Asian Travels - Philippines (2010)

Apologies for the map, but the Philippines is such an awkward geographical entity to display in its entirety - however, this should suffice for my purpose


Got to Singapore at 0530 hours next morning. During our 3 hour transit wait in the massive Changi airport, we  discovered that there were no shops selling sporting equipment in any of the three terminal buildings (I was on the lookout for a golf bag on my return journey).  We eventually  flew out and arrived at Manila's  Ninoy Aquino airport at 1300 hours.  Amy had briefed us about the coupon system for securing an airport taxi  and directions to give to the driver to get to her apartment block.  However, her block was in a very new part of the Makati business district of Manila called Taguig City and it took the driver nearly half an hour to find the right apartment block once we had arrived in the right district. Luckily Amy had been able to leave school early and was home to greet her slightly jet-lagged parents.

Amy resided on the 13th floor of a rather utilitarian 40 story apartment block in a very modern  two bedroom two bathroom apartment chosen for her by the International School for whom she works.  Since returning home, we have learnt that Amy has found a much more congenial apartment in an older area of the same district which she says is much more comfortable and homey.

She has a house maid 2-3 times a week who cleans, shops and cooks - very handy.  Amy loves her work albeit that it services a very narrow and selective international clientele - she reported that all her students are very highly motivated and a pleasure to teach....a far cry from her last posting in Arnhem land's  Millingimbi. 


      Amy's Apartment block (the completed one)                             View from Amy's apartment


                            Another view of  the new and emerging Taguig City

After our initial welcome, conversational  catch-up and showers - it was off to the nearby shopping mall. The mall  had many boutique shops, restaurants and bars and ends up in an undercover market area. Once again this retail precinct was very new and chic but did lack a little atmosphere.  General impressions of 'the Guerrilla' (Manilla)  were hard to assess given the limited time we had to explore.  However, Amy advised us that, because of the chaotic gridlocked traffic, she herself has found it difficult to get a handle on the city's pulse.  However, one cannot but notice the in-your-face disparity of wealth between the immaculate dressed professional/educated classes and that of the ordinary working people who you see all over the place doing quite menial tasks eg cleaning public toilets, hawking, begging, driving Tuk Tuks and Jeep nee's and sweeping roads with straw brooms.  There also seems to be quite a lot of people engaged in what I might call 'non-jobs' eg  security in parking lots, valets and or performing public security tasks (complete with automatic weapons) around shopping centres, apartment buildings and public utilities.....'wages are cheap and people have to have something to do' it was explained to me. 

During our time there we saw only a fraction of this vast city.....time simply did not permit us to venture into the CBD, or linger in the tourist districts of Ermita and Malate, nor tour any of the modern museums, galleries or public parks, river or lakes.  Instead, Amy wisely tried to give us a snapshot of everyday life in the older and more crowded districts of  Quiappo and Chinatown.  Here we saw the  close proximity of  squalid shanties to modern western high rise housing developments and elevated freeways and tollways - Manila seems to be a crazy conglomeration of  17 cities and municipalities which since 1976 has become  one seething and sweating metropolis covering over 200 square miles and home to over 12 million people.

An excellent introduction to the Philippines and Manila in particular is the hilarious half day walking  tour around the 16th-17th C Intramuros or old city given by 'the Pied Piper of Manila' - Carlos Celdran    - it was not only very informative but delivered in a very frank and funny manner - a must for any visitor.  He satirises the essentially corrupt and theocratic nature of politics in the country, the ruling political families, the successive influences of the Chinese traders, Spanish and catholic missionaries and finally the US, which in 1898, bought the country along with Puerto Rico and Guam from the Spanish  for $20m.  

The people have always been very willing to adapt to the ways of their colonial rulers to such an extent that you have a very conflicting set of values, food and institutions....not least of which is the current saint-like status of Imelda Marcos; especially among the uneducated poor whom her husband's regime so successfully exploited.  He also explained that the poor state of repair of the many cathedrals and historic buildings in Manila was due to the lack of suitable building stone which forced the original builders to use the very porous and soft pumice stone so freely available from nearby active volcanos.  Much of the restoration work has been undertaken with the use of cement block and the ongoing building appeals are used primarily to purchase more cement.

Carlos in full cry



                                                                        Manila Cathedral                                                    The pony carts in Carlos' tour 

We took a gamble and negotiated our way into Manila's  Chinatown near the old Quiappo district where there are massive food markets and shops selling all manner of clothes, jewellery, electronics and cameras...Amy was keen to do more research for a quality underwater digital camera.  We later retreated to the calm of Amy's locality - which was very safe and pleasant after the whiffy smells of open drains and the jostling crowds of  Chinatown and Quiappo.

Following that cultural outing, Amy suggested that Maria and herself should take themselves off for a massage while I was left to my own devices and at the local market was introduced to a very civilised and SE Asian way to attend to a rehydration - viz A Bucket of Beer.  Yes, that's right 6 x San Miguel stubbies on ice in a small bucket all for $5.80....straw extra!






At play in Taguig City - Manila




Ubiquitous Jeep née  of Manila

The next day, Amy had organised a boat trip over to the WW11 fortress of Corregidor Island situated at the entrance to the rather smelly Manila Bay.  This trip proved a little too jingoistic for my liking.  While the bravery of those US and Philippine forces initially defending and later retaking the island from the Japanese has never been in doubt, the tour tended to re-tell the saga  with unnecessary embellishment with respect to the roles played by the then frail President Quezon and allied commander, Douglas MacArthur. 



                                                                Corregidor Is Ferry                                                    Jetty on Corregidor

It was interesting to compare the guide's interpretation of events to those given to us yesterday by Carlos Celdran.  Carlos saw MacArthur in a very poor light in relation to his exploits in the Philippines both before and during the war and I was particularly interested in the story of how he had insisted on having the photo of him striding ashore at Corregidor in 1945  taken again the next day so it could be published in Life magazine back home. 

Nevertheless, what's left of the ruins are a terrible reminder, of the destructive nature of that conflict as first the Japanese and later the US forces destroyed just about everything on this fortified and strategic island.  There has had to be a major revegetation program instituted to get the forest to re-grow. 







The underground HQ which housed all the Fortress' communications and hospital facilities


                                                                                        You know who                                                   Allied Memorial

That night Amy had booked us on an all night bus to go up to the world heritage listed 2000 year old rice terraces of Banaue in the high Cordillera Mountains of Northern Luzon some 350kms north of Manila.  The bus took from 2300hours to 0700hours the next morning to travel the distance.  As most driving throughout the Philippines is executed by almost continuous use of the horn, any chance of sleep was useless.  Our very formal hotel in Banaue was  run by the very bureaucratic tourist authority and as such had very strict Booking in times viz 1400 we had time for a very leisurely breakfast and look around.  The hotel room was extremely spacious (2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, lounge and splendid 180 degree views of the valley below).  However, its concrete design was totally unsympathetic to the surrounding village in which it had been placed.  The helpful staff were all dressed in traditional local Indian (Ifugao) woven costumes and could not do enough for you - once you were formally recognised as a guest.  There was also a quite strange maître de at the hotel 's restaurant, whose persona resembled something out of the 1960s Adams Family TV series.

The town of Banaue (pop 2500) is built around a steep valley through which runs a single bitumen road.  It is nevertheless neat and comprised a sparse selection of shops catering for both tourist and local needs.  There was also a primary and junior secondary school in town.   Further down in the village, there were a lot more friendly tourist guesthouses.


Our hotel 'welcome' in the foyer                        Dinner that evening


Banaue Township







         During the first afternoon we hired a Jeep née (a long wheel-based non 4x4 ute) to take us on a short trip to visit some of the nearby rice terraces. 







These nearby terraces were merely intended to wet our appetites for the day-long trek the next day to the amphitheatre-like terraces at Batad some 16kms away.  Theses rice terraces are very intricate and viewed from a distance resemble the lace-like structure of a bee's wing.  The terraces themselves are created from walls of mud and or granite stones.  The interconnecting irrigation drains were traditionally made from split bamboo but today there is evidence of some concrete and copper being utilised.  The terraces can only ever be owned by a local family member and are never openly traded.  The rice grown is of a native variety and consumed locally i.e. it is not sold or traded commercially.  Because of their relative pocket-size, all ploughing in the terraces must be done by hand - no room for draught animals.  In addition only organic fertilisers used on the terraces, from where??

With the gradual drift of the village youth away to the towns to seek better employment, there are insufficient people left to maintain the terraces and hence the presence of UNESCO to provide assistance with their maintenance.  In addition 20% of all fees given to terrace guides goes towards the maintenance program. 

The first stage of the trip to Batad is taken in a Jeep nee to a mountain saddle or gap from which you proceed on foot down to a small village of tourist guesthouses which overnight trekkers use. 



Road up to the Saddle

Comfort Room (aka Dunny)



Walk down to the overnight base camp and our first glimpse thru the mist




From there, the more athletic and brave, clamber down a very steep track negotiating tiny and slippery steps inserted into the  rice terrace walls  until you reach the floor of the valley at Batad and are then able to view the entire amphitheatre of rice terraces soaring up the hill sides all around you.  Then you must climb  vertically up the amphitheatre terraces in order to again rendezvous with the overnight base camp. From there you retrace your steps back up to the saddle where the Jeep nee is parked to drive you back down into town.  It takes a pretty full day to complete this trek but it was well worth the pain.

On our own trek down into the terraces, we unfortunately had to put up with constant misting rain which severely compromised our visibility and the quality of photography, let alone made the whole exercise more dangerous to life and limb.


Our route to Batad Village



Stone Mortar and Pestle for the rice



 Amy 'Poppins' and 'Minder' in the rice terraces

Down in Batad, Amy caught the eye of  some local lads who, with the aid of a little beer, attempted to lewdly attract her attention!! she was not amused.  While Maria wisely stayed up at base camp, Amy and I persuaded our guide to take us right down to the village below and then up into the terraces. 


The climb up out of the valley  followed this central stone 'stairway'


Until you come across this Ifugao rice farmer in his hut

(who wisely charges to be photographed in his traditional costume)



We all found the final climb back up to the saddle a little wearying

The climb down and then up again were both extremely steep with only the meanest of stone steps to negotiate between the legs ached for days afterwards and no wonder the terraces rise over 2000 feet above the valley floor.

These same terraces are used to grow a variety of market garden vegetables.  Over and above the terraces the hillsides are pock marked with evidence of 'slash and burn' agriculture for sweet potato, bananas, coffee, avocadoes, jackfruit  and other fruit trees.

Throughout our stay in Banaue, the weather kept closing in with the village frequently disappearing in folds of misty clouds or alternately being cleansed by slow drizzle of warm rain....However, this did not dampen our enthusiasm for this place and its awe inspiring terraces in the clouds. 

The return bus trip to Manila was another night affair getting in at around 0500hours.  We caught a taxi back to Amy's apartment for some rest until lunchtime. Refreshed, a little more retail therapy was called for before a leisurely final dinner with Amy.  Our six day whirlwind visit to the Philippines had necessarily been brief, but we were able to see a little  of how the placed ticked. Of course, it would take months to get a real handle on the complex society and culture of Manila let alone the whole country.  But full marks to Amy for giving us a good  sampling of the country.

As we were scheduled to catch a plane to Ho Chi Minh City at 0730 hours the following morning, we had arranged for Amy's regular driver to pick us up at 0515 hours for trip to airport. 




 I am greatly indebted to Amy for enabling me to complete this section of our Asian Travels. Before leaving Manila, I had carefully copied all our photos onto a disc and instead of mailing it home, carried it around in our backpack for the entire journey.  On returning home I found the disc had been cracked and therefore unusable.  Fortunately,  Amy had copied our photos onto her computer and I was able to retrieve copies from her.




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