Published: April 22nd 2009April 21st 2009
Ahhh.... the Philippines, we're reminiscing already - our 3 weeks in this wonderful country went by far too quickly, and plans are already being drawn up for a return trip.
After more than 4 months in predominantly Buddhist and Hindu countries, it was a refreshing change to visit somewhere with a majority Catholic population. One thing we've observed during our travels is the huge extent to which a Nations main religion shapes that country and its people; influencing everything from the architecture, to the cuisine, to the inhabitants dress, and also their attitude towards us. In this respect, the Philippines is a godsend (excuse the pun); the people are so friendly and hospitable, there were no occasions or occurrences in which we felt at all uncomfortable. Its not that all the other countries have been unwelcoming, quite the opposite in fact, its just that the Filipinos went that extra mile, and really made an effort to make us feel at home. This, combined with the mind-boggling array of sights, landscapes and experiences the country has to offer, made us feel like we'd discovered somewhere really special, and, perhaps more importantly, before mass-tourism has really taken its toll. Anyway, enough gushing hyperbole, its time to tell you what we actually did on this amazing archipelago.
Perhaps in a bid for the world's worst first impression award, a plane wreck greeted us on touchdown at Clark Manila airport. No joke, as we descended the steps from our shiny, trustworthy aircraft, a fire was raging beside the runway, shooting billowing, black smoke high into the atmosphere. Quite a shock and our worst fears were confirmed when informed that a fatal crash had just occurred. We'll spare you the details but, needless to say, this wasn't the ideal introduction to a country - fortunately things improved from here on. A little dazed, we boarded a bus for the further 2 hour journey required to reach Manila proper. A swift search for suitable accommodation, and then a deservedly long sleep ready for some full-on exploration on our first full day.
Manila is a rather bewildering city; a mish-mash of very distinct areas and districts, with no real centre or hub of activity. As such, getting around can be a bit of a hassle (something of a trend in the Philippines - more on this later....) and a days sightseeing is never a simple affair. This, combined with other factors - the high pollution/noise levels, the prevalence of dodgy taxi drivers and armed security, and a very overt sex industry - often causes people to prematurely label the place as a bit of a dump, and exit to more manageable surroundings. However, as we discovered, given a little time and perseverance, it can be a truly captivating capital.
First on our Manila itinerary was Rizal Park. Located near the city's old town, and just inshore from Manila Bay, this park is dedicated to Dr. Jose Rizal - a fiercely patriotic and legendary figure, who fought for Filipino independence from the Spanish in the late 19th century (reward for which he received in the form of a swift execution). Rizal is to the Filipinos, what Ho Chi Minh is to the Vietnamese; so highly revered and widely respected, that’s its difficult to comprehend, even after experiencing the country first hand. We spent a while wandering around the park, taking in the countless statues and memorials on display. Then, enough old pieces of crockery to fill many lifetimes in the nearby museum, before settling down for an early dinner overlooking Manila Bay and one of its famous sunsets. Before turning in for the night we decided to visit a recently finished mall (it's going to be very hard to start calling these 'shopping centres' again when we get back home!) for a quick look around. The grand opening of an outlet from a popular cafe chain was just getting underway, and provided us with some surreal, and totally unexpected, entertainment. Staff and customers were all gathered outside the store, clasping candles and reciting prayers, whilst a priest in full holy regalia gave the inside a right good dousing with holy water. Filipinos love their malls - the sheer number in Manila alone (at least 20 and some enormous in size) is testament to that. Shopping here seems to be on a par in importance with their religion. People visit malls and churches incessantly, obsessively, religiously. The 'blessing' of this new cafe was the perfect illustration of this phenomenon.
Hannah got caught up in the religious atmosphere on day 2, and joined a pilgrimage to the nearest mall. James remained agnostic, however, and left a glazy-eyed Hannah to explore the 'Cultural Centre of the Philippines' instead. The CCP was one of many absurd schemes from the wacky first lady, Imelda Marcos, whose husband was prime minister here from the late 60's through to the early 80's. This bizarre woman is a goldmine for crazy stories, and is infamous for her bonkers escapades while her husband was running the country. But, as Hannah says, this isn't a history lesson, so we’ll move on - she's well worth a Wikipedia hit though! The CCP consists of a number of buildings (only a couple of any real use) including a main performance venue, a low-standard theme park, the now defunct Manila Film Centre, and the ludicrously extravagant Coconut Palace: the story behind this place is worth risking a telling off for rambling too much. On learning of the pope's intentions to visit the Philippines, Imelda decided to commission the building of a luxury palace, mostly made from local materials (hence the name) for the pontiff to reside in. The project ended up costing over $40 million! For her troubles, Imelda received a severe chastening from the pope, who questioned whether the money could have been put to a better use in such a poverty-stricken and debt-ridden country. He also cancelled his visit.
