The Philippines is a Rice Place to Live
© Copyright 2021 by Gloria Lauris
Photo property of the author.
When people talk about SE Asia, typically Thailand, Malaysia, Bali and Indonesia spring to mind. But the Philippines? This ‘Pearl of the Orient Sea’ is often overlooked by tourists and by foreign retirees as an affordable option.
When my widowed father remarried a Filipina and she invited me, a widowed retiree, to move there, I thought “why not?” I was ready for some adventure and to spend time with my elderly father overseas, leaving cold Canadian winters behind. After all, the motto of the Philippines tourism board is that “It’s More Fun in the Philippines”. I lived there between 2015-2018 and repatriated back to Canada at the end of it.
Here are some things to consider for those expats thinking of moving to the Philippines, especially any solo, retired women. Prices listed are in USD equivalencies.
Most travelers visit the Philippines on a 30-day visa and can extend it as needed, but those 50+ can obtain an SRRV extended visa (Special Resident Retirees Visa https://pra.gov.ph/srrv/ ) which allows no limit to exit/enter the country and to import personal goods once with no customs penalty, as well as the right to purchase an apartment condominium under ones’ own name. Besides an annual $350 fee, this visa costs $10K-$20K depending on one’s pension and requires health and police checks. It takes one-two months on average to obtain, often through local embassies, before travel to the Philippines. I did get the SRRV but eventually cancelled it later. I overheard many other expats in the renewal office saying they just continued to extend their longer visas, even if they lived there, so I did that too.
As a foreigner, one cannot own property except a condominium, which are available only in the larger cities. Monthly and long-term house rentals are available, starting from about $100/month more rurally to the more expensive options in outlying areas of Manila. However, depending on how rural the location is would depend on how much fixing up would be required, often at the expense of the renter, and appliances and furniture may or may not be included. Gated communities and executive townhouses are available. For short term stays, hotels offer deals at approximately $100/night, and AirBnB at $40-$80/night in more urban and central areas. Amenities are usually very affordable (e.g., electricity and water about $20/month) although internet connection and mobile usage can be costly unless one can get on long-term plans.
I lived near my stepfamily in a smaller community of Dasmarinas Cavite, about two hours out of Manila and I ended up buying a modest executive townhouse through my Filipino family. Their name is on title. It needed all the appliances and furnishings. (Selling it later turned out to be very hard and at a loss.)
Domestic helpers are often available for light housework and possibly basic local cooking, for around $100+/month full time, especially if live-in. I ended up with part time help, mainly for cleaning as I preferred to cook myself. However, one maid patiently showed me how to properly cook rice in the rice cooker, which I appreciated.
International Living Magazine estimates that one could live comfortably in the Philippines for as low as $760/month to an average of about $1525 /month for a couple https://internationalliving.com/countries/philippines/cost-living-philippines/. This is probably accurate. My father lived in the Philippines like a prince on his modest teacher’s pension.
The temperature in the Philippines is tropical and maritime, with temperatures ranging from approximately 21C (70F) to 32C (90F), averaging around 26C (80F) with high humidity. The Philippines is comprised of an archipelago of over 7000 islands of which only about 2000 are inhabited. Monsoon season is typically from May to November and the rains can be very strong and heavy, with flooding happening typically in areas in Manila and in the northern and southern parts of the main island (Luzon). Most native people dress casually in dresses and shorts, and wear flip-flops and sandals, and use umbrellas for sun and rain. Most houses and apartments are not air-conditioned, so electric and handheld fans are often used. During the more humid times I had to shower a couple times of day to get comfortable. Thankfully I had air conditioning!
English is the second language in the Philippines, but away from Manila, few locals speak English, or do so with strong accents. Taglish (English-Tagalog) is widely spoken along with dozens of local dialects, making communication often tricky. In areas outside the city, foreigners are rare, and the curious local Filipino’s questions may startle foreigners with direct, personal inquiries such as: “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” Will you stay here forever?” “How old are you? “Why are you not married?” I hadn’t realized how introverted and private I was until I explored this generally extroverted and boisterous culture.
