The Philippine Islands has recently been moving up on desirable retirement destinations around the world. Many web sites exclaim the virtues of living in the Philippines in breathless tones, filled with exclamation points and lofty adjectives. But is the Philippines really a good choice for retirement? Before you decide to retire in the Philippines, there are quite a few things you need to know. You can spend a lot of time researching, which is probably how you found The Philippine Expat Guide in the first place. The e-book shown in the sidebars can really save you a huge amount of time, money and frustration. Check out the Philippine Expat Survival Guide and be prepared the easy and cost-effective way.
Let’s look at some facts. Anyone can tell you about the beautiful environment, the low cost of living, the great weather and the friendly people. All of things are true, for the most part. The Philippines does have many of the last unspoiled beach and rain forest locations in the world, it is cheap to live here – you’re dollar (or pound or euro) will go a lot further here, the lack of really cold weather is wonderful, and the Filipino people are genuinely open and honest, and very friendly and eager to please. But does anyone tell you about the downsides? About the bad parts of living in the Philippines? Especially for people reaching retirement age, the Philippine Islands do have some drawbacks that you need to consider.
I’ll try to focus this on retirement issues. I won’t reach retirement age for another 12 years, so it hasn’t been strongly focused in my mind for long, but I’ll do the best I can.
The first thing that comes to mind is the availability and quality of medical care in the Philippines. Many web sites state that excellent medical facilities exist and have United States trained doctors and nurses. While this is certainly true, there are several excellent hospitals in Manila, Cebu, Olongapo and a few other places, if you live outside any of these major areas, your choices narrow drastically. Most rural communities have very limited access to health care, and you won’t be able to find higher-tech devices like MRIs or other imaging scanners. You also won’t find specialists – you’ll be lucky to find a general internist in the Provinces. For every day medical issues, like colds and the flue, or minor burns or injuries, these local clinics are fine. They are very competent in the basics. Hopefully, as a retiree, you enjoy excellent health and don’t need to worry – at least I hope that’s the case. But many people above age 50 have specific needs that may be difficult to attend to here in the Philippines.
I don’t want to scare anyone, but if you already have medical issues like severe heart or lung conditions, diabetes, or anything pre-cancerous you will be limited to living in a major metropolitan area. You simply will not find the expertise and equipment you need in the smaller towns in the provinces. While living in Manila is not horrible, you won’t be experiencing the true beauty of the Philippines. Manila is a crowded, dirty city with a huge amount of poverty and crime. The traffic is horrendous, and people are just not as friendly there as in the rest of the Philippines. You will need to live in certain areas that offer the amenities we are used to, and your dollar will not go as far. I would never consider Manila as a desirable retirement destination.
One more medical issue you need to know about. Unless you live in Manila, if you call our version of 911 and ask for an ambulance, they’ll likely give you several phone numbers to private ambulance providers. The local hospital may or may not have an ambulance, and if they do, it may or may not be working, or they may simply not have a driver available. Be prepared to either wait up to a few hours for your emergency transport, or simply hire your own trike or jeepney. Preferably, you would have a neighbor with a good car or truck, or if you have your own, it’s trivial to find a driver to take you, any time of night or day.
Labor is the cheapest, most prevalent commodity you will find in the Philippines. If you want a driver, gardener, maid, gold caddy, or anything else imaginable, you can hire one full time or on a per-need basis for very little money. Let’s try to compare salary costs for basic labor between the US and the Philippines, so you’ll get a good idea of how cheap labor can really be. A waitress in a restaurant in this area gets between p150 and p200 per 8 hour shift, not including night shift differential or holiday pay. At the low end, that’s $3.44 per day. At the high end, it’s $4.58 a day. A driver would get roughly the same amount, though most people pay a little more. Same for gardeners and maids.
You also have to be prepared for the difficulties you’ll face in doing simple things like shopping. Unless you live in a large city, your access to malls and what we think of when we think about grocery stores will also be very limited. Most towns in the Philippines don’t have malls, they have markets. These are open-air groups of stalls and booths that sell everything from clothing to fresh fruits and vegetables, to chicken, beef, pork and fish. You need to get there early if you want fresh foods. There are also mini-stores called sari-sari stores that will carry a handful of goods. I pretty much know who has what in my part of the Philippines, and I plan my shopping accordingly.
Transportation in the Philippines consists mostly of the local, colorful old trucks with passenger row seats in the back called Jeepneys. These are all modeled after world war two trucks that were converted into passenger service, and many of them are relics from that era!
These Jeepneys operate on defined routes through the cities and towns, and some make slightly longer runs between smaller towns that are very close to one another. After you ride the jeepney for a while, you may need to get off and catch a “trike” to your final destination, if it’s not on any of the main jeepney routes.
A trike is simply a small motorcycle with a sidecar attached. In Olongapo, where I live, the side cars are made a little smaller so it’s difficult to accommodate two people of foreign stature at the same time. Most foreigners choose to take two trikes rather than squeeze into one, or have one passenger riding on the back of the motorcycle seat, side-saddle. This increases the income for the driver – not bad thinking. You’ll always see two or even three Filipinos crammed into a trike side car, but most expats won’t do that. We’re accustomed to riding around in SUVs, after all.
Trikes are very rough riding, especially on the smaller roads in most towns. If you aren’t prepared to be jostled and bumped until your kidneys hurt, you’ll need to plan on buying your own car or motorcycle/scooter. Many expats here pick up small scooters and have no problems riding around in the day time. I would caution you to never drive at night here – many vehicles don’t have lights, and in general, the people her drive, well, pretty dangerously.
Accommodations can vary widely depending on what area of the Philippines you decide to live in. In my area, I have a few choices. We have apartelles, which are really just small studio apartments. We have the Filipino version of single family homes, which are almost always simple concrete block houses, and are usually pressed together so closely there’s no room at all on the sides. These are fine houses, unless you like to run air conditioning, as most are fitted with those horizontal slat windows that raise and lower with a little crank. They leak so much air you’ll never really cool off the house and your power bill will be immense. Electric power is one of the few things that is not cheaper here in the Philippines. I’m currently paying roughly 20 cents per kilowatt hour – it’s very pricey! I do run a split unit AC all the time, as I work from home and like to stay cool, so my power bill runs around $290 a month. I have friends in smaller places with better windows and doors, that only spend around $100, so you can manage to reduce this expense by choosing your home carefully.
What about internet and cable TV? In my area, the best speed I can get is 45kb download and about 13 upload. It absolutely crawls. I could pay to have a dedicated fiber line installed, but I would be paying for all the cable and labor to install the fiber from the nearest junction, about half a mile away! Plus, the monthly fees for that would be over $500 US per month, and that’s only for 6 – 8 megs! It’s simply not practical. My cable TV is pretty decent, really. I get three movie channels – HBO, Cinemax and Star Movies (which has commercials). I also get Fox News and CNN, and a good number of other English channels like History and Discovery. The local cable company has just added digital boxes to their lineup and mine has not arrived yet. They cost php4,000 to purchase the box (about $92), and carry a php500 monthly charge in addition to your normal cable service bill (total around $30). I’m getting one, and hopefully it will be here soon.
In some areas of Manila and Cebu, you can get much better internet speeds and cable TV packages, at much more reasonable costs. The real problem with infrastructure in the Philippines is that every location in run independently. In the US, I used to have RoadRunner Cable. If you had RoadRunner in Iowa, it would be the same standards as RoadRunner in California. Here, conditions, equipment, maintenance, and so on, are very different from place to place. Consistency of services is a huge problem here, and is simply something we get used to.
I think that’s enough for now. Expect to see more on this issue in upcoming articles.