Somehow, with all our travels through South-East Asia over the past years, both of us managed to skip the Philippines. Not intentionally – somehow, we just never made it there… Now came the time to amend this terrible wrong, and get to know the archipelagic country of 7, 641 islands. The fact that one of our friends recently moved there and opened a hostel on one of them definitely contributed to the idea of making the Philippines our next destination.
Our plans were quite rough and relatively modest – Manila, Boracay (THE ultimate beach island, that has only recently been re-opened for tourists after all the havoc the hordes of visitors wreaked there earlier), a remote island of Siquijor where our friend built his new digs and started his new life, and after that – whatever we would have time for. Tarsiers (of them later), chocolate hills, islands, beaches and waterfalls were all on the menu, and for the most part, all our wishes were eventually fulfilled.
Our first step was Manila. All guidebooks and travelers agreed it was a shithole, but we had two reasons to choose it as our destination:
- the flight from Europe to Manila was considerably cheaper than to Cebu, the other international gateway into the Philippines
- shithole or not, Manila was the country’s capital after all, and we wanted to form our own impressions.
The vacation started in the best possible way – with upgrades into business class on both (!) legs of our flight. The first one came as a complete surprise, and while 2.5 hours from Munich to Istanbul didn’t make such a big difference, it was nice to be pampered. When our names were called again in Istanbul, and our economy class boarding passes were exchanged to business ones for the 12-hour flight to Manila, our gratitude knew no limits. We were officially in love with Turkish Airlines!!!
Upgrades aside, I have to note, that the Turkish Airlines general level of service was much, much higher than with our regular travel partner, Lufthansa. The staff were smilier (and more sincerely so), the planes were cleaner, the leg room (even in economy, which we did experience on our return flights – alas, no quadruple upgrades were in our stars!), and the food much more palatable. From now on, whenever possible – Turkish Airlines every time!
We landed in Manila in the late afternoon, and having far-sightedly booked two night in a fancy hotel near the airport (thank you, the unknown Gods of business travel that allow the weary travelers to accumulate hotel bonus points, redeemable for free nights later!), we were intent on getting there as fast as possible. The fast immigration and baggage service raised our hopes high, we jumped into a taxi, and then things halted to a stop. We were about to experience the capital’s afternoon pre-holiday traffic in all its glory! Manila traffic was not just mad, chaotic, and defying every possible traffic law and rule, but also packed to the extent imaginable only in a mad dog’s dream. The sheer number of vehicles cluttering the few arteries connecting the airport with the rest of the world was unbelievable. Our taxi got quickly sucked into the midst of this vortex, and all we had left on our 3.5 km journey that lasted close to two hours (!) was to relax and find consolation in observing the chaos outside.
The first thing that definitely sprung to attention were Jeepneys. The most common and popular type of public transportation in the Philippines, they originated from the US military jeeps left over from World War II, jeepneys looked like a stretched army personnel carrier, that aspired to grow into a bus, but hadn’t quite made it. They compared with one another in the kitschiness of decorations, and the number of passengers crammed inside. They were hard not to notice thanks to said decorations – tons of bling-bling, fairy lights and what not, all over the vehicles, along with the “themed” approach to branding – on our ride from the airport we noticed jeepneys bearing proud fancy names of “Batman’s Army” and “Shakira’s”, as well as the inevitable “Mary Mother of God”, and “Holy Face of Jesus”.
We also spotted a huge loaded truck with two guys happily sitting on top of the truck’s load, involved in what looked like an all-absorbing card game, and a van with an Apple sticker on the rear window, accompanied by an equally large sticker advertising Glock pistols – go figure…
The streets were clogged to an amazing degree, though!… The traffic was not moving AT ALL. It strongly reminded me of the streets of St. Petersburg during the New Year holidays, when everybody and their mother went shopping for presents and food for the celebrations, and managed to happily block every single nook and cranny of the city. In Manila the situation was the same. We landed there on December 23rd, right before Christmas, and considering Manila was officially THE most populated city in the world, that also happened to be situated in the country that took Catholicism to its highest level, this should not have been a major surprise… It still was.
The funny part was (as our taxi driver readily shared with us at some point in our journey), that for a handy price of 35 Pesos, equivalent to 60 Euro cents (which we readily coughed up), the cars could take the brand new skyway, which happened to be absolutely empty! The skyway took up 2 out of the 3.5 km of our route, and we made these 2 km in 2 min. We still had to drive off it at some point, and make the remaining 500 m to the hotel at snail pace in the almost stationary traffic.
After almost 2 hours we finally made it the hotel. The Manila City of Dreams Hyatt was definitely NOT a regular item on our travel itinerary. Luckily (or not – depends on the time of your point of view), Nic slaved a couple of weeks on a business trip in India, and the hard-earned hotel points bought us 2 free nights in this over the top place.
Hotel security with metal detectors, K9 dogs and serious-looking guys in khakis with semi-automatic weapons seemed to be an excessive sign of hospitality, and while it definitely made an impression, it also made us wonder of the general safety situation in the Philippines. This Fort Knox welcome could be quite appropriate for a place on the verge of a war, or a revolution – could we have missed some important recent news?… Turned out, the security was not for the hotel, but for a full-scale casino on premises. Which still was not logical – I would strip-search and metal-detect people leaving the gambling zone (to prevent them from taking too much money out with them), and not those coming in (for the more money they bring in, the better off the house will be, as it always wins anyway!…)
The next day we set out on exploring the city. They say Manila was hard to love, and although we kept our minds and hearts open, and really tried to see the best sides of the place, we can second this. You can definitely tell that the city is overcrowded – Wikipedia gently refers to it as a “highly urbanized city”, and no wonder that in 2018 Manila made it to the top of “The Most Populated Cities in the World” list. The sheer numbers of people per square meter are unbelievable, and the mad traffic is only one side effect of this. The second, and also quite visible one is garbage and pollution. The never-ending flow of multi-lane traffic on the streets exhaust an unbelievable amount of shit into the atmosphere, making the air, buildings, and people look grey and dusty even in the pouring rain. The canals and rivers in the city are so full of garbage, that you can’t see the water. True, we have not seen the whole city, but we walked through a fair section of Manila’s Chinatown in Binondo district, and then the slightly nicer downtown district of Intramuros, and the garbage situation was approximately the same throughout.
