A Visit to the Philippines

This article appeared in the Daily Mail in August 2008

Mention the Philippines to any Westerner and certain images spring immediately to mind:  Imelda Marcos;  shoes;  young maids exploited by Arab employers;  poverty so acute that a shanty town grew up on a noxious rubbish dump like some real-life version of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend.

There is, however, a very different side to the Philippines, one with a rich history, vibrant culture and verdant landscape, as I was to discover on a recent visit.  For a start, the country is not a single entity but consists of more than 7000 separate islands, which can be broadly divided into three areas:  Luzon in the north;  the Visayas in the centre;  and Mindanao in the south.

I began my trip in Luzon and the capital, Manila.  What had been a small town of 2000 inhabitants when the conquistador, Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, arrived there in 1570 (or, as my guide wryly pointed out, ‘when we discovered the Spanish’) has since grown into a sprawling metropolis of over 15,000,000 people.  With the exception of Warsaw, no city suffered more devastating bomb damage during the Second World War, and 21st century Manila is a place of violent contrasts:  old-style colonial architecture;  soaring skyscrapers;  tumbledown shacks in an urban wasteland.

In fact, Manila is not one city but a federation of fourteen, each with its own mayor and administration.  This makes for a strong local identity at the expense of centralised planning, as anyone who has endured its gridlocked road system will testify.  Indeed, sitting in one of the permanent traffic jams, you do well to remember the old joke:  ‘Is there a Filipino word for manyana?’  ‘Yes, but the sense is less urgent.’

The essential areas of Manila for the tourist are the Intramuros, the walled city that made up the old Spanish capital;  Makati, the business and financial centre, full of smart restaurants, air-conditioned malls and designer shops;  Ermita and Malate along Manila Bay, with their luxury hotels and exuberant nightlife;  and Binondo and Quiapo, home to both the city’s Chinese community and some of its most historic churches.

I stayed at the Traders Shangri-la hotel in Manila Bay, a discreetly opulent establishment, opposite the Cultural Centre of the Philippines, which, with the neighbouring Folk Arts Centre, Film Centre and Coconut Palace, forms a kind of Manila South Bank, built on reclaimed land by Imelda Marcos at the height of what the locals describe as her mining activities:  ‘This is mine, and this is mine, and this is mine.’

From there, it’s a short drive (traffic permitting) to the Intramuros, the most impressive monuments of which are the ruined Fort Santiago, now a memorial museum to the Filipino national hero, Jose Rizal, who was imprisoned there on the eve of his execution;  the squat Romanesque cathedral with its exquisite stained glass;  and the San Augustin church and monastery, the oldest in the Philippines, with its magnificent baroque interior, stunning trompe l’oeil ceiling and collection of icons, whose extravagant costumes might well have been the inspiration for Imelda’s dress sense.

On the borders of the Intramuros stands the famous Manila Hotel, which General MacArthur made his headquarters from 1936 to 1941.  Those with long pockets and a sentimental disposition might like to stay in his suite, while the general traveller can slip back in time by sipping a cocktail in the wood-panelled lobby to the strains of a string quartet, or taking lunch in the lavishly ornate Champagne Room, amid the festoons of yellow silk, wrought-iron mirrors and giant crystal trees.

Despite the stalling traffic, the city moves at a frenetic place, making visits to the American and Chinese cemeteries doubly welcome.  Both are magnificent monuments and indispensable oases of calm.  The American Memorial Cemetery, with its limestone courts and manicured lawns redolent of an Ivy League university, is the largest outside the US, containing the graves of more than 17,000 World War Two servicemen.  The Chinese cemetery, dating back to the 1850s, houses rows of sumptuous air-conditioned tombs, complete with fountains, fish-ponds and, in one case, a small swimming pool.   A local joke has it that it offers some of the most desirable accommodation in the city.  Which, given the shanty town nestling against its walls, may well have some truth.

