Manila -The Philippines, via Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)

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June 1st 2013
Published: June 1st 2013
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Kuala Lumpur

So after a 7 hour flight from Tokyo (where we actually fly past Manila) we have to transit in KL (Malaysia) for 13 hours before flying the 2,000 or so kms back to Manila. So much for cheap travel and airlines doing their bit for Global warming.

The airport lounge is pretty deserted at 4.30am when we arrive – a few eateries and one Duty Free store is open surprisingly. KL airport transit lounge looks familiar by now – we’ve been through it often enough.

The plan for the day is to see if we can go into KL and do a city tour on a Hop on Hop off bus and get back for our flight to Manila at 5.30 pm. However, we get carried away doing the blog update and struggling with the free Wi-Fi (which is off more than on) so when we get around to it we discover that the Hop on Hop off bus option combined with the return journey by train takes about 7 hours which we don’t have time for now. The Bus tour of the city alone takes 3 to 4 hours depending on traffic (not allowing for hop offs or lunch). So it’s a compromise. We catch the speedy KLIA train (no stops) to KL Sentral. We then get on a local LRT to KLCC where the Peronas Twin Towers are and a huge shopping mall. It’s Sunday and really quiet as most folks have left the city to go home to vote in the general election.

On the journey in we get a glimpse of KL and the countryside. As we approach the city which you can see from miles away due to the modern tower blocks against the skyline, we notice many older buildings (Islamic architecture) co existing with the modern which is a good reflection of Malaysia. The Sentral station is an amazing building – something that the Mughals would have been proud of. There are mosques and minarets all around.

Getting on the LRT we see most women wearing very colourful Hijabs going to the centre for the day after prayers we assume. The carriages are pretty empty as is the whole of KL from the looks of things and it definitely seems like a family day out.

We brave the humidity outside to take a few pics of the Twins Towers, and then wander around inside looking at the shops and for somewhere to eat. The array of eateries – from Malaysian to Japanese to American – is huge but we are most taken by some of the Food Halls (and there are many of them all over in the Towers complex) that do local foods which looks delicious and is also pretty cheap. Great stuff – we enjoy curry lamb for M and chicken and Beef Rendang for C. Food with flavour with a kick at last! Really good and goes down a treat. And joy of joys we find a New Zealand Ice cream stall for pud – hokey pokey and almond toffee. C is in 7th Heaven.

So after a couple of hours we head back to KL airport for our onward connection to Manila. On our “tour” of KL we really could have been in any big western city shopping mall but it was nicer than staying in the airport!

Manila – Capital of the Philippines

Hello Suurr, Hello Maam!

The familiar sound we get used to hearing everywhere which says a warm welcome to the Philippines!

The flight to Manila is 4 hours from KL on a good Malaysian Airlines flight and we arrive in Manila early at 8.40 pm. First task is to get our Immigration Visa extension to 4 weeks (the first 3 are free and automatic) – the process is pretty easy (actually they fill out the forms and details for you as long as you tell them and substantiate what date you will leave and then sign the form) except for the $70 per person we had to pay which seems steep for 1 extra week. Anyway it saves us the worry and hassle later on. You do also have to show that you have a flight booked to leave. The rest of immigration is a doddle, cheerful, how long are you going to stay? Have a lovely holiday. Done!

Next we go to the Tourist Information desk and the guy there who speaks perfect English (and we soon discover that most Filipinos do despite their Spanish occupation) is really helpful re taxi fares and maps etc. The metered taxi option is always the best despite the fact that the woman in charge of them tried to charge us extra, however, the guy had said that the fare should be P200 approx so we told her to get lost and the taxi guy took us into town anyway. We eventually arrive at our hostel “Where 2 Next” in Adriatico at about 10 pm ish. It’s a long street in the Malate area of Manila about 1 km from the bay of Manila. It’s one of the main tourist accommodation centres in the city and we’d recommend it.

