Trip Start Aug 31, 2008
47Trip End Apr 30, 2009
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After missing our first three "free" flights from Air Asia (tickets we bought 6 months in advance and just had to pay taxes and the fuel surcharge), I was happy that we made the last five and this was the last of them. These two tickets cost us a total of 261 RM ($90 CDN) including the extra fees for baggage and some chicken sandwiches on the flight. I am not sure how Air Asia stays in business but I sure appreciate that they are around. Although the flight boarded on time, we ended up leaving 30 minutes late because some passengers that checked their bags but did not board the plane and then another man that left his laptop at the security check thinking they would put it in the carry-on storage on the plane for some reason.
Although the pilot warned us that we would be passing through some turbulence, the flight was rather smooth and the pilot even managed to arrive on time despite the earlier delays. By the time we had made our way through the Clark airport it was only about noon. Lisa had changed our remaining Malaysian money into Philippine currency, but that only gave us 500 pesos (about US $10), so the first order of business was looking for an ATM. We had read that the Clark airport didn't have one in the guidebook, but I figured they must've had one now by April of 2009. It turned out that they did have one, but it was not working with our foreign credit cards for some reason. Instead we ended up changing one of the US $20 bills we had carried around for emergencies into Philippine pesos from one of the money changers working at the airport.
We had decided to spend a few days in Angeles because we were arriving in the middle of the Holy Week holiday (April 7th, 2009). It was Tuesday when we arrived and Thursday and Good Friday, everything would be closed in Manila but not in Angeles, which is a city mainly known for its sex industry. There were a number of taxi stands in the lobby on the way out of Clark Airport and they all seemed to be charging the same rate of 315 pesos (to Fields Ave.) We knew that this was a rather outrageous price by Philippine standards and decided to simply walk out on our own and look for another ride.
It was a very hot and humid day, as we carried our 50 lbs of gear (each) and it didn't take long before I was regretting our decision to walk out of the airport. We did manage to find a number of jeepneys (extended jeeps used like a bus), but they laughed at us when we asked to go to Fields Ave. They were all parked under a bunch of trees and didn't seem to want to go anywhere. We did manage to get them to point us in the right direction and continued walking, but it wasn't long before one of the taxis offered to get us to a hotel for 300 pesos. By now we were both very hot and sweaty and decided to simply pay.
We were not sure where we wanted to go in Angeles City, but one of the places suggested in the Lonely Planet Guide (Oasis Hotel) looked to be in one of the seediest neighbors that I have ever seen so the driver offered to take us to another hotel. The Oasis Hotel was on a street that looked to be simply a row of brothels, but as we got into the city of Angeles things started to look a little better. At least here there were street vendors and local people walking around. The taxi driver took us to a place and walked in before us to ensure that the rates were set high enough for him to get a nice juicy commission. They were asking 1700 pesos for a room, so we simply walked to a nicer looking place next door and found a room for 1000 pesos.
It was called the Ramada Hotel, and it had an attached (but expensive) Korean restaurant and a large clean pool beside it. The standard room that we got included a fridge, an air-conditioner, cable TV, hot-showers and free Wi-Fi so we decided to stay there for our stay in Angeles. Unfortunately they did not have any available standard rooms until 15:00, so we had some time to kill. We walked out to check out the city and find an ATM. On our walk down Fields Ave we first found an open grocery store and decided to check it out. It was so hot outside that we got a few Red Horse Strong beers, which were only 29 peso for 500 ml bottles (plus a small deposit for the bottles). This made walking around looking for an ATM much more manageable since we had not yet been able to freshen up from our flight and laborious airport departure.
We first found an ATM at one of the girllie bars of Fields Ave., but it was out of order. There were a couple girls hanging out in front of the bar and they told us the nearest working ATM was at the Jolliebee restaurant down the street. We found that in about five minutes and it was also not working. We asked a security guard (one of which was posted in front of every business in the city it seems) and they told us to try the SM Mall, further down the street. At this point we were starting to get a little concerned that none of the first three ATMs that we tried in Angeles would let us get any money because we didn't have enough local currency to pay for a hotel room.
