One of the warmest, most charming, and endearing things about the Philippines is that, although they are surrounded by mostly Buddhist or Islamic nations in Southeast Asia, they are a predominently Roman Catholic country, and so Christmas is a BIG DEAL!
In fact, since they have no Thanksgiving, the official Christmas season actually starts during the “-Ber” months, as they call them, or Septem-ber, Octo-ber, Novem-ber, and, of course, Decem-ber.
Everywhere you go there are Christmas lights (hanging off of palm trees), big light displays, Christmas music, shows and performances, and plenty of meals out and holiday traditions.
Since Filipinos are often profoundly religious (at least on the surface) and all about family, they love nothing more than to get a few days off of work and go spend it with extended family.
Everyone – and I do mean EVERYone – wants to head out to “the province” (the countryside, or any place outside the main city of Manila) to visit their aunts, uncles, parents, and grandparents, and often their kids who are forced to live there while the adult makes a living in the city.
However, this also creates a travel and transportation nightmare in a country where just getting from Point A to Point B can best be described as “chaotic” even on a good day.
For a few weeks and then days up to Christmas, the whole country’s infrastructure seems to grind to a halt, plunging from its regular nonsensical inefficiency into outright insanity.
For instance, I’ll tell you about my travel experience this Christmas.
I’m now living in Manila, and chose a neighborhood only about 5km from the airport for a good reason – so I can escape easily. Even on a normal business day with heavy traffic (always in Manila), it should only take me about 30-45 minutes to get to the airport.
I originally booked a flight from Manila to Bangkok, Thailand, for December 27 to spend New Year’s there with my homie Scotty the Body and Judd Reid, and then attend Judd’s legendary karate fight camp in early January.
However, I soon realized that I would be bored out of my mind in Manila up to and including Christmas since everyone leaves, even the gyms will be closed, and I’m not partying or drinking now while I train in earnest for the camp. So, I booked a new flight on Air Asia (only $140) to Bangkok on December 23.
No problem I thought, right? There will probably be little traffic and the airport won’t be busy. Wow was I wrong. I guess as there are far more middle-class Filipinos now, more and more families fly instead of drive for their Christmas trips.
Anyways, on a swampy rainy day, I still left about 3 hours ahead of time but couldn’t EVEN GET TO my departure terminal at the airport because the traffic was so bad. I mean, it was slow moving most of the way but steady, but then we just sat there in gridlock at a traffic circle right near Terminal 3. I could actually see the terminal far off and could have walked it if it wasn’t pouring rain and I had a huge bag with a wonky wheel.
We literally just sat there in the snake pit of traffic, probably moving 15 feet over forty five minutes, before I realized that even if we made it in time (they stop check-ins like an hour before take off), the line to get into the airport would be insane. Not gonna happen.
So we whipped around and returned to my apartment, which only took 15 minutes in the opposite direction after more than 2 hours trying to get there!
While I was still in the taxi, I got online and booked a NEW flight with Air Asia for December 24, but this one at 6:40 am (another $140 and the third time I’ve booked this same route!). Surely there would be no traffic or crowds at that insanely early hour.
I got a little shut eye and set my alarm for the ungodly hour of 2:40 am and got a Grab (their version of Uber) and headed to the airport by 3 (3 hours and 40 minutes before takeoff).
We got there super fast as there wasn’t any traffic as anticipated…but then we pulled upcurbside at the terminal and I was friggin shocked. There was literally the longest line I’ve ever seen of people waiting just to get INTO the terminal.
I swear it must have been 500 meters (half a kilometer) long and probably a few thousand people – just waiting to get into the security portal to walk into the airport. Mind you; this was at 3 am!
And once they got into their terminal (if they ever did), they’d have to wait in line again at their airline counter to check in (another insanely long and slow process), then wait at immigration, and then again at security.
Needless to say, people did NOT look happy, and I swear that most of them had to be there all night just to get INTO the airport! There was no way I would get inside in time, even with three hours to spare.
Luckily, a baggage porter came up to me as I was unloading my suitcase out of the trunk and taking in the scene. He asked if I needed help with my bag but I almost dismissed him, but then he whispered: “I’ll give you help with the line.”
I took him up on his offer since it was my only chance at making my flight, and he put my bag on a cart and whisked me to and fro around, through, and sometimes over the other people in line. Finally, we convened with a policeman, who was slipped 1,000 Pesos ($20) so he’d personally escort me to the front and through security.
Man, I felt guilty and sheepish cutting thousands of people in line, but it ain’t my country, and I didn’t make these rules they operate by. Once inside, it still took me abnormally long to check in, but I found the airport was totally uncrowded – the long lines were just to get in. I don’t know if they are ridiculously understaffed at Christmas (logic would say to have more people working during the busiest travel times, but Filipinos don’t operate by logic) or what, but it seemed like there were very few flights going out that early.
I really do hope that those people in line outside get in in time so they’re able to go visit family for Christmas after all.
As for me, I’m having a coffee waiting for my flight, but not breakfast because I don’t have enough cash and there are NO ATM or bank machines inside the Manila airport and the few cafes only take Mastercard.
Ahhh Christmas travel in the Philippines!