A Travellerspoint blog

Philippines

Manil-hell?

Mother Nature does not add to Philippines' capital's sparse charms

storm 92 °F

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The Philippines were a late addition to my SE Asian adventure I'd planned for the summer. Singapore was my first destination of choice, and a travel friend's recent pictures from Laos convinced me to make it part two. However, once I'd counted up the days, I still had a little less than a week before I had to be back in the states. So, where to? I'd seen photos of the beauty of the various islands of the Philippines, so did some research. I decided to do a four-night stop on the island of Palawan, which was supposed to be a lot like Vietnam's Halong Bay, as far as natural scenery goes.

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Manila's town walls

First impressions can be misleading sometimes, but other times they are good omens. Or bad omens -- depending on the impression in question! I'd read to avoid the taxi touts at Manila airport, and my hotel confirmed the advice. They said to make sure I took a metered taxi from the official taxi stand. I brushed past all of the ride solicitations (probably several dozen) to join the long line of people waiting. Every two to three minutes or so, a single, sometimes two, cab would pull up and the line would inch forward. A full 50 minutes I waited, but my frustrations with Manila public transit had only begun. I'd pulled my IPhone maps app up, and entered my hotel. Turns out that it was only 4.6 miles away, which in Manila traffic means, oh, 45 minutes, at least! Seriously! We inched along, changing lanes, tooting horns, merging, re-merging, and in general, getting nowhere fast.

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Cannons on one of the town wall batteries

I'd landed in mid-afternoon and thought that I'd be able to get in some sightseeing that day. Wrong! Another feature of Manila is that most sights close by 5 pm. Plus, the rain let loose soon after I arrived. The only thing I did that evening was walk to the local mall which had dozens of restaurants to choose from. I was staying in the Ermita district because it was close to the sights I wanted to see in Manila, but my guidebook said it was a tourist-friendly area with lots of amenities. Except that Lonely Planet forgot to mention the war zone look to the neighborhood, and the thick, overlaying patina of seediness. The Philippines is my 83rd country, so I am no casual traveler. I have to say Manila is the seediest looking city I've visited, beating out Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa. I returned relatively quickly to my poor stepsister of a Best Western hotel that I'd booked on hotels.com.

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The next morning was sunny, so I set out with the hope last night's impressions had been soured by the transportation frustrations. It was easy to navigate my way with my guidebook and IPhone maps to the walled city part of the Old Town known as Intramuros. I'd originally planned to stay there instead of Ermita, but a review saying there were no restaurants or services in the area open in the evening dissuaded me. I had to fend off regular and repeated solicitations of a bicycle pedicab tour of Intramuros from the moment I got within a few blocks of it. I walked around a bit before I got my bearings, then headed to the Visitors Center for one of their free maps. The black and white line drawing of the outline was not the most impressive I'd seen, but it did the job.

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Fort Santiago in Manila

I began with Fort Santiago, built by the in the 16th/17th century by the Spanish, it is currently undergoing renovation. Sections of are completed and look nice, with access to the battlements, which held batteries of cannons. You can walk a good portion of its walls -- just like with the Old Town itself. Fort Santiago is the tip of the Old Town, guarding the port. After leaving the fort, I found steps leading up to the town walls and walked a little less than a quarter of their circuit. My view from atop confirmed what I'd suspected as I was circling the town looking for the entrance. The green area outside the walls -- likely the former moat -- has been turned into a golf course! I saw pairs of golf carts buzzing along, and groups of golfers teeing up next to blackened stone fortifications. I couldn't decide if it was an ingenious use of city green space or somehow wrong. Nevertheless, it was a way to keep the area surrounding the town walls green and pristine -- a problem Manila obviously suffers in most of the city.

