Manila #1

Trip Start Aug 31, 2008
Trip End Apr 30, 2009

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Flag of Philippines  , Luzon,
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The bus took a little over an hour to get to the outskirts of Manila and then around another 30 minutes to navigate through the city to the Pasay area.  We didn't ride the bus the whole way, but the attendant on the bus let us know where the most convenient spot for us to disembark and find our way to Melate was.  The first taxi driver that we talked to agreed to use his meter when we asked, then in the next breathe said "250 pesos."  We were not going to play that game and simply walked 10 meters down the road and flagged down a passing taxi.  This driver agreed to use the meter and dropped us off right in front of our Hostel for only 80 pesos.  We gave him a 20 peso tip to encourage fair service to foreigners.
An elevator took us to the 4th floor of a building that seemed to be right in the middle of all the expensive hotels in Manila.  The room we had reserved cost 890 peso which got us a really small air-conditioned room that had a bunk bed in it.  Fortunately the bottom half was a double bed, which allowed us to use the top bed for storage.  Besides the bed there was only a small end table as far as furniture went.  The beds had very thin mattresses, but we put out travel mats underneath of the mattress and then found it to be comfortable enough to stay there four nights.
The reason to come to Friendly's Guesthouse is the location and the atmosphere of the upstairs area.  The upstairs is the top floor of the building and (except for the dorm rooms), most of it is used for common space.  There are lots of tables and chairs, both outside and on the patio and cold beer is available for 30 pesos (cola is 20 and water is 15.)  There are lots of books, instruments and even hookahs lining the walls of the common room; a lot of thought has been put into making this place have a jovial atmosphere.  There is also a large kitchen that guests are free to use and a space to do your own laundry as well (although they will do it for you at 35 pesos per kilogram.)
Our room did not come with a private bathroom, but there were lots of communal ones on our floor which provided a steady stream of warm water. Despite trying to clean up at our hotel in Angeles, I was still filthy from the day watching the Easter celebrations, so the first thing I did was hit the shower.  After we were cleaned up, we were ready to explore the town and find some food.  Almost everything in the Melate area was closed for Good Friday, but it still wasn't that challenging to find some decent food close to our guest house.  We ended up eating some snack foods and drinking some San Miguel Beer from a small establishment across the road from Friendly's that reminded me of a bai hoi joint from Vietnam.
The next morning we woke up and wandered upstairs to use the free Wi-Fi and enjoy some complimentary coffees.  The Internet service seemed to go up and down, but stayed up long enough for me to Skype family and friends back home.  By the time we had finished our second large mug of coffee though, we were both trembling from a caffeine overdose and decided to go out and look for food.  We soon found out that there was a large mall just down the road and that it had a supermarket in it.  We wandered down to the mall and were surprised to see that not only was it open today, but that it would be open regular hours (9:00 to 21:00) on Easter Sunday as well.  Thursday and Good Friday are the big holidays in the Philippines but Easter Sunday does not seem to be too big of a deal.
The Robinsons Mall of Manila is a huge and modern mall with more American brands & stores than anywhere else I have yet seen in Asia.  Alas, although I had seen a Taco Bell advertisement on the bus ride into Manila, there was no Taco Bell at the Robinsons Mall that I could find.  I am a fast food junkie though and was happy to see a Wendy's again as well as pizza slices from Pizza Hut at a rate of two for only 53 pesos.  The Robinsons Mall is vast but the prices are obviously not the best that you would find in the Philippines.  It almost seemed to be a tourist attraction in its own right because many people were hanging out in the courtyards having their picture taken with the mall as a backdrop.
The climate was so hot during our stay in Manila that we were mostly content to hang out at Friendly's Guesthouse where we could duck into our air-conditioned room when necessary.  The roof top patio has a fantastic view of the Melate area and lots of travelers congregate on this patio to share stories while drinking San Miguel or Red Horse beers (30 pesos a bottle from Friendly's).  Furthermore the staff and ownership are always doing things on the patio to make your stay there more entertaining.  One night they brought out the bongo drums and banged away to the music in the background.  On Saturday night they brought out sliced bread, bruschetta, cheese, mushroom and tuna spreads for the guests to enjoy.  The quantity was enough that this could have substituted for dinner but to make double sure that everybody was having fun, they also brought out around a dozen bottles of European wines.
