a powerful account of the joint US-Filipino last stand on Corregidor.

My advice is this: If you're planning to visit Corregidor, then read a longer and more detailed account of the island's defense before you leave for the Philippines. Then buy Aluit's book on the day you tour Corregidor (350 pesos/$7.00). You can compare Aluit's pictures of the island before the war with the island today, use his maps to retrace the battlelines, and consult his detailed description of the island's artillery as you visit the various gun batteries. You can even employ the little orange book as a fan in the sweltering heat.

Philippines in a Nutshell and Corregidor are just two of many locally published guidebooks. In Manila the National Book Store chain carries a selection of such guides, as do most bookstores, hotel shops, and gift shops geared to tourists. Lonely Planet guides can also be found in bookstores in Manila and other major cities in the Philippines. If you want the Moon guide, however, buy it before you leave home.

Enjoy Guidebooks in Moderation

Like San Miguel beer, guidebooks to the Philippines are best enjoyed in moderation. Sometimes it's a good idea to leave your guidebook in the hotel room and spend a day following your instincts. If you get lost in Malate, or need a good place to eat adobo, or don't know the jeepney fare, don't worry. The locals will help you out. After all, the best guides to the Philippines are surely the Filipinos themselves.