Later that afternoon the two of us caught a bus to nearby Tagaytay. This is a popular day trip destination, owing to the views over Lake Taal and the active volcano in the water's centre. We got talking to a local lady on the bus, who ended up offering us a room and food at her house. Considering the high price of hotels in the area, we decided to take her up on the offer..... and we're so glad we did! She lived in a tiny house with her 22-year-old daughter and their 2 (!) maids (she was very shocked to learn that our families don't even have 1 maid between them!). They all made us feel so welcome, laying on a lovely spread of local treats, and happily answering any questions we had about the Philippines. We gained a unique insight into Filipino family life and culture, and it was a truly memorable experience. Just to sweeten the deal, our lovely host supplied us with her daughter as a free tour guide for the following day’s activities. She was just as friendly and helpful as her mother; taking us to all the main sights and best viewpoints over the volcano and also preventing us from getting ripped off by any Jeepney drivers! After a quick visit to her mum's market stall to say our goodbyes, we spent a shameless length of time in Starbucks before returning to the 'Big Smoke'.
We arrived back just in time for our hotel's drunken Saturday night extravaganza - unlimited free wine and food from 7-11pm, then out to see a live cover band with drinks courtesy of the friendly guesthouse owner, nicely finished with a lock-in at a nearby bar. Hannah peaked a little too early, and 'did a Cinderella' - she was in bed before the clock struck twelve. James, on the other hand, was still going strong by 5.30am. This felt like a rather empty victory by 'wake-up time' Sunday morning, though. After failing to rouse James' comatose body by 12pm, Hannah spent the remainder of the day sunning herself beside perhaps the poshest hotel pool yet. James didn't do much all day, but he was moving enough by the evening to meet Han at the cinema to sit through another stinker from Nic Cage - don't go to see 'Knowing'! Then we swung by the airport for the late night arrival of visitor number 4 - another Swan girl, this time Han's older sister, Lou: she's got a medical license, and she's not afraid to use it! The two reunited sisters chattered excitedly late into the night. James mumbled something about feeling 'ill' and crawled back into bed.
Everyone was up and raring to go the next morning though, ready for our first day as a threesome. First off, a quick revisit to Rizal Park, then the cities oldest cathedral and fort in Intramuros, before catching the monorail to the bizarre Chinese cemetery; where some of the overly elaborate tombs have 2 stories, featuring such amenities as toilets, air-conditioning, TVs and fully-equipped kitchens. Such facilities allow any of the deceased’s relatives to stay at the tomb on their death anniversary or any other special occasion - nice! We managed to squeeze in another fabulous seafood buffet - the perfect introduction to Filipino cuisine for Lou - before boarding an overnight bus to the mountainous Northern region.
Our trip to the North began in Banaue, which is situated in an area famous for its rice terraces. After a quick freshen up, we made our way to Batad - motorbike & sidecar 12km of the way, then a brisk walk for the final 4km. A reasonable trek, but well worth it to reach the secluded village. Batad is only accessible on foot, which has thankfully saved this beautiful little place from being spoiled by major developments. The rice terraces here are widely regarded as being the best in the world, and have been dubbed the '8th Wonder of the World'. Seeing this place first-hand, its clear what all the fuss is about - the centuries old terraces rise majestically hundreds of feet high, forming a stunning amphitheatre of giant, bright green, steps - watch this space for the next photo blog. We scouted out some suitable accommodation for the night, grabbed a guide, and set off on another taxing 3 hour trek - through the heart of the village, down to a great, pounding waterfall for a refreshing, icy dip, and then up, up, up to the highest viewpoint: offering a phenomenal panorama of the surrounding terraces. Suitably knackered, the three of us enjoyed a couple of drinks in celebration of Grandma Lou's 26th birthday, before getting some well-deserved shut eye.
No time for lounging about the next morning though; we had to be up and trekking to the pick up point for our transport back to Banaue. The afternoon was devoted to R & R, with plenty of souvenir purchases, and another popular Filipino pastime in the evening - watching a surprisingly good cover band. Something else we found very endearing about the Filipinos is their musical taste - good old Western classics (the Beatles are very popular) and not the agonising Thai pop we've been forced to endure elsewhere. We were on the move again the next morning (for some time on the Jeepney's roof - not so much fun in the rain!) and heading further North to Sagada. Sagada is a popular backpacker hangout, with a chilled-out vibe, and set against astonishingly beautiful mountain scenery. The continuing bad weather prevented any real exploration on our first day here, but we still had fun strolling around the many cafes and handicraft shops on offer. The owner of our hotel invited us to her daughters graduation dinner later that evening - more natural Filipino hospitality again - an event that the whole town also seemed to attend. It was another great, personable experience, where we learnt more about real Filipino culture and cuisine that any museum could convey.
A quick refuel on tasty muesli, yoghurt and fruit the following morning then, with a guide in tow and a clear, sunny sky above, we set off for some more trekking. The area surrounding Sagada has many natural and man-made attractions, predominantly giant caverns and the 'hanging coffins' in Echo Valley. These are the result of an interesting practice whereby coffins are suspended from the mountainside, instead of being buried underground. This has the practical benefit of protecting the interred remains from scavenging animals, and the slightly more dubious advantage of allowing the spirit to ‘float free’.... hmmm. We dumped our guide for the afternoon, and went solo uphill to a very rewarding viewpoint. En-route we stopped at the 'Masferre Photo Gallery'. Eduardo Masferre was a well-known photographer in the 1930's-50's who documented, in beautiful black and white pictures, the lives of tribal people in the North of the country. Some of his photographs are extremely powerful, showcasing a way of life that barely survives in the modern era. The gallery turned out to be just a simple room in the unimposing family home. Eduardo's lovely 85-year-old widow greeted us at the door and treated us to a private tour of her husbands collection - tragically, no prints were available to buy. Another full day, suitably topped-off with a delicious meal in a 'fancy' restaurant (where a lengthy power cut required the use of candles, creating an unintentionally special ambience)
April 4th 2009 was the (very long) day that will always be remembered as the time we experienced haphazard Filipino transport, and the substandard tourist infrastructure, at its very worst. There were still a couple of days before we had to leave the North and fly to Palawan, so we decided to make a quick trip to Vigan (an old Spanish colonial town). Despite the relative short distance involved (approx 100 miles) a lack of direct transport meant we had to take 4 different jeepneys - a bit extreme but, with an early start and the whole day to spare, seemingly quite possible. Things didn't quite go to plan! The first leg began early, and went smoothly enough; we left Sagada at 6.30am, arriving in Bontoc an hour later. Then, a relatively painless transfer (despite a couple of hours running around town) and we pulled into our next stop, Cervantes, around 1.15pm. So far, so good. On arrival in Cervantes, we were kindly informed that a Jeepney to Tagudin (our next, and penultimate, destination) left daily at 2pm - perfect! With half an hour to spare, we found a little cafe/pool hall/general store run by a pleasant family, and enjoyed a well-deserved beer break. James went to find our next vehicle around 1.45pm, but returned empty-handed 10 minutes later. It was only now that we were told - 'Yes, there is a daily Jeepney at 2pm but it left at 1pm today. You'll have to wait until 6pm now'. A tad annoying but, undeterred, we made the most of our impromptu afternoon in this unknown town; helping the local kids with their English, playing pool, taking photos of real village life, and spending many peso's at our adopted families shop. Even the news that the 6pm Jeepney was actually leaving at 7pm today failed to break our optimistic mood. The time passed swiftly enough and we set off for the Jeepney stand before 6pm, just to make sure we arrived in plenty of time. This was when another villager calmly informed us that the 6/7pm Jeepney had now been cancelled, but 'don't worry, there's another at 3am' - astonishing! With no hotels, and a fair few drunks already stumbling around town, we didn't relish the prospect of an overnight stay in Cervantes. With no other options, we had to shell out $20 for a motorbike & sidecar to take us the remaining 60km to Tagudin. The three of us and all our luggage were rammed into the tiny vehicle and, combined with the steep mountain pass, this made for very slow progress. After 3 hours of hair-raising, winding roads, enveloped in darkness, above the clouds, and back down to earth again, we finally pulled into Tagudin at 9.30pm. The final phase of our journey was by far the easiest; we flagged down a passing bus and arrived in Vigan, our final destination, just before midnight. Collapsed in bed, after a long, hard day of obstacle-strewn travelling, we had made it against all the odds and were very chuffed not to have given up!
Our hard-fought time in Vigan didn't really begin until the next afternoon, but we still made the most of it; starting with some wandering, browsing and shopping along the main, cobbled street - closed to regular traffic and only paced by the occasional horse and cart. We also found time for museum, cathedral and pottery visits, before settling down in the busy central plaza for some local food and sunset drinks - all well worth the previous days struggle! Our flying visit to Vigan was over, as was our time in the North of the country, and we boarded the last night bus back to Manila.
This marks only the half-way point of our Filipino adventures - there's much more to tell yet! However, after realising how much James has waffled so far, Hannah has suggested this blog be published as a two-parter. So, we'll bring this entry to a close, but keep checking this page and the second instalment should appear within the week. Bye for now xxx