We had drunk quite a bit of beer before the food and wine came out; enough beer that I decided to try out the wine, even though I normally stay away from the stuff.  We met a few of the other travelers that had been in Manila for awhile and they mentioned that they were going to a local barbeque place to eat dinner and asked us if we'd like to come along.  We both love barbeques and wanted to know the best local places, so it wasn't long before four of us sitting down on plastic chairs in front of a local restaurant that had an outdoor grill fired up.  We ended up spending quite a bit of time at this barbeque place.  Enough time to put down another three beers (each) and eat around a dozen meat skewers.  We had quite a few different kinds but my favorites were the cherry tomatoes wrapped in bacon.  The bill for 6 beers and around 20 of these meat skewers was 400 pesos.
There was a lot of street kids coming up and trying to sell us cigarettes, candies, sunglasses, roses, etc.  We did not want any of their stuff, mostly because we believe that almost all of the profits of their work just goes to an adult handler anyhow.  Instead Lisa went to the convenience store and bought them a liter of milk and several glasses.  Milk is relatively expensive in the Philippines, so this was a nutritious treat for them and Lisa has a lot of new little friends.  One of the kids didn't care for milk much though and left his glass on our table.  It only took another minute before another young girl came up and asked if she could have it.  We were glad to see that it didn't go to waste.
It is pretty normal to have the street kids in Melate ask you for money or some of whatever you are drinking or eating at the time.  It hasn't happened to me with water yet, but any time I have a large bottle of iced tea, I haven't got to finish it.  I don't mind sharing what I have as far as food and drinks go but I hate parting with my money, so this has been a very successful strategy for them with me.  After watching a movie like Slum Dog Millionaire and seeing flocks of postcard toting children handing all of their revenues to an adult handler in Cambodia, I don't agree with supporting this type of system.  In my mind it is best to donate directly to hands-on charitable organizations or schools, but also giving food and water (or anything else the adult handlers cannot use) also does good.
By the time we had finished up with dinner, quite a few nightclubs across the road had opened up for business.  One of them was playing house music and Lisa was in the mood for dancing, so we headed over there.  The club was almost empty when we first got there, but beers were only 60 pesos and the music was good, so we stayed for awhile until it filled up.  The night starts getting a little foggy from here on for me, but I remember meeting some people from South Korea that were also in Manila on holiday.  Although Lisa seemed to get along fabulously with a gorgeous tall Korean girl, the alcohol caught up to both of us rather intensely and we went back to our hotel without saying good-bye.
For our third day in Manila (Easter Sunday), we decided that it would be an excellent time to see the tourist sites of Manila that we wanted to see.  Manila is a city famous for traffic congestion, but on this holiday the streets would be about as empty as they could be and we wanted to take advantage of that.  We started by walking along Roxas Blvd, a road that follows the sea-front lining Manila Bay.  It has been developed as a paved walkway (alongside the road) and lots of other local people and tourists do this walk as well.  We were surprised to see lots of children swimming in the water because it did not look like a very sanitary place.  It was hot enough outside though that I could not really blame them though.   I figured that they were likely poor and needed to have fun too, but next to the American embassy there were entire (well-off) families that had come down for a swim.  Maybe the water is cleaner than it looked.
As we walked past the American Embassy, we started to approach the Intramuros district of Manila.  This area was originally an Islamic settlement that the Spanish had built up in 1571, after they took control of the city.   Although the area had seen its share of war and revolt over the years, most of the buildings and structures had survived until 1945.  Unfortunately during World War 2, Manila saw a great deal of action and in addition to all the human suffering, the city was pretty much leveled of its buildings.  150,000 people died in the Battle of Manila and to put that in perspective, 140,000 died in Hiroshima.  Manila was known before World War 2 to be one of the greatest cities in the world, the "Pearl of the Orient", but it never fully recovered from its former glory.
The first tourist site that we ran into was the Rizal Park, which is called Luneta by the locals.  Where we first started walking through the park is a statue of Dr. Jose Rizal, a Filipino hero that was executed by the Spanish on December 30th, 1896 for instigating revolution.  The Rizal Monument was being guarded by sentries in full regalia and it contains all of his mortal remains.  I hung out long enough trying to get the right picture that I got to see a changing of the guards.  However even being dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, I was still felt defeated by the heat in the 15 minutes that I stood around taking pictures.  The guards themselves wore full (very hot) uniforms and marched in meticulous routines that must've left them sweltering.  Their faces did not show it but this duty must be challenging for even the most diligent soldier.
