I went to the Philippines for the first time in 2015. Initially, I was drawn to the country for a solar project with my nonprofit in the remote region of Northern Samar. I fell in love with the culture and the people, and quickly planned a yoga retreat in Mindoro for later that same year.
At the time, I had sold everything I owned, and was planning on living abroad indefinitely- trying to make this whole yoga teacher thing on the road work. I’d never done it before, and I was a relatively new teacher, but I was confident in my abilities. Plus, my strong desire to travel trumped any fears or insecurities that bubbled up along the way.
I was offered a job teaching in Bali, which is a great place for a yoga teacher to flourish with the millions of tourists passing through each year. However, I’d lived in Indonesia for several years before, and I was ready for something new. So, I said yes to another job opportunity on a tiny island called Siargao. I packed my bags for a 6 week teaching gig, but I ended up staying for 6 months. And eventually, this place became my homebase for five years-right up until the Covid era lockdowns.
While I’m certain plenty has changed since I lived in Siargao from 2015 – 2020, I know that there’s also a whole lot that’s remained the same. Plus, being an expat in a foreign country remains a timeless experience. This post will outline 5 important reminders you need to know if you’re planning on becoming an expat in the Philippines.
Let’s get into it!
What It Was Like Living in the Philippines as an Expat
5 Things To Know For Expats In The Philippines
So, you’re about to move to the Philippines? I’m so excited for you! Truly, I look back on my time in Siargao as some of the fondest memories from my adult life. While that chapter has since closed for me, it’s still an experience (and a place) that I recommend wholeheartedly to anyone interested in moving abroad.
I went back and forth about writing this post. Because there’s a part of me that wants to gatekeep the shit out of Siargao, trying to preserve that little pocket of paradise exactly as it is. But then I remember the big tourist boom is already said and done. The sleepy little island with a single dirt road around it that I remember from 2015, has now become a close competitor to Bali. Although, still not nearly as known.
I say this because, like anyone who’s spent time in Siargao, I can say with certainty that there’s something special about that little island in the middle of the Pacific. So, if you so choose to visit- and even more so if you choose to live there- make sure you do so with respect and kindness above all else. Preserve the magic.
Okay, so first things first, you need to check into the visa requirements for your country of origin. I’m not going to sit here and list out every single differentiation between countries. Because that would take a looooong time. The good news is, there’s this handy dandy tool called Google that will tell you everything you need to know 🙂
One thing I will say regarding visas is that the Philippines makes it a lot easier to stay long term compared to many of its neighboring countries- particularly Indonesia. For all of my surf, sun, and spiritual seekers wanting to live in Bali- you’ll find that the visa requirements there are not only long and complicated, but also pretty damn expensive. While Bali does have a more booming economy than Siargao, I personally prefer the slower pace, lower price point, and ease of visa runs in the Philippines.
If you choose to live in Siargao, you’ll have to do your visa extension to the “mainland,” otherwise known as Surigao (a city in Mindanao). It’s definitely not the funnest way to spend the day, but it’s relatively quick and easy. And, chances are, there will be other tourists or expats on the boat with you doing the same thing.
Before you move to any country, you need to have a good understanding of the culture. What’s appropriate to wear? How does the culture impact the food? Is drinking appropriate in this area? These are just a few of the thousands of questions you need to look into before relocating to a new place. And, of course, these questions will likely change depending on you and your personal needs or interests.
The Philippines is made up of over 7,000 islands. So, as you can imagine, culture can vary from island to island. Like many larger countries with varying cultures, there’s still an overarching culture that is clearly Filipino, which can be felt no matter where you are.
If I were to sum up Filipino culture in one word, it would be warm. Filipino people are some of the kindest, most hospitable, and generous people I’ve ever met. They’re also incredibly resilient, thanks to the harsh weather conditions and decades of dictatorship. And can often be found with an ear to ear grin on their faces.
I also found that Filipino culture has been heavily influenced by the US. English is more akin to American English than UK English. I was surprised by the prominence of fast food and American pop culture everywhere I went.
When we talk about culture in Siargao, this is a place that revolves around surf and swell. It’s a place where partying is a focal point, but so is family and friendship. The sense of community is strong there. And it definitely has that small-town-everyone-knows-my-business kind of vibe, while still remaining neighborly and connected.
As I said, culture has a big impact on food. So does weather, accessibility, and location. Needless to say, the Philippines was the most challenging place I’ve ever been as a vegan. It didn’t stop me from living there for five years, but it’s worth mentioning nonetheless. Meat is the primary focus of Filipino cuisine. And if you love lechon (pig), then you’re in luck. Because this is a favorite in the Philippines.
In Siargao, as well as other smaller islands in the country, a lot of the fresh veg was brought in from larger, neighboring islands. There’s never a shortage of tropical fruits. And you can get coconuts everywhere you go (unless there’s just been a devastating typhoon, of course). But vegetables are a different story. It’s hard to grow veggies in the tropics. Period. But even harder without the certain permaculture understanding and basic materials needed for things like greenhouses.
If you have specific dietary requirements, needs, preferences or allergies, it’s best to look into what’s available in the area where you plan on living so that you can plan accordingly.
One of the best things to come from the Covid era was the rise in work-from-home opportunities that have now landed people all around the world. As luxurious as it is to work your corporate job from a tropical paradise island like Siargao, it’s important to know what the connectivity is like before permanently relocating.
Wifi and cell service has dramatically improved in Siargao since 2015. But it still has a long way to go for those of you that live on Zoom calls for hours every day. There are a few hotels or restaurants that have higher speed internet. But then you need to grapple with the potential noise and busyness of working in public.
Other areas of the Philippines have much better connectivity, especially if we’re talking cities or larger islands. The most important thing for you to do before you move is simply to check in to make sure you actually can do your job there. Otherwise, you’ll just have done a whole lot of work moving there for nothing.
My favorite thing about living in Siargao was the community. Friends that I made from my Philippines era are still like family. Like we shared this unique moment in time together that can never be fully described. And certainly not watered down with time.
One of the best things about Siargao is that the community is integrated equally amongst locals, tourists, and expats. This might sound strange to say, but if you’ve been to Bali then you probably noticed how most of the “cool” places to go are 99% tourists. With locals only there as waiters or staff in the establishment. It’s like the entire place has been curated for tourists to have a certain kind of experience. While most locals are off doing something else entirely. Siargao is not that way.
Part of this is due to culture.
Warmth, remember? They’re hospitable, kind, and generous. And also, because drinking is totally acceptable in their culture- whereas in many other neighboring countries (like Indonesia), it’s not. Bars and restaurants that revolve around drinking are really there for tourists, which is great because it makes money for the economy- but it’s not something culturally that most locals would participate in. In Siargao, the locals are happy to drink just as much rum as a local, or enjoy sunset beers on the beach.
The other thing that makes the community incredibly close-knit is the weather.
The Philippines gets hit year after year with devastating typhoons that destroy homes, businesses, and sometimes- entire towns. When this happens, people come together to help one another. They feed one another, house one another, they care for each other’s children and animals. While this natural disaster wreaks havoc on the land, it only brings the people closer together- creating a neighborly connection that’s present with or without a storm.
Alright, I’m officially nostalgic. From looking at the old photos, to writing this entire post- I think I’m ready to book my flight back. Brb, I’m going to the Philippines.
Who’s coming with?