As we approached the SM Mall, we noticed that nearly a half-dozen security guards (with very large guns) were stationed outside four different ATM stations. One of them was called BPI which we read would be able to give us the most currency on a single withdrawal. It seems like they were the best choice of the bunch for foreigners and locals alike, because everybody lined up for that one station despite the other three being available. Sure enough, this one did the trick and we were able to withdrawal 10,000 pesos. We were hoping to get more, but at least that would give us enough money to pay for our hotel.
Now that we had secured some money, it was time to eat and drink. The street vendors of Angeles seemed to offer almost exclusively Western style food at very affordable prices. The first meal that I had was a spicy chicken shwarma that cost 45 pesos. It didn't look like much, but went down very easy. Lisa found a burger from Jolliebee, which is a restaurant similar to McDonalds. We still had some time to kill before our room was ready, so next we went to a 7-11 to find some more beer. Here we found one-liter bottles of San Miguel for 65 pesos and they took our empty 500 ml bottles of Red Horse to cover the bottle deposit.
We sat outside the 7-11, drank the beer and fended off a continuous stream of beggars that approached us. We also tried out a few more offerings from the street vendors. A small Mister Donut stall offered a small variety of donuts for 12 pesos each and they seemed to be reasonably fresh and tasty. The best find was a peanut vendor that sold fried garlic peanuts at 20 pesos for a small bag. We had been eating peanuts very often throughout this entire trip and hands down, these were the best peanuts of all. I hope Toronto starts letting street vendors sell this sort of stuff one day soon. By the time we got through the beer and snacks, it was finally 15:00 so we went back to hotel to check-in and freshen up.
The rest of our first day in Angeles City was pretty uneventful, as we just watched TV in our air-conditioned room, caught up on news via the Internet and used the pool facilities of the hotel. Our second day in Angeles was quite a full day. In the early afternoon, as we were drinking beers at the side of the pool, Lisa and I heard what seemed to be a whipping noise slowly making its way down the road in front of our hotel. I climbed the 8 foot cement wall guarding the pool area and saw two local blind-folded and shirtless men being guided down the street as they flogged themselves with a whip. I turned around to tell Lisa what was going on, but she had already left to get the camera and chase after them.
After Lisa got back to the hotel and cleaned herself from the blood that had gotten on to her, we began to drink in earnest. After putting back a half-dozen beers, it was starting to get dark and we decided to go look for some food. Along Fields Ave., we were surprised to see a place offering "Buffalo Wings." Since both Lisa and I thoroughly enjoy buffalo wings back home, we decided to try this place out to see if these were really buffalo wings or simply chicken wings like everywhere else in Asia. I ordered 20 of the hot wings for 320 pesos and Lisa ordered a small deluxe pizza for 200 pesos. The wings were absolutely delicious and as somebody that has eaten buffalo wings in the city of Buffalo many times, I can attest to the authenticity of their taste. The pizza was great too so it is a pity that I cannot recall the name of this restaurant for the sake of this journal.
After our delicious meal, we were both a little drunk and in good spirits and decided to have some more beers from one of the local clubs. These clubs were completely catering to the tourists, which consisted almost exclusively of older white men and younger Japanese and Korean men. There were very few white males of my age (35) and we didn't see another female tourist of any age besides Lisa. We really stood out and as we walked down the street the girls standing in front of the clubs were all trying to get us into their establishments. We first went into a smaller place because they listed local beers for only 55 pesos.
Inside this bar, there were only two other guests and about twenty scantily dressed young females serving beer or dancing on a stage in the center of the place. I don't think they are used to seeing younger couples in this type of place, as they treated Lisa and I quite differently than the old white men that they usually see here. They were very respectful that Lisa was my wife and simply made polite conversation with us as we drank our beers and watched the dancers. Eventually two younger men walked in and they seemed more interested in Lisa than the girls that were hired for entertainment. They bought Lisa two beers, which she politely accepted and soon found out that they were secret police officers.
