Posted by: Richard Marshall | January 5, 2013

The Philippines

I finally finished at ila at the end of October, but my new job in Shanghai only begins in January so I have time for a couple of trips. My first was to the Philippines. I’d never really given the country much thought, but with only a couple of blank pages left in my passport Laos, the other country in the region I haven’t visited, wasn’t possible as it requires a full page visa. The Philippines only requires a stamp, though I had a brief moment of panic when the woman behind the Cebu-Pacific check-in desk looked at my SA passport as though it was from Yemen or North Korea. The flight was cheap but unfortunately arrived in Manila at 5am, so I had several groggy, sleepless hours loitering in Malate before I could check into my hotel. Malate is not the nicest place to find oneself at a loose end. Having been to a number of Southeast Asian cities I thought I was used to dirty, ugly streets and lots of sleaze but Manila really took me aback. The whole place was full of massage parlors and “ktv” bars, mostly apparently catering to Japanese and Korean tourists. My hotel was a weirdly straight-laced, Catholic island in this sea of vice but comfortable enough. There were also some very nice restaurants nearby so I managed to find a Filipino breakfast of garlic rice, fried egg and sweet marinaded pork before eventually getting a much needed rest. That evening I went to a nearby dive full of really seedy looking middle-aged men but which had cheap beer and delicious food – chicken adobo was the first dish that made me realize Filipino food is really good. I wandered around a bit but being constantly importuned by nasty looking pimps was a bit of a drag so I soon headed back. The next day I woke up feeling much better so decided to check out Manila’s tourist attractions. Sadly, the once beautiful city was completely devastated in 1945, so little remains of Intramuros, the city’s old core. Even in their ruined state, though, Fort Santiago and the city walls were attractive and evocative, and the churches and cathedral were imposing. After a morning wandering around here I’d had enough, so I went to the Mall of Asia and watched Skyfall in an imax cinema which was a very pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

Fort Santiago

Fort Santiago

San Agustin church

San Agustin church

Malate street

Malate street

The next day I headed down Luzon’s southern peninsula, a region called Bicol. My first stop was a town called Naga, where I hoped to arrange to climb Mount Isarog. This was the first of the dreadful bus journeys I endured during the trip, and although  the distance was about 350km it took nine hours and I arrived after dark. The next day was Sunday and the crowd who apparently arrange trips up the mountain were nowhere to be found. At a bit of a loose end I went to the Camarines Sur watersport complex. The place is famous for wake boarding, which involves standing on a surfboard-like thing and being dragged around a circuit on a cable. I didn’t worry about this, but swam some laps in their very nice pool and had a delicious lunch looking out over cloudy Mt Isarog. It was a close to the mountain as I got, however. It turned out I couldn’t arrange a trip, but could go up on my own if I was willing to get up a 3:30am, race up to the top and race down again to catch the last Jeepney at 5pm, which I decided I wasn’t. That night I found a very nice restaurant and tried a local specialty called Bicol Express –  a mixture of chopped green chilies, minced pork, shrimp paste and coconut cream, which was tasty but also a bit of a shock to the system. The next day I headed further south to Legazpi to try my luck with the Philippines’ most iconic volcano, Mount Mayon. Legazpi was a pretty dismal city, but I arranged a trek for the next day. That evening I went for a run along the seafront and for the only time saw the picture postcard view of the volcano across the bay.  The next day the clouds rolled in and I spent my two days on the mountain thrashing though an overgrown trail in intermittent mist and rain. I saw the ocean a couple of times and the summit not at all which was pretty disappointing. On the second day we eventually came to the wet, slippery ravine which was to take as near to the top as possible without oxygen (for the fumes, not the altitude – the volcano is still active) but the weather was so bad we decided to turn back. All the same, it was fun to get out and do some trekking in the bush so I’m glad I went.

