Metro Manila · Bus Tripping Over Land
Globetrotters love to tell stories of how they survived a bus trip in a developing country, crammed not only with people but also with chickens and piglets, with passengers sitting on the rooftop, and with a reckless driver who never slows down, no matter how sharply the road bends. In reality, bus tripping in the Philippines is more comfortable and secure than that, but it can be an adventure nevertheless.
As the Philippines have no train system outside Greater Manila, buses are the No. 1 means of public transportation for longer trips, even for 10-hour journeys.
'Aircon' Vs. 'Non-Aircon'
There are basically two kinds of buses, air-conditioned ones and non-air-conditioned ones. We highly recommend to avoid the latter. Windows are kept open in most non-air-conditioned buses, so there is a constant strong draft, often mixed with the exhaust fumes of other vehicles. It gets worse when there is traffic, as the buses quickly heat up when they don't move fast. Apart from that, seats are less comfortable and dampers often hardly work. When riding an air-conditioned bus on the other hand, bring some jacket or sweater. In 90 percent of the buses you won't be able to turn off the aircon right above your seat. Some passengers on long trips bring with them adobo or Jollibee hamburger for their lunch or dinner. The smell can be a bit overwhelming especially when you're in an air-conditioned bus. Best to bring something that would counter the smell. Some locals bring a strong-smelling ointment in a tiny bottle called White Flower for a whiff. Or you can be the polite passenger: keep to yourself and simply enjoy the experience.
There are several bus companies offering trips to nearly every city on the island of Luzon. Click here to see the major companies. These operators all have their own terminals in Metro Manila (check the respective websites) but in many cases they also stop along the way to pick up passengers. Reserving tickets online is not possible (only Victory Liner offers this service for a handful of destinations). You should take that into account if you are planning a trip during one of the major holidays, when Filipinos traditionally flock to the provinces to visit their families.
Do not carry too much luggage, as storage space is scarce in the vehicles. It is best to bring just one traveler backpack to put in the luggage compartment and to keep another small bag with all valuables, so they won't get stolen. Do you want some entertainment? Choose a seat in the front half of the bus so you can see the TV screen. Most buses play pirated DVDs with the newest action movies during the trip.
On The Road
Most main highways of Luzon and other islands are new and very good. The government seems to invest quite some money in road construction in the provinces. There are also private or semi-private toll roads that bring you quickly from Manila to other parts of the island. At the same time, there is a lot of construction work still going on these days, leaving stretches of the road without surface, and leading to traffic jams when streets temporarily have only one lane. To avoid traffic in general, it is advisable to do bus trips to faraway destinations over night.
The most exiting – and tiring - bus tours are probably those going to the Rice Terraces in the Mountain Province. The winding and narrow road consists of endless sharp curves along steep mountains, but you get compensated for the hard trip with stunning views over the valleys and rice terraces.
Eating, Drinking, Breaks
The long-distance buses stop every two to three hours at places with restrooms (bring tissues and hand sanitizer) and possibilities to eat, either fast food restaurants or canteens serving Filipino food. Make sure to be back at the bus on time, as the driver won't wait for you.
Before the bus leaves the terminal, you'll get the chance to buy some snacks and drinks from mobile vendors who walk along the aisle inside the bus. They offer cold water, soda, snacks, fresh fruits, homemade roasted peanuts, and – something we highly recommend to try out – Chicharon. These crunchy fried pork rinds are probably the Philippines' most popular snacks. Just before handing over the plastic bags with Chicharron, the vendors cut them open to flavor the chips with vinegar, a perfect combination.
When passing the provinces by bus, vendors will also sell a wide range of 'pasalubong', regional delicacies sold as homecoming gifts, e.g. buko pie, sticky rice or polvoron. Your Philippine colleagues and friends will be very disappointed if you don't get them anything.