The area and the hostel are lively and slightly noisy – they play their music loud here we discover – the Filipino way we decide. After the tidiness of Japan, this is a whole new scene and a total contrast. What surprises us after our 5 weeks in Japan is the number of eateries in Malate selling a variety of Japanese meals – damn we want something local. There are a lot of Korean restaurants as well. We try one – Korean Palace - one evening when we are passing through Manila (as we are using this as a base). The experience is lovely however, not sure it’s our favourite. The local Filipino grub is more fun – if a bit fatty with all that pork.

The area also has a lot of girlie bars (a sort of mini Soho) not quite the red light district – more men’s clubs with a price tag. After 2 San Miguel Beers P 45 each (60p to you and me) we hit bed. We are pretty knackered – it’s been a long day! We’ll check out the rest later.

We sleep in till nearly 12 noon the next morning – we are in no hurry as we have 3 days here. Where2Next rates includes an amazing breakfast in the price – great fresh brewed coffee, toast with choice of egg, spreads of various types and fresh fruit – banana, watermelon and mango. Fantastic way to start the day!

The first priority is getting cash – the HSBC ATM in Makati is the only one that dispenses more cash per withdrawal - P15K at a time with no local charge (all others only allow P10K + P200 charge). We need a lot of dosh to pay for the Bangka cruise in the Bacuit Archipelago (they deal in cash only – no credit cards! The Filipino way!!). Anyway it gets us to try the local Metro lines. There is the LRT from Pedro Gil station to EDSA P15 each, then an MRT from EDSA to Ayala. It’s packed and as much as Japan was fantastic about information and directions, in Manila sign posts are non-existent and the systems are not clear for new arrivals. What is great though is that everyone speaks English and seems keen to help if asked, or if they think you might need assistance, so getting around isn’t too bad.

What we learn is that even in this heat and humidity the Filipinos are patient and queue. They Q to pass security into the station, then Q at the right window for the right ticket for the journey, then they Q for the train which is only about 2 or 3 carriages long so can’t accommodate all those waiting. Yet they don’t push & shove as in Delhi. Whilst the carriages are cooled – the sheer numbers makes even the shortest ride an ordeal in the heat & humidity. However, like Delhi, the MRT has a senior citizens, women’s and disabled people’s compartment which we manage to get into once we discover it and it’s a lot less crowded – obviously M’s white hair comes in handy!

We notice the landscape of the city as we travel (this is not an underground Metro), it’s colourful, with poorly constructed roads and buildings with millions of Filipinos carry on their lives with some degree of calm. There are many slums and poverty is pretty visible from the beggars in the street, to the folks living rough on the street and those living in run down slum conditions in many places. Their calmness is mirrored in their driving – despite heavy traffic here and elsewhere we travel – Road Rage is not something the Filipinos do! They toot the horn very seldom and only to warn someone or thank someone for letting them through – really polite drivers.

The main forms of transport for getting around town, other than cabs which are quite cheap, are Jeepneys (stretch jeeps elaborately decorated, many with with Christian slogans and all very colourful albeit some quite rusty), Tricyles (motorbikes with a covered side car attached – a challenge to squeeze into for us – the Filipinos tend to be a lot slimmer and smaller) & Pedicabs (cycles with side car attached). In the more touristy areas you also get Calesa (horse drawn cabs – like Indian Tongas but a bit more colourful).

Although there are plenty of eateries nearby, we eat at the hostel a couple of times. They do some great lunch deals - Adobo (like Pork Vindaloo in Goa) and Lechon Kawali (Deep Fried Pork) with rice and unlimited soft drink and special all day Filipino breakfasts for P99 each. It’s pretty good too. We also try a local institution – Aristocrat, which has been going since 1936. It has all the varieties of Filipino food you could wish for and is packed with locals. It’s not bad even though it seems to us to be a bit pricey compared to other local restaurants.

