Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Manila - A timeless city


The capital city of The Philippines, along with her residents (Manilenos), display an abundance of Latin flair. Understandably so, as this enigmatic nation was a Spanish colony for over three centuries. This is a city comprised of sixteen separate cities, with a greater urban area of over twenty million people. That's bigger than London or New York City. Widely considered as one of South East Asia's most cosmopolitan cities, Manila is bursting at the seams with possibilities. 

The first thing most visitors will take away from it, is the unashamedly friendliness of the people. Expect big smiles, happy faces and excited waving - all from strangers. I must have been welcomed to Manila six or seven times, all within the first few hours of my arrival. This is the kind of place where a smile goes a long long way, so don't forget to bring your's!

Manila acts as a perfect beginner's guide to The Philippines. It is here you can uncover a wealth of history and culture. Regardless of your nationality (or gender), locals are likely to call out to you 'Hey Joe!' wherever you go. This is a throwback to the days of WW2, when American soldiers fought alongside Filipinos and liberated them from the Japanese Imperial Army. It's not an insult, it's just one of the many ways a foreign visitor will be welcomed to these vibrant shores.


This is the oldest part of Manila, with the wall surrounding the city being built in the 16th century. Amazingly, it is still intact today, even after the battering Manila got during WW2. The area is perfect for wandering around and getting lost in, if it's too hot though, be sure to hail a pedi-cab. You can get a tour of all the hotspots for the bargain rate of 150 PHP! Highlights include; Fort Domingo, Manila Cathedral, Rizal shrine and other historical landmarks, including many museums. There are also a few restaurants serving up authentic Spanish fare, go on, try some paella!

Your pedi-cab driver may have a few suggestions of his own too.
"Do you like guns, big guns?" he asks excitedly, in an accent akin to Tony Montana (Scarface).
"Sure," I replied, trying but failing to match his enthusiasm. All over the world, boys will be boys.

Located just a stone's throw away from Intramuros, is Rizal park. It's more than just a popular picnic spot for families and lovebirds alike, it's named in honor of Jose Rizal - the national hero. Rizal was a freedom fighter, scholar and well renowned poet, but worst of all, he was an atheist! A monument marks the spot of his assassination, and surrounding it are lush green landscapes, water fountains of outrageous proportions and an abundance of outdoor aerobics classes. Don't be surprised if you get asked to join in!

For a more in-depth and extensive tour of the area, you'd best tag along for a tour with Carlos Celdran. Part-time entertainer, occasional comedian and full-time tour guide, this local celebrity made headlines around the world last year when he dressed up as Jose Rizal and entered Manila Cathedral during mass holding up a sign exclaiming 'STOP getting involved in politics.'

Armed with a top hat and a boombox, Celdran is unlike any other tour guide. He is eccentric and entertaining, but his knowledge of Manila is also second to none. From its Islamic beginnings, to the origin of the name (a little white flower that grows on the banks of the Pasig river), Celdran really will change the way you look at Manila.

The tour is very informative, but despite the length of three hours - is entertaining throughout. Whether he's throwing flower petals in the air, donning an Uncle Sam hat or smoking a pipe a la General MacArthur, you can rest assured that there is never a dull moment on this guided walk.

The always smiling Carlos, loses his joking manner when recounting the tragic loss of Jose Rizal. Comparing the Catholic church to the Taliban, he warns his audience of the dangers of mixing religion with politics. Standing before the monolithic Manila Cathedral, he recounts the number of times it has been reconstructed within its 300 year history. The building dwarfs everything it surrounds, and as if reading my mind, Carlos clicks his fingers and points at me.
"Religion is king here, as it was then. The Philippines was never a colony of Spain, we were created merely as an outpost of the Vatican. Why do you think we never learned to speak Spanish?" he exclaims.

The click-clack of a horse's hooves, as well as the occasional snort, means it's time for a horse drawn carriage. Riding through the cobblestone streets, I see people taking an afternoon snooze on the grass. The Spanish priests sent out here may not have brought with them their language, but they certainly introduced the siesta.

While a tour of this fascinating districts allows visitors a glimpse into what Manila was like three centuries ago, a visit to Corregidor is vital in understanding the role WW2 played in shaping the city we see today. The 'Battle of Manila' claimed the lives of over 100,000 civilians, and essentially, the city had to start again from scratch.


Also known as 'the rock,' this island is 48 kms from Manila by fast ferry and was a major strategic battlepoint during WW2. It's a fantastic place to soak up some Filipino history, as well as bask in national pride. Owned by the government, the only way to see Corregidor is on a guided group tour for 2,000 PHP ($45). Options are abound for overnight stays also, with a resort on offer, as well as bicycle trails, hiking and even a zip-line for the kids.

The voice of Franklin Dela Roosevelt greets passengers on board the ferry, during a short documentary on the history of this mysterious island. I learn it was only one day after the bombing at Pearl Harbor, that the Japanese attacked Manila. The battle for Manila took place in February 1942 After taking over the capital, 26 days of constant bombing met Corregidor. Knowing they could not stop the inevitable, the soldiers instead opted to delay it for as long as possible, their only goal - survival. 20,000 prisoners of war (American/Filipino) died at the hands of the Japanese army, and it was only through the element of surprise that the allied forces were able to reclaim the island, as an attack by sea would be too obvious.

As we disembark the ferry, I'm put in mind of 'Jurassic Park,' complete with a gushing guide and an awaiting cable car. At the end of the tour, it instead becomes Superman's fortress of solitude. First occupied by foreign forces from Spain in 1671, it became American in 1901, Japanese in 1942 and eventually Filipino in 1945. The island is a source of great Filipino patriotism, evident on any given day tour.

The battle scarred barracks remain in ruins, with bullet holes intact. The military stronghold is clustered with cannons, not to mention a sizable art collection, including bleak but beautiful oil paintings - depicting WW2 and the impact it had on this country. Of all the cities in the world bombed during WW2, Manila is second only in total damages to Warsaw, Poland.

Ancient tunnels, used by both axis and allies, can be explored only with a helmet and torch. You can try doing it on the sly, like I did, but you'll likely meet monitor lizards, snakes and even bats that call these dark and dreary spaces home - so watch your step! There's a light and (loud) sound show on offer for an additional 150 PHP, that reels off a timeline and series of events in a concise, if extensive manner.

The views are fantastic throughout the whole tour, with the skyline of Manila visible on a clear day from certain points on the island. The hills are of a rolling green variety, with tall trees here, there and everywhere. Surprisingly so, considering only several trees escaped the war unharmed. The Pacific War Memorial rounds out the tour nicely, with an imposing freefall structure, casting out eyes on a cold, blue ocean.

Corregidor Island is well worth a visit, even if you're not a military history buff. It helps you to learn and appreciate Filipino culture on a deeper level. Knowing the history of this enigmatic nation, helps you to understand the current state and what the future holds.


Makati is the financial district, a part of the city that feels very westernized - with designer shopping, fast food chains and trendy hangout spots galore. The glistening skyscrapers found here proudly exclaim Manila's place in the 21st century.  The streets and buildings are meticulously clean and kept in tip top condition by an army of street sweepers working day and night. As such, the area is frequented by westerners on vacation, as well as expats seeking a break from the encompassing madness. This is in direct contrast to areas like Pasay, a part of town where spotting white folk could almost be considered a sport!

Makati and nearby Malate share the title of premier nightlife district in town. Both districts offer a multitude of bars, restaurants and a staggering amount of nightclubs. Malate has a slightly more bohemian style, well known for live-bands and acoustic sets, but wherever you go in town - electro music is the staple sound for the Manileno youth. Expect it to be played loud and until all hours of the night, even on weekdays. Black Dragon Pub & Disco is a nightclub that stands out for me, with friendly staff, a wide selection of drinks and the kind of sound system that will make your ears hum for days on end. It can be found in Remedios Circle, and is open late seven days a week.

To truly understand the capital city of this enigmatic nation though, you must leave the modern comforts of Makati. While a break-neck speed trishaw ride through the crowded streets of Pasay may suffice for visitors with limited time, a better bet is to visit the historical corners of the city like Intramuros.

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