Dirty Old Manila

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Flag of Philippines  , Luzon,
Thursday, April 21, 2011

After saying goodbye again to Oi I checked into my flight from Bangkok to Manila with Cebu Pacific. The quirkiness of the Philippines begun before I arrived when I discovered online that in order to get to the country you must produce proof of an onward ticket or they will ask you to pay around 50,000 pesos or around $1,000! It is the airlines which enforce this not the immigration officials, which is pretty odd. I didn't want to buy my ticket back to the UK yet as I had no need to and didn't want to restrict myself. Luckily the Philippines has one of the cheapest and little known airports called Clark International where you can fly to locations for very low prices. I bought a $25 flight from Clark to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia as my insurance for proof of an onward ticket. With all this arranged I touched down in Manila late at night after just over three hours of flying and breezed through customs. After a taxi ride where the driver asked me to contact his sister in London who hadn't contacted him in years (apparently) I checked into my hotel. The room itself was huge, modern and great! A huge tv, en suite bathroom, big comfy bed and access to a swimming pool and gym. It is nice to live the high life once in while when you are travelling and with sites like Agoda mean you can get a room for a third of its normal price so leading the high life needn't break the bank.

Before departing for the Philippines I had no real idea what to expect. Sure I had heard a few things from people who had visited but its usually best to politely ignore others anyway as a travel experience is always unique to the individual and is better experienced through a clean pair of eyes. The Philippines came at a stage of my travels where my wanderlust was subsiding a bit and the desire to just jump on a bus and go explore somewhere wasn't as strong as it has been previously. Whether that was because I was in the Philippines or not I wasn't sure but I just didn't have that same desire to explore here. I did however have a real desire to play some poker! I hadn't wanted to play for months but right now the urge was there and I figured that if I could win a few dollars and look after my deposit for when I move to a flat in Brighton then that would be a good thing. I had heard they are terrible poker players in the Philippines as well. With that in mind after some research I found a place where I could play poker in Manila and booked a hotel for four nights close by, which just happened to be the number 2 rated hotel in Manila according to the TripAdvisor website, which is usually on the money. My plan was to stay there and see how things went with the poker and take it from there.

The Philippines itself is a strange place - it just doesn't feel like Asia. Few travellers visit the country and when I told people I was going to go they either looked at me blankly or asked 'why'. If you ask your average person about the Philippines they usually think of either Filipino maids or Imelda Marcos' 2000 plus shoe collection. To be honest I only knew about that shoe collection as my father told me about it when I was young and the thought of someone owning that many shoes in a far away tropical land just stuck. So to admonish my own ignorance and provide some light to the reader on this country I now present a short history of the Philippines. In 45,000 BC 'Tabon Man', the oldest discovered inhabitant of the island left a bit of his skull in a cave on Palawan island, thus shedding some light on the long prehistory of the island. Nothing noteworthy happpens for about 45,000 years until the Malays arrived in boats from 100-1000AD; the archipelagos eight main languages derive from these various Malay immigrant tongues. In the 12th century traders from India, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand were regularly trading with the Philippine islands, apparently the Chinese began trading as far back as 100 AD. In 1521 Ferdinand Magellan landed and claimed the country for the Spanish, after skirmishes lasting fifty years the Spanish effectively ruled the islands for 400 years. Manila grew steadily from all this trading activity to become a big and prosperous city, called the 'Pearl of the Orient' in 1700 (no comment). The British then invaded and occupied  Manila in 1762 but were kicked out two years later. Fast forward to 1898 and the Philippines fights back the Spanish, who themselves have a dispute with America over sugar and declare war with USA. As a colony of Spain, the Philippines was drawn into the conflict. Soon enough the yanks sailed into Manila and trashed the Spanish ships but then sided with the Filipinos and installed their exiled revolutionary General Aguinaldo as president of the first Philippines republic in 1898. The USA then effectively bought the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico for $20 million.  Fast forward to 1941 and the Japanese after bashing the yanks at Pearl Harbour then landed at Luzon island and drove the Filipino and US troops to the Batan Peninsula, opposite Manila, where 75,000 troops from US and Philippines surrendered to the  Japanese. From 1942-1945 a brutal Japanese rule followed and by the time the US had dislodged the Japanese in 1945 over 150,000 citizens of Manila had been killed and one of the finest cities in Asia reduced to rubble. Apparently the city has never recovered since. With this history you can begin to try and understand this country. Some other interesting facts about the Philippines - with around 100 million inhabitants it is the worlds twelfth most populous country, there are 170 different languages and dialects spoken in the archipelago with around 100 cultural minority groups, they all love karaoke and cock fighting and they love to give their children bizarre names like BumBum, Cute, BoyBoy and Bong-Bong (son of Imelda Marcos incidentally). There you have it, a cultural and ethnic soup which comes out in the bowl as the Philippines

