The only thing I know about the Philippines as we fly from Bali is that there was once a famous boxing match in the capital, ‘The Thriller in Manila’; and that when we were booking our trip the lad in STA said it was ‘the next big thing’. We almost kind of stuck on three weeks here as an afterthought, in between our predetermined Bali trip to surf, and our final friend visiting destination of Japan.
Reading the guide book on the plane over (planning is less and less urgent as the trip goes on!) it seems the 7000 islands that make up the Philippine archipelago have a lot to offer. From world class surf breaks and scuba dives, to wildlife walks and waterfalls. Famously gritty cities, village markets, vast volcanoes, white sand beaches and more. Where to start?!
Well where better than the aforementioned capital and the Museum of Filipino People. This and the National Gallery of Art over the road, were to provide a much needed history lesson and initial taste for the place as an introduction for us. But first, a stroll through Rizal Park on the way; which as we were to find out, is named after the famous national hero Philippines: Jose Rizal. His writings became an inspiration and blueprint for the eventual revolt against Spanish colonialists, after he was executed as a rebel by the Spanish in this very park. His famous final poem is inscribed here near a horrifying heroic statue of his death. Locals play chess calmly.
The museum and the art gallery guide us through the tribal village early history of these islands and the subsequent Spanish invasion, The Philippines being a Spanish colony from 1521 until 1898. Just learning that meant everything started to make a little more sense in Manila. The wide plazas (placas), the grand white catholic churches, the language similarities (asking ‘how are you?’ with ‘Como esta’), and the abundance of ‘San Miguel’ beer varieties.
With the art gallery featuring a large selection of work that document the arrival and eventual rebellion of these conquistadors, as always in the former colonies we’ve visited (India (British), Cambodia and Vietnam (France), Bali (Dutch), and others too) there is a feeling of frustration of the mistakes of the past. How can these colonists have felt benevolent when they were killing and displacing indigenous people?
Another strong influence here is from nearby super country China. Naturally migrating back and forth has been common and left large impressions here in the North of the sprawling collections of islands (as we move south in later weeks the influences change to Indonesian and Polynesian). The Chinese brought money here, and dues to this and the prohibition of Chinese burials in Spanish Catholic cemeteries an elaborate cemetery is siuated in downtown Manila.
We visit this Chinese cemetery dedicated to wealthy merchants who have passed in the Philippine capital. The individual tombs are more like homes, some with kitchens and toilets and WiFi. Wealthy families pay porters and cleaners to upkeep the shrines and the place is big enough to have roads and streets and tree circled squares. The cemetery was the place of many executions during WWII and in the centre of the complex there stands a tall monument dedicated to Chinese who fought and died in the war with Japan. Notably a Chinese doctor called General Yang Guangsheng whose photograph and name are embedded here.
Funny how a graveyard can tell so many stories, sometimes the names are faceless and you are left wondering who the people were and from when, but here is there is a tangible thread running the through the streets.
Being in Bali for a month has meant we are buzzing to be in the city. And it’s not nearly as grimy as the guidebooks say. In fact we visit more art galleries here than in any other city over the six months, showcasing Filipino artists and work in; National Gallery of Art, featuring work by Rizal himself; Ayala gallery;; and the ‘Yuchengko’ gallery, with an impressive Amorsolo exhibition. This one includes lovely pastelly country scenes that evoke the ‘dignity and grace of the common people’.
We eat good food in china town, in a mall food court, and take in a local market one morning. Manila seems to have a split personality, some pretty poor street life type areas and so so so much traffic and pollution on one hand; then a kind of uber desire for malls and western stores and fast food. Seriously I have never seen so many shopping centres and dunkin’ donuts! But the coffee / brunch city scene is strong.
Perhaps the best distillation of Manila and its history is the Intramuros walking tour, a very Spanish feeling sector in the west of the city. The Spanish made this walled city the centre of their Philippine affairs. . Converting the natives to Catholicism and taking control of the outlying islands.