Shortly after leaving the Rizal Monument we came across the spot where the Spanish actually executed Dr. Jose Rizal, forever making him a national hero and martyr.  We continued walking through the 60 hectares of the park and saw statues and monuments for dozens of other Filipino heroes as well.  Without a background in the history of the Philippines, these statues didn't mean much to me but this park was mostly populated by Filipino people who would appreciate it.  Lining the side of Rizal Park is three gardens which all charge an admission, the Chinese Garden, the Japanese Garden and the Manila Orchidarium.  Although they were very affordable (5 pesos/each for the gardens and 100 pesos for the orchidarium), Lisa and I were already feeling the effects of the heat and wanted to make it to Intramuros on our own energies.
There were literally dozens of horse-and-buggy drivers soliciting our business, so we didn't exactly have to walk, but we found their persistence annoying and we generally prefer to take in sites at our own pace anyhow.  I would have to recommend these horse-and-buggy rides for just about anybody else though because we were thoroughly exhausted after walking around in the Manila sun for the better part of four hours.  I heard them offer a price of "6 dollars", which I can assume is US dollars but I do not know how long of a ride that would provide.  We managed to find our way to Intramuros on our own easily enough and passed by the Manila City Hall on the way.
The walled inner city area known as Intramuros is now lined by a modern and beautiful golf course that made me wish I knew how to play the sport.  The 18-hole golf course follows the circumference of Intramuros, along what used to be the moat used to protect the 64 hectare city.  The city walls themselves are mostly still erect and it is possible to navigate a 4.5 km section beginning at the Intramuros Visitors Center (near the entrance of Fort Santiago) if you feel so inclined.  Lisa and I wandered through the old city's cobbled streets until we came across San Agustin Church.  This church was built from 1587 to 1606 and is the only building of Intramuros to survive the bombing of World War 2.  Not far from this church we came across some more famous sites.  First was the Manila Cathedral which was destroyed several times, and last built in 1951, even though it looks like it was built several hundred years ago.  Then in front of the cathedral is Plaza de Roma which was formerly used as a bloody bullring until converted into the plaza that it is today.
After walking from Melate, through Rizal Park and around Intramuros over the course of four hours, we decided to take a taxi back to the Robinson Mall for some food and air-conditioned goodness.  The first taxi driver did not want to use his meter, but the second one we flagged down did and the ride cost only 50 pesos (plus a 10 peso tip for being honest).  Again we treated ourselves to the Pizza Hut deal of two deluxe slices for 53 pesos and soon returned to our guest house for a shower.  We spent the rest of the night relaxing and watched the sunset over Manila bay from the roof top terrace of Friendly's Guesthouse.
After four nights in Manila, it was time for us to catch a plane to spend a week on the island of Boracay.  Although we had earlier tried to score more "free" tickets (where you still pay taxes and fuel surcharges) from Manila to Caticlan months earlier, our credit cards did not work on their website and we were denied.  About a week before coming to the Philippines we decided to try again and now it worked out.  Unfortunately since we were now only booking the tickets two weeks in advance, we could only find cheap tickets to Kalibo and they were no longer free.  Still, at 6,872 pesos we were able to obtain two return tickets that would allow us to spend a week on one of the world's best beaches.  At CDN $45 for each direction, these tickets were still a bargain by any measurement, although we would have to endure an extra 90 minute bus ride compared to flying in to Caticlan.
Although our flight was scheduled to leave at 11:35, we were not sure how far the airport was and knowing how bad Manila traffic can be, we left our hotel at 9:00.  Once again, the first taxi that we flagged down didn't want to use his meter (and wanted 200 pesos), but the second one did and got us there in about 30 minutes for 105 pesos (plus another 15 peso tip).  The entrance to Terminal 3 of the Ninoy Aquino International airport was very Spartan in nature and had no restaurants where you could eat before checking in.  Fortunately checking in was a fast and efficient process, although we had a surprise domestic departure tax of 200 pesos each.  Once we were waiting for our flight, there were lots of familiar restaurant chains available and Lisa and I had an original cinnamon bun each from Cinnabun at a cost of 130 pesos each.
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