When we asked for information about supermarkets etc we are directed to the Robinsons Place Mall – 3 blocks away from the hostel. The supermarket is amazing – the best selection of fruit we have ever seen in the world and at cheap prices. The food on offer is also immense – from fresh fish/seafood to all variety of meats. The choices on offer of other products make the UK supermarkets seem parochial. These guys are so lucky and the prices here are rock bottom – almost Indian standards.

The Mall is enormous – and this is not one of the big ones in the city. They love Malls in the Philippines we discover as we travel around. This place has almost every brand of shop from the UK (including M & S, Debenhams etc), US, Japan, Korea etc and eateries that cater for every taste local and foreign (including Persian, Greek, Vietnamese, you name it) – which makes this a place for a whole array of experiences. MacDonald’s seem to be in every town and city as are KFC, The Yellow Cab Co (Pizzas), Burger King etc – the US invasion (again!).

We notice that there’s an American focus in the PI’s (Philippine Islands) which we don’t quite get until we learn something of the history. Although the Spanish occupied the PI’s for 350 years (apart from 2 years of British rule! Go figure), and some Spanish features in Tagalog, the national language, it’s not at all like Mexico or South America where Spanish is the main influence. We learn that the Spanish tried to keep the Filipino’s illiterate and also struggled to exert their will in some of the tribal areas. When the Americans arrived they invested in educating the Filipinos, engaged with the tribal Filipino culture and supported their moves towards independence. As a result the US is seen as a positive part of their history.

The US occupation ended when the Japanese invaded in 1942. The Japanese occupation of the country is a brutal part of their history and the US drove them out after the battle of Manila in 1945. However they left a legacy of torture and ill treatment of the locals; a familiar theme of the Japanese occupations and treatment of people in all parts of SE Asia. Even today in the news, they seem to be plagued by their ruthless and unscrupulous behaviour during the war years and some of their current politicians still seem to think that they did nothing wrong. The dark side of some of the Japanese perhaps?!

Another part of the PI’s somewhat turbulent history is the fact that this is the only country that has staged two “People’s Revolutions” and changed the course of their own history – the second was the bloodless coup by the people to overthrow Marcos. Amazing.

The other social factor of importance to the Country is its adopted Catholic religion brought here by the Spanish. 84% of the country is Christian which presents huge problems as the population of the country has grown massively in the last decade and can’t sustain & support this population boom. However politically it’s a red hot issue to deal with and the Catholic Church is very powerful and any attempt at birth control faces huge opposition.

Interestingly enough we learn while here that their economy has been growing year on year by about 6% but most of this is at the top end and benefits only the rich, the poorest get nothing from this – even the government admits this. The vast majority of Filipinos are still employed in agriculture.

Anyhow, back to Manila. We decide to do a walking tour to the old city area of Intramuros, as this looks quite close on the map. From the hostel it’s just a short walk to the seafront - Roxas Blvd, though there’s no seaside to speak of, it’s a busy port. A bit further along is an area called Bay walk; it’s the place for sunset views of Manila Bay. Not that we saw any here as it’s coming up for rainy season so the weather pattern daily is hot, sunny, humid am, pm rain or cloudy. It’s mainly frequented by folks fishing and down and outs sleeping in the shade of the trees.

Despite trying to walk in the shade we are real sweaty betty’s by the time we reach Rizal Park on the outskirts of Intramuros. Apart from having some ornamental gardens and a Chess plaza where you can join the locals in a game (and doubtless get trounced), the main feature is the Jose Rizal Memorial. He was a physician and is a Filipino hero who promoted independence from the Spanish and was executed for his efforts in 1896. The Memorial (entry P20) has a very impressive and graphic display in amazing larger than life bronze statues depicting the final moments of his execution when he was shot in the back by Filipino guards on the command of the Spanish. His death triggered the Philippines revolution for independence.