Meanwhile the time I spent playing poker in Manila was interesting to say the least. Over the next week I played about eight hours a day, never playing beyond midnight and living a healthy diet and exercise routine to stay alert. In Macau I had lost a small amount of money but I knew exactly why - playing too long and not getting enough sleep. So I didn't want to repeat the mistake, and it seemed to pay dividends. My strategy was just to play conservatively and straightforward as that's what you do against players you haven't played before, until you understand how they play more and adjust accordingly.  With some luck it turned out to be a very enjoyable and profitable week in the end. A highlight was on the second day of playing when I saw something incredibly rare when three players got involved in a huge pot (the pot is the money there on the table to be won in a given hand) and it was like something out of a movie it was so unreal. You see a lot of scenarios in poker after you have played a lot of hands and so long shots are met with little more than a sigh, but this was one of those rare one offs. The three players involved held 33, 77 and 101010 in their hands respectively. The dealer then dealt them all a third card which matched all their starting hands. So now they all had 'three of a Kind' or 333,777 and 101010, with 101010 winning and only two more cards to be dealt. The forth card was a 6, changing nothing, and the fifth and final card a 7. So now one player has 'four of a Kind' or 7777 and has the winning hand! The odds are complicated but basically for all three players to get 'three of a Kind' is around 70,000-1 and the odds of any player improving on the last cards to 'Four of a Kind' is 50-1 against. Combine the two and you get a extremely rare event! The games proved to be full of action with players happy to get all their money involved in hands that would be better discarded. The Filipino players also turned out to be a little hot headed and would play with too much bravo when they lost a few hands and this played into my hands. One particularly good day I started the day with $400 dollars and after several hours was up to $3,000 on the table, I was effectively sat at the table with seven times the average Filipino's monthly salary. I suddenly became aware of who and where I was and so thought it would be best to leave quietly by the side door. After eight days work the poker sessions had worked out really well and I had enough cash to put aside for a deposit for a flat when I get home and for some spending money. So I was really happy with the effort 

Unfortunately my timing was slightly off with the arrival of Holy Week just round the corner. What this means is that for one week the 95 percent Catholic country celebrates the holiest of weeks and many Filipinos visit their families in the provinces. Basically the whole country would be on the move and all the areas I planned on visiting would be rammed with tourists and locals and accommodation prices would double or triple. Added to this heavy rain was forecast for the country in the coming weeks which pretty much ruled out travelling south of Manila and only left the colder north to explore. With all these things considered it seemed pretty pointless staying too much longer in the country and so I bought a flight back to Thailand for next week and decided to check out Manila in the meantime by moving to a more central hotel

After booking four nights at another hotel I took my taxi in the afternoon to get there. The ride took about an hour and I passed through shanty towns and general urban decay. It is horribly polluted and dirty with open sewers and huge potholes all over the roads. Largely due to industrial waste and heavy reliance on cars, Manila suffers from air pollution which results in more than 4,000 deaths per year. Open dump sites and industrial waste contribute to increasing pollution within the city and several rivers in Manila have been considered biologically dead! The Pasig River, where 150 tons of domestic waste and 75 tons of industrial waste were dumped daily in 2003 is now one of the most polluted rivers in the world. The district of Ermita is apparently the most air polluted district in the city and as luck would have it this is where I unwittingly booked my hotel - marvelous. In 2009 Manila was also hit by Typhoon Ketsana which submerged more than 80% of the city, spreading sewage and pollutants in the process. You get the idea; its smells in Manila

This is also a very poor city with a reputation for sudden violence on its streets. This was Manila proper and felt a lot edgier or just more plan unsafe than Ortigas where I stayed before, which is more of an industrial area. Its not that anyone is outwardly aggressive its more that you can smell the potential for trouble. Simply walking down the street is an exercise in vigilance as you move through the locals sat around on street sides and corners doing nothing much. After a afternoon spent wandering around the streets and exploring I decided not to use my camera in public and to not go out late at night without a friend. Its better to be safe than sorry so unfortunately this blog only has two photos!. On the very first day someone approached me in the local shopping center and pretend to be working at my hotel and asked to borrow some money - a well known scam here. This then happened the next day with another man doing the same trick but this time he wanted some money for his son's birthday. I met several foreigners at the hotel bar who had experienced the exact same scam and one who had his gold chain ripped of his neck when walking down the street. Over the next few days I met several Americans, Canadians and Filipinos at the hotel bar where I spent a lot of time during the day. One night a Canadian guy called Dave and I went out to some local bars and after having a good time we decided to make our way back to the hotel. As we did a local women who was drunk or just a bit crazy started hassling Dave for money and she was being quite aggressive and loud. We just continued to walk on and ignored her as the last thing you want to do is create a scene, but within five minutes I looked around and we had fifteen other people slowly following us! It was a bit freaky but we just walked calmly on and hoped it wouldn't get ugly. Thankfully when we made a right turn down the road they stopped following us. Although it was only about 1km from our hotel we heard other guests say they always take a taxi when returning at night and now we knew why!

After being in the Philippines for over a week I still felt like I hadn't make a connection with the place or that I wanted to spend much more time there. When I arrived in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia there was an immediate connection, but I just didn't feel it here. It just didn't feel like Asia or like my kind of place. Partly it was because it is so heavily influenced by American culturally with the many huge shopping malls Filipinos love to trawl. Partly it was because the food is crap. Partly it was because of the constant attention you get. In the Philippines if you are white you are a rock star, they love foreigners and seem to have this inferiority complex where they think if you are white you are better than them. I first experienced it at the poker club where when I walked in the staff would fuss over by bringing me a table over for my rucksack and making sure I had everything I needed while constantly calling me 'sir' and bowing to me. Very weird, some might like having their egos stroked but I found it off putting that they fawned over me just because I am white - which to me is ridiculous.  The Philippines had been interesting but I didn't want to spend anymore time there. With a month or so left on my travels I decided to head back to Bangkok and spend it with Oi - what better way to finish my trip?

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M&D on

This is in many ways the most compelling blog you've written, Dom. It confirms very graphically all my concerns about you going to the Phillipines, but is also a testament to your good sense and street savvy. The historical resume was particularly engaging, sad though so much of it was, and indeed continues to be. An experience that I guess you wouldn't have been without, but which we're more than glad you have now left behind you! Hope the last spell in Bangkok goes well and that Oi and you have another great time exploring whether on bikes, trains, buses or on foot! Keep us posted xxxxxx

Caroline on

Hi honey

Well done on your poker win - Brighton here you come! Sounds like Manila was a disappointment, but I'm glad you made it through safely. It must be really unsettling and rather embarrassing having the locals fawning all over you - very difficult to know how to react.

I hope you have a fantastic time back in Bangkok - make the most of every moment of your last few weeks. Cannot wait to see you at Glasto :-)

Loads of love xxx

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