Hooked on Charming Manila
I first came to the Philippines in late 1996, a few months before Asia's financial crisis erupted, as the Manila bureau chief of Dow Jones Newswires. It was meant to be a three-year posting. But, like many foreigners who spend time here, I was quickly hooked by the easy charm of this country and impressed by the warmth and resilience of its people. I ended up staying six years.
As The Straits Times Philippines Correspondent, I'm back, reporting on one of the region's colourful countries. Manila fascinates me - its extremes of wealth and poverty, its rich history and, above all, the passing parade of everyday life.
There is much to see and do here. Filipinos love to party and Manila's night life is vibrant, especially its live music. When I first came to Manila, the dining scene was unexciting, but no longer. Innovative Filipino cuisine is taking off in many smarter restaurants, which are also infusing local culinary accents into Asian and continental dishes.
And you can enjoy really fresh fish here - as Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej noticed when he toured my neighbourhood public market in Guadalupe Viejo late last month during a visit to the Philippines. So take the plunge: 48 hours in Manila is time well spent on a holiday in the Philippines, or simply as a getaway for a long weekend.
Planes flying into Manila's international airport bank over a swathe of tin-roofed houses, more greenery than you'd perhaps expect, and clusters of high-rises jutting out of an urban sprawl of 12 million people. Actually, more like 14 million, if you count the day workers coming in from nearby areas. Metro Manila comprises 16 cities and one municipality, spread over 600 sq km. The city of Manila is flanked by the sea and lies at the mouth of the Pasig River.
Philippino culture has been heavily shaped by its colonial past. Much of old Manila is centred on Intramuros, the walled city from where the Spanish ruled for 300 years until they were elbowed out by the United States in 1898.
Intramuros was badly damaged during World War II. Its rehabilitation, which began in the 1970s, is still a work in progress. The United States' main architectural legacy is the palm-fringed bayfront along Roxas Boulevard. Manila today is a steamingly busy, traffic-clogged metropolis - and the pollution can be dire. On the plus side, prices are low, people are friendly and there are plenty of evocative places of historic and everyday interest to visit.
This is not a city to explore on foot, at least not after 8am or before dusk. The temperature hovers around 30 deg C. It's either hot and dry (December to May) or hot and humid (June to November). So plan an itinerary and use taxis to get around.
Where to stay
Five-star luxury can be had in Manila for just a bit more than the price of a mid-range hotel in Singapore. It's best to stay close to the bay area or in the financial centre of Makati. Always ask for the lowest room rates when booking, and these are the ones quoted here. Comfortable mid-price hotels for around US$40 a night are plentiful.
The heavy velvet sofas and marble floors in the grand lobby of the 1912-opened Manila Hotel exudes old world charm and would be my pick for staying on Roxas Boulevard. (tel: 527-0011, rooms $130, www.manila-hotel.com.ph)
The Sofitel Philippine Plaza has superb views of the bay, a lovely open area for sundowners and a particularly good buffet in the Spiral Restaurant. (CCP Complex Roxas Boulevard, tel: 551-5555, rooms $170, www.sofitel.com/sofitel)
Younger visitors should try Bianca's Garden Hotel. The rooms in this friendly pension are furnished using native styles. And it is within walking distance of the cafes, restaurants and bars on trendy Nakpil Street. (Adriatico Street, Tel: 526-0351)
The refurbished Peninsula in Makati has an airy dining area in its dazzling white-marble lobby, long a favourite meeting place of Manila's gossipy socialites. Its Spices restaurant specialises in Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine. (Corner of Makati and Ayala avenues, tel: 887-2888, rooms $270, www.manila.peninsula.com)
What to see
If you are staying in Makati instead of Roxas Boulevard, don't miss out on the sunset over Manila Bay. This magnificent spectacle begins around 5:30pm and is best enjoyed from the seawall.
A leisurely way to tour Intramuros is in a horse-drawn carriage, called a kalesa in Tagalog. But make a point to visit Fort Santiago there. It holds the memorabilia of the country's national hero, Jose Rizal, executed by the Spanish in 1896. Rizal's passionate calls for political reform spurred the Philippine independence movement.
The majority of Filipinos are Catholics and this religion-steeped country feels spiritually closer to Mexico than its Asian neighbours. Manila boasts several fine old churches. My favourite is the San Sebastian basilica in Quiapo, completed in 1891 and made entirely of prefabricated steel plates shipped from Belgium. While there, visit Quiapo's hectic street market. It's a giddying experience.
The Ayala Museum on Makati Avenue puts on some of the best exhibitions in town (pre-colonial gold artefacts at the time of writing) and a classy gift shop inspired by the museum's collection.
Where to eat
The ritzy Greenbelt 5 shopping centre in Makati has several good eateries, many of them displaying the Filipino flair for interior design in their decor. Fely J's on the second floor specialises in local and Asian cuisine. Here, the sinigang - a healthy fish-and-vegetable soup - uses a guava broth, instead of the more common tamarind. At the heartier end: Kare-Kare Klab, oxtail and vegetables stewed in peanut sauce. Main courses cost around $8, average for the city's better restaurants.
Via Mare Oyster Bar is a Manila institution, with outlets in the Greenbelt and Rockwell malls in Makati. Try the Pinias na Alimasag, or crab meat cooked in coconut milk spiced with shrimp paste.
Fresh seafood is the speciality of the Harbour View near the Quirino Grandstand on South Boulevard. The restaurant is built on a jetty in Manila Bay and a good place to dine after a sunset stroll.
A must-try local dish is kinilaw - diced raw tuna or mackerel marinated in vinegar and mixed with ginger, onions, and chilli. It should be on the menu in most good Filipino restaurants.
Manila is a great place to eat Japanese food. The sashimi here is cheap and fresh. But avoid restaurants obviously aimed at Japanese tourists as they can be pricey.
Where to shop
Welcome to the mall capital of Asia, if not the world. There are so many shopping malls in Manila that a Congressional panel is now mulling a ban on new ones being built near main roads. The SM Mall of Asia has 600 shops and 150 restaurants, as well as an Imax cinema and an Olympic-size ice-skating rink.
Manila has several good bookshops and prices are lower than in Singapore. Fully Booked is well stocked and carries the latest bestsellers from Britain and the United States. There are branches in Rockwell mall and Fort Bonifacio.