Visiting the Province of Ilocos Norte

After a week in other parts of the Philippines, a visit to the province of Ilocos Norte was a refreshing change. For the first time since my arrival in the Philippines I felt compelled to pause and stay a bit longer simply because my first day in Ilocos Norte was my first day in the Philippines during which no locals went out of their way to rip me off. There weren’t many other foreigners to see yet locals were always very friendly and respectful. More so than in any other part of South East Asia I have visited. And that made for a very comfortable and enjoyable stay. Needless to say – I was in no rush to move to a different part of the country.

Photo: Ilocos Norte Capitol Building in Laoag
Photo: Ilocos Norte Capitol Building in Laoag

What made instant impression was respect I received from tricycle drivers. They are as bountiful in Ilocos Norte as they are in other parts of the Philippines, yet even though I was the only foreigner around, none came jumping down my throat at any time of my multi week stay. Not after arrival, not before departure nor at any other time have I felt pressured by trike drivers or anyone else on mere premise of me being a foreigner as it is in other parts of SE Asia. As a result, I never felt hesitant to step outside of my hotel room to wander the area because I was always left alone to enjoy as I pleased and at a pace I chose.

This welcoming, no pressure environment which is basically impossible to come by elsewhere in SE Asia save Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei got even more tourist friendly when I went shopping in local marketplaces. I bought rambutan, bananas and mandarins from locally run stalls yet each time I was quoted the same price locals pay. I kept buying fruit all the time because at no time, no seller ever tried to overcharge me.

When I went to eat in local eateries, I was once again charged the same amounts locals pay. Coconut – staple of my diet was also quoted by each seller at a very attractive local price of 20 Pesos (less than $.50). And even when I went to have a few beers in a bar, my total bill always showed correct number, without artificial inflations like it kept happening in other parts of the Philippines.

The only downside to Ilocos Norte – which applies to whole of the Philippines – is crap accommodation for ridiculously high price. Philippines is the only country in the world I know of where you can find even crappier accommodation than in Laos but for more than twice the amount of money. This is completely out of proportion to the cost of everything else in the country and definitely out of what accommodation costs in other SE Asian countries.

Philippines simply offers Philippine quality for European prices. If I compare $30 worth of rooms I stayed in in Barcelona or Berlin to those for the same money in the Philippines, I see my wallet grow hands and beat me up for shelling out so much for such dumpholes.

Other than that, a visit to the province of Ilocos Norte was for the most part a pleasant experience. Although… this self proclaimed True North of the Philippines, which covers the north-west corner of Luzon doesn’t have any mega malls (something the rest of the country is full of). For some, this may be a deal breaker but for me it was a plus. If you take into an account the fact that locals don’t inherently rip foreigners off, you can get more bang for a buck dealing with them than any mega mall could possibly offer.

Traveling to the Philippines

Philippines is a very special place. Being an archipelago of 7,107 tropical islands, the country has a lot to offer yet its separation from the rest of South East Asia makes it unreachable by overland transportation which results in fewer tourists than seen by other countries of the region. Traveling to the Philippines requires a plane or boat ticket no matter where in the world you are. And after your visit, in order to move on to another country, a traveller would once again need a plane or boat ticket to leave the Philippines. Since SE Asia is a heaven for budget travelers, many give the Philippines a miss due to inaccessibility by the inexpensive means of transportation.

Photo: Philippines Has Some of Most Densly Populated Areas in the World
Photo: Philippines Has Some of Most Densly Populated Areas in the World

Two of the most common things people know about the Philippines before traveling to the country are that it’s extremely corrupt and very densely populated. As for myself – being an established webmaster who runs websites that control several million unique visitors a month, my pre-traveling knowledge of the Philippines extended slightly beyond that. I knew very well of Filipino scammers who scan busy webmaster boards and harvest means to contact webmasters. Typically using ICQ or MSN Messenger, a random stranger from the internet would send you messages insisting that they have a chat traffic affiliate program and can produce large number of leads each week. They never admit that they are from the Philippines, but you can easily say that they are by the overuse of word “Sir”. And when I say overuse, I mean overuse:

“Hi boss, sir. Yes sir we have, sir. Sir we prefer RS billing to use, sir. Sir, we can do it for you sir.”

Most webmasters know that there is nothing out of it but a bunch of credit card fraud and chargebacks. Yet they still occasionally succeed and scam, card-bang and money-grub unsuspecting webmasters. Filipinos specialize in fraud sales and take great pride in it. For those not in the know, it works something like this:

A Filipino with no morality would trick a webmaster into believing that they would generate extra sales/leads for their website/on line business. In exchange, they will have you pay them certain amount of money for each lead/sale. Then they approach unsuspecting people whose chat contact they harvested on the internet and lie to them to get them to sign up to the site on the promise of something that will never happen. This gross cheating and stealing only works when the person who has been robbed doesn’t bother, or is too busy to make a chargeback, but these are rare exceptions.

