You could be forgiven for thinking that a country that offers a number of pristine beaches and world-class diving spots already has all the attractions it needs to tempt visitors back to its shores.
But for me at least, it wasn’t the natural beauty of the Philippines – and believe me, there are numerous stunning spots – that I’ll remember most. That mantle fell to the Filipino children, whose charming welcome wherever I went reminded that a place is only as good as the people you know in it.
It was my third day in the Philippines when I started to notice the power of a simple smile. I’d just arrived in the small seaside town of Donsol, on the island of Luzon. It’s wide open spaces and clean air was a complete contrast to the claustrophobic atmosphere of Manila. The locals, who rely almost completely on the tourist trade to get by, were unsurprisingly a lot friendlier than their counterparts from the capital.
It was here, while walking along the paved street to the beach, that I had my first taste of what was to become commonplace throughout my stay in the Philippines. Children, some as young as two or three, waving from across the street, their faces beaming with wide-open smiles that were instantly contagious. As I waved back, they broke out into choruses of “hello, hello” that would make even the hardest of hearts melt.
At first, the cynic in me couldn’t help but wonder whether this was a taught trick to quilt ‘wealthy’ tourists into parting with some of their loose change. Thankfully, this sceptical attitude didn’t last long, as children continued to give me the warmest of welcomes wherever I went without asking for a single penny in return. Their natural friendliness was perhaps most perfectly exemplified by how they would wave at passing motorbikes. They knew they’d get nothing in return other than a wave back, but for them, that was good enough.
It’s rare to be in an Asian country where English is so widely spoken, but following the American occupation of the Philippines in the early 20th century, as well as the popularity of American culture, many in the country can speak it fluently. For some of the children, a chance to speak to a tourist is an opportunity for them to practise their English, while others are just inquisitive by nature.
The innocence of childhood in Southeast Asia is thankfully something that still exists, with kids out playing games together in the streets wherever you go. How much longer that innocence will last is questionable, with the allure of the internet evident to see by a number of computer cafes full to the brim of youngsters playing games and browsing on YouTube.
Still, it’s was nice to see children with an ounce of independence, going and doing as they pleased in their own spare time. In large parts of Northern America and Western Europe, the constant media doom-mongering around paedophilia has left many parents frightened to let their children leave their sight.
Growing up in that media scrutiny over years has certainly had an impact on me too, even if took this trip to help me realise. I’m sure I wasn’t the first tourist to feel slightly uneasy about the prospect of smiling and waving at a child; embarrassed even. These preconceived feelings had such an effect on me that I even felt uncomfortable when the people I was travelling with would take a photograph of a kid, despite much they seemed to enjoy posing for the camera.
Thankfully, in the real world, you soon realise how silly these feelings are. You see children thriving from the experiences of learning things by themselves, and you see adults taking pleasure from the fact these kids are exactly how they should be: free.
So while some might think back longingly to the multicoloured reefs or the crystal-clear oceans, what I’ll remember most fondly are the smiles, waves and ‘hellos’ that made me feel so welcome in a country that was so far from my own.