The US arrived here in 1898 and took control until and to me it seems there is a still a very American idolizing intention here. I suppose like a lot of big cities, and in the same way former colonies echo their sponsors of the past; and so the new developments look more like Manhattan than Manila, with malls, burger joints, coffee shops.
Exploring the streets of Intramuros, though is different, taking in St Augustine church, Manila Cathedral, Casa Manila, an old Spanish colonial house, a 1945 WW2 memorial and finally Fort Santiago; an old jail from where Jose Rizal walked from his cell, to the park, where he was executed but firing squad. There are brass cast footprints in the ground around a Rizal shrine on the site of his former cell.
As we walk around children run up to us to beg for money and food. A giant street football match is played in the dusty road. Make shift shelters lean and flap along the pavement sides; while all around there are the grand buildings and churches of the Spanish occupation, the irony not lost.
But there is more to the Philippines than its capital and we are keen to see some of the islands that make up the volcanic area. Legaspi, an hours flights east, is the location of one of the most famous; Mt Mayon, which erupted in 2010, leaving a trail of black lava flow scorched down the hillside, and providing a pretty picture perfect conical volcano on a clear day. There was also the promise of nearby surf or scuba trips. Arriving in the evening I had my first sample of Filipino cuisine. ‘Bicol express’ a mad mix of Pork ribs and mad shrimp paste with sili (chilli).
Another meal was Sili ice cream which was as strange but nice as it sounds. This whole ‘Bicol’ region renowned for its spicier food. On the whole we struggle with the variety of the food here, and all across the The Philippines; too meaty for Helen and too samey for me. We find ourselves leaning towards the more western aspects. Still looking for Filipino food, in one place I order pork (again)
While Helen chooses a salad based on a folk song, which comes complete with the waitress singing the song and music playing and tambourine banging from the other staff. This is one of the best bit of Legaspi, other than the volcano, and a small local beer bar where we have a couple of San Miguel Pale before bed.
But it was the volcano we came to see and one day we hiked up Lignon hill in the heat to a small nature park walk amazing view of Mt Mayon active volcano. A little cloudy but has that science text book bendy sides rising up to a conical spout. Great pics and you can see the squirts of geothermal air shooting out from under the crust of the lava on the hillsides.
We have the chance to take an ATV (all terrain vehicle) ride to the lava flow which is the best brilliant bumpy muddy mad rainy fun. It’s so wet and we wobble through rivers and wade waist high to dislodge our stuck tyres. Wipe mud from our eyes and fly around sloppy soily tracks to approx 2 miles from the 1000m summit and the edge of lava flow marking the point the molten rocks stopped when they ploughed through the palm groves in 2010. We leave the quads and a local man runs us up to the rocks themselves. It’s a kind of space-like landscape with bulbous black rocks and with the thick grey clouds and asteroid sized rain it could easily be the surface of Mars. We stand all cliché in the rain and cry woohoo!
Further south is the island of Cebu, surrounded by lush islands and world class scuba diving. Whale sharks live here and turtles and the plan is to work east from here, visiting Bohol island for the nature walks and beach life, on the way to the south east islands of Siargao for a final surf camp.
Cebu is even more grimy than Manila and has even more malls. Most people pass through here only to take the boat to Bohol or a bus down to whale watch or a boat up north to idyllic outlying islands. Why we book two nights is a mystery but we try and make the most of it. Visiting Magellan’s cross where the eponymous Ferdinand with first Spanish colonists erected a crucifix to mark their take over. There is also Fort San Pedro with some walls and gardens. The best bit though being the 250 strong crew of teenage skateboarders, punks, outsiders and bikers who have descended on the port area here for ‘Cebu Skate day’. It’s a great atmosphere and we mingle in the madness, me imagining I can still ride a skateboard and, both of us taking pics and taking to kids. I also enjoy the ‘jeepneys’ long suv type things that carry about 10 people a trip for 17p each.
The next day we take the boat to Bohol and head to the southern tip and the Alona Beach resort…