In simple terms, if you’re a busy webmaster with membership based website and get tricked by the “Sir, thank you sir” Filipino scam, you will end up with members signing up because they were told that for their money they will be getting a slew of things that are not on offer. Sadly, it’s mostly people like our parents who fall for those liars because they are not as internet savvy and don’t have enough experience with on line scammers.

Photo: Jeepney - a Common Sight and Means of Transportation in the Philippines
Photo: Jeepney - a Common Sight and Means of Transportation in the Philippines

Further to the famed endemic fraud, I was however also aware of another, much darker side of the Philippines. As someone who keeps on top of reality by frequenting the reality news websites such as (WARNING – extremely graphic content on that link), I knew that there is hardly another country in the world where as precious little can get you shot as in the Philippines.

A Filipino man would not hesitate killing his brother for as little as singing off key in a karaoke bar (commonly known as Videoke in the Philippines). There are countless documented cases of this happening in the country. In another recent case, a dispute over who’s gonna sing at a karaoke next resulted in a grenade being thrown at the opposing party, killing 6 people and wounding 11. It truly doesn’t take much to get killed in the Philippines. The most innocent of actions can result in instant blood spillage and if it wasn’t for inherent, encouraged and supported xenophobia in Thailand, Philippines would easily take its spot as the most dangerous country for foreigners in the region.

Philippines is also widely regarded as the world’s most dangerous country for journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more journalists get killed in the Philippines each year than in the rest of the world combined. It’s even deadlier there than in countries with active war zones. Some of the deadliest massacres of the last 100 years took place in the Philippines, including the Maguindanao Massacre, the Lapiang Malaya massacre, the Balangiga massacre, Nueva Ecija massacre, Negros Occidental massacre, the Escalante, the Mendiola massacre, and so on. Not to mention that the Philippines is also the kidnapping capital of the world, outdoing even Colombia in number of kidnappings that take place there each year. It is not uncommon for travel insurance companies to have specialty “kidnapping packages” for travellers heading for the Philippines. And let’s not forget the travel advisories for Mindanao, including the Sulu Archipelago and the Zamboanga Peninsula due to ongoing armed conflicts perpetrated by Muslim extremists.

So this is what I knew about the Philippines even before travelling to the country. However, having survived Thailand, I flew in unhindered and determined to witness the real deal with my own eyes. What is the Philippines really like for a budget traveller? Is it as dangerous as they say or as friendly as Filipinos would like you to believe? I was about to found out and you can count on it that I will divulge every bit of my experience. As with everything, my reviews cannot be bought. The good, the bad and the ugly – to get the truest picture of what real Philippines is like, stay tuned to the upcoming posts. But before I get there, I need to share one more thing I learned before traveling to the Philippines:

While staying in Pattaya, Thailand – the largest brothel in the world – I learned from an American guy whom I met there about Angeles City in the Philippines. He said Angeles City was a brothel town similar to Pattaya, only operating on a smaller scale. Having bought hookers in both Angeles City and Pattaya, the said American guy told me that unlike Thai girls, Filipino hookers actually work to deserve their money if you barfine them. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to verify that on my own, but it was definitely an interesting bit of information to have. Woohoo, Philippines here I come!

Irene from the Philippines

As I have mentioned, I love the atmosphere at the airports. When you’re at the airport, the change is imminent. I got off the Air Canada plane and followed the International Flights signs at the Vancouver International. I had a few hours to kill, so there was no need to rush, however I still needed to get boarding passes for my Korean Air flights so I wanted to get that off my hands as soon as possible in case it was necessary to go at the opposite side of the airport.

Vast Hallways of Vancouver International Airport
Vast Hallways of Vancouver International Airport

It took me good 20 minutes to get from one end of the airport to the other where international flights depart from. Information panel suggested that my flight takes off form gate 58, which I found, but there was nobody there yet. I simply got there too early. I had no other option but to wait until someone shows up as they would either issue my boarding pass, or tell me where to go to get it.

I have decided to kill the time getting on my laptop and checking emails. I have noticed signs all over Vancouver airport stating that YVR has free WiFi internet. They were advertising it big time everywhere so I found nearest power outlet, plugged my laptop in there and logged on. However after 20 minutes of desperate attempts to get connected to their unsecured network I had no luck at all. It was really frustrating.

Large Flat Screen TV Advertising Free WiFi at YVR
Large Flat Screen TV Advertising Free WiFi at YVR

I have eventually given up, packed up my laptop and started walking towards where I came from to track someone who looks like they might know what’s going on and ask them why they advertise free WiFi when it’s impossible to connect as system rejects all connection attempts.

