Southeast Asia has long been a mythical destination for many travelers around the world. With strong cultural influences and intriguing (sometimes strange) local customs, this side of the continent is no stranger to tourists eager to explore and discover. Two countries that get compared a lot are Thailand and the Philippines.
Thailand has always been a crowd favorite, especially for backpackers. Kind of like Bali is always on everyone's agenda. Philippines, on the other hand, is rapidly gaining popularity thanks to its renewed focus on tourism.
Southeast Asia is undoubtedly an interesting destination, but it's going to be a tough choice if you're only planning to land in one country. Despite their allure, Thailand and Philippines are very different.
For those itching for the tropical weather of Southeast Asia, Thailand and Philippines go head-to-head with the different factors to help you decide where your next memorable vacation should be.
Thailand vs. Philippines: At a Glance
This country has been hitting must-visit lists for a long time, and you could spend weeks traveling in Thailand. It's an almost landlocked country bordering Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and a part of Malaysia. The southern peninsular region is famous for beaches and neighboring islands that are teeming with social life and natural wonders.
The landscape of Thailand is diverse. Up north are thick teak forests and vast mountain ranges cut by steep river valleys. The central plain is the most densely populated and the center of agriculture. Along the eastern shore of the Gulf of Thailand are fisheries and aquaculture that contribute to economic progress in the area. The southern part of the country is covered by humid tropical forests as the source of rubber plantations and coconut cultivation.
Thailand enjoys both tropical and sub-tropical climate, depending on the shifting of the monsoon winds. There are three distinct seasons: the hot season from March to mid-May, the rainy monsoon season from mid-May to October, and the dry and cool season from November to February. Because of the varying topography, the cool season is mostly experienced in the mountain and inland areas.
The southern peninsular region where most of the beaches are found experience a slightly different pattern. It's hot all year round but rainy season occurs at different times of the year (that's why it's always handy to have a light, packable rain jacket!).
Travelers make their way to Thailand for exceptional local cuisine that take influences from neighboring countries. It's also popular for bargain shopping and a lively nightlife. As a Buddhist country, the country is also known for gorgeous temples and many peaceful destinations perfect for introspection and meditation. Local culture and customs are also very colorful and vibrant. Add to all that low costs on transportation, accommodation, and activities, it's no wonder Thailand has been regarded as one of the best destinations in Asia.
The Philippines is a late bloomer in the destination game, but it's coming in strong. As a country made up of over 7,000 islands, it's become a prime destination for exotic beaches and laid back island life. The country is also home to 9,600 square miles of reef systems, making up nearly 9 percent of the world's total reef area. SCUBA divers have discovered this gem of a country long ago, and now the rest of the world is following suit.
The Philippines is made of three main island regions. Luzon is the topmost part of the country, made up of mostly landlocked provinces and home to the country's capital, Manila. Visayas is the central region made of several groups of islands, making it a hotspot for beachgoers and divers. The southern part of the Philippines is Mindanao, another chunk of provinces with a scattering of provincial islands.
The country is predominantly Catholic and religion plays a very big role in the way people live. Mindanao, on the other hand, is a Muslim region with a few Catholic communities. It has become infamous for religious and political clashes, unfortunately throwing the rest of the country in a negative light. Truth is, these clashes are oversensationalized in media and does not affect much of the beauty and adventure to be had in the country.
As a tropical country, there are only two season in the Philippines - wet and dry. These seasons have shifted in recent years and sometimes have become unpredictable. In general, however, rainy season peaks around June to August. Regardless of the rain and monsoon, it pretty much feels like summer all year round.
With sunny weather any time of the year, exotic locations to discover, and the trademark Filipino hospitality, it's easy to see how travelers have come to fall in love with this country.
Visa requirements depend largely on your passport. In general, both countries allow most Western countries entry for 30 days. The difference comes in when you're applying for an extension.
