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Published: August 12th 2007
Having read numerous reports about the direness of Manila, we were pleased that our budget flight from Macau was going to deposit us at Clark, an old USAF base north of the capital. As we discovered, this place had a grimness all of its own.
Flying in over northern Luzon, we saw very green countryside with little in the way of habitation. A grey sky greeted our arrival with spots of rain - not too surprising given that it's the rainy season now. We had no idea of the geography of Clark so simply took a taxi to a decent-sounding hotel plucked from the pages of the RG.
A sign at the front of the hotel warned that all ladies entering would have to show ID for proof of age. The few guests we saw all seemed to be retired American guys, most accompanied by Filipino women half their age and a quarter their weight. My brain though was preoccupied by the unexpected expense of the accommodation, not to mention its grottiness - $15 had been getting us excellent rooms in cities in China, but here we were being asked to pay twice as much for a dump in
an airport town.
A stroll down the street soon made things clearer. When Clark had been operational, an enormous string of go go bars had opened up to entertain the servicemen. In a base the size of Singapore, there were more than a few squaddies, and literally thousands of "entertainers" staffed the bars. Though the active soldiers are now gone, there seems to be an enormous excess of supply over demand, and ex-servicemen and average Joes now come to be active in their own way by taking their pick of the many girls still working there.
Even walking around in a couple, we were constantly propositioned by scantily dressed Filipinas requesting "Sir" and "Madam" to come into their bar. Offers of Viagra and Cialis from idling guys left me in no doubt as to how decrepit I'm looking these days. Any lulls were filled with cries of "Ride, boss?" from trike drivers whose eye I inadvertently caught.
I think Clark would put Bangkok or Phnom Penh to shame.
With any new country comes new forms of transport, and the Philippines has 2 offerings (so far) in that regard. Trikes are motorbikes with a covered sidecar (small
by Western standards) that fill the role occupied by auto-rickshaws/tuk tuks in other Southeast Asian countries. Drivers are from the same genetic line as their auto-rickshaw/tuk tuk-driving brethren, being irritating with their persistent hassle and prone to vast overcharging.
On the next level up are jeepneys, which are similar in spirit to a songthaew. Many are modified jeeps that were left behind by the US military when their presence was phased out. Any previous military use is hidden behind the bright paint jobs and chrome adornments that the drivers have chosen to kit out their vehicles with. Most have names written above the windscreen, some fanciful, many on religious themes. You can hail a jeepney anywhere on its route, with the schedule determined by when the driver considers he has enough custom to justify moving on, then sit either on the roof or one of the opposite-facing benches in the back. Like songthaews, jeepneys will often be found crammed to bursting with passengers, cargo, and smaller livestock. Unlike songthaews, the low roof and only partially-open sides lead to a cramped and stuffy interior.
Though accommodation is expensive by Southeast Asian standards, food - both in shops and in
restaurants - is cheap. Security is tight, with malls and some shops checking your bags and even patting you down to see if you're armed.
One of my biggest surprises has been the amount of staring that LA Woman and I have been subjected to. It's as bad as China, but whereas there I could understand an element of curiosity, this is a town that must have grown bored with seeing Westerners on a daily basis, in a country that's been ruled by western powers for most of its modern history. I'm hoping that this is because perhaps I've sprouted an extra limb, rather than the much-hyped friendliness of Filipinos being a myth.
On the plus side, English seems to be spoken by just about everyone here so language barrier issues should be non-existent.
The taste in music in the Philippines shows some promise. We had Guns 'n' Roses in the shuttle bus from the plane to the terminal, I heard Bad Boys Blue wafting out of a go go bar, and Queen was playing in the restaurant we ate in on our first day. I have no objection to 80s with a hint of Euro and long may it continue.
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