K-To made his second trip of the year to visit Bagheera and me after his law school exams mid-August. The three of us then took off for a much-needed vacation. It’s been almost a week since our return from the Philippines but I still go to bed every night with an image of the crystal clear waters of the island of Boracay emblazoned in my mind. The people, the food, the vistas, the atmosphere… nothing was lost on me.
We left Saigon in the wee hours of the morning of September 1 after I taught all day. To say that I was ready for a vacation would be the understatement of the century. I was exhausted. Everything about my being was dog tired. I had just enough energy in each day to “turn it on” for a three-hour class. That was it. I would limp through a yoga class each day, recycle old games and activities for my lesson plans, take an unhealthily long siesta most afternoons and then crash again when I returned home at 21:30-22:00. I had no energy for anything creative. Including this blog. I was overworked.
We arrived in Manila at 4:30 in the morning, caught a taxi to our hotel and hoped beyond hope that the sketchy correspondence I had with the receptionist the day before meant that we could check in early. SUCCESS! It had worked and before we knew it we were settled in our room and out like lights.
We woke up around noon and began planning our adventure for the day. It’s rainy season in the Philippines, just as it is here in Vietnam. So we decided to plan each day by the weather.
Before we could start touring, though, we needed some sustenance. We hadn’t eaten in well over twelve hours so under the direction of our “concierge” (that’s a VERY loose title) we headed around the corner to one of the malls.
Manila is known for its shopping. It’s got more shopping centres that you can shake a stick at. But the malls also house the majority of the trustworthy places to eat. So that’s reason numero uno why we were headed to Robinsons Place that afternoon.
Before we were even inside the massive shopping centre, I was awestruck. We were met by armed guards and had to go through metal detectors and pat downs before even stepping foot inside the building.
Living in Vietnam for the past ten months, I’ve only seen guns on the guards outside of the major embassies. And those things look fake anyway. I’ve always had my suspicions about those “guns.” It was clear, though, that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
It’s amazing how quickly that initial jarring experience was erased from my mind upon entering what can only be described as civilisation! There were familiar stores everywhere. Starbucks. Dairy Queen. And English. Everything was in English.
We ate, roamed around and then hopped in a taxi and headed for the old Spanish area collectively known as Intramuros. It was time to be tourists again!
Our driver took us directly to Fort Santiago, one of the oldest Hispanic stone fortresses in the country.
(If you don’t care about the history of this place, skip to the *** further down.)
It was built in 1571 and considered the founding site of the city of Manila. This new city became the capital and the seat of Spanish sovereignty in the East for over three hundred years.
Due to threats of invasions from the Chinese and Japanese, walls and moats were built to protect the city. There were houses, churches, palaces, schools and government buildings all within the fortress city’s walls. It was for this reason that the city earned the name Intramuros, meaning “within the walls.”
The British managed to take the city from the Spanish in 1762 but they lasted a whopping two years before returning it to Spanish possession.
In 1898, the Spanish-American War brought the Americans to the Philippines who became the new colonial masters. The city was opened up as the walls and two gates were taken down to make roads into Intramuros.
At the outbreak of World War II, the Philippines fell into the hands of the Japanese. The Filipinos do not speak kindly of this period or of their colonists as they recall the many hundreds of civilians who were tortured and killed under the Japanese regime.
A month-long siege at the close of the war in 1945 (known to most English-speakers as the Battle of Manila) resulted in thousands of deaths and many buildings were destroyed as the Americans became the “liberators” once again.
But Intramuros was essentially a dead city. Even after the United States gave the Philippines their independence in 1946, the country did not spring back to life. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that restoration began on the Walled City. And in 1987, Intramuros was opened as a tourist destination.
We found ourselves a trusty steed, a driver and a very funny tour guide (Carlo) to take us around the city.
We started at Fort Santiago, arguably the focal point of the city, and continued winding through the city stopping at San Agustin (the oldest church in the Philippines), Manila Metropolitan Cathedral and passing government buildings, including the former office of former First Lady Imelda Markos. Yes, the same woman famed for her nearly 3,000 pairs of shoes!
Carlo took us to a spot where we could stand on the wall and overlook Manila, including a golf course that’s been built outside the walls and the oldest hotel in the city aptly named, The Manila Hotel.
We drove through the university area and back to Fort Santiago where we bid adieu to Eddie the Pony, Carlo and our driver.
On our way back to the hotel, the poor taxi driver managed to get himself hopelessly lost. No amounts of maps were helping him either. In the midst of this trying experience, we pulled up to a set of lights where some very young children were playing and begging.
Whenever we got into taxis, I did as I read and locked all of our doors and so did our taxi drivers. So I wasn’t concerned about the persistence with which these children were asking for money. It wasn’t until the car started rolling that I realised the least of our worries had been the young children tugging on the doors.
All of a sudden the children started to disperse, giggling and skipping away. It wasn’t until I turned to my left that I realised why they were running away. There were some older kids who looked absolutely incensed with huge rocks in both hands. As our taxi pulled through the intersection, the kids starting hurling these rocks with no concern for the four lanes of traffic between them and their intended victims.
I looked from K-To to Bagheera, slack-jawed. We all nervously giggled as we processed what we’d just literally been in the middle of…
- “Uh, did that just happen?”
- “Oh, are you referring to the STONING that’s occurring back there?”
- “Yeah. I guess they were pretty pissed. Those rocks meant business!”
- “HOLY SH*T!”
- *all of us in our heads* “So, uh, do we tell our parents about this detail of the trip?”
Meanwhile, the very lost taxi driver just clucked his tongue and tisked the boys under his breath in Tagalog probably thanking his lucky stars that his increasingly impatient passengers now had something to fret about for a bit while he tried to get his bearings.
We finally got back to the hotel where I dropped off my camera and asked the receptionist if she knew of any rooftop patios for a drink. She didn’t. So Plan B came into effect: Look for the tallest building in sight and head to the top floor.
I have to give K-To mad props for this plan because once we reached the twenty-first floor of the Pan Pacific Manila building Bagheera and I were ready to turn around. We were still in our sightseeing shorts and not at all presentable for the lounge but thankfully K-To talked us into it as we looked around and saw how empty the place was.
We had deliciously cold white wine, something we haven’t had much of since arriving in Asia. And we indulged in their happy hour appetizer buffet. It was a really relaxing way to end the day of walking and dodging street urchin rock fights.
Appetizers became dinner and we headed back to the hotel to make some friends. We sat around the common room exchanging teaching stories with a British guy who’s just finished his teaching stint in China and brushing up on our French with a guy from France.
After a very weird Manila dance club experience, we headed to bed.
The next day was a Monday so a lot of the museums that we intended to hit up were closed. So we decided instead to head to Chinatown.
We ended our Chinatown tour at our final church of Manila, the Binondo Church, which ended with the most difficult taxi-finding experience I’ve ever had. Drivers quoting astronomical prices while refusing to turn on the meter. Walking out of the “tourist” hotspots to get a more reasonably priced taxi and realising we were getting into Scary Manila as I’ve so affectionately named it.
We finally just bit the bullet and took whatever taxi would pick us up. We quickly instructed him to our next location: Mall of Asia!
Manila’s Mall of Asia is the second largest mall in Asia. And boy did it live up to its title. It even had an indoor skating rink. There’s no way we saw more than an eighth of the whole place. It was so nice to be in a place with sizes for non-petite girls. It’s nice when a place makes you feel less like a beast.
Poor K-To! He was such a trooper and so understanding. We would never have dragged a guy around a mall like that if we hadn’t been so desperate for certain wardrobe necessities. I really could have spent another entire day there but my bank account thanked me when it didn’t have to put up more than half a day of a retail therapy.
We took a hiatus from shopping to head outside to take in the sunset over Manila Bay. It was a nice moment to slow down and appreciate our first few days in the Philippines.
The next morning we got up bright and early and caught the much-anticipated flight to Boracay. It was time to move to the beach!