Gaya Travel team finds that it is high time for travellers who have not yet discovered Manila to start getting acquainted with the city, which is poised to become one of the up-and-coming destination.
At a glance, Metro Manila, with its immense sprawl that is home to 19 million souls, initially appears daunting – some parts of the city somehow reminded us of Jakarta, while other parts reminded us of Singapore. Prior to going to Manila, we often heard that travellers need to be extra careful when being in the city since life there is perceived hard, thus forces many to hustle or resort to crime. However, our recent trip to Manila confirmed otherwise.
We found that Manila is actually a bustling city that is as dynamic and progressive as any other upcoming South East Asian capital, standing toe-to-toe with Singapore, Jakarta, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. The city is a leading Business Processing Outsourcing (BPO) destination in the Pacific due to its English-proficient workforce, made evident with the existence of round-the-clock call centres for international banking and insurance companies that are visible in Makati. Travellers will be able to see the thronging call centre workers coming and going along Makati Avenue into late at night, turning into the otherwise empty business centre alive and vibrant. As a matter of fact, the presence of these call centres that follow the Unites States time turns Manila into a city that never sleeps because eateries, buses and taxis continue to operate throughout the night.
It is often thought that the Filipinos are the Latinos of Southeast Asia, known for their conviviality, exuberance and disposition in smiling come what may. They are also a festive lot, so much so that even local fruit like the lanzones (known as langsat or duku in Malaysia and Singapore), which was in season when we visited Manila, gets its own festival. Filipinos are also proud of their local fast food brand Jollibee, which in terms of popularity and revenue that even McDonald’s can not compete. We were told that the owners of Jollibee first started back in the 1960s from a house selling spaghetti and ice cream. Now, Jollibee is considered a giant in the local fast food industry and intend to make headway internationally.
For drier Manila experience, come between December to June (March-June drier and hotter). July until October is heavy rain season; however, since the city is located in the tropics, it can be visited anytime throughout the year. Be mindful though of the severe thunderstorms and typhoon that could hit country during the time. January is when many festivals are being held throughout the Philippines.
Makati and Bonifacio Global City
When Gaya Travel team visited the city, we stayed at the well-appointed and strategically located Dusit Thani Manila at Ayala Centre, which is accessible to various mid and upmarket shopping centres. Gaya Travel team also had the opportunity to enjoy the half day city tour to get the overall feel and atmosphere of the city.
The walk from Dusit Thani Manila to Greenbelt was easy with large pedestrian walkways passing by shopping centres like SM, Glorietta and the Landmark before reaching Greenbelt, which we love for its refreshing greenery right smack in the middle of Manila. When being here, travellers should also not miss visiting the Ayala Museum (not part of the tour package), specifically for its jaw-dropping exhibition of Filipino pre-Hispanic gold collection and artefacts, all belonging to the ultra-rich Ayala clan, a Filipino business family of German-Spanish ancestry, founders of Ayala Corporation. The exhibition showcases the richness of the Philippines’ indigenous cultures before the arrival of the Spaniards, including fascinating dioramas that provide a crash course on the Filipino history up until the people power revolution in 1986 that unseated Marcos’ regime.
We notice that Manila holds great potential as the next hot shopping destination among Malaysians and Singaporeans after Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Local brands like Bench offers interesting contemporary urban local styles while Kultura showcases fashion, home and souvenir products made from indigenous materials that reflect Philippine heritage and contemporary culture like capiz shells and fabrics from hand-made loom of pineapple leaf fibre. If the shops at Makati and Bonifacio Global City are not enough, then a trip to the humongous Mall of Asia is also warranted, besides various other malls that dot Metro Manila.
To know how much you are spending in the Philippines, as a rule of thumb and ease of calculation, you may equate RM1 to 10 Philippine Pesos (PHP). We found that travellers would get a far better deal by exchanging your Malaysian Ringgit in Manila rather than in Malaysia, especially at the money exchange counter in Glorietta shopping centre in Makati.
Those who prefer a more tourist-friendly and better planned urban environment are recommended to stay at the leafy Makati area, which is Manila’s premier financial and commercial capital, or the swanky and gleaming Bonifacio Global City, which we were told represents the future of Manila and modelled after Singapore. Interestingly, Makati is a smoke-free metropolis, thus smoking is not permitted in public areas except at certain designated confines within buildings, restaurants and bars.
When being in Bonifacio Global City, do take the chance to swing by the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial to take in the tranquil atmosphere and scenery of its rows after rows of marble crosses as headstones of the fallen American and Filipino soldiers who served during World War II. The layout of the cemetery and memorial follow is similar to the style that can be seen in Washington D.C. There are also mosaic maps that indicate the battles that the Americans and Filipinos involved during the war, besides names after names of fallen soldiers – many of their remains still have not been recovered.