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Golfing next to History

I checked out the Manila Cathedral and San Agustin Church -- the oldest in the Philippines. Manila Cathedral has been rebuilt many times over, the latest following the almost complete leveling of the city in WW II. The cathedral is venerable looking on the outside, but more modern on the inside. Unfortunately, I saw only the outside of San Agustin. I arrived at "siesta time" --when it closed down for an hour and a half at lunch -- a cultural adaption from the Spanish colonizers. I loved its decoration, from the ornate wooden doors to the stone carvings of saints and Chinese temple dogs. I made plans to come back, but Mother Nature would have other ideas.

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Manila Cathedral

I continued my way on towards the San Diego gardens, which had access to an interesting section of the town walls. Some were in ruined state, while others were in better shape. I watched as golfers finished off a hole which lay just a handful of yards away, beneath me. I spent awhile exploring the fortifications, then returned and check out the gardens. By this time, I was really sweating in the 90 degree heat and humidity. I needed to cool off in some air conditioning. I remembered the hotel I was planning on staying at in Intramuros had a rooftop bar. I checked my map and walked the short distance there, all but sighing audibly when I entered its air conditioned lobby. Although the bar wasn't open yet, the gracious reception urged me to take the elevator up and check it out. The view was fantastic, and I could easily see myself relaxing in my evenings there. The restaurant was the next floor down, and I checked out its menu and decided to splurge on a pizza and San Miguel Negra. While enjoying the view, the food, and the four star ambience, I decided to cancel my reservation at the Best Western for return stay in Manila, and book the Bayleaf, as it was called. The price was only about $10 more, and I figured it would be worth it. I logged on to hotels.com and took care of it there and then.

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While eating lunch, I'd noticed a section of the battlements that was more complete and with numerous cannons. I headed down to investigate. While checking it out, raindrops began to fall. I debated between returning to San Agustin or heading over the Museum of the Philippine People, whose description sounded interesting in my guidebook. In view of the increasing rain, I chose museum, planning to spend an hour or so there, during which time the rain would hopefully stop. And then the Heavens opened up. I pulled on my rain jacket, but my legs were soon soaked to the skin. What's more, drainage had apparently not been discovered in Manila, and I was soon wading through lakes as I navigated my way (poorly) towards the museum. My frustration mounted as each entrance I discovered shooed me on the the "main" one, on the opposite side of the sprawling, gated complex. I finally arrived, dripping, to find the most air conditioned public space I'd encountered, yet.

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San Agustin

So poorly did I navigate that I actually ended up at the wrong, but similarly named (and adjacent!) museum. I wanted to see the National Museum of the Philippine people, which is essentially a history museum. I ended up at the National Gallery of the Philippine People -- which is an art gallery, as it sounds. Nothing against art, but History's my passion. I was quite bored as I dripped, cold and damp, through the various rooms looking at painting and sculptures by people I'd never heard of. By the time I was done, the rain had dialed back from Epic Biblical scale to a normal rain. I decided to take a cab back to the hotel to avoid wading through any more lakes, er, streets. However, everyone wants a cab when it rains in Manila, and there are none to be had. Praising Manila every step of the way back to my hotel (okay, maybe not), I returned to dry out my clothes.

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Painting of Japanese WW II prison camp scene in the National Gallery

If I thought my frustrations were at an end, I was mistaken. I'd made plans to meet up with Ian -- an Australian history buff and gamer who I've known through the years. He'd picked out a bar 3.7 miles away (according to my iPhone maps app). My hotel said they'd get me a cab, and Ian said to leave at 6:30 pm, and that he'd be there at 7 pm. Guess how long the ride took? Two hours. Yes, to go less than four miles! Apparently, this is normal for Manila. Though I had a great time talking to Ian and his friend Colin, I could not fathom how anyone could live in this and stay sane. Apparently, the subway and train are equally useless (unless you ride when no one else wants). Manila's streets of pedal cabs, motorbikes, motor tricycles, jeepneys (exhaust spewing monstrosities that most citizens use), cabs, trucks, and people hawking wares in the road combine to create the modern world's worst example of an urban Hell that I've encountered. When you must budget an hour to go 4 miles...really?? If the new Philippine president truly wants to better his country in a significant way, he'd fix this monster that urban overcrowding has created. That said, it is amazing how friendly and upbeat most Philippinos remain. My hat is off to them for smiling through what to me was torture. Honestly, I have no intention of returning and spending time in Manila. It is just my opinion, but it was truly the seediest, most broken-down city I've visited to this point.

