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The Philippine Islands: A Complete Travel Guide and Cheat Sheet for First-Timers

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Michelle Tobias  • Contributor
Opinions expressed by Explora.ph Contributors are their own.
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Cover photo by Quin Schrock of everchanginghorizon.com. Graphics by Manel Solsoloy.

Traveling to a country with over 7,600 islands means picking out islands of your choice, dealing with an extensive variety of local languages, and sampling a diverse flavor of natural and cultural attractions.


While a great number of the Philippine Islands remain beautifully raw, uncommercialized, and unwritten, its most loved areas to explore are undoubtedly rich with wonderful sights, rare experiences, and warmth of its happy people!

10 Most Loved Destinations

Arranged in no particular order, here are 10 places from our 30 most loved destinations in the Philippines. Choose your flavor!

Albay

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Cover photo by Kim Maynard Go.

The massive and majestic Mayon Volcano is slenderly cone-shaped from any vantage point. Surrounding Albay’s beautiful centerpiece are dramatic ruins brought about by volcanic eruptions. Off-road tours, island hopping, and whaleshark watching are some of the most memorable activities nearby. Discover the best of Albay.

Boracay

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Cover photo from instagram.com/warrencamitan.

The party island Boracay is the most popular among the Philippines’ 7,600+ islands. It is notorious for its powdery white sand, which stretches a staggering four kilometers and rolls flatly into warm turquoise water. Some of its top activities include island hopping, paraw sailing, kitesurfing, scuba diving, and partying island-style! Discover the best of Boracay.

Baguio

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Cover photo from instagram.com/jazzminyah.

Located in cloud-capped mountains, Baguio is the country’s highest city, lending a cool yet ethnic ambiance. It is American designed, with vast public parks, cultural museums and villages, pilgrim sites, and shopping centers. Come January, its streets are filled with floats of fresh flowers in celebration of the Panagbenga Festival. Discover the best of Baguio.

Camiguin

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Cover photo by Jerah Ebao.

The seven-volcanoed Camiguin has more volcanoes per area than any other island on earth. It has two brilliant white islets and dozens of well-kept waterfalls, hot springs, and cold springs. Its 64km main road makes for a great motorbike adventure with splendid sea views. Discover the best of Camiguin.

Bohol

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Cover photo by Johnny Ferniz.

Every summer in Bohol, almost 1,800 limestone mounds turn from green to brown, creating an epic landscape that make up the Chocolate Hills. You won’t run out of things to do in Bohol—from diving, beaches, and island parties, to wildlife sanctuaries, cultural sites, and eco-adventure activities. Discover the best of Bohol.

Camarines Sur

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Cover photo by Monde Mendez.

Camarines Sur is most raved for Caramoan Peninsula—its beautiful limestone formations, impeccable coves, and exquisite islands. It stunned people around the world when it aired in the TV series Survivor. Camarines Sur is also home to active volcanoes, hot springs and waterfalls, and the famous Peñafrancia Festival. Discover the best of Camarines Sur.

Metro Manila

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Cover photo by Caryl R.

The charming walled city of Intramuros makes for an unforgettable bamboo bike tour. A string of museums and parks such as the National Museum and Manila Ocean Park are just nearby at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, an hour away by ferry is the picturesque bomb-torn memorial, Corregidor Island. Discover the best of Metro Manila.

Laguna

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Cover photo from instagram.com/iamkenc.

An easy, two-hour drive from Manila, Laguna revives the soul with its natural attractions like Pagsanjan Falls, Lake Caliraya, and Mt. Makiling—the source of Pansol’s numerous hot springs. For a unique cultural flavor, go visit Paete’s woodcarving workshops and Calamba’s Rizal Shrine, the birthplace of the Philippines’ National Hero. Discover the best of Laguna.

Cebu

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Cover photo from mymetrophoto.com.

Cebu is famous for its mouth-watering lechon (golden roasted pig), stunning white beaches and resorts, and the much awaited Sinulog Festival. Cebu province is also home to key historical sites and impressive island adventures such as spotting giant sea turtles, swimming with whale sharks, and freediving among millions of sardines. Discover the best of Cebu.

Davao del Norte

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Cover photo by Anton Magallanes.

Davao del Norte is at the frontline of pulling travelers in to Mindanao. The sunny Samal and Talicud Islands are unrivaled in their leisure and nature destinations. Also found in the province are the country’s largest cathedral and the largest rosary. Don’t miss its grand Musikahan sa Tagum Festival every February! Discover the best of Davao del Norte.

Palawan

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Cover photo by Chester See.

Limestone cliffs, sandy islets, hidden coves, and lagoons—these are a common sight in Palawan. Island expeditions to the dreamscapes Bacuit Bay and Calamian Islands are fool-proof the best experiences. The breathtaking Underground River and Tubbataha Reef are UNESCO World Heritage Sites that should not be missed. Discover the best of Palawan.

By any means, this is not enough space to list all the impressive attractions in the Philippines. While those listed above are the more popular among international travelers, many other areas in the countryside are just as delightful, perhaps even more amazing and cheaper than the popularized ones.


Feel free to dig into Explora.ph and uncover more places local travelers themselves frequently visit. And if you do ever get lost or don’t know where to head out next, just come back here where Filipinos are always happy to extend a hand!

An Oddball in Asia

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Photo by Noel Celis.

With an unusual culture that cannot be found anywhere else in Asia, the Philippines’ culture more fits that of Latin America or the Caribbean. The Philippines doesn’t have Hindu temples, Zen gardens, spice-burning cuisines, nor yin-yang carvings like its Asian counterparts.


Instead, the Philippines is studded with Spain’s baroque Catholic churches, shrines, crosses, and saint and angel statues. Though one does encounter mosques down the Muslim south, the Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia.


As often described in travel guidebooks, the Philippines is a country that spent 400 years in a convent, and 50 years in Hollywood. The country was colonized by Spain for 333 years in the 16th century, and was occupied by America during the first half of the 20th century.


Hence, Spanish and American words pepper local conversations. Most Filipinos bear American first names and Spanish last names. The currency is redolent of the Spanish Peso, and is heavily influenced by the American Dollar. Spanish and American titles abound the country’s streets, plazas, and cities.


While its Spanish influences are deeply embedded in its historic past, the Philippines’ American influences, through the American education system, resulted in its people’s American ideals and excellence in the English language. Consequently, about three-quarters of Filipinos can speak English.

Some of the World’s Happiest

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Photo from seameo-innotech.org.

Without knowing it, Filipinos reflect the skin of Malays, and the physique, attitudes, and mannerisms of other Hispanic colonies such as Mexico and Peru. The island folks are welcoming and intrigued by foreign travelers, and most share a sarcastic sense of humor. When traveling to the Philippines, don’t be surprised to be invited into homes, drink cheap liquor, and sing the night away with a karaoke.


One of the happiest people in the world, Filipinos are prone to laugh their problems off, even in the midst of major calamities, extreme poverty, and pervasive corruption. It is no wonder that in international news of major landslides and flash floods, Filipinos laugh and wave their hands in the background, and then dive into flood water like a freewheeling animal. In a way, they are funny and surprising and liberating.


While those in the countryside are more gentle, wary, and soft spoken, Filipinos overall have a creative and forgiving spirit, one that is free, adaptable, and throbbing with kindness. Of course, the Philippines is not perfect; with the presence of poverty today, some resort to crime to relieve empty stomachs.

Food, Music, and Festivals

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Photo by Myrell Hechanova.

The Philippines’ unlikely mishap in history also helped shape its taste in food, music, and festivities. Filipino dishes derive from native cuisines, with traces of the Spanish temper and the American grease. The food is just as diverse and flavorful as its many islands, but is sometimes overwhelmingly tasty or salty when eaten without rice. Most are cheap, besides, especially beer and seafood.