Our free fancy digs did not include breakfast, and we were too tight to cough up the exorbitant price 5-star establishments usually ask for a nondescript morning spread. We were intent to find local fare, and enjoy it! Turned out – not that easy… Almost everything in both, Chinatown and Intramuros was closed. It was Christmas Eve, and the locals sure took the celebrations seriously (of that later). After a couple of hours of random search, we tucked out pride away, and agreed on fast food. We wanted to experience the local Jollybee – the Philippine fast-food chain praised by everybody, including the late Anthony Bourdain. Not so easy – a couple of joints we saw on the way remained steadily closed. KFC seemed like the least poisonous choice, so in the end we landed there. A monsoon-type rain suddenly started, so the decision had to be made fast, and we ran even faster unto the welcoming dry depth of the otherwise-despised fast-food joint.
I am not being snobbish in despising fast-food. It has a place and time in everybody’s life. Lucky, my childhood was lived without these “advances of Western civilization”, as a student I did not have money for fast-food (unbelievable as it sounds nowadays), but I enjoyed my share of Big Macs and cheeseburgers when I got my first job after graduation. Sad as it sounds (and as it undoubtedly was), on the salary of a junior professor at one of the most prestigious universities in my home-country, one could only afford to eat out in MacDonald’s. I did not give a shit, and probably did not even realize it was pathetic – my MacDonald’s years were thoroughly enjoyed! These days, however, it is easy to find quick, easy and affordable solutions outside of the fast-food world, and MacDonald’s is only visited in the early hours of the morning, in the state of deep intoxication, when the body needs something fast to soak up the excessive alcohol and make it home…
Being in a fast-food joint sober was definitely a new experience of the past 15 or so years… The wall of rain outside ensured we were not in a hurry, so we took our time getting used to the new sensation and familiarizing ourselves with the surroundings. Several things were hard not to notice, even to the relative fast-food sober novices like ourselves:
- Fast food restaurants had security guards at the entrance. Not just the one we landed at, but every single one. The security was not as tough as at the hotel, but a uniformed individual with a sidearm was spotted at the entrance to every establishment.
- Somehow Italian food made it as far as the Philippines and got so incorporated into the local culture, that one of the main dishes in KFC was spaghetti. Upon later acquaintance with the Philippines, spaghetti were spotted in other fast-food joints and not only. Go figure…
- KFC proudly sprouted a gravy station, where all the locals were drowning both, their chicken and spaghetti in loads of gravy from a 50-liter jar with a pump. During our 1.5 hours stay in that particular establishment the jar was re-filled once… If you ever wondered who the fuck consumes 50 liters of gravy in an hour, you would definitely find your answer and the target audience in the Philippines.
In the end we gave up on trying to wait the rain out, and dashed out of the dry and refrigerated environment of the KFC into the nearby train station. The thorough study of the map during out fast-food confinement revealed that we could take a train to the walking distance from the hotel, and not be stuck in a taxi in a horrible Manila traffic.
The train was easy, fast, and reliable. However, what looked like “walking distance” on the map, turned out a little more convoluted… The Baclaran station closest to the hotel on the LRT line was in the middle of a mad market, which thanks to the monsoon rain was absolutely drowning. We tried (unsuccessfully) to walk through or around it on dry land, but eventually gave up, and ploughed through together with the locals knee-deep in muddy waters filled with litter. It took us a good 45 minutes just to find the way through and out of the market, and another 1.5 hours to walk to the hotel. Hailing a cab would not have made any difference whatsoever, as the traffic tightly packed the streets without any movement.
We washed the market off our feet in the hotel, but weren’t ready to call it a night just yet. It was Christmas Eve and like two mad dogs knowing no rest, we were intent on enjoying it! We grabbed a cab (traffic or no traffic we were simply too tired of walking), and went to yet another part of the city, the Malate district, in search of the Oarhouse Pub, where Anthony Bourdain once celebrated his Manila Christmas to a mad karaoke supplemented by endless beers. Alas, the Irish luck was not with us – the pub was closed (probably for Christmas, but there was no telling due to lack of any signage on the doors or anywhere else for that matter). We ended up in the terrace bar of the Tambayan Capsule Hostel, which delighted us with chilled San Miguel beers (surprisingly good!) and Oktoberfest paraphernalia (home, sweet home!), but disgusted with their version of sisig, a traditional Philippine dish of fried pork with egg. The Tambayan version was greasy, gristly, and covered with mayo. I gave up after about a 2nd bite… Well, Philippine cuisine will have to wait to be discovered and enjoyed.
Not content with how the Christmas Eve was unfolding so far, we located an Irish pub on the map, grabbed another cab, and after another painful 45 minutes fighting through downtown traffic we were there. Mulligan’s Irish Pub in Makati offered outdoor seating, chilled Guinness and fantastic steak & kidneys pie – all our tired souls needed to finish the day and turn in for the night.
The next day we were off to Boracay!