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Think of the Philippines and images of gorgeous beaches and crystal blue seas are sure to spring to mind. Islands such as Boracay and Palawan easily attract travellers with their picture-perfect looks, but if you get away from the coast (which granted in a country with more than 7,000 islands might not seem like the obvious thing to do), you will see a whole new side to the country.
Yes, the Philippines is a tropical paradise and yes, it has some of the best beaches you can swing a hammock on, but there is plenty more to this country than just a pretty seascape. It has unique wildlife and dramatic scenery, and chances are you will not be sharing the experience with hordes of tourists.
So forget about the beaches for a moment. Here are four other reasons to visit the Philippines.
The Philippines’ rice terraces are quite rightly touted as the eighth wonder of the world. They were carved out of the mountainsides in North Luzon 2,000 years ago, and it is said that if they were laid end to end they would stretch halfway around the globe. A few of the best places to see them are around Banaue and Batad, which are a nine-hour bus ride north of Manila, so most travellers to the country never venture there. Their loss! Head there to see the rice terraces’ dramatic landscape, to experience the serene atmosphere of the mountains, to hike on paths where you will not see another soul for days and to witness the traditional way of life which still exists there.
Tarsiers are tiny primates (so small in fact that they can sit in the palm of your hand), which are endemic to a few islands in Southeast Asia. They have enormous eyes, soft velvety fur and long fingers. Think of the cute one from the Gremlins and you are not far off. The species is endangered but some efforts are being made to help them on the island of Bohol, which has a sanctuary called the Tarsier Research and Development Center, where you can go and see the little fellas.
Bear with me on this. They may not be a typical tourist attraction but the hanging coffins in Sagada are a fascinating insight into the region’s culture. Found on the cliffsides of a valley nestled in the mountain province, which lies 275km north of Manila, this traditional way of burying people (which is no longer used) is only found in a handful of places in the world. To get there requires some dedication. The journey involves a 12-hour bus ride from the capital, the last few hours through dramatic winding mountain passes and unsealed roads. The area around Sagada also has great trekking, along with waterfalls and caves to explore – some of which are burial caves so if you are not coffin-ed out there is a chance to see a few more.
Aah - the famous Filippino smile. It may not sound like something that is worth visiting a country for, but the old adage is true, it is the people that make the place. Throughout the archipelago you will find people that are friendly and curious, want to know where you are from - often shouting out their guess - and where you are headed. When you are not feeling in the best mood yourself, if you glance around you will always find lots of smiles and laughter that will instantly lighten your mood.