When in Manila, try taking its public transport system such as the Manila MRT, jeepney and tricycle to have a taste of what it is like to travel as a local. However, for travellers who prefer a less hectic pace when experiencing the Manila MRT, try using it outside peak hours (7:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.). But if you feel adventurous, do take the chance by joining in with the jostling and packing into the crowded trains, which prove to be a memorable experience. Do keep a watchful eye on your valuables, though.
Manila Bay area and SM Mall of Asia
Manila Bay had been largely reclaimed since the time when Marcos ruled. The area is also historical since Miguel Lopez de Legazpi – the Spanish navigator who spearheaded Spanish hegemony in the Philippines and became the Governor-General of the Spanish East Indies – established the area as the capital of Spanish East Indies back in 1571. This is also where travellers can visit Rizal Park that pays tribute to Jose Rizal, the country’s national hero who wrote the book called Noli Me Tangere (meaning ‘Touch Me Not’) that exposed the decadence and notoriety of the powerful Catholic priests and the ruling Spanish government. The park is where Jose Rizal was executed and also the place where the Independence of the Philippines was proclaimed on 4 July 1946. This is also where Manila’s Kilometre Zero marker can be found.
Manila Bay is also the location of the charmingly classy old world and excellently maintained 102 year-old Manila Hotel (opened since 1912 and hosted President Clinton, President Suharto and Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah during the 1996 APEC Summit) and the luxuriously contemporary Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila are located. For sheer fun, we suggest that traveller’s take a look at Manila Hotel’s lobby, which we think is indeed one of the most impressive hotel lobbies that we have ever visited. Taking it a tad on the heritage side, it is built in the California Missionary architectural style and accents, making it unique in South East Asia. The concierge and bellman of the Manila Hotel also don the handsome Commonwealth era attire, indicating United States’ influence in the Philippines during early 20th century.
The area also hosts the now defunct Manila Film Centre, which is part of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines, commissioned by Imelda Marcos in time for the inaugural Manila International Film Festival in 1982. It was finished in record time, which was 180 days; however, due to it being rushed, many safety and health aspects in constructing the centre were overlooked. We were told that at least 169 workers fell and were buried in the quick-drying wet cement when a scaffolding gave way on 17 November 1981. The centre has been abandoned since the 1990 earthquake that rendered the building unstable. Now, we were told that only the front most part is being utilised for the Amazing Show, a glittering transgender cabaret performance.
Further down the road, we witnessed another unique building that was commissioned by Imelda Marcos, the Coconut Palace, fully constructed using materials derived from the coconut tree. The building was intended for the late Pope John Paul II’s accommodation when he visited the Philippines in 1981, but he refused to stay there since he considered it too ostentatious and the money should be better spent in helping the poor. The building now serves as the official residence of the Vice President of the Philippines.
Also built on the huge reclaimed area along the Manila Bay is the third largest mall in the world, SM Mall of Asian, which was developed by Henry See, the billionaire who owns all SM chain stores, together with other gargantuan casinos and entertainment centres such as Solaire and the currently constructed Entertainment City and the new Resorts World. All of these developments in Manila Bay are expected to rival Macau’s Cotai Strip as the entertainment and casino capital of Asia.
Intramuros, which means ‘within the walls’, was built exclusively for the Spaniards and become reminders of how the country endured 300 years of Spanish rule. The walls would stretch up to 4.5 kilometres in length, protecting the 66 hectares of exclusive Spanish community within. The stone fortifications were built to also protect it from attacks from The Pasig River side and Manila Bay. There used to be a moat that surrounded the wall but had been drained by the Americans and converted into a golf course that can still be seen until today. Besides Catholicism, the Spaniards shaped the Filipino society in terms of culture, language, cuisine and surnames, including the creation of Filipino mestizos (those who have mixed ancestries) that give the local population good looks.
It is a nice stroll around the Intramuros grounds with its green landscape that is dotted with statues of influential historical figures, among them the Philippine President Manuel Quezon (left) and General Macarthur, including the martyred priests GOMBURZA (acronym denoting the surnames of the priests Mariano Gomez, José Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora), priests who were executed on 17 February 1872 at Luneta Park by Spanish colonial authorities on charges of subversion arising from the 1872 Cavite mutiny. The Spaniards did not want the priests to have their own independent parish and required Filipinos to remain subservient. The priests’ execution was one of the elements that sparked nationalism in the Philippines and triggered Jose Rizal to write the novel called ‘El Filibusterismo’, which detailed the abuse and corruption of the Spanish colonial government. To explore the area with greater ease, travellers can opt for kalesa (horse-drawn carriage) ride around Intramuros.