And as I’m walking back, I see that cute girl sitting there on her pink Sony Vaio laptop, chattering to someone on a webcam. Since she was obviously on line, I stopped by her and asked if she had any troubles connecting. She said she had no troubles whatsoever so I sat opposite of her, plugged myself into the wall and made an attempt from this location. However, same lack of luck as before. I made no sense.

But I kept trying as that girl kept chatting and eventually I got to some window that was telling me that the host wants me to confirm something on their website and was asked if I wished to visit that website. I agreed and was taken to Vancouver International Airport site where I was asked to click on Agree button to agree with some of their TOS (quite likely confirming that I won’t be using this internet connection to download viruses or porn or what not).

The moment I got on, that girl asked me if I had any luck connecting. I said it just started to work for me and got down to doing my on line business. Being used to cold people from Edmonton, I ignored the girl believing she will be the same as regular Edmontonian, but was surprised after she repeatedly kept talking to me. She was cute and barefoot, so it was awesome. It was just something I am not used to, coming from the city where when you talk to a stranger, you get weird looks. Here I was a stranger to her and she talks to me.

Eventually, I put my work on hold and engaged in conversation with her. She told me her name was Irene and that she was from the Philippines. She lived in Calgary for 5 months but her contract didn’t get renewed or something like that so she had to return back home to the Philippines. I told her about my photography and it immediately increased her interest in my even more and asked me if I was on yahoo messenger, cause she wanted to add me. Seriously, I could already feel big time the difference it makes leaving Edmonton. There was no point for me to linger in the city that turns you into a chunk of stone.

Paid Internet Station at the YVR
Passengers Without a Laptop Computer Can Access Internet at YVR Via One of Numerous Paid Internet Stations

Sadly, I don’t use Yahoo messenger. I once installed it, many years ago and it came with so much bloat ware and spyware and pop ups that it went off my computer before I first used it. Perhaps Yahoo got their act together in the meantime, but this initial experience was good enough for me to keep away. I have always used friendly and safe MSN messenger and have never had issues with it.

I explained that to Irene, but told her that I do have a yahoo email address and gave it to her. She made note of that and also took my Hotmail address in order to add me to her MSN messenger when she gets it installed so we can chat in the future. That’s how awesome people are outside of the corporate lifestyle world. I have just left Edmonton and I was back at living the life, instead of spending it.

Irene then came to sit next to me with her laptop and showed me some of the pictures her brother, who’s a photo enthusiast took. We talked about photography as she was actually well familiar with many aspects of it. I asked her to send me an email to the yahoo address I gave her so I could respond with links to my sites. I did not want to just give her the URL to my personal site which has a lot of nude photography, so I sent a link in an email with appropriate warning.

Right after that, I took a glance at the clock on my laptop and realized it was already 1.40pm and my flight departure was scheduled for 2.20pm. I didn’t have a breakfast so I wanted to go get something before boarding and I also wanted to pick up a bottle of mineral water so I don’t die thirsty on a plane. It was going to be a long, long flight so I had better taken care of myself or else I’d be looking at 10+ hours of pain.

I liked hanging out with Irene form the Philippines, but I really had to go. I still needed the boarding pass. So I said my Good Byes, Irene insisted that I visit Philippines on my travels and let her know so we can hang out in her country and then I took off. I quickly picked up a sandwich from Subway, went to just grab it and go to the place where they sell bottled water so I can dart off back towards my gate, when I noticed on the board that it was only 12.40 – my computer clock was still on Canadian Mountain Time so being in Vancouver put me back one hour.

Pretty Fishtank at Vancouver International Airport
This Oversized Fish Tank Greets Tourists at International Departures Section of Vancouver International Airport (YVR)

This gave me an extra hour so I ate my sub in peace, picked up a bottle of water which is BTW extremely expensive within secure area of the airport (grrrr, cause you can’t take any liquids with you as security precautions don’t allow that, so you are forced to buy overpriced water or stay thirsty on the plane) and went back to gate 58 to get a boarding pass.

Korean Air Boarding Passes
Boarding Passes for my Entire Journey from Vancouver, Canada to Siem Reap, Cambodia via Seoul, South Korea

It was a pleasure to be served by absolutely gorgeous Korean girls. Beautiful, slender and tall, these girls are jaw dropping. I got my boarding pass and was told boarding would begin at 1.50, which gave me a bit over 5 minutes to spend on a computer again.

I knew I wouldn’t want to be the first one to board a plane, so I sat back, plugged myself in and started the laptop for the thirst time in Vancouver. Low and behold, after 15 minutes of trying, no luck getting connected. I was messing around hoping to click on a button that would open a message which prompts me to visit the website but it never happened. I don’t remember how I got there the first time. I tried everything but to no avail. Frustrated, I have eventually turned the computer off and boarded the plane. And it was a nice plane. Korean Air rules in more ways than just by having the most stunning flight attendants in the world.

Vancouver International Airport