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Have I been unfair to Manila in this blog entry? Let me know yes or no...!

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:47 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Rain Out in Palawan

Charms of Philippine island washed out by typhoon

storm 81 °F

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So, here it was, an island of natural beauty and stunning seascapes. After the urban ugliness of Manila, I was really looking forward to this part of the trip. My AirSwift flight on a 40-seat propeller plane went smoothly. The tiny airline flies three times a day to El Nido, the town in the Bacuit Archipelago where I'd be staying. After a puzzling pause upon arrival, a fleet of tricycles arrived to pick up the passengers and distribute them to various hotels. A tricycle is a motorbike with a two wheeled, covered sidecar seating 2-3 people. It is the taxi of El Nido. The road was dirt -- well, mud, actually -- with a large number of standing puddles my driver had to slow down to splash through or detour around.

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That should have been my first clue as to what awaited me on my four nights on Palawan. In one word: rain. To give it a name, Typhoon Butchoy was currently cruising past the north end of the Philippines, pulling in torrential thunderstorms and scattering them in an arc across the country. My first brush with Butchoy was the previous afternoon when I went walking, then wading, in Manila. My second brush was on the tricycle ride to my hotel, when a driving rain partially soaked me despite pulling out my ran jacket and cowering behind it. After transferring from one tricycle to my hotel's private one in town, I arrived after about 30 minutes at the Golden Monkey Inn -- a small resort located a mile from or so out of town on a similarly muddy, rutted road.

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I had reserved a Seaview Suite, and my private balcony did indeed look out on a lovely view of El Nido's bay. The next day, I discovered it looked out upon the construction of a new hotel building going on about 15 yards beneath me. The sounds of hammering, sawing, and pounding nails into the tin roofs killed any relaxation I might have felt looking out at rain falling upon the jungle and sea. My island tour of various scenic spots had been cancelled for the day due to the typhoon's after effects. The rain hammered down every hour or so from the relentless gray skies. I retreated inside to read some, but what's the point of visiting an idyllic, tropical location if you're going to spend it in your air conditioned hotel room? Eventually, the rains let up enough for me to explore the resort a little. I noticed the beachfront cabins that I thought I had rented were unoccupied. In fact, other than me, the entire resort was empty of guests. The staff let me switch to one of the cabins, which were identical in amenities, but a tad smaller. The construction was going on behind me, now, and my balcony looked out directly onto the ocean with nothing intervening. Even more gorgeous...well, except for the gray skies and driving rain every couple hours!

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View from the private balcony of my beachfront cabin

Eventually, the rain seemed to let up enough for me to take a chance and explore along the ocean front a little. I ended up walking all the way into town along the rocks and beach. It was a much better and more scenic walk than yesterday's plod along the muddy, jungle path. I was able to take some really nice photos of the sun peaking out and shining upon the water. The tide was out, and locals were wading ankle deep more than a hundred yards from the shoreline, foraging among the tide pools. Once in town, I confirmed my reservation for the island tour -- what I was hoping wold be the highlight of the trip -- had been pushed back till tomorrow. El Nido has a definite backpacker vibe, with most of the visitors in their 20s or 30s. Families are sprinkled in here and there, too. It seemed about half Asian and half Western visitors, with the locals nearly outnumbered by the travelers.