Meanwhile, indigenous music in the Philippines shares the local instruments of Southeast Asian countries. Its native music, however, possesses the wild and enchanting call of a dreamy feast from across the sea. It is an enthralling clamor, a celebration of merriment, idleness, and simple pleasures.


Philippine festivals, on the other hand, are grand, extravagant, and vivid with sights, colors, drum beats, dances, and mouthwatering dishes. Three examples are the Dinagyang Festival in Iloilo, the MassKara Festival in Bacolod, and the Malasimbo Music and Arts Festival on the island of Mindoro.

Quietly Brilliant

To cap it all, visiting the Philippines requires a different pair of eyes. Since its independence from America in 1946, the Philippines has been a relatively young nation, embracing its shattered past and recovering from its almost forgotten history. Despite the rampant corruption and poverty today, the Philippines, with its many uncharted travelscapes, shines like the quiet brilliance of a rare pearl.

Geography

The Philippines is located in Southeast Asia, and for many centuries in the past, was an open land to both the worlds of the East and the West. Until the Spanish colonizers arrived in 1521, the strategic location of the islands made it possible for the surrounding nations to visit, barter goods, and share ideas. The Philippine Islands then were instrumental to the first kind of globalization.


Shaped like an inverted Y, the Philippines is made up of 7,641 islands, out of which only less than 900 are inhabited. Like other archipelagic nations, the Philippines is broken down into ethnic island groups, speaking hundreds of different languages, with cultures branching off in slightly different directions.


Because of its geography, the islands have been susceptible to many challenges, including foreign invasion, centralization of governance, transportation system, and cultural and language barriers. Despite these, the Philippines thrives remarkably as a diverse and multicultural nation, hinging onto a shared colonial history (Spanish and American) and a shared colonial language (English).


Thus, exploring the Philippines means plunging into its many disparate cultures, environments, cuisines, lifestyles, and its many different adventures, from sea to summit. It is one dualistic country that is both chaotic and peaceful, poor and rich, diverse and unified. It is uniquely the Philippine Islands.

Climate and Seasons

Weather and Climate

Being close to the equator, the islands are tropical, much like Central America, and have high temperature, high humidity, and abundant rainfall. There are only two seasons in the archipelago: wet and dry. The wet season, frequented by typhoons and monsoon rains, is between June to November. Meanwhile, the dry season is between December to May. The winter chill visits the islands between December to February. Otherwise, the islands are warm the rest of the year.


Best Time to Visit: December to May

The best time to visit the Philippines is between December to May. The sweet spot is from December to March, when the weather is relatively cool and dry. Heat waves course through the islands between April to May, and nearby beaches are packed with people to cool themselves off. Remote beaches and islands, though, are sleepy, the waves serene, the sun bright and blinding as a smile.


Cheapest Time to Visit: June to November

An alternative time to visit is between June to November, when airfares and accommodation rates are at their cheapest, and flights and ships are sometimes delayed due to bad weather. An average of 20 typhoons hit the country each year, scaring visitors away during these rainy months. Getting stranded on an island or airport is a common story some travelers take advantage of to meet new strangers.


Worst Time to Visit: Christmas Holidays and Lenten Season

The busiest seasons among the islands are during the Christmas Holidays and the Lenten Season, which are on the last week of December and March respectively. These are the times when Filipino families hit the road and have a one-week vacation. During Lenten Season though, some roads in the countryside bear cultural sightings of Catholic fanaticism, where devotees flagellate themselves or have themselves nailed on a cross. It’s a cultural phenomenon worth the visit.


Wind Activities and Island Hopping Seasons

Because the Philippine Islands are completely surrounded by water, seasons and tides affect sea-based transportation lines, routes, fishing businesses, and, of course, water activities. There are two seasons to bear in mind when you’re off to another island, another beach, or to some wind-based activity like kitesurfing or windsurfing.