Wet and misty Mount Mayon

The bus trip from Legazpi city to Manila was the worst of a number of awful trips I took. Although only about 460km, it took 14 hours. It was so agonizingly slow I thought I might be stuck in Quezon province forever. I was so exhausted the next day I couldn’t face getting on another bus and just loitered around Manila. The next day, though, I felt strong enough to face the six hours to Baguio. I was fortunate to be able to take a “deluxe” bus which was indeed amazingly comfortable – it even had wifi which occasionally worked. My initial impression of Baguio wasn’t great. It was the American summer capital and though one can see the outline of the cool, pleasant town that once existed war damage and unrestrained growth and development have left it a particularly polluted and congested city. The one place where it was still possible to get a sense of the historic town was the old US Marine base called Camp John Hay. It’s mostly been turned into a resort but a few old buildings remain with high ceilings and wide verandas where you could imagine Marine officers in starched khakis enjoying their sun-downers.

Camp John Hay, Baguio

Camp John Hay, Baguio

I had several drinks in a tired bar that evening so had to board the bus to Sagada with a foul hangover. Fortunately the scenery headed into the cordillera was so stunning I hardly felt it. The roads in the mountains are narrow and winding with steep drops on the side, and the slopes are thickly forested with beautiful pines.  Sagada turned out to be one of the nicest places I’ve been in Asia. The town itself is pleasant, with lots of little restaurants serving tasty food and truly fantastic home-made yogurt. The main tourist attraction is various groups of coffins belonging to mountain tribes hanging from cliffs, but to me the chance just to take long walks through the forest with stunning views was what made the place so special. I managed to see some interesting birds too. I was also lucky to get a great room at a discount in a hotel where the rooms were named after the apostles. I was glad to get Simon Peter rather than some also-ran like Thaddeus or Batholomew! I hung around for a couple of days before heading on to Banaue.

View of Sagada

View of Sagada

To get to Banaue I first took a jeepney to Bontoc. I rode on the roof which was a bit terrifying but offered  fantastic views of the mountains. After Bontoc I caught a bus to Banaue. The town itself was a much less attractive place than Sagada, but my hotel had a terrace which looked right out over the 2000 year old rice terraces which make the place famous. Although the terraces are impressive, they are bracketed by roads and pretty ugly strip development which I felt detracted from them a little.The next day, however, I went to see some more terraces a few kilometres away at Batad. Batad is a bit more remote – the village itself lacks road access and getting there involved a walk through gorgeous forest. I almost didn’t bother, but when I got there I was glad I had – the terraces running up the side of a steep hill were very impressive. I had lunch looking out at the view and then trekked back to Banaue.

Batad terraces

Batad terraces

After Banaue I reluctantly had to spend another night in Baguio. It turned out to be a national holiday so I had to pay a small fortune to spend the night in a lousy hotel. I did however get to see a very impressive and elaborate advent parade which was a nice consolation. The next day I took another maddening 180km, seven hour bus ride to Vigan in Ilocos Sur. Ilocos province was quite dry and dusty and reminded me quite a lot of parts of Zimbabwe. Vigan is an old mestizo trading port that somehow escaped the destruction that has befallen most of the Philippines’ other towns. As a result it has beautiful cobble-stoned streets lined with old mansions that reflect a mixture of Filipino, Chinese, Spanish and Mexican styles. The bottom stories were mostly solid stonework, build for trade and storage, while the upper stories were spacious, high-ceilinged hardwood structures with capiz-shell windows. The cathedral was an imposing, “earthquake-baroque” Spanish structure. I was very lucky to be able to meet up with two friends from HCMC, Luke and Emily, and together we tried a few of the local specialties such as deep-fried belly pork, and a  great many of the local beers! The three of us spent our last day nursing pretty dreadful hangovers but it was really fun all the same! The next day Luke and Emily headed up to the cordillera and I had one last, appalling 13 hour bus trip to Manila, followed immediately by an 11pm flight to Vietnam. I was happy to fall into bed at 2am and to have a few days to recover before Mom and Dad arrived in HCMC. The trip was really fascinating though – and Luzon is just one island of 7, 107! The Philippines is definitely a country I’d like to return to…

Vigan Cathedral

Vigan Cathedral

Vigan street scene

Vigan street scene


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: