Welcome to Travel Insider, an occasional feature in which we get the inside scoop on common and sometimes exotic destinations from those who have lived or traveled often there.
The place: Philippines
The expert: James W. Kho, 66, of Sacramento, who was born in Manila, attended college at the University of the Philippines, and returns regularly, spending a few days to several weeks at a time.
What are cultural differences between the Philippines and the United States? How should travelers react?
Filipinos' friendliness and customer service are unmatched. English is widely spoken, and the culture is pretty westernized. The cost of living is substantially less, so I take advantage of going to many of the best restaurants.
Name a local delicacy that tourists absolutely must try.
There are many exotic fruits and foods worth trying; most Americans probably haven't heard of balut (a fertilized egg that's boiled in the shell and eaten) or dinuguan (pork blood stew). But the Philippines grow the best mangos unmatched by those from Mexico. They can be eaten fresh or in a variety of desserts. Mango shakes are the best.
Do you have any tips on the least- expensive ways (air, train, ship, car) to get to the Philippines?
You can only get there by plane from the U.S. through gateway cities of Manila or Cebu. Once in the Philippines, destinations among the islands can be reached in many ways including bangka (small boats), ferry, ships and public buses.
For shorter distances, catch a ride in a motorcycle-pulled sidecar, a calesa (horse-drawn carriage) or a jeepney one of the country's flamboyantly decorated, notoriously crowded bus/jeeps originally made from surplus U.S. military jeeps left from World War II.
I even took a ride on a cart pulled by water buffalo (carabao). The Philippines has 7,100 islands, so most destinations can be reached by sea.
How safe and efficient is rapid transportation (bus, subway, taxi)?
There are no subways, and traffic is bad most times. Safety on public transportation has been much better in recent years. Registered taxis (from airports or hotels) are the best bet. Locals prefer the LRT (light rail transit) or shared taxis (called FX) going to a predetermined area.
What are two places where can you experience the real Philippines the non-touristy part?
Two places come to mind in Manila: Luneta Park and Chinatown.
Luneta is along the ocean shoreline of Manila Bay. At 5 or 6 a.m., the area will be jampacked with people jogging and exercising. This is the best time to enjoy it when the sun is about to rise and the climate is still not hot. Many vendors are there selling food and drinks.
Chinatown is anchored by Ongpin Street and is bigger than the Chinatowns of San Francisco or New York City. Local residents live there, eat, shop, attend schools, worship at the Binondo or Santa Criz churches, and carry on their lives in a rather unique and exotic atmosphere.
If your in-laws were to come visit you in the Philippines, where would you take them and why?
Intramuros would be one of my choices. It has remnants of the Spanish colonial rule, including a fort. The walled city has residences, stores, public buildings and cobblestone streets from the old days.
If time permits, I'd take them to Boracay, where the finest sand can be found. I put sand from Boracay in a bottle as a souvenir and it looked so much like white sugar that friends accidentally put it in their coffee.
How would you describe the locals' attitude toward tourists in their midst?
Extremely friendly. People you meet on the street will readily help if you need directions.
What is the one place not to miss when in the Philippines?
Everyone who travels to the Philippines likely will go to one of the big cities like Manila. For those into beaches and diving, there are so many good choices. Gamblers will like the numerous casinos, and those into nightlife will find no lack of discos, karaoke and nightclubs. Shoppers will be in heaven at the Mall of Asia. For me, spas would be my choice, where one can get a great massage and spa treatment at an unbelievably low price.
What is the one overhyped place travelers should skip?
I suggest skipping Quiapo or Divisoria, unless you are with a local. Even though great shopping abounds, there are many pickpockets, and the streets and sidewalks are somewhat filthy.
What is it that would make you want to live again in the Philippines?
Cost is a major consideration. One can live very comfortably in the Philippines with a small income from the U.S. But it is the excitement of living in a big city, and in a short time, the ability to travel to remote areas to enjoy solitude by the ocean.
Would you ever consider going back, either to visit or live?
I go back as much as I can manage. I actually bought a unit of a condominium in Manila.