During Amihan Season between November to April, the prevailing winds come from the northeast of the Philippines. Surfing, kitesurfing, and windsurfing dudes thus flock the eastern seaboard like Samar, Baler, and Siargao, where winds are packed with a punch and fling surfers into the air. This is reversed during Habagat Season between May to October, when the prevailing winds come from the southwest. At this time, wind activities are commonly seen in Boracay, Zambales, and Vigan.

Language

While 78% of Filipinos can understand English, not everyone can speak the language fluently. Due to the Philippines’ colonial background, English has been associated with education, governance, and business. It is the language of instruction in schools, and the unifying language among the islands. English, however, is also considered the language of the elite and the educated, and has the nuance of feeding the social division between the rich and the poor, the literate and the illiterate.


English is one of the two national languages in the Philippines, the other being Filipino. Filipino is based on Tagalog, and sprinkled with words from Spanish and other local languages. Only those in Luzon, the largest island group in the Philippines, are used to speaking Tagalog. In Visayas and Mindanao, the central and southern Philippines respectively, the major language is Cebuano. Other major languages include Ilocano, Ilonggo, Bicol, Waray, and Pangasinan. Being an archipelago, the Philippines has about 80 language groups, broken down into more than 500 dialects.

How to get to the Philippines

The best way to get to the Philippines is by plane. The major international airports are located in Manila, Pampanga, Cebu, and Davao. The airports in Manila and Pampanga serve Luzon, the biggest island group in the Philippines. The airports in Cebu and Davao serve the island groups of Visayas and Mindanao respectively.


Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila (+63 2 877 7888) is the primary gateway to the Philippines, and is the main jump off point to other islands.


About 2 hours away from Manila, Clark International Airport in Pampanga (+63 45 499 1464) is an alternative airway to NAIA, and caters to countries such as Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Dubai, and Qatar.


Mactan-Cebu International Airport in Cebu City (+63 32 341-0560) is the second busiest airport in the country, and receives flights to and from Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, and Papua New Guinea.


Francisco Bangoy International Airport in Davao City (+63 82 234 3615) is a small international airport that caters to Singapore and Manado, Indonesia.


Traveling to the Philippines by sea is only possible with nearby countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Ferries from EPA Shipping Line (+63 83 380 3591; P1,800, 36 hours) cross twice a week from Manado, Indonesia, to General Santos in Mindanao. Meanwhile, ferries from Aleson Lines (+63 62 992 5507, 992 6410, 992 4585; P3600, 16 hours) and SRN Fastcraft (+63 62 992 3765; P5400, 8 hours) travel twice a week from Sandakan, Malaysia, to Zamboanga, Mindanao.


VISA Information

Foreign travelers from most countries can visit the Philippines visa-free for 30 days. (Please check with your embassy.) This limit, however, may be extended to a maximum of 24 months at any Immigration Office. To be granted the 30-day visa-free visit, travelers should have a passport valid for at least six (6) months. They may also be requested to have an exit ticket booked beforehand. Meanwhile, foreign nationals from Hong Kong and Taiwan must have a special permit. They may obtain their visas and permits from Philippine embassies and consulates.

How to get around the Philippines

Because it is broken down into small islands, the Philippines can be quite a puzzle to get around in. For an average trip to another island, you would have to hop onto a jeepney or bus, then a ferry, and then another jeepney. Because there are no direct transits between two points, traveling long distances means hopping from one vehicle to another. For big groups, renting a tricycle, jeepney, or bus is possible. Just bargain beforehand, so you won’t end up getting overpriced.


Inter-Island


Airplane and Airbus

Traveling to distant island groups is best done by plane. For more information on the schedules, booking, and online flight reservations, just give the airlines below a call or visit their website. You may also get cheap deals just by booking your trips in advance. The major airlines in the Philippines are Cebu Pacific, Philippine Airlines, and Air Asia.


Ferries

Ferries and local shipping lines called RORO (Roll On, Roll Off) work like jeepneys and buses, but on sea. While they are available on the internet, schedules actually change often, depending on the shipping line or on the tricky weather. Book in advance if you can. Otherwise it’s best to buy your ticket at the site itself. In case you’d prefer to take 2Go Travel ferry or RORO instead of flying to a distant island, be prepared to bring your own pillow, blanket, and insect repellent. Food and water are available on deck, but may be insufficient or more expensive.