Thailand's visa rules change very often, so the best way to assess this is to check with immigration. An extension costs around $60 and can be done in Krabi, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Koh Samui and Bangkok. If you want to stay for a couple of months, you either need to get a multiple-entry visa before arriving in Thailand or leave to a neighboring country and get it from there. Visa runs are necessary after the 30th day of stay to get your passport stamped, then you'll be granted the extension for however long you applied for.
In the Philippines, visas can be processed in any immigration office in the country. Most cities in the country have one, so you won't have to travel far. After your first 30 days are up, you pay $70 for another month's extension. Afterwards, you can apply for two-month extensions.
Transportation in Thailand and the Philippines are very similar. They both have a whole slew of options, which probably contributes to the chaos you'll see on the roads. Long-distance travels are usually done by buses and ferries, while daily transportation is done by rail, motorbikes, taxis, and Grab/Uber.
If you're staying in major cities for both countries, transportation is not that different. You'll be met with the same chaos, but the traffic situation in Manila is much worse than in Bangkok. Going out to the provinces, there will be less options, but the methods are the same - hail a moving vehicle and get on.
Iconic Modes of Transportation
The Tuk Tuk is very iconically Thai. It's run by a single motor on three wheels with an extended passenger seat at the back. Tuk Tuk drivers have gotten a bad rap in overcharging foreigners, but it's not necessarily true all the time. It originated from an old-fashioned rickshaw used during WW2 and used to be the go-to transportation before trains and colorful taxis took over. You can see these everywhere and can be quite convenient if you're in small towns.
The Philippines has its own version of the Tuk Tuk called the Tricycle. It's literally a motorbike with a covered sidecar attached. It's available everywhere in the Philippines and even the main mode of transportation in island provinces.
The more popular icon is the Philippine Jeepney, also originating from WW2. It has set routes and set fares, but the routes are a bit difficult to understand.
Download Grab and Uber
If you're not used to the transportation system of both countries or how to get to where you need to go, it's always safest to download Grab and Uber. Note that Uber no longer works in the Philippines.
The main challenge for the Philippines is its geography. Unless you're headed to the mountain ranges in Luzon, the only options you have are plane flights or overnight ferries. This takes up a lot of vacation time. Thailand, on the other hand, is pretty much one big land mass and has more options if you're planning to go from one part of the country to the other.
Politics and Economy
While both countries belong to the Southeast Asian region, the political and economic state are very different.
The prosperous nation of Thailand
Thailand is a relative prosperous nation. It displays typical indicators of a successful democracy such as strong banks, modern factories, strong tourism and a growing middle class. It has experienced a lot of coups in its recent history wherein some scholars even dubbed the last eight decades as "coup season". It was once a constitutional monarchy where a prime minister is the head of government while the monarch is head of state. However, the coup in 2014 revoked the constitution and placed the country under the military rule of the National Council for Peace and Order. After the death of the world's longest-reigning monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016, the reigning junta has consistently pushed back the timetable for new elections now said to be in November 2018. The elections are hoped to bridge the nation's decade-long political divide and return stability to the government.
Despite political turmoil and a long history of corruption, Thailand's economy is growing rapidly. A growing middle class means growth in spending power. Thailand's economy is benefiting from its strong export industry, but political uncertainty poses a big risk. Tourism also boosts the country's economy. As travel has become more accessible, there has been a bigger influx of tourists and of higher demographic levels who can spend more money and time in the country. This has led to developments in infrastructure and job creation.
The rapid growth of the Philippines
The Philippines is not much different. The country was one of the top three growth performers in Southeast Asia and is predicted to exhibit stronger growth in the coming months. The Philippines also benefits from strong exports. Despite all this, the Philippines is still a developing country with a poverty rate of around 22%. While this rate is going down, it's still an indication of the quality of life of many in the population. This also means very cheap commodities, which are favorable to foreign tourists and nationals. Nevertheless, the country's growth outlook remains positive and is currently growing at its potential.
