The Philippines is much more than a sprawling archipelago of pristine white-sand beaches and lush tropical flora, although those are undeniably attractive features of this Southeast Asian nation.
From the rugged mountains and high rolling plateaus of Mindanao to the grand malls and orderly chaos of Metro Manila, the Philippines is one of the most diverse and fastest-growing countries in the region.
Here are some surprising things about the Philippines.
It has 7,641 islands, but only around 2,000 are inhabited.
For decades, Filipinos thought their country was made up of 7,107 islands. But in 2013, the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA), which is part of the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources, obtained new technology that allowed them to better assess land formations. As a result, NAMRIA discovered more than 500 previously unknown islands.
After the discovery, controversy ensued. Some critics alleged that the newfound “islands” were in fact just large rocks, islets, reefs, or sandbars, and that they did not meet the legal definition for an island.
Either way, most of the new islands won’t be habitable. Currently, people live on just a quarter of the country’s islands.
Manila, the capital, is actually comprised of 16 cities.
When most people talk about Manila, they’re actually referring to the greater metropolis area, otherwise known as Metro Manila.
Just under 2 million people live in Manila proper, according to the country’s 2015 census.
Metro Manila, on the other hand, is made up of 16 cities, including Manila proper, and boasts more than 12.8 million people. Metro Manila is also known as the National Capital Region, which is one of the 16 administrative regions.
Spain, the US, and Japan all colonised the Philippines at one point.
Spain first settled in the Philippines in the 16th century. It would go on to colonize the country for more than 330 years, although the British briefly occupied Manila for 18 months from 1762 to 1764.
In 1898, Spain was forced to sell the Philippines to the US following its defeat in the Spanish-American War. The US remained in power until Japan invaded during World War II. The Japanese were forced to leave after their defeat in 1945.
Colonial remnants can still be felt today. From Spanish architecture to the widespread use of English, the Philippines is not unlike most other countries still reeling from centuries of colonial subjugation.
Roughly 80% of the population is Catholic, making the Philippines the country with the third most Catholics in the world after Brazil and Mexico.
A majority of Filipinos are Catholic, although some portions of the southern island of Mindanao are majority Muslim.
Filipinos tend to be extremely devout. For example, every year on Good Friday, some Catholics reenact the crucifixion of Jesus and flagellate themselves in his honour, although these practices are not endorsed by the official Catholic Church.
These religious performances can be be quite bloody, drawing tourists from around the world to the Philippines to bear witness.
It is illegal to get a divorce.
Because of their deeply religious roots, many Filipinos are socially conservative, strongly opposed to abortion and gay marriage.
But there’s another social issue that makes the Philippines unique: It is the only country in the world where it is illegal to get a divorce. The Catholic Church, which remains a powerful and influential presence in the country, has long spoken out against legalizing divorce.
But just because divorce is banned, that doesn’t mean a married couple can’t separate. Couples can get what’s called an annulment, but that can often be a long, expensive, and complicated process.
One of the main modes of transportation is a 1940s-styled World War II jeep.
The sight of overcrowded and colourful “jeepneys” roaring along Manila’s roads is quintessentially Filipino. These vehicles, modelled after World War II-era American jeeps, are popular among Filipino commuters, especially those in the middle and lower classes.
The jeepney is a point of pride for many Filipinos. Drivers often paint elaborate religious or cultural designs on the insides and exteriors of their jeeps, blasting music and abruptly stopping in the middle of the road to drop off passengers.
But these Filipino icons are notorious for polluting and contributing to Manila’s traffic woes, where it can take hours to travel a mere few miles. In recent months, President Rodrigo Duterte has signalled that his administration would begin to phase jeepneys out of operation, The New York Times reported last month.
Manny Pacquiao, a world-renowned boxer and one of the most famous celebrities in the country, is also a politician.
Manny Pacquiao is one of the most beloved boxers in the sport, but few outside the Philippines may know that the eight-division world boxing champ is serving his first term as a senator.
In 2010, Pacquiao used his celebrity status to propel him into politics. He was elected as a member of the Philippine House of Representatives for a district in the Sarangani province in Mindanao.
In 2016, he decided to run for higher office, ultimately securing a coveted seat in the Philippine Senate. He is now a full-time senator, even as he continues to box.
The Philippines won a landmark case against China in the dispute over the South China Sea.
The US isn’t the only country with a major stake in the South China Sea debacle.
In July 2016, an international tribunal at the Hague made a landmark ruling in favour of the Philippines in the ongoing territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
The case was brought on by the Philippine government in response to China’s claims of sovereignty over most of the area. The Hague rejected China’s arguments and blamed Beijing for causing “irreparable harm” to the marine environment, endangering Philippine ships and interfering with Philippine fishing and oil exploration, according to The New York Times.
Basketball is the most popular sport.
Basketball is wildly popular in the Philippines. It was first introduced during the early years of the American occupation.
In 1975, the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) – the Philippine equivalent of the NBA – was founded. Professional athletes from all over the world, including the US, play in the league.
“I think that basketball is way more important to… most Filipinos than it is to average Americans,” Rafe Bartholomew, the author of a book about basketball’s significance in the Philippines, told The Atlantic in 2016. “There’s a level of saturation of basketball in Philippine culture that just can’t be matched here.”
Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippines, is home to one of the longest-running rebel insurgencies in the world.
Mindanao has long struggled with violence, but the creation of the New People’s Army (NPA), a band of communist guerilla rebels, in 1969 ushered in a new era of violent discontent that continues to this day.
The NPA – which is effectively the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines – began as a populist and ideologically-driven uprising against US imperialism and what it viewed as a corrupt Philippine central government. Those sentiments continue to drive the movement today, although most of the rebel fighters are concentrated in rural and mountainous areas of Mindanao.
In many areas, the rebels continue to collect taxes from local residents, threatening to burn their homes or possessions if they refuse to pay. They are also responsible for numerous atrocities and murders.
The Philippine government periodically negotiates with the rebels in an effort to forge peace, but a frustrated President Duterte suspended talks in November.
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