What's blazingly unique about Manila? "Jeepneys!" The roads are chalk-full of these Technicolor elongated jeeps screeching around corners and flying-low on straight-a-ways. The originals were converted
US army jeeps left over from WWII. Millions of Filipinos depend on these open-sided vehicles with seats along the sides to get around the city. Whether clunkers or newer models, each has a distinct name emblazoned on a board above the windshield and a paint job ranging from abstract designs, to faces of celebrities, to religious images. My husband Rick and I choose one with Saint Christopher on the front, thinking it can't hurt - given the jeepney-accident-rate.
Equally ubiquitous are the pedi-cabs (three-wheeled-peddle bikes with a covered side-car for passengers), plus motorized versions of these.
Our first Manila sojourn is in Makati, the business district (dubbed "MoMa" for "modern Makati") with fine hotels and offices. Shopping?
The Ayala Centre Mall complex is so vast one needs a GPS to navigate about. In stark contrast many of the same streets are sided with push-cart vendors selling food cooked over propane stoves, shanty stalls selling cheap goods, and slum housing not far off. The very rich and very poor are in the same visual scan on the streets.
The Coconut Palace, also known as Tahanang Pilipino (Filipino Home), epitomizes 1st Lady Imelda Marcos' excessive spending during the 20-year presidency of
Ferdinand Marcos. Facing Manila Bay, this 37-million-pesos guest house commissioned by Imelda was designed to display the versatility of the coconut tree; 70% of the structure and furnishing being made out of parts of the tree (wood, coconut fibre and shells). Our guide says, "She built it especially for Jean Paul II's 1981 visit, but the Pope declined staying in her ostentatious creation, given the extreme poverty of the country. The grand U-shaped staircase, floors and ceilings fashioned from the beautifully grained wood are stunning. An impressive 101-coconut shell chandelier graces the entrance, and the dining table is made of 40,000 tiny pieces of inlaid coconut shells. Today a section of the palace contains offices for the Vice President of the Philippines.
We move on to
Intramuros, the old Spanish walled city in Manila. The fortification walls span 4.5 kilometres (enclosing an area of approximately 64 hectares) with a series of baluartes (bastions) and puertas (gates).
Fort Santiago, with its vital reconnaissance location on the Pasig River was a citadel of native ruler, Raja Soliman, long before the Spaniards constructed this stone fortification here in 1571, as part of their northern expansion after first arriving in the southern Philippines in 1521. As we mill through restored and still bullet-riddled buildings, past cannons and dungeons, we relive its history: three centuries of Spanish rule, the Spanish-American War of 1896 that heralded a period of US control, followed by a black period of Japanese occupation during WWII, the Battle of Manila in 1945 wherein the US army and guerrilla forces ousted the Japanese, which culminated in an independent
Republic of the Philippines on July 4, 1946.
Along the top of the walls stone paths lead from Fort Santiago to baluarte San Diego, with its three consecutive stone walls shaped like the ace of spades. Originally built in 1586, this bastion has been destroyed and rebuilt many times;
last demolished in 1945's Battle of Manila, followed by a long wait until restructuring was completed in 1992.
Next is "church day," time for a closer inspection of the two grand Roman Catholic churches in the area, the
Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and
San Agustin Church and Convent.
Eighty percent of Filipinos are of this Christian persuasion. Like most of the structures in Manila, these churches were rebuilt post-earthquakes and wars.
In this bustling world of road-side commerce we are jostled along with the multitude of shoppers, dodging product-heaped wagons, and every type of two, three and four wheel vehicles known to man. Pedestrian streets somewhat tamer, but so jam-packed with bodies we shuffle at a snail's-pace past the dizzying array of everything imaginable for sale. We seek out the sizable stone
Santa Cruz Church and other prominent edifices before a requisite stop at one of the numerous eateries to renew our energy with "hopia", a sweet mug delicacy.
Another day's venture is the
Chinese Cemetery. During the Spanish period it was designated for Chinese citizens who were not allowed internment in the main La Loma Cemetery because they were not Catholic. Since 1879 and still today it is a resting place for both rich and poor; the mausoleums of wealthy families are elaborate beyond belief and seemingly compete for a prize in architectural design. The interiors of the mausoleums on "millionaire row" are fitted with chandeliers, air-con, hot and cold running water, fully equipped kitchens and flush toilets in cased the newly departed are slow to move on into the ethereal world, or for the convenience of relatives who come to pay their respects to their descendents.
The flavours of Manila are as diverse as is fitting for a city of over 11 million people in its metro area, and along with its fascinating history it is an amazing place to visit.
Irene Butler writes for Canadian and US newspapers and magazines. She has trekked thru 69 countries with a focus on culture and history and off-the-beaten path travel.
A visa is not required (click below for countries that qualify) for stays not exceeding twenty-one (21) days, provided they hold a valid tickets for their return journey and their passports are valid for at least six (6) months beyond the period of stay.
There are 7,107 Philippine Islands. The archipelago is divided into three, with the top group of islands called Luzon (which is the largest Philippine Island on which Manila is located). The middle group of islands is known as the Visayas, and the bottom group is the Mindanao. Population of Republic of the Philippines - 92,337,852; Manila Metro Area 11,855,975 (2010 Census).
Some Country Highlights:
The Philippines are graced by dazzling beaches, great snorkelling/diving opportunities, surfing, island hopping to mystical tribal villages, colonial towns with crumbling Spanish churches, ancient rice terraces, jungle-smothered peaks, volcanoes and crater lakes.
Tagalog (also known as Filipino or Pilipino) is the official language.
In addition there are more than 100 indigenous languages and dialects. English is widely spoken.
The country's hot and humid tropical climate has a wet season (May to Oct) when temperatures may peak at 36°C - and a dry season (Nov to Apr) with temperatures in mid-to-high 20°C range.