A few blocks further on we get to the old walled city – very Spanish colonial style – of Intramuros. Many of the streets and houses were destroyed in the Battle of Manila in WW2 but what is left is well preserved and you could be in European Spain. Sites include the Ramparts which can be walked along in parts, St Augustin Church (the oldest church in the Philippines) which has an ornately decorated vaulted ceiling, and the Cathedral – though this was closed for renovation.

At the end of main drag is Fort Santiago, which was originally the settlement of Raja Suleman and then in order was occupied by the Spanish, the British, the Spanish, the Americans, the Japanese, the Americans again and finally, after the end of WW2, the Filipinos. It sits on the mouth of the Pasig River which is used commercially, and on the other side you can see many riverside slums and shacks. There is another memorial to Rizal here where he was imprisoned – a sort of museum with details about his life. There are also some graphic records of the devastation caused by the Battle of Manila and the Japanese treatment of prisoners.

As we’re knackered from the heat, we take a Jeepney (P8 each) crushed full with locals who find us a novelty, back to Robinsons Place - the Mall. It’s a fun experience all the same and the driver tells us where to get out thankfully as we didn’t have a clue. People seem very friendly seem generally honest and keen to help. Tourism is important to them and they seem to give foreigners preferential treatment.

Next morning we’re up early to head to the airport for our short flight from Manila to Coron Town on Busuanga Island. As we are returning to Manila – using the hostel as a base – we leave our big bag there and travel light - just the 2 small day packs as we are going on the Tao Philippines Bacuit Archipelago cruise on Bangkas (Philippine fishing boats) and need to travel light. We check out of the hostel and catch a cab to Terminal 3 – the domestic airline section of the airport. The drive takes us into new areas that show a different face of Manila – the slum living areas, the poor housing conditions where blocks of flats with presumably the working class live – looking pretty grim and run down – though colourful painted in blue with peoples washing hanging out (and they do wear colourful clothes). You got a sense of how many folk lived in each place by the amount of washing.

Then we hit a traffic jam and sit in it for a while as the taxi meter ticked over listening to the radio. We notice that their radio station DJs speak in and out of English (with a slight US twang) and the local language - it reminds us of the Indian way – you get half the conversation and make up the rest! Then all of a sudden the driver wakes up takes the traffic flow to the right and he’s away and we race to the airport getting there well in time to check in. The meter only reads P183 (normal is 200!) He did well so gets a tip.

We check in ok for the 2.10 pm flight and are told that there is a slight delay and that the flight will leave at 3 pm; disappointing as we could have had lunch and then come here. But the airport seems pretty modern (though no air – con so it’s hot and humid) and has many shops and a Food court. We decide to try Kenny Rogers Roaster (yes; The Kenny Rogers of country and Western singing fame!). It’s a US chain big in Malaysia and the Philippines. It’s a place that does roast chicken, ribs and rice with various options of salads and vegetables done in assorted styles. A bit pricey but it made a change from Japanese or Asian food.

We head for the departure gate in time for the 2.30 boarding and find that the flight is delayed…… We wait……. And wait……. And wait….. And nothing. We are told that the plane is airborne at 2.30 pm so we expect it to be here in an hour ….. no such luck. Welcome to Philippine airlines (in general) efficiency. All we could hear were announcements of delays and apologies from both main carriers CEBU Pacific and Philippine Airlines Express. This is pretty common apparently however, the PAL guys were hopeless, giving folks no information at all so much so that even some of the locals lost their cool and had a go at them. It was then that they advised the plane would arrive at 4.35 pm. At 4.30 we were asked to board a bus (air – con at last) which is to take us to the plane. We sit in the bus for a while – nothing. Then the airport guy for PAL bring us all some water and a snack which many ate on board the bus while we sat on the tarmac. At 4-50 pm the lady opposite tells us that if we don’t get on in 10 minutes the flight will be cancelled as there are no runway lights in Coron so we have to land before sunset. Many prayers are said, and answered – we get on board at 5-00, take off at 5-10 and land at 6-00 just as the sun is setting!!! Close call.

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