The biggest risks to this growth are domestic and political factors. The country's president, Rodrigo Duterte, has become a controversial and infamous political leader throughout the world. He has delivered inappropriate statements towards other heads of state, is seen to be an impulsive man, and has implemented several laws that many question as immoral. The most notorious action he has been known for is the extra-judicial killings of known drug pushers and users. Many from the local and international community have voiced their opinions regarding human rights. Locally, however, the view on Duterte's administration is very much split in the middle. While the elitist and the leftist part of the population denounce the administration, many from the marginalized and poor masses praise Duterte for cleaning up many problems that have been plaguing the nation for years such as corruption and addiction.
To his credit, Duterte has also been behind many progressive initiatives such as rapid progress in infrastructure and dismissal of corrupt politicians who have been in power for too long.
Politics is definitely a sensitive issue for both nations, but it's good to be more informed about the situation. While there are several issues circulating within both governments, this has not changed the fact that Thailand and Philippines are prime destinations for travel.
Are these factors something you should be worried about? Unless you're planning to run for office, political and economic risks don't really show in the day-to-day lives of both countries. There are no police teams roaming the streets of the Philippines shooting civilians for drugs, and no military tanks around Thailand keeping peace and order. It's good to be careful no matter the destination, but there is no need for the paranoia spread by mainstream media.
Crime and Safety
The biggest question any traveler has in mind in visiting a new destination is: is it safe?
The general answer is yes.
Despite political turmoil and religious clashes, the streets of Thailand and Philippines are as safe as any other street in the world can be. There have been bombings in the recent past, especially during the anniversary of the Thai junta that took over the government, but none of these have been dubbed as a terrorist attack. There are many other places around the world with this kind of threat, but this is not something to worry about in either Thailand or the Philippines.
Most tourist destinations are generally safe, but be aware of areas that are unsafe even for locals. Vigilance is key for any traveler, and this is needed in Southeast Asia just as much as anywhere else in the world.
As long as you're not intending to do anything illegal in either country, you should be just fine.
The culture of Thailand and the Philippines are deeply influenced by religion.
In Thailand, 95% of the population are Theraveda Buddhist. The belief systems of the Buddhist teaching reflects very much on their day-to-day lives. Respect, self-control and non-confrontation are the most important values. Hinduism has also played a big role in forming the Thai culture, and you'll see these influences in their art, literature, and several customs. Strong displays of emotion are seen in a negative light, which means Thais are not very expressive. Nevertheless, their deeply-rooted values mean Thais are very helpful, if not shy, towards travelers. The culture is generally male-dominated, but women are always regarded with respect. They also value the concept of "sanuk", which is a concept that embodies playfulness and sense of humor. They enjoy spontaneous moments and having fun, which is why many travelers end up making a lot of friends after a trip to Thailand.
On the other hand, Filipinos are highly emotional and expressive. While Catholicism rules over their religious beliefs, their history of paganism, colonialism and active trade have created an interesting mix in terms of attitude and way of life across the nation. Filipinos are known to be very warm and hospitable and will welcome any stranger with open arms. Family is also very central to their culture, which translates to being very generous with food, home and time. This also extends to travelers wherein it's simply not in a Filipino's nature to say "no". Filipinos are also said to be a very resilient nation. Despite the many catastrophes that have wreaked havoc on the country, the people simply get back on their feet and rebuild with whatever they can. The "Filipino smile" is very iconic and will be sure to greet you wherever you are in the country.
The language barrier in Thailand makes travel a little bit difficult. Siamese Thai, specifically, is the lone and official language of the country. It's spoken in all parts of the country and the lone language used on official documents as well as government and mainstream media. There are three other regional dialects including Southern Thai, Yuan, and Northeastern Thai. There are also minority languages and indigenous languages spoken in smaller communities around the country. English is not a very widespread language even in the big cities, but you will run into someone who knows the language every now and then. This becomes a huge challenge as well when looking for a place as the Thai alphabet is written in characters that are nowhere near the English alphabet.
In the Philippines, English is very widely spoken. The country's official language is called Filipino, but is only mainly spoken in Manila and provinces in Luzon. Given the island geography of the country, different provinces have developed their own dialects, mostly based on the dialect Bisaya. Bisaya is most commonly spoken in the Visayas region, but even there, they have different versions. The unifying language for the country is English, which is also the main mode of education for private institutions. While their grasp of the English language is not always perfect, anyone will have a level of understanding of the language no matter where you are in the country.
Bangkok vs. Manila
Bangkok and Manila, the capital cities of Thailand and the Philippines, are good starting points for your travel. When flying in from a different country, these are the cities you will first land in before you head off to different destinations. While these cities don't necessarily represent the experience you can have in the rest of the country, it's a good point of comparison.
Bangkok is one of the most visited cities in the world. It's a great place for travelers of any kind and budget. The main allure of Bangkok is it's incredible street food scene and shopping districts (including Chatuchak market) that even non-shoppers will want to go to. It's a very modern city where one can experience affordable luxury in the form of beautiful hotels and cheap services. There are also vast parks around the city for a nature break. The most unique about Bangkok are the beautiful temples that create an oasis of prayer and meditation among the bustling streets. It's authentically Asian that pays reverence to its history and culture while keeping up with the modern times.
Before we talk about "Manila", there is one big misconception a lot of travelers make. What people refer to as "Manila" is what Filipinos refer to as the old Manila, the capital of the Philippines and the seat of government. Then there's Metro Manila, which is a group of 8 neighboring cities that make up what Filipinos refer to as the main cities in the capital. Each city is distinct in a way, but make up the experience of being in "Manila".
In stark contrast to Bangkok, Manila is much more westernized. You will see a lot of American influence in the stores, malls, and establishments around the city. Because of the 300-year reign of the Spanish, there are a scattering of Spanish architecture as well, especially in the older parts of the city. It's quite unnerving to see security guards with armalites on almost every establishment you see, and there is a sense of heightened security around. Poverty is very evident on the streets. It's not unlikely to be approached by a beggar asking for alms even in the more upscale parts of the city. Admittedly, Manila is not a very good representation of the adventure to be had in the Philippines, but Manila has its perks. Services are definitely cheap, so you can get all the manicures, massages, haircuts, and pampering you want. There are parks and museums to visit, but the best thing to do in Manila is hang out with friends or fellow travelers over cheap beer and bar food.
No travel is complete without indulging in the local cuisine. As members of Southeast Asia, there are many similarities between Thai and Filipino food. For one, rice is a staple for any meal. Rice goes with practically anything and is always partnered with a viand in the form of meat and vegetables. Noodles are also staple Asian food, though the Thais and the Filipinos do it differently. Both countries also share the same type of dessert, typically made of a combination of rice, coconut milk, and sugar along with Asian ingredients. Sauces and condiments are also very important in both cuisines, meant to punch up the flavors of any dish. You'll always see soy sauce and fish sauce on the table in any Thai or Filipino home and restaurant.
Despite the many similarities, Thai and Filipino food are completely different in flavor.
Thai food is very popular and characterized by spices and different kinds of curry. Thai food gives a good balance of flavors: sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy. Thai food usually features light cooking with an aromatic edge. Dishes are very intricate and attention to detail is important both in terms of technique and plating. There is also a good mixture of textures and flavors in a single plate, making eating Thai food a complete experience in itself.
Filipino food is quickly gaining popularity, especially in the Western part of the world. Filipinos love eating pork and chicken and are usually the main dish. The local cuisine is highly influenced by Chinese and Spanish flavors and techniques, so you'll experience a lot of food marinated in soy sauce and vinegar or stewed in tomatoes. Filipinos definitely love to eat and homecooked food is the preference. Every dish has a different version in different parts of the country as well. It's typical of Filipinos to share meals, so dishes are usually served family-style so every diner can have a taste of everything on the table. Vegetables rarely take main stage, however, usually set aside as a side dish or as a filler to a main meal. With an abundance of tropical fish and vast poultry and meat farms, Filipinos are all about grilled, fried and stewed dishes paired with a steaming cup of rice.
Nightlife in Thailand is pretty interesting. There's a mix of exoticism, romance and excitement. When you talk about Thai nightlife, travelers usually conjure up images of Go-Go bars and the infamous bars in Patpong, but the real Thai nightlife is characterized by lively bars and nightclubs and restaurants that feature traditional dancing. Most of the nightlife areas are found in the big cities and tourist destinations. It also varies in different places. Bangkok is known for its wild and rowdy nightclubs, Phuket its raunchy street parties, and Koh Samet a haven for backpackers and budget travelers. On the other hand, Khao Yai offers peace and quiet under the stars and Koh Samui offers a mix of sophisticated bars and full moon parties.
In the Philippines, the nightlife is all about having fun with friends old and new. Filipinos are very social, so the main point of going out is hanging out with friends accompanied by drinks and bar food. Wherever you go, you'll experience the same kind of nightlife, whether it be in huge nightclubs in Metro Manila, hole-in-the-wall hipster bars in Makati, or neighborhood bars in the provinces. While the party scene can get pretty wild in the big cities, there is a lot of focus on great conversations and memorable bonding moments. And if you're looking for a truly Filipino nightlife experience, be ready to belt out your best songs at the karaoke bar.
Hands down, Thailand gives some of the best shopping experiences anywhere in the world. The range is vast and varied and goes way beyond than strolling down malls and streets of market stalls. It's an all-day-all-night experience and the best place to shop till you drop is none other than Bangkok. There are bargain malls like MBK and high-end plazas like Siam Paragon. Never miss world's biggest weekend market Chatuchak Market for both great local finds and a wonderful collection of local and international cuisine. You can stroll down Khao San road for night markets and stuff your baskets with produce from floating markets in Taling Chan Market, Bang Ku Wiang Market, Tha Kha, and Damnoen Saduak. For the fashionistas or entrepreneurs curating clothing and fashion, Pratunam in Petchburi is a popular haunt.
In the Philippines, you'll find huge malls with local and international brands in practically every city. The biggest collection, of course, can be found in Metro Manila, including three of the world's largest malls (reminds me of Hong Kong). Malls in the Philippines are also used as leisure spots, so you'll see gardens and relaxing areas within mall complexes as well. The most widespread are the SM Malls, a chain of large and small malls and supermarkets that are always packed with people. Ayala Malls are known to be a bit higher end and always beautifully landscaped. These are present in major cities with the Greenbelt complex in Makati being the most popular. For bargain shoppers, Divisoria and 168 Mall in the old Manila area have some of the most ridiculously cheap prices you will see anywhere in the world. A dollar can bring you far. It's not for the faint of heart, however, as it's extremely packed any day of the year. If you're not ready for some extreme shopping, Greenhills in Metro Manila is a milder version with great bargains.
It's no secret that Thailand and the Philippines are known for fantastic beaches and beautiful islands. Before we get to that, there are a lot more to both countries that deserve attention.
The Grand Palace in Bangkok is one of the most visited attractions in the country. It's staggering with historical significance amplified by a maze of royal halls, temples, and ancient relics. Nearby is the Wat Arun temple, built in the honor of Auna. It sits on the banks of the Chao Praya River in Bangkok, lavishly adorned with colorful patterns of seashells and porcelain.
In the north there is the now famous with digital nomads, Chiang Mai with lots to see and do. There is also Pai in Mae Hong Song province. It's a small town in the northern mountainous region of Thailand and is now a mecca for backpackers and hippies. It's extremely local and surrounded by rivers and forests for a peaceful experience in the country. Of course, Thailand is almost synonymous with revered elephants, and the best to experience this is in Khao Yai National Park. Tourists get to see these majestic animals in their natural environment, sharing their home with tropical creatures, exotic birds, and monkeys. For history buffs and photographers, a favorite destination is the Sukhothai Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This ancient capital city has survived centuries of attacks and continues to stand proud to tell stories of the old society. If you're still keen on exotic nature without the sand, head to Erawan Falls at the Erawan National Park.
The Philippines also has its hidden gems beyond its pristine beaches. The country has an interesting and sometimes depressing history of colonialism mostly dominated by Spain. The best place to learn and experience this history is a visit to Intramuros, the walled city in old Manila used by Spain as their seat of power. While you're there, get a tour from Carlos Celdran for a both entertaining and intimate way to learn about Philippine history. If you're into a culinary experience, Iloilo and Pampanga are two provinces well-known for interesting and iconic local cuisines. Then again, if you're heading to the Philippines, you'll be met with an endless list of adventures with nature. Head north to see the spectacular Banaue Rice Terraces or the strange forms of the Chocolate Hills. You can also go in Samar, whitewater rafting in Cagayan de Oro, or take int he views of the perfect cone of Mayon Volcano. If getting your feet wet is not your thing, go mountain climbing fit for both beginners and experts to iconic peaks like Mount Pulag, Mount Apo, or the still active volcano Mount Pinatubo.
Now here's where things get interesting. Thailand and the Philippines have a long list of beach and island destinations where each one is unique and the best at something. There are certainly some headliners like Patong in Phuket and the world's three best islands in the Philippines (Boracay, Cebu and Palawan) and are always a winning choice. But if you want something out the ordinary, here are three more beaches for a more unique vacation experience.
It's the quieter sister of Patong in Phuket. While the latter is known for parties and a lot of exciting activities, Freedom Beach is a more secluded area with clear blue waters. It's a little difficult to access, which is probably why it remains pristine despite the heavy influx of tourists, but the journey is worth it with clean beaches and great snorkeling.
Located in Koh Tao, Aow Luek Bay is a superb place to snorkel in Thailand. Its colorful coral reefs are home to baby black tip reef sharks. It's great even for kids as the waters are always calm and warm.
Beach bums always head straight to Chaweng Beach in Koh Samui. The white sand is soft on the feet and the nightlife is wild and exciting making this beach the best spot in Thailand to just kick back and unwind. There's a lot going on and will make any beach trip the perfect one, regardless of what you're looking for.
Divers from all over the world are no strangers to Puerto Galera, but this town just three hours outside of Metro Manila is a haven for beach bums, party goers, and water adventurers. It's a UNESCO-protected site since 1973 and marine life has been thriving since. There are several beaches with powdery sand and many bars by the water for an ice cold (and cheap) beer.
Mindanao doesn't have the best reputation, but Samal Island is reason enough to get over that unfounded fear. Located 2 hours from Davao City, it's one of the most developed vacation destinations in the Philippines. It has several white and pink sand beaches with worldclass resorts. It's an extremely well-maintained island with extremely clean surroundings and crystal clear blue waters.
Another win for Mindanao is the surfers' haven called Siargao Island. With large waves throughout the year, it's a popular surfer town with many foreign travelers ending up staying for good. It's filled with good vibes combined with spectacular land and water forms. Despite being known for surfing, Siargao also boasts of clear rock pools, caves, lagoons, waterfalls, and hiking trails.
Where to go on your next vacation
Thailand and the Philippines share many cultural and geographical traits, but each country has something different to offer. It really depends on the kind of adventure you're looking for.
Go to Thailand for:
- Deep cultural experiences
- Amazing local cuisine
- Unique and extensive shopping sprees
Go the Philippines for:
- All kinds of adventures with nature
- Welcoming and happy-go-lucky locals
- Cheap pampering and affordable luxury services
Regardless of your final decision, a trip to either country is undoubtedly already a good one. Let the adventure begin!