Philippines part 1: Manila

Since the Christmas break at NUS is around 1 month, I decided to do some travelling. Amos and I linked up and planned a two-stage trip, first to the Philippines, and then to Japan after Christmas. I’m currently sitting in the hotel Janelle’s parents found for us in Quezon City, part of Metro(politan) Manila, and I’ve decided to take the day off from venturing outside, being that we got back on the overnight bus this morning from Banaue (more about that in the next update).

The Rizal monument in Manila. Jose Rizal is the national hero of the Philippines.
The Rizal monument in Manila. Jose Rizal is the national hero of the Philippines.

Flying to the Philippines from Singapore is quite easy, but the flight path we followed into NAIA (Ninoy Aquino International Airport) is ever so slightly scary – the descent to the runway seems to pass precariously close by several tall buildings, but of course no real danger is present.

At the airport, which is unremarkable (a good thing in an airport), Janelle, Amos and I met up with Janelle’s dad and brother, who drove us to our hotel. At this point it is appropriate to mention that traffic in Manila is horrible. As the traffic report on the radio phrased it at some point: “Traffic: Well, all of Metro Manila is traffic right now, no point listing all the roads, just keep calm and don’t go road raging.” Part of the reason for this must be that there is no extensive metro system. There are a few tram lines travelling on elevated rail, but it is in no way fit for purpose to cover a metropolitan area of 12 million people: Wikipedia quotes daily combined ridership of the MRT and LRT at one million passengers. More about these rail systems in a later post. Public transport otherwise is provided by buses (with no route map, route numbers or bus stops, just destinations printed on the back of the bus,) and the ubiquitous Jeepney, converted, extended Jeeps which seat around 14 people, plying routes written on the side of the vehicle. During rush hour, taxis are difficult to get on the meter (which is understandable, since the meter is by distance, and they calculate their wage by time,) and it can take 2 hours to travel the 15 km from Central Manila to our hotel in Quezon City.

The MRT.
The MRT.

But anyway, Amos and I got to our hotel and checked in. The hotel (Eleganza Apartelle, 41 Mindanao Ave, no website) is nice, if a bit noisy (it faces the five lane Mindanao Ave). Our room has aircon, ensuite bathroom, TV and power outlets, but is small. It is clean… and windowless (so not actually that much traffic noise in the room). But for 780 pesos per night, (107 DKK, 23 SGD) and another 150 pesos for an extra mattress, it ain’t bad. Also included are free wifi in the outdoor covered lounges and free drinking water from dispensers.

The next day, Janelle, her mother, and brother, met us at the hotel and took us to visit her grandmother for morning tea. We were planning to do some sight-seeing in Manila, and Janelle’s grandmother kindly offered for her driver to take us round. That made things much easier. So Janelle, her brother Jules, Amos and I set off with the driver. First stop, the Mall close to our hotel, SM North Edsa. It is the third biggest in Asia (beaten by a few in Beijing), and we had lunch here.

The skygarden at the mall.
The skygarden at the mall.

Afterwards, we headed towards Manila, and visited the University of Santo Tomas (http://www.ust.edu.ph/). Their current campus is around a hundred years old, but the university itself was founded in 1611, during Spanish colonial times. The main building of the new campus is quite impressive, but we could not agree what architectural style it was, even with Janelle’s brother studying architecture.

The main building of Santo Tomas University.
The main building of Santo Tomas University.
The gate of Santo Tomas University, moved from their old campus in Intramuros.
The gate of Santo Tomas University, moved from their old campus in Intramuros.

The university houses a museum, with a large collection of stuffed animals and Filipino artwork. One of the paintings was quite amusing, it depicts a rural scene, wherein everyone is excessively muscular. Even the baby has biceps. And look at the herons as well. So buff. Or the lady with the banana: With those abs and shoulders, I would be scared.

Scenes of a strong nation?
Scenes of a strong nation?

Last order of business  for the day was the Rizal park, named after Jose Rizal. It is a large park in central Manila, that houses a few memorials to Jose Rizal, festivals, and a Chinese Garden. At the bay-facing end of the park (although the view of the bay is in fact obscured) there is a fairground, which provided a nice foreground for the picture below.

Sunset seen from Rizal Park. A Calesa (horse-drawn cart) is also visible.
Sunset seen from Rizal Park. A Calesa (horse-drawn cart) is also visible.
Ice cream for 10 pesos in Rizal park.
Ice cream for 10 pesos in Rizal park.

That evening, Amos and I did a bit of research for the next day. We planned to go to Intramuros, the old Spanish colonial era area of Manila, sadly heavily damaged during world war two by the occupying Japanese and by American bombing during the liberation in 1945. We found a daily guided tour arranged and hosted by a local performance artist, Carlos Celdran (celdrantours.blogspot.com), and reserved tickets by SMS.

A memorial to the victims of WWII in Manila.
A memorial to the victims of WWII in Manila.

The next day we took it easy for the morning, knowing that it was not worth moving until morning rush hour was over. We had brunch at the mall, and got a taxi to Intramuros. We had looked up the rate by meter previously, and that was a very good thing, since the first taxi driver we approached offered us a “rebate”: fixed price of 500 pesos, instead of the 200 it should be by meter. We eventually found a nice driver willing to take us on the meter, and got there around 1 pm, giving us two hours to wander round before the tour started, and wander we did, resisting the constant offers of tricycle and Calesa drivers to take us on tours of all of Intramuros for a “special price”.

The Manila Basilica. Closed for renovations.
The Manila Basilica. Closed for renovations.
The gate of Fort Santiago in Intramuros.
The gate of Fort Santiago in Intramuros.

The tour itself was very entertaining. Carlos spoke very well about the history of Intramuros and the Philippines as a whole, offering his own comments and interpretations, which really helped frame this sometimes sad and often thought-provoking area of Manila. One of his concluding observations was that people often “skip Manila” when going to the Philippines, because it is just a big city with no heart. His argument was that Intramuros was the heart that was missing, contributing to Manila no longer being the “Pearl of the Orient” as it was called during the early 20th century.

San Agustin church. The oldest church in the Phiippines still standing, constructed in 1607. One tower is missing, according to a tricycle driver due to Chinese Pirates.
San Agustin church. The oldest church in the Phiippines still standing, constructed in 1607. One tower is missing, according to a tricycle driver due to Chinese Pirates.
A partially ruined wall in Intramuros.
A partially ruined wall in Intramuros.

The tour ended with a complimentary Halo-Halo, a classic Filipino desert consisting of Ice Cream, fruit, sweet beans and jellies, all mixed up. A nice touch. Amos and I then left Intramuros, in search of a taxi back. But this proved very difficult, no taxi driver being willing to take us all the way to Quezon City on the meter. We ended up in Chinatown, and just decided to wait out the rush hour by watching Cloud Atlas in a Cinema. A very recommendable film, just be aware that if you are watching a film in the Philippines, the advertised starting point is when the film starts, not when the usual 15 minutes of advertisements start. Being that we came in a few minutes late, this made the film quite difficult to follow for the first half an hour. After the film, we had no problems finding a taxi back, only having to pay a 20 peso premium over the meter fare.

Carlos, our guide, in Fort Santiago. To the left of the picture is a museum to Jose Rizal.
Carlos, our guide, in Fort Santiago. To the left of the picture is a museum to Jose Rizal.
Carlos in "his" (as he said) courtyard at the end of the tour.
Carlos in “his” (as he said) courtyard at the end of the tour.

The next day was again spent with Janelle’s family. They had invited us along to the wedding of a distant relative in the afternoon, and for lunch before that. First though, we got a tour of the Philippine’s most prestigious university, University of the Philippines. The campus is very large and beautiful, set in a wooded area. The University’s symbol, called “Ang Oblasyon” (The Oblation), is a large statue in front of the main building. While we were photographing it, a group of people came up to us, asking whether we were tourists. We confirmed, and they then seemed very happy. They presented themselves as new employees at the Campus Maintenance office, and told us they had received a task to film themselves dancing Gangnam Style in front of The Oblation with some tourists. Well, why not was my thought, so dance Gangnam Style we did. He promised us the video, still awaiting it. But Janelle’s dad did get a few pictures. Dance done, we went for lunch at Technohub, a campus housing IBM and various other technology firms, mostly for call centres, the Philippines being able to compete with Indian call centres on authentic American accents. The restaurant was very nice, serving a modern take on Filipino cuisine.

Doing a mediocre rendition of Gangnam style.
Doing a mediocre rendition of Gangnam style.

After lunch we drove south, as the wedding was held in a church built close to the airport. The church is a large, spacious Roman Catholic church, with modern stained glass windows. Interesting to note that the stained glass windows exclusively depict the characters as European. Curious how traditions stick. The ceremony was a traditional wedding, and the bride’s dress was very nice.

After the ceremony, there were a few hours to kill before the reception, which we spent at Manila bay, watching the sunset. The reception was held at a nearby Chinese seafood restaurant, and consisted of around 8 courses of scrumptious seafood. Very nice. The entertainment was good, and everyone was enjoying themselves. All round an enjoyable day.

The promenade at Manila Bay.
The promenade at Manila Bay.

Our final day in Manila before leaving on the night bus was spent in Makati, the business district, chasing a travel agent that would sell us a Japan rail pass. We eventually found one, having had lunch with Janelle’s Aunt and Grandmother. Makati is an interesting area of high rise buildings and offices, not unlike Singapore in some respects. Quite the contrast with some of the poorer areas of Manila.

In my next post, Amos and I travel to Banaue, Batad and Sagada, to see rice terraces, sleep in wooden huts, and climb round slippery caves. Great fun.

Author: jpamills

Website: www.jpamills.dk

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