Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Philippine travel: Manila and north of Manila

Jim Wheildon on what to expect from Manila plus Laoag in the north - and sidetrips to Baguio and One Hundred Islands National Park
Times Online

I’m Going Back to the Philippines was a hit song for Menudo in the 1980s and this poor but beautiful country of more than 7,000 islands is a great place to keep going back to, especially over Christmas, when the weather is warm but not baking and the Filipinos’ love for a party and still strong adherence to the Catholic Church mean an unending series of parties, celebrations and get-togethers over the festive period.

The Spanish and American influences after centuries of colonial rule are unmissable. There are fantastic beaches and a thriving nightlife.

The sex tourists love this place and it rivals Thailand for attracting them, but you can have a great time here without having to step into the raucous red-light areas.

It is, however, difficult to avoid stepping into Manila. For the vast majority of visitors to the Philippines, this is the first port of call and the capital has an edge. Tread carefully, especially when leaving Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and this is a city with a lot to offer.

Just make sure the airport taxi is bona fide and keep a firm hold on your common sense and the worse thing you are likely to experience, over the Christmas period anyway, is endless renditions of Joy to the World sung by persistent waifs seeking to relieve you of any spare change.

There is plenty to see and do in Manila. But if time is short, do not miss a drink in the Manila Hotel’s wood-panelled bar.

This famous hotel, where General Douglas MacArthur lived for six years until the Japanese invasion, is as evocotive as Hong Kong’s Peninsula or Bangkok’s Oriental. If you strike lucky, the orchestra will be playing in the lobby.

From the hotel, cross the ever-busy Roxas Boulevard that runs parallel to the palm-fringed Manila Bay, and enter Rizal Park. Here sentries maintain a 24-hour-a-day guard of the memorial to the country’s national hero, Jose Rizal, executed for spreading ideals of revolution against Spanish rule.

Dotted around the park are various key government buildings and the National National Museum of the Philippines. Malacanang Palace, the official residence of the President, is a mile away.

Within walking distance of Rizal Park (also known as Lunetta) is the Intramuros, the old Spanish capital of Manila, with its canonball-riddled walls — some of the damage caused by the British when they captured the city from the Spanish in 1762.

The cathedral, constantly rebuilt after being destroyed by earthquakes, is worth a look and outside you can pick up a kalesa (horse taxi) to see the walls. An hour's tour costs about £7. Today the Intramuros is a favourite place for wedding receptions and the jail cells set into the wall are mini factories, just like at London Bridge.

Two miles south of the park, right between the American Embassy and the weirdly shaped Cultural Centre (it looks like a gigantic blacksmith anvil), take the chance to go on a sunset cruise round Manila Bay. It lasts up to a couple of hours and is an excellent way to see this city, which looks at its best from the water. (Manila’s streets are pot-holed, dirty and crowded.)

The cruise goes to the huge SM Mall of Asia shopping complex, but fortunately doesn’t stop there. The place is a madhouse but no doubt paradise for the shopoholics.

On Fridays and Saturdays, passengers can watch the fireworks set off at the edge of the mall, which is as near I want to get to it, having experienced the place a couple of years ago. (Good to have an ice rink on site though.)

Back on dry land, take a trip to Makati perhaps in one of the flamboyant and usually crowded jeepneys that plough along the streets of every town and city in the Philippines. Makati is Manila’s business district and is noticeably cleaner and smarter than the Bay area and has a less frenetic pace.

It is a good place to stay. There are plenty of excellent hotels in the area and a walk down Makati Avenue brings you past various statues to Filipino resistance heros (and heroine in the case of Melchora Aquino) to yet another huge shopping complex, the Gloriana [sic--"Glorietta"].

There is a superb museum, the Ayala, which is much better than the National Museum. The Ayala, sited in Makati's Greenbelt Park, displays gold discoveries from the pre-Spanish era, finely crafted ship models, Chinese pottery, costumes, superb artwork that gives pride of place to Fernando Amorsolo, heralded as the country’s first national artist, and the women who inspired him, and best of all “the Diorama Experience” - a series of 60 carvings and paintings that display the country’s history from the prehistoric, to trading with the Chinese, the centuries of Spanish rule, to the recognition of Philippine independence by the United States in 1946. (One of the scenes shows the British fighting in Manila).

Outside the capital, there is a bewildering choice of islands and towns to visit.

My choice was decided by my wife, who comes from Laoag in the far north of the country’s main island, Luzon. This Christmas we took the Manila “highway" 250 miles north to Laoag city. (We usually take the easy option of flying, which takes just under an hour.

The coach journey means up to ten hours travelling on the crowded highway, but at least there is a view from the window though there is virtually no countryside to be seen). The long and winding road was lit up with Christmas lights and trees -- the tacky and the gaudy being especially popular.