Much of the original buildings in Intramuros were bombed during World War II (Manila was the second most bombed city after Warsaw during that war). We were told that towards the end of World War II, during the Battle of Manila, over 100,000 Filipino civilians were killed, more than the total mortality from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The memorial called the Memorare, comprising statues of a grieving mother holding her lifeless infant in her hands while her other children laying and lamenting, has been put up since 1995 to commemorate the tragedy. Parts of Intramuros that remain intact and still visible are the dungeon that used to hold prisoners located below sea level (and infamously would drown them during high tide), the barracks and the powder magazine chamber for ammunition and gunpowder supply storage, which were then also converted into prison cells. Travellers can also witness the cast metal of the last foot prints of Jose Rizal, who was imprisoned in the area to show the path that he took prior to his execution on 30 December 1896 from the chapel leading to Bagumbayan Field, which is now Rizal Park.
Within walking distance from the Intramuros is the San Agustin Church with the opposing Casa Manila. San Agustin Church’s opulent interior and impressive trompe l’oeil-painted vaulted ceiling make it one of the most popular places to hold weddings in Manila, so much so that betrothed couples need to book over a year in advance to get married there. It was among the few structures that managed to survive World War II. The church, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, also holds historically precious religious icons that were brought over not just from Spain but also from Mexico, especially during the years when the Manila Galleons (Spanish trading ships that sailed once or twice per year across the Pacific between Acapulco and Manila) were running. Travellers will also be able to visit the tomb of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, who is laid to rest in the church. On the other hand, Casa Manila – a Spanish colonial style home now turned into a museum, made up of stone and wood constructed around 1850, replete with Spanish and Asian influences – offers an interesting glimpse into how life was like for a rich Chinese Filipino merchant family living in Manila during Spanish rule.
Besides San Augustin, travellers may proceed to admire another architectural marvel of Manila, which is the Gothic architecture of the only all-steel church in Asia called the San Sebastian Church of Manila. The parts of the church were prefabricated in Belgium, which were then sent over to Manila and assembled on site.
Outside Manila – Tagaytay and Taal Lake
To get to Tagaytay, which is located in the Cavite province, our ride took us through the Southern Luzon Expressway (SLEX). Along the way, we passed by Laguna de Bay (the freshwater lake that supplies water to Metro Manila) and industrial areas, which we were told built on agricultural lands to veer development away from Manila in order to decongest the metropolis. As the road ascended, we noticed that the scenery gave way to more greenery, especially crops. The highlands have fertile soil due to volcanic ash.
Upon reaching Tagaytay, part of the things that we witnessed were the woodcarving workshops. Apparently woodcarving is done by the people of the highlands due to the availability of material. However, since logging is now entirely banned in the Philippines, the carvings are now made from wood that are recycled or imported. We were told that Filipinos are generally conscious towards the need in protecting the environment, thus the government instituted programmes like tree-planting, whereby if you cut down a tree, you need to replace it with another ten.
One place that travellers can check out when being in Cavite province close to Tagaytay is the Ilog Maria honey bee farm in Silang, famous for its bee pollen, propolis, virgin honey and royal jelly as health supplements, including natural health soaps, shampoo, bath and skin products that contain pure honey, beeswax and propolis. We learned here that honey, being bactericidal and speeds up healing, is an emollient that deep cleanses and softens the skin. Beeswax keeps skin moist without clogging the pores, while propolis is a powerful natural disinfectant that kills skin germs and fungi, as well as accelerating healing of most skin disorders.
For lunch in Tagaytay, it is recommended that travellers have it at Josephine Restaurant, which sits on the rim of the Taal Lake, popular not only for the views offered of the lake but also for its food, especially fried bangus (milk fish, also known as the national fish of the Philippines) consumed together with the local version of zesty mango salsa.
Those who are intrepid could even take a boat to get to the island in the middle of Taal Lake and walk up close to the Taal Caldera. We were told that since its eruption began to be recorded in 1571, it has erupted 37 times, among the worst during the years of 1754 (when it continuously erupted from May until December), 1910 and 1965.
1. Upon departure, be sure to print out your e-ticket, which is mandatory and required to pass security to enter the airline check-in counters in Nino Aquino International Airport (Naia) Terminal 1. Without the printed tickets, you will be denied entry and instead need to go to the respective airline’s office located on the upper floor to get it printed out, then join the queue again to get to the airlines check-in counters.
2. Each traveller need to make sure that he or she still has PHP550 to spare to pay for the international departure fee.
3. Travellers need to be aware that Naia Terminal 1 is currently undergoing renovation thus need to bear with the ubiquitous hoardings that cover up many parts of the terminal’s interiors, including probable short electricity interruptions.