We ended up staying out quite late and drank more beers that we should've, but fortunately we remembered to drink plenty of the water provided in coolers around our hotel before going to bed. The next day we still both woke up to hangovers and headaches and found out that we had to move rooms, since ours was reserved somebody else that day. The Ramada Hotel had no other standard rooms available, but we were able to move to a deluxe room at a cost of 1300 pesos per day. This room was much like our first room, only it had a better (less noisy) air-conditioner, a better TV and was substantially bigger than the standard room.
By the early afternoon, I figured that I should walk around the city and take pictures of the sites I could find. As I was taking pictures of the jeepneys and tricycles that were passing by, I was approached by a friendly man that said he knew me from the hotel I was staying at. I thought I recognized him as a security guard and started chatting with him (mistake #1). He mentioned that he owned a club in town and that it was having a grand opening that night. He asked me to come along so that I would be able to find it and that he would give me a t-shirt and treat me like a VIP if I came that night. I figured it was a short walk away and was surprised when he flagged down a tricycle and asked me to get in, which I did (mistake #2).
The next thing I knew I was taken quite a few kilometers out of town and started getting worried that I was getting myself into trouble. We stopped at his house, I don't remember why, but my guard was let down as I was introduced to his wife and saw lots of young children running around. I went in with him (mistake #3) and soon I was brought into his house and offered a beer, which I accepted (mistake #4). As I was drinking the beer, the man brought me out a sandwich and began introducing me to other people (which were all large males) that happened to be at his house that day. I was actually worried that this sandwich may be drugged, but I ate in anyway (potentially a mistake, but it was not drugged so only #4.5.)
Soon a man that was supposedly his landlord came in as well. The man thought brought me there explained that he owned his landlord for three months of rent and passed the landlord a large stack of bills. Soon after this, he brought out a deck of cards and asked me if I could do him a favor. He said that Bicycle card decks cost 400 pesos in the Philippines and that he would pay me to get him some cards from Canada. At this point, I should've realized that something was wrong because I had purchased two decks of cards on the flight from K.L. to Manila for only 8 RM (which is around 100 pesos) and nothing is ever cheapest on a plane. However, I sat there as the landlord started playing with the cards, telling me that he'd like to show me a trick.
It turns out the trick was a scam that I was about to fall for. It started by us playing a game of 5 card stud, where he explained the rules of poker to me even though I told him I knew how to play. Next he said "one more hand" and started playing a game of 7 card stud. After he had dealt out the first five cards (2 down, 3 up), he said he wanted to place a friendly bet to cover the cost of the beer that I was drinking. Surprised that I was expected to pay 100 pesos for the beer, but unconcerned since it was only a few dollars, I agreed and pulled out my wallet. Big mistakes (#5), as the men behind me were simply evaluating how much money I had and Lisa had just restocked my wallet with 3000 pesos earlier that day.
The man who had driven me here then said he would like to make a side bet on the hand and threw down 2,000 pesos. He said I should do the same, but I said I didn't gamble. Not deterred he reached into my wallet and grabbed the money saying that I could not lose. I evaluated the cards that I had and realized at this point that I was involved in a scam. I should've grabbed my money and tried to make my exit there (mistake #6), but panic was setting in as I looked around and noticed that there were now five large men in the room with me watching my every move.
The next card went down and the man said he wanted to raise another 10,000 pesos. I explained that I had only 1,000 pesos left and that I didn't want to play any longer. The man making the side bets kept repeating how I could not lose, but of course at this point I knew better. I refused to put any more money down and things started getting ugly. The man that drove me there said that if I did not bet that not only would I lose my 2,000 pesos, but that he would lose his 2,000 pesos as well. This is where I said the S word....SCAM. This got everybody very aggravated and I started fearing for my safety. I had my digital SLR camera, several lenses and an HD camcorder with me. They knew that I had the camera and I figured this is what they were really after.
As tempers flared and I was refusing to put any more money down on the table, I just kept repeating that I was against gambling and that if they insisted that I play out this hand that "I fold". They (of course) didn't want to hear this answer and tried everything they could to get me to stay. I actually had my camera hanging around my neck as I entered this house (dumb, mistake #7), but I had packed it up as I started to realize the scam was going on. I got up and tried to leave the house, but they were blocking the doorway. The man that drove me there asked me if I'd like to see the cards and I said sure, but he would be the only one betting from this point on. They flipped up the cards and of course I had lost. They tried saying that I owed them 10,000 pesos because I saw the cards. I swore at them and charged for the door, pushing two men out of the way.
Fortunately this worked and once I was outside, I told them I was going straight to the police to report what had happened (mistake #7, I should've done it without telling them). They told me that if I did that I'd be in trouble, because gambling is illegal in Philippines. I told them that I would go anyhow, since gambling implied a chance of losing and this was a fixed game, they told that they would come after me at my hotel if I went to the police. I had told them which hotel I was staying at very early in the sequence of events (mistake #8), but I figured this was a bluff and asked the nearest person where I could find the police and they pointed me in the right direction. Within 100 meters I found two people wearing police uniforms and a motorcycle with POLICE written on it.
As I told one man what happened, he asked me questions like "When?" and "Where?" and when I said "Five minutes ago" and "Right around the corner", he wanted to take me to the police station ASAP. I explained that I'd rather show him the house where everything went down, but he insisted that I go the police station first, so I jumped on the back of the bike and rode to the police station #2 with him. From here I repeated the story and was soon brought into a back room where about six officers ended up and asking me how much they had taken me for. When I said "2,000" they asked "Dollars?", but fortunately it was only pesos. I explained that I knew I would not see my money again, but that this was an organized scam and I did not want to see other tourists taken by these guys. I felt that things were very close to escalating and perhaps the next person would get hurt and robbed and maybe even worse.
After sitting around for about fifteen minutes, yet another officer came in and told me not to worry, they were tracking the perpetrators down right now. I asked how that could be, since I hadn't yet showed anybody where everything happened or provided any type of general description of the men. I kept telling the senior officer, a man in plain clothes that claimed to be with "intelligence", that I could show him where these people lived. He told me gambling was illegal and I said that there was no gambling involved; gambling would imply that they stood a chance of losing so this was something else. He didn't try to imply that I was in any sort of trouble after that, but nobody seemed very anxious to see where this all happened just a short while ago.
Eventually I convinced them that they should go out to the house and I got into the back of a cruiser with two uniformed officers in the front and the intelligence officer in the back with me. I asked them to take me to the place where I found the first police officer (the one who drove me to the station) and they didn't know what I was talking about. The intelligence officer told me that this man was probably not even a real police officer, despite him having a uniform and a motorcycle with POLICE written on it. I asked why I fake police officer would drive me a real police station and he said that they have civilians that help them out with security issues in the city.
We drove around for 10 minutes but without knowing where I started, I was unable to locate the house again. I have a feeling that I could've found it with 10 minutes more effort, but who knows. Without being able to start from where I was picked up by the first policeman (real or not), it was not an easy chore. It is a real shame that this happened once I was in touch with the police because I found a policeman literally within 100 meters and five minutes of the event occurring yet nothing was going to be done. I was left with the feeling that the only real thing that would be done is that some of the police officers would later be asking for their cut. At least the policemen gave me a ride home afterward and treated me nice throughout the encounter I had with them.
Once I came back to the hotel and told Lisa what had happened, I did a little research on the Internet and found this article: http://www.everlastinglove.com/scam.htm. This scam was almost exactly what had happened to me; they used the exact same cards and all. They knew that I was married, so they didn't bring any pretty young girls in to distract me and I didn't let things escalate as far this poor chap did, but the similarities left me feeling that he was taken by the very same men. The senior police officer (with intelligence) had earlier told me that he had never heard of this happening, but when I insisted that this was too organized to be a first time, he had changed his answer to "first time this week".
In retrospect, if a local intelligence officer wasn't aware of this scam then there was something wrong and I suspect that I was asked "how much?" mostly so they knew what their cut should be. In the end I feel that things could've turned out much worse for me. I walked out with 1/3 of my money (1000 pesos) and more importantly my camera gear and good health. I was embarrassed that I had so many chances to maneuver out of this scam and was still taken by it. I am sure the night of heavy drinking with little sleep didn't help any, but really I have no excuse for it. I have been proud of how I have avoided being scammed what-so-ever for the first 7 months of our trip through South East Asia, but now I don't feel so proud of that any longer. At least I didn't get hurt though, because other man that wrote about this scam let it escalate to where guns were involved.
Not wanting to let this event faze me for too long, I decided to have another fun night out. I finished up the last few beers that we had stocked in our fridge earlier and by the night we went to another one of the big clubs (Atlantis) this time more sober and focused on taking pictures of the beautiful girls. This time we didn't over drink and turned in around midnight. We knew that we had to check out the following day and try and make it to the Pampanga area to watch the crucifixions for Good Friday and we wouldn't feel like it if we partied too hard the night before.
The plan worked brilliantly as both Lisa and I woke up the next day feeling good, so we asked if we could keep our bags at the hotel lobby (after we checked out) so that we could take in the crucifixions. This was not a problem, so around noon we put our bags behind the reception counter and looked for a tricycle to take us to Pampanga. We asked the first guy "how much?" and he asked for 500 pesos. It is much wiser to say the price you want to pay, rather than asking how much, and using that strategy we got a ride out there for 150 pesos (which was still way too much).
We spent about 30 minutes walking around soaking in the events, noting how different the Philippine way of celebrating Easter was so different than how we celebrated it in Canada. I got a frozen mango drink (12 pesos) and clicked pictures of the men walking through the street flogging themselves on their bloody backs. Lisa had heard that there was so much blood because they cut their backs open with a razor blade before the beatings even started. At designated stations (in front of chapels it seems), the blind-folded men would lie down and would get beaten across their backs by other large men. Sometimes these men would go easy on their victims but other times it seemed like they were using their full force.
We eventually found our way to a large open field where the main event was going to take place. There were advertisements stating that there would be a live recreation of Passion of the Christ and three large crosses were already on display on a small hill on the field with a fence around them. We were approached by some local people selling tickets to get inside this fenced off area (for 300 pesos), but we declined. I wasn't too sure that I wanted to see this happen but I knew that I definitely didn't want to get right underneath of these people as they were being crucified.
Shortly after walking out of the traffic-controlled area, we found a tricycle driver and asked him to drive us back to our hotel for 100 pesos. He agreed and didn't even try to ask for more money, so I suspect that we were still paying too much. From our hotel we washed up as much as we could (my feet were black from all the dust in that field), then grabbed our bags and left the Ramada hotel. The security guard out front called over the tricycle drivers that had earlier asked for 500 pesos to get us to Pampanga, but this time we asked if he'd take 70 pesos to drive us to the Dau bus terminal, which he accepted. I guess the lesson that we learned is to say the price you want to pay rather then ever asking "how much?"
The Dau bus terminal was nearly as far away as the Pampanga area, but within about 15 minutes we had arrived. We grabbed a few hamburgers from the Jollibee restaurant and then walked into the bus terminal area. There was nowhere to buy tickets here. You simply ask around to find the appropriate bus and then buy your ticket after the bus has already departed. We had a choice of a minivan that would take us to Rabbit terminal in Manila or a big air-conditioned bus that would take us to Pasay, both for the same price 132 pesos. There was also a taxi driver that offered to drive us for 500 pesos, but we had a feeling that would end up leaving us in the wrong part of town without paying more. Pasay was quite close to Melate, the neighborhood in Manila where we were going to be staying.
The bus was already quite full by the time we boarded it, but we managed to find two aisle seats near the back where we could be near each other. It was a pity that we didn't sit closer to the front because the bus had a TV that was playing a fantastic movie. I wasn't sure what the movie was at first, but asked and found out that it was a movie that I had tried to see in the theatres of Thailand and Malaysia earlier this trip: Ong Bak 2. The movie had Thai language sound track and English subtitles, but we were too far back to read them or hear much. Despite this, Ong Bak 2 looks to be one of the greatest martial arts films ever made and I cannot wait to find the DVD here.
Where I stayed