Local abbreviations or variations of English words is common. For example, ‘ref’ means refrigerator, ‘thrice’ for three times is still used, ‘motor’ refers to motorcycles, and ‘aircon’ is air-conditioners.
The charming Asian tradition of calling strangers Ma’am or Sir and their first name is in practise. The children will bow their forehead to an elder’s hand as a sign of respect. I was often given a chair to rest upon in areas to pay bills or at the bank.
There is a love of English puns and many stores and restaurants use them (e.g. Hairitage, Hairanoia, Bon Appetea, Serenitea, Infinitea, Brewed Awakening, Bake my Day etc). Many Filipinos are emotional and enjoy expressing sentiments and platitudes, often of a religious nature, sometimes advertised on their vehicles and through various public signage.
Getting around is not easy due to the overtaxed transportation infrastructure. One either drives, has a driver, or uses the modest public transportation which includes the jeepney (modified jeep buses), tricycles (motorcycles with a side car) or bus (only between larger centers). Although foreigners sometimes use the public transit, which is generally safe but crowded and inconvenient, typically they hire drivers, who could be found for about $15/day, and sometimes must provide a vehicle. Drivers are usually on ‘island time’ and are rarely punctual. I learned to work around my part-time driver’s schedule as he was an early riser and he slept early at night, often even with siestas in the hot afternoon.
People often worry about being able to afford medical expenses in a new country, but in the Philippines, the health care is wonderfully affordable compared to North American prices. It costs $10-$15 to see a doctor, even a specialist, often on short notice. There are many local specialist walk-in hospitals. Most physicians speak excellent English, being trained in UK or America, and are current in their medical knowledge. Health insurance is available, but is not really needed, unless one has an existing chronic or expensive health issue. Laboratories, such as Hi-Precision, are professional and blood results can be retrieved usually the next day in person or online. The Philippines is popular for medical tourism, especially for patients from China, Korea and SE Asia. One of the things I like best about the Philippines is the great access to affordable medical care. However, dental is perhaps best done elsewhere.
Filipinos in general are very religious, and most are devout Catholics. The priest is often invited to parties and will bless offices or new homes, and in my stepfamily’s case, even their logistics trucks. Christmas season arrives in the Philippines precisely on September 1, as it begins the ‘brr’/‘ber’ months (e.g., SeptemBER) and festivity erupts during the season (until end of January) in the malls with carols and decorations, and religious parades on the streets. New Years is particularly noisy and joyous, and recently firecrackers have been banned (at least officially). Children will start caroling door to door, daily, about 15 days before Christmas, hopeful of a few pesos (pennies: 5 pesos is about 10 cents at time of writing) for their activities.
Filipinos love parties and any reason to make music, sing and dance. Music is quite loud and animated, and they will even sing in the stores and grocery shops. Karaoke is a way of life, and many sing (not always well!) in the suburbs until the wee hours. Maybe the singers are hoping to become famous like Mikey Bustos (a Filipino singer and entertainer) or Bruno Mars (who is half Filipino) or even just to perform in The Voice Philippines or X Factor Philippines. The girls hope to become Miss Universe, like Catriona Gray (2018) and Pia Wurtzbach (2015) or the two other previous Filipinas to win this title (1973, 1969). Beauty is highly prized, and pageants are very competitive. Other competitive sports like boxing also draws significant interest. Manny Pacquiao, professional boxer, is arguably one of the most famous Filipinos in current time, and he is also a senator, actor and businessman. I would often see boxing being watched on my stepfamily’s cable TV, along with Filipino soap operas.
Christmas, Easter, Hallowe’en and Valentines Day are just some of the holidays celebrated. There are 18 national and regional holidays observed in the Philippines, including Christian and Muslim holidays, and each town and city has their own Patron Saint and its respective holiday.
