Taal volcano in the Philippines could spew lava and ash for weeks, authorities have warned, leaving thousands in limbo after they fled their homes fearing a massive eruption.

The crater of the volcano exploded to life with towering clouds of ash and jets of red-hot lava on Sunday, forcing those living around the mountain south of Manila to flee to safety.

Many residents abandoned livestock and pets as well as homes full of belongings after authorities sounded an alert warning that an "explosive eruption" could come imminently.

As many as 30,000 people are in shelters.

Taal is one of the most active volcanoes in a nation hit periodically by eruptions and earthquakes due to its location on the Pacific "Ring of Fire" - a zone of intense seismic activity.

The eruption has been putting on a stunning and terrifying display, with lightning crackling through its ash cloud in a poorly understood phenomenon that has been attributed to static electricity.

Renato Solidum, head of the Philippines' seismological agency, said Taal's previous eruptions have gone on for as long as months so it was impossible to predict an end to the current activity.

However, he said the alert warning of a potentially catastrophic "explosive eruption" may remain in place for weeks, depending on developments.

"We have a protocol of waiting for several days, sometimes two weeks, to make sure that indeed ... volcano activity has essentially stopped," he said.

The volcano burst with activity on Sunday, shooting a massive column of ash 15km into the sky that then rained down on the region.

Falling ash pushed aviation officials to temporarily shut down Manila's main international airport, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flight and stranded tens of thousands of travellers.

Ninoy Aquino International Airport resumed reduced operations yesterday and is gradually recovering, but a backlog of cancelled flights resulted in ongoing pain for travellers. 

Taal's last eruption was in 1977, but it has a long history of activity. In 1965 the volcano, which is a popular tourist attraction set in a picturesque lake, killed 200 people.

The country's most powerful explosion in recent years was the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, about 100km northwest of Manila, which killed more than 800 people.