9 Days Exploring the Philippines
01.16.2012 - 01.25.2012
We left the country of malls (Singapore) and took a flight to Manila, the capital of the Philippines. The US had a strong presence in the Philippines for about 50-years in the early 20th century. As a result, to this day, English is a common second language. When we arrived in Manila we noticed an instant departure from the Asia we’ve been travelling through over the past few weeks (Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand in particular). Manila is pretty dirty, with a large, urban poor population - it felt more like some of the cities in Africa we visited. Manila has malls and first world restaurant chains (Kenny Roger’s Roasters, KFC, and A&W do shockingly well here), but it’s all just a shiny façade in a lot of ways. The people are generally nice and, interestingly, 90% of the population claims to be Christian in contrast to the rest of Asia which is overwhelmingly Muslim or Buddhist.
While in Manila, we hit up the major tourist sites including the Intramuros, all that remains of Spanish colonial Manila. It is a walled town within the city and contains some old churches and Spanish architecture. The main draw in the Intramuros is Fort Santiago, a Spanish fort which was later used by the Japanese during WWII to house POW’s. Jose Rizal, a writer and national hero, was also kept in the fort immediately before his execution by the Spanish. He is revered to this day as a martyr for national freedom because the Spanish claimed he was an instigator and had him executed.
The oldest Spanish church in Manila
In the Intramuros
At Fort Santiago
The jeepney- no two are alike and they a national symbol of the Philippines
After seeing the sights in Manila we headed to Donsol. The long distance bus system in Manila is difficult to navigate – you can’t buy tickets online or over the phone and there is no central bus station – as a result, you have to go to each individual bus company to find tickets. Thankfully, flights were $80 roundtrip and would cut our travel time in half, so we just decided to skip the headache and fly. We flew from Manila to Lugazpi at the foot of Mt. Mayon, a still active volcano which last erupted in 1993. Then from Lugazpia we traveled by minivan for one hour to Donsol.
Catching a tricycle in Lugazpi- I swear we've taken almost every mode of transportation there is
Our whole point in getting to Donsol was to cross off a bucket list item – swimming with whale sharks. After getting situated at our hostel, we headed out the next morning on a converted fishing boat with two other couples and spent the better part of the morning just trying to spot one. We had just about given up hope when at the very end of the morning a “butanding” (Pilipino for whale shark) was spotted. In a mad dash, we raced over and all jumped in the water. Our guide grabbed my hand and said “swim now, it’s coming”. I hate to sound cheesy, but it was like magic. Almost out of nowhere the shark came into view, a bus sized object gracefully swimming only six feet underneath me. My first view was its enormous mouth which could swallow a person whole (but thankfully, it only eats plankton). This particular whale shark was about 21 feet long; half the size of a full grown adult! We swam along with it for about 30 minutes in total before it disappeared into deeper water. It was a truly amazing life experience!
Our butanding spotter
While not our pics (no underwater camera), these next two are basically what we saw
We left the magic of Donsol, flew back to Manila and then caught an overnight bus to Banaue. Like most night buses, it was a fairly painful experience, but we made it and checked ourselves in to a cute B&B. Banaue is a small, mountain town with a very pleasant temperature compared to sweltering Manila and Donsol. The town is famous because it is built in and around 2000 year old rice terraces which are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On our first day, after catching up on the sleep we missed on the bus, we walked around the market and found ourselves constantly stopping to say “hello” to probably the friendliest lot of children we have met in our travels. We also found an American country music bar in this small town of all places. Jeff looked about as excited as I do when I’m at the mall. We sat in the bar for a while and listened to a little Filipino man with a shockingly soulful country voice belting out songs like “Friends in Low Places” and “I Love This Bar”.
This was the best- the Philippine solution to "we oversold the bus by 12 seats"- they just put plastic chairs in the aisle- and it was an overnight bus!
Downtown Banaue with the "Friends Country Music Bar" in the background
On our second day we headed out for a day trip to the nearby and very scenic village of Batad. We had no idea what we were in for. We took an hour long tricycle ride on some really bad roads up into the mountains (I can’t believe the tricycle made it up) and then we hiked for an hour and a half to the village. The closest road to Batad is a 45-minute hike. Because it is so difficult to get to, the village is cut off from the tourism of Banaue and retains a quaint feel. To this day, most of the villagers continue to grow and harvest rice by hand on the adjacent 2,000 years old terraces. The scenery was really amazing and after about 6 hours of up and down hiking we were exhausted (even our guide looked beat).
A view of Batad from above
Another view of the terraces
Taking a breather near a waterfall
Walking back along the terraces
On our last day in Banaue, we relaxed for a while and then went to a lookout point by tricycle for some final views of the terraces. Our tricycle driver explained to us that each rice terrace is owned by a certain family and that the oldest child (boy or girl) inherits the family’s rice terrace(s) and the youngest child (boy or girl) inherits the house. Middle children (usually between 4 to 6 of them) either end up working for the oldest child or have to find alternative jobs (such as our tricycle driver, a middle child).
From the viewpoint
After three days in Banaue, we caught another overnight bus back to Manila. For our last day in the Philippines, we visited the surprisingly interesting Chinese cemetery. In the cemetery, wealthy, local Chinese families have built extremely elaborate mausoleums for themselves equipped with chandeliers, bathrooms and kitchens, among other amenities. The over the top mausoleums are both a status symbol and a home away from home for visiting family members. Like our guide book points out: “[the cemetery] boldly challenges the idea that you can’t take it with you”. The things people come up with. We rounded out our time in Manila by having dinner with one of my old high school buddies. Alison is working in Manila temporarily and it was an awesome coincidence that we were both there at the same time! Of all the places to catch up with old friends
One of the elaborate mausoleums
The mausoleum affectionately referred to as "Starbucks"- can you see why?
My old French partner from HHS
Next, we’re heading to Indonesia to explore the islands of Java and Bali – we’ll write soon!