Much of the food is regional and is a fusion of Asian, American, and Spanish cooking and is a combination of ‘East meets West’. Drinks are very sweet. Sugar cane is a billion-peso crop grown mainly in the Negros Island area. Additionally, coconut (boku) pie and drinks are staples.
Rice is eaten at every meal and it is a major agricultural product. There is an International Rice Research Institute (https://www.irri.org/where-we-work/countries/philippines) and some local colleges even offer a master’s or PhD in rice production and cultivation! A favourite upscale blend of Filipino-Japanese rice is Dona Maria’s Jasponica or Miponica, although there are dozens of other brands and blends available. I always bring a few sacks of Jasponica back with me to Canada as it is not widely exported. It is the best rice I have ever eaten, especially when made with coconut milk!
I am not a pork fan which is unfortunate since there is much pork eaten in the Philippines, especially roasted suckling pig (lechon), pork blood soup (dinuguan), fried leg (pata), marinated casserole (odobo) and barbecued pork belly (liempo). Seafood is popular, like squid and crab, and white fish (bangus), as well as other local favourites like beef soup (bulalo), chicken and chicken feet, and salted duck eggs (balut). Meals are heavy in starch with some protein. Vegetables are sparse or starchy, like with corn, and salads are often made with macaroni and creamy dressings. Dessert is typically sweetened rice dishes; fruit such as mangos, jackfruit, soursop, bananas, cassava, avocado and ube; milk puddings (leche flan); or shaved ice with toppings (halo-halo): all which are considered sarap (delicious).
Some popular local chains of eateries include Mang Inasal (local chicken and fish), Jollibee (burgers and chicken, a lower cost competitor of McDonalds), Chooks to Go (chicken), Chowking (Chinese food), Greenwich and Yellow Cab (pizza), Balinsasayaw (local food served in huts) and Goldilocks and Red Ribbon (bakeries), including buffet style restaurants like Cabalen, Buffet 101 and Yakimix (Asian fusion). Of course, Western chains like McDonalds, Starbucks and Pizza Hut are also prominent for the more affluent. There is always somewhere to go to eat and most of the time it is affordable.
Alas, diabetes and obesity are common health complaints, partly due to the fact many survive largely on rice. Filipinos also feed a rice diet to their cats and dogs as they are often unable to afford the commercial pet kibble.
Shopping is a busy pastime activity and malls are everywhere, for every budget. My favourite is the Ayala Centre in Makati, Manila, featuring the upscale and attractive Glorietta and Greenbelt outdoor-inspired malls. The large Mall of Asia (MOA) is also a popular attraction for shopping and eating and has a small fairground near the Port of Manila.
Casinos such as Okada in Manila http://www.okadamanila.com/are popular for adult gatherings and entertainment, as well as to enjoy the upscale food. They have a great western style buffet!
There is also the Costco equivalent chain called S&R (www.snrshopping.com) which carries western products, which I frequented. The popular malls generally have SM stores (general department) and groceries can be purchased also through SM, Robinson’s Supermarket, and Waltermart as well as many street vendors and small shops.
SPAS AND RESORTS
Spas can be found in many places but can be surprisingly expensive so are only affordable by foreigners or affluent locals. Tagaytay has many popular spas and stores, such as the Bodhi Mind and Body Shop, which is a combination of health essentials and a rooftop mini-library, situated in La Bella Tagaytay, also offering hotel and residences http://www.labellatagaytay.com/village-market/bodhi/ . The Nurture Wellness Village in Tagaytay http://www.nurturewellnessvillage.com/, is a spa that also offers gourmet farm-to-table meals and glamping (glamour camping). Smaller family-run resorts are also available for those who are more budget conscious, or for group events and weddings, like my step-family’s Villa Florenda in Silang, Philippines. https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Hotel-Resort/Villa-Florenda-Private-Resort-170139370198715/
FOREIGN SOCIAL CONTACT
One of the best sources for foreign contact is through the Manila InterNations (https://www.internations.org) social group of international professionals working in the Philippines. I went to their gatherings occasionally, but they tended to be in Manila and in the evenings, which was problematic for me given my transportation issue. Also, it generally attracts professional young males intent on networking, and Filipinas intent on foreign husbands. There were also some country specific social groups, like British or Australian or American. Not so much for Canadians.