The Government has tried to tone down the festivities and has told schools not to charge parents for putting up elaborate decorations. Nobody seemed to be taking notice on this highway.

Laoag itself does not have the charm of other cities such as Cebu. The capital of Ilocos Norte province, Laoag is a bustling, crowded city where the jeepneys, tuk-tuk motorbike taxis and kalesas jostle for road space. The key road is Rizal Street and halfway down it is the long established 5 Sisters store, an amazing mix of bargain clothes, toys, electronics, food and drink — Philippine “London” gin at around £2 a bottle.

Near the bridge to the Manila highway are the city’s two principal sights — St William’s Cathedral and its neighbouring sinking Spanish bell tower. Legend has it that a man on a horse could pass through tower’s entrance when it was built in 1612, now you have to duck as you climb up the stairs. At the top is the grand view you would expect, but to get in ask at the cathedral for a guide, who will open up for you.

The 17th century cathedral itself, like so many others, has seen its share of the action — earthquake damage, occupation by rebels against Spanish rule, etc. Today it gives thanks to former President Marcos and his wife Imelda for supplying its chandeliers.

Laoag was Marcos’s power base and the region’s government building is still carries the inscription “Marcos Halls of Justice”. Until recently, the couple’s son, Bong Bong, was the region’s Governor (he is now a national congressman). The old president, who died in 1989 three years after being ousted from power, can be still seen, in frozen glory, lying in state at nearby Batac.

Whether it really his body that I viewed to the booming sound of funeral music is debatable, espcially given the electric powercuts that bedevil the country. Next door is a museum devoted to the dictator’s life and times, and not far away lies the World Heritage protected church of Paoay, part built with coral stone. “Malacañang of the North”, built for the Marcoses to entertain in their home province, is also close by and looks across Lake Paoay.

If you visit this northern part of the Philippines, make some time for Pagudpud, 60km from Laoag. Coral lies strewn across its windy, white sand beaches, though by claiming to be the Boracay of the North is overdoing its act (The tropical island beach resort of Boracay, 350km south of Manila, is a top Southeast Asian tourist attraction.)

One tip, the further you walk from the beaches, the less you pay for much nicer accommodation. On the drive from Laoag, you can see the windfarms set in the South China Sea and climb up the country’s tallest lighthouse, Cape Bojeador at Burgos, built in 1892.

I did manage to see Baguio on this trip, the mountainous city 205km north of Manila on the main island of Luzon that had long been on my list of places to visit. I had pictured beautiful mountain scenery and a welcoming cooler climate. I was expecting Simla; I got Calcutta.

A little cooler than Manila or Laoag admittedly, Baguio was a big disappointment. The Americans laid the city round Burnham Park and I stayed right alongside the park, which was unlit and locked up at night — and this, the city’s centrepiece. The surrounding and very crowded streets buzzed to a constant throb of heavy traffic. The shops were disappointing. The city centre in this university town simply lacks class.

The cathedral has a stunning location in Baguio, or rather it would have if the shanty adjacent buildings and billboards did not obliterate the views of the surrounding mountains.

The nearby former American base, Camp John Hay, offers a welcoming escape. It is the city’s most popular attraction. Open to the public since 1991 when the US troops pulled out, it is a place to play golf, go horse riding, try abseilling, visit a butterfly enclosure — and to sample American ice creams.

Very good, too. Make time to tour the Commander’s House, which boasts a totem pole outside of the carved heads of VIP visitors, Teddy Roosevelt among them. This base, named after a turn of the 20th century Secretary of State, was used by the Japanese as a concentration camp for American and British soldiers during the Second World War.

A two-hour drive from Baguio, crossing over the Manila highway, lies One Hundred Islands National Park. Three are actually more than a hundred islands and they offer a sanctuary from the noise and crowds. Accommodation is available, but it is limited and can be expensive.

However, a day is more than enough time to take a boat out to some of the islands, enjoy a swim and a meal, and explore the odd cave or clamber up to the lookout spots for some wonderful views. We returned to the mainland as the sun set; it was an idyllic journey.

Even with the pound’s fall from grace (today you get less than 70 pesos to the pound; two years ago it was 100), this is an inexpensive country to visit once the long air journey is over (Manila is one and a half hours flying time further than Hong Kong). There are some fine restaurants, but Indian food has yet to establish a presence. Wine can be expensive. Stick to the ubiquitous and excellent San Miguel beer to keep the bills down.

The Foreign Office warns that there is a high threat from terrorism throughout the Philippines. There certainly is in the far south, which has long suffered from terrorist activity.

Last Christmas was my tenth visit to the country and I have always found it safe, providing you do not leave your common sense at home. People are very welcoming. English visitors are still a novelty and there is plenty to see and do. With its warm climate, superb beaches and widespread use of English, Spanish and American influences in the culture and architecture, the Philippines is well worth setting time aside for, especially on any tour of South-East Asia.

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