Pump boats and Bangkas

Pumpboats, locally known as bangka, are small fishing boats motorized for inter-island hopping. Boats that travel across two remote islands usually have only two schedules, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Such boats may also be chartered for island tours.


Within an Island


Jeepneys and Buses

Jeepneys and buses are the cheapest transport within an island. They are often overdecorated or overloaded with passengers. In some unwanted instances, you’d end up standing in the bus if you don’t book your ticket in advance. In the countryside though, one of the thrilling adventures is sitting on top of a jeepney, among luggages, and coursing along the coastline of an island, or along a mountainside with views of rice terraces.


Motorcycles and Habal-Habal

Renting motorcycles and big bikes is possible in some select, touristy islands in the Philippines. The big bikes called habal-habal are high-powered motorcycles that can traverse rugged slopes like mountainous terrains and rocky trails. With seats that can accommodate up to four people, the habal-habal is the common mode of transport in delivering vegetables from high altitude places to low lying regions.


Trains

Trains are only present in Metro Manila and Naga City. The trains are the fastest and cheapest mode of transport. The only problem is that the trains are often tight and crowded, especially during rush hours. It’s best to take the train only if you’re on the run, or only during non-rush hours between 10 am to 3 pm, and 8 pm to 10 pm.


Within a Town


Kalesa

Kalesa, or the horse-drawn carriages in the Philippines, derive from Spain and used to be the mode of transport among the elite and high-ranking officials. Today, the kalesa is reserved for experience, a public transport for touring people around a heritage village, town, or city. Do not expect though that the cochero, or the driver, will be well-versed on the history or culture of the place.


Tricycles and Pedicabs

Tricycles and pedicabs are the common transport within a small town or village, and work like the tuk-tuk in Thailand. Tricycles and pedicabs have three wheels, and run on petrol and pedal respectively. Tricycles in the Philippines vary in design and number of seats in every region.


Taxi

Taxis are only common in cities, and have a flag down of P40 for regular trips, and P70 when coming from the airport. If the taxi is not running on the meter, make sure to bargain on the price before hopping in. Just like kalesa drivers, taxi drivers may not be well-versed in the tourist destinations in the region, and cannot act as your tour guides.

Cheat Sheet to Traveling to the Philippines

Language

HELLO: Kamusta?

GOOD DAY: Magandang araw!

WHAT'S YOUR NAME: Anong pangalan mo?

MY NAME IS JOSE: Ang pangalan ko ay Jose.

HOW MUCH: Magkano?

WHERE'S THE BATHROOM: Saan ang banyo?

HOW DO I GET TO (LOCATION): Paano pumunta sa (location)?


Country

COUNTRY NAME: Philippines

OTHER NAMES: Pilipinas (Filipino), Filipinas (Spanish), Pinas (colloquial), The Philippine Islands (American)

CAPITAL: Metro Manila

MAJOR CITIES: Metro Manila, Baguio, Cebu, Davao

TOTAL AREA: 300,000 sq km, almost as big as Italy

COASTLINE: 36,289 km, the fourth longest in the world

HIGHEST POINT: Mt. Apo, at 2,954 meters, about 1/3 of Mt. Everest

TERRAIN: Archipelagic, with 7,641 islands, which are divided into three island groups: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao


People

NATIONALITY: Filipino

OTHER NAMES: Pinoy (male Filipino), Pinay (female Filipino), Tsinoy (Filipino with Chinese descent)

RACIAL INFLUENCES: Indo-Malay, Chinese, Mexican, Spanish

POPULATION: 104 million, the 12th most populous country in the world

RELIGION: Catholic 82.9%, Muslim 5%, Others 12.1%


Hours

TIMEZONE: UTC +8 hours

SUNRISE: 5:30 to 6:30 AM

SUNSET: 5:30 to 6:30 PM

BUSINESS HOURS: 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM; most offices are closed on Sundays


Weather and Climate

WEATHER: Cool and dry from December to March; hot and dry from April to May; hot and wet from June to November

SEASONS: Habagat, or northeast monsoon, November to April; Amihan, or southwest monsoon, May to October

CLIMATE: Tropical marine, high temperature, high humidity, abundant rainfall

AVERAGE TEMPERATURE: 26°

HOTTEST TEMPERATURE: 42° in Northern Luzon

COLDEST TEMPERATURE: 0° or less, in Central Luzon (Mt. Pulag) and Central Mindanao (Mt. Apo)


Food and Drink

COMMON FOOD: Steamed rice with a viand and a piece of fruit

GENERAL FLAVORS: Salty, creamy, sweet

TOP DISHES: Adobo, lechon, kare-kare, tinola, sinigang na bangus, bulalo,

longganisa, bicol express, nilagang baka, sisig, dinuguan

TOP DESSERTS: Halo-halo, leche flan, buko (coconut) pie, taho, turon, bibingka

TOP TROPICAL FRUITS: Mango, rambutan, coconut, avocado, papaya, lanzones, durian, kaimito

DRINKING WATER: Risky to drink from the tap. Advisable to bring your own water. Drinking water is available in hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores.

COMMON DRINKS: Coffee, soda, beer, coconut juice

NATIVE ALCOHOLIC DRINKS: Tuba, lambanog, basi, agkud, laksoy, tapey. These brandless alcoholic drinks are fermented from coconut juice, nipa palm, rice, sugarcane, corn, or cassava.

BUDGET MEALS:  P30 - P150

MIDRANGE MEALS: P150 - P400

EXCLUSIVE MEALS: P400 and up


Money Matters

CURRENCY: Philippine Peso (PHP)

EXCHANGE RATE: $1 US = P50 to P55; £1 GB = P50 to P60

DAILY EXPENSE: P800 - P2,000

AVE. MEAL: P100 - P300

AVE. ACCOMMODATION: P800, provincial rate, good for two; P2,000, city rate, good for two

AVE. TRANSPORTATION: P200/day, within a town or city; P600 - P4,000/day, airfare or ferry to another island group

MAJOR BANKS: BDO (Banco de Oro), BPI (Bank of the Philippine Islands), PNB (Philippine National Bank), Metrobank, Chinabank

MAJOR CREDIT CARDS: Visa, MasterCard, American Express


Electricity

ELECTRICITY AVAILABILITY: Major cities and areas have 24-hour electricity

VOLTAGE: 220 volts; 60 Hz; most de luxe hotels have 110-volt outlets

PLUG: two flat iron bars, parallel to each other, like that in the US


Mobile Phones

COUNTRY CODE: +63

MAJOR CARRIERS: Smart Telecom, the widest coverage; Globe Telecom, the widest number of users; Sun Cellular, the least reliable coverage

MOBILE EXPENSE: approx. P50/sim card, P1/text, P6.50/call; Only outgoing calls and texts are charged.


Internet Access

INTERNET ACCESS: Internet connection is common in cities, hotels, resorts, and restaurants. Remote islands and regions generally have limited internet connection.

MOBILE INTERNET: May be accessible through mobile smartphones with 4G and LTE capabilities.


Emergency Hotlines

EMERGENCY: 112 or 911

POLICE: 117 or 168

NATIONAL OPERATOR: 109

INTERNATIONAL OPERATOR: 108


Info Hotlines

DIRECTORY ASSISTANCE: 187 or 114

DEPT. OF TOURISM HOTLINE: 524

TOURIST HOTLINE: (+632) 524 1728; (+632) 524 1660


Airports and Seaports

NAIA: (+632) 877 0000/1109

FLIGHT INFORMATION: (+632) 877 3327; (+632) 877 3544

DOMESTIC AIRPORT: (+632) 832 8566

PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD: (+632) 527 6136; (+632) 527 3877

RED CROSS: 143


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