There is a women’s newcomers’ group in the city of Alabang (ALIG: Alabang Ladies International Group https://aligmanila.com/). This group meets regularly and raises money for children’s charities at their delicious monthly buffet luncheon at the Alabang Country Club, with speakers on topics like health care initiatives as well as pending social reforms. That was easier for me to attend than InterNations as the meetings were often in the morning or at lunch and were only about an hour or so away, so transportation was easier. Most of the foreign ladies were younger and had small children so it was hard to find someone older and retired like myself.
I observed that most western foreigners who come to the Philippines seemed to be either young couples with families on a work assignment with a foreign company, missionaries, or older men (like my father) who remarried a (usually much younger) Filipina and were generally absorbed into their Filipino families. Foreigners typically are from other Asian countries, and less so from Europe, Australia or North America. So, for Caucasian single, retired women like me there currently are no common (foreigners) group for socializing for those 50+, at least in areas near Manila.
The Philippines is generally considered a young person’s country and the median age here is 24.3 years, according to Worldometers (https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/philippines-population/).
To enjoy the Philippines, especially as a solo retired foreign woman, I think one should likely go to where one could get by as much as possible without a driver and walk to places of interest. In Luzon, Alabang has public bus transport between it and cities like Dasmarinas and Manila. BGC (Bonifacio Global City), is a growing pedestrian city just outside of Manila, as is Taguig and seems popular with foreigners, although it is pricey. Makati, the business center of Manila is lovely but very expensive. Tagaytay, the high-ground volcanic town, also is popular with foreigners and locals but too is expensive and spread out, so a vehicle would be needed. Other foreigners go to other islands to cities like Cebu, Davao or even to the popular and famous white beaches of Boracay. Doing tourism alone as an older, single woman in the Philippines I found rather daunting.
ANIMAL and HUMAN WELFARE
I made a few Filipino friends, mainly through animal welfare activities of helping with vet care and to rehome many local stray cats and dogs. I continue to correspond with adopters and visit when I can. On this topic, those interested in animal welfare activities can participate in non-profit groups like PAWS (Philippines Animal Welfare Society https://paws.org.ph/), CARA (https://www.caraphil.org/ ) and Wagging Tails and Queenie Victoria (emerging shelters in Cavite, Philippines), among many others. Animal welfare is a huge issue and is only briefly mentioned here. For those interested to assist or donate, fledgling groups can be found on Facebook pages.
Helping orphanages and other charities of those disadvantaged is also a great way to contribute meaningfully to the community, although this is typically done through missionary work and religious groups. Organized groups of orphans sing at S&R and other places during the Christmas season to raise awareness and mainly funds for their orphanages.
Within three years, I found myself missing Canada and my son, so I repatriated back, but I continued to periodically visit my father, step-family and new friends in the Philippines when I could until the pandemic. My father sadly passed away at age 99 there in 2019 and I was able to make it to his birthday and to his funeral 6 weeks later. I have yet to return.
So, is it ‘more fun in the Philippines’ as their advertising slogans suggest? One can certainly find a variety of opportunities for fun and adventure, given this is a very affordable, and welcoming country. But if you are a solo, foreign, retired woman like myself, I would recommend staying to the larger centers, which offer more western conveniences, ease of access, and safety, unless you like off-the-beaten-track adventures which can also be had for those less faint of heart!
There is much to be said to living in a country with the locals as a local, as it is an experience that one cannot get as a tourist. You may even learn to be a rice expert!Gloria Lauris, is a retired government policy analyst and sociologist who lives in Ottawa ON Canada. She considers herself a global citizen having traveled through over 50 countries and six contents and having lived across Canada and overseas in the Middle East and SE Asia.