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The beach is lined with restaurants and bars advertising happy hour, many with rooms for rent, as well. Reggae blared out of more than one bar, and there was a lot of San Miguel (Philippine's national brewery) being consumed. I had dinner, and of course, just as I began the walk back to my resort, the rains came down again. It was too dark for walking amidst the rocks of the shoreline, so I squished along on the muddy jungle path again, illuminating my way with the flashlight app on my phone. My reasons for staying outside of town were looking less and less sound, now, especially in the rainy season. Internet is weak to nonexistent on Palawan, so I couldn't upload photos or update my blog -- my usual evening activities when I travel. As I climbed into bed, the rains came down harder and the wind began to howl. I immediately noticed one huge difference between the suite (which was in a multistory building) and the cabin (which had its own tin roof). The cacophony of rain, branches, and coconuts hammering on the roof made it difficult to fall asleep. It was a new experience, for sure, but one that made a light sleeper like me wake up numerous times during the night.

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Checking with the tour company the next morning, the island hopping tour was canceled yet again. So, what to do today? While the thunderstorms lashed the island, I read some. After a few hours, the weather broke a little. I could use the 3G on my Philippine SIM card intermittently. The forecast was for three hours of clouds before the next aquatic lashing by Typhoon Butchoy. My guidebook recommended Las Cabanas Beach, a short 15-minute tricycle ride from El Nido. It was a good choice, and the sun actually came out for a bit while I was there. The beach had too many huge rocks mixed in here and there for me to really spend a lot of time wading in the water. Plus the waves churned up the seaweed and floor to make the water more muddy-colored than crystal blue. However, the jungle-clad slopes all around, the palm trees leaning over the beach, and the sound of the surf was just what my spirits needed. I craved a burger at a tiki bar overlooking the beach, but the wait was long, and the skies began to darken as it neared the three hour window between thunderstorms. I decided to postpone it for an early dinner in town, and beat the rush the ensuing rain would likely bring for the waiting tricycles. It was a good call. About halfway back into town, the wind picked up, locals began to scurry, and finally the skies opened up and whipped bucket loads of rain. I found a second story restaurant overlooking the street, and watched locals, travelers, and traffic dodge the rain beneath me. This was definitely not the nature I'd come to Palawan to admire. But as I fell asleep that night listening to what sounded like a hurricane roaring, it was impressive nonetheless.

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Las Cabanas Beach

My last morning began as the other three, with news that the Coast Guard had again cancelled the island tours for today. So, it was official. I would not see the beauty of the Bacuit Archipelago, and I'd spent my airfare and hotel money to see an extremely watered down version of Palawan's sights. So, what to do on my final full day? I chose to rent a kayak from my resort. My guidebook said that many travelers paddle across the bay to the giant green hump of Cadlao Island on their own. I asked, and they said it was an hour's paddle. If I were an experienced kayaker, or had the company of others or guides, I might have risked it. However, the idea of getting halfway across and having a storm blow in was too scary for me. My friend Keith would probably have done it, but despite my boldness in exploring countries off the beaten path of most travelers, I am too cautious at heart. I'm not an adrenaline junkie. I'm also flat-out terrified of sharks. And I'd probably have a heart attack if I was out on the open water and saw a fin slicing the water. So, instead I paddled along the coastline for about an hour and a half -- never more than about 100 yards offshore. It was a scenic vantage point, and I'm glad I did it. The only sea life I saw were a half dozen flying fish startled by my paddling. The skies remained overcast, and no gray clouds threatened. My butt soaked, my back and arms a bit sore, I happily pulled into my hotel and surrendered the kayak, vest, and paddle.

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Worldwidemike takes to the sea and is NOT eaten by sharks!

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering El Nido, enjoying some San Miguel's, and waiting for the Altrove -- the best meal on Palawan to open up at 5 pm. In retrospect, I would discourage anyone from visiting Palawan during its rainy season. You essentially miss the whole reason for coming. It would be like visiting Vatican City when St. Peter's was closed. Come during its dry season or don't come at all. I spent a lot of time in my hotel room in Palawan -- more than I ever had on previous vacations. I wanted a vacation amidst nature's beauty, not a "stay-cation" reading books in a hotel room. Typhoon Butchoy saw that I spent more time with my feet propped up on the balcony than hiking, swimming, or snorkeling in a tropical paradise.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 13:03 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

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