Much of Manila’s life seems to happen on the pavement and a rare advantage of the traffic chaos is that it gives you the chance to observe it all from the comfort of one of the phenomenally cheap taxis.  There you can spot the street vendors hawking cigarettes (sold by the stick), drinks and fruit;  the fast food stands selling the local ‘delicacies’ of deep fried day-old chickens and duck embryos;  the weirdly colourful street signs, my own favourites being:  ‘No stopping at any time.  Parking Only,’ and ‘This is a child-friendly school’;  and the 24 hour bustle that makes the city one of the most exciting in Asia.

It is possible to experience a wide range of rural attractions from a base in Manila.  I took a day excursion to Tagatay, a small town with breathtaking views of Lake Taal, the country’s third largest lake, which has at its heart an active volcano.  While hardier souls climbed the crater, I opted for a massage at the nearby Nurture Spa.  Reclining in the tropical garden, lulled by the gentle sound of running water and the heady fragrance of frangipani, with a therapist gently kneading my neck and shoulders, I was transported to a more forgiving world.

I also took trips to Quezon province for the spectacular May festivals in Sariaya, Tayabas and Lucban.  The Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia, yet it retains much of its pagan heritage, and these festivals, with their splendid decorations, gaudy costumes, processions, dancing and feasting are a compelling mixture of Christian and animist traditions.

After ten days in Manila, I flew south to the Visayas, staying first outside Cebu, the second largest city and first centre of Catholicism in the country, and, then, on Boracay, a true island paradise.

Like many second cities, Cebu is fiercely independent and somewhat scornful of the capital.  It proudly asserts its history, which includes Colon Street, the oldest in the country, and San Carlos university, the oldest in Asia.  It has its own language, Cebuano, one of more than 150 spoken in the islands and quite distinct from Tagalog, the dominant language in Manila (but don’t be put off;  one of the lasting benefits of the fifty-year American occupation is that, except for the most remote rural areas, everyone speaks at least some English).

Cebu boasts an array of historic monuments, including Fort San Pedro, a unique triangular citadel;  and the Casa Gorordo, a striking example of Spanish era architecture, with distinctive furniture such as a butaka chair, whose extended arms are especially designed for feet, and a parminggalan bench, with a discreet cupboard beneath the seat in which to place gifts.   It is also home to the country’s most precious icon, the Santa Nino, a statue of the infant Christ, presented by the Portuguese explorer, Magellan, to the Queen of Cebu on her baptism, said to have been the first in Asia.  The queue of devotees waiting to kiss its protective case bears witness to its continuing potency.

During my visit, I stayed at the newly established Plantation Bay hotel, a compound of small colonial-style buildings set around a series of man-made lagoons, in which you can swim, dive, raft and, best of all, relax in the spa, with its hot freshwater and seawater pools, waterfalls, whirlpools, cooling mists and yet more invigorating massage.

The Philippines possesses 33,000 kilometres of shoreline and is home to more than 40% of the world’s maritime life.  It therefore seemed fitting to end my stay in the most celebrated of its resorts, Boracay island.  I took the hour-long flight from Cebu to the tiny Caticlan airport, followed by the fifteen minute boat trip to the island, marvelling as the lush palm trees and white gold beach came closer into view.

Boracay derives from the local word for cotton and alludes to both the colour and texture of the sand.  Most of the island’s activities centre on the four-kilometre White Beach.  There you can sunbathe, swim, buy a fake Rolex or genuine pearls from the many vendors, watch children build spectacular sand pagodas, drink at the Hobbit bar staffed entirely by midgets, enjoy all-you-can eat buffets from as little as £3 a head, surf, kiteboard and, even, be towed around the bay by a speedboat on an inflatable banana.

The beach remains packed into the early hours, and no doubt beyond, and more sedate visitors would do well to avoid the shore hotels in favour of one such as the Boracay Tropics, which is a few minutes walk inland.  A word of warning:  although the limited infrastructure, with a single road running from the north to the south of the island, has so far preserved Boracay’s spirit, it is in danger of over-development.  It is to be hoped that the authorities realise that, in tourism terms, less equals more.

On a two-week trip, I was able only to get a taste of a country which offers not just a huge contrast to life in the West but a series of striking contrasts within itself.   On the other hand, having visited three of its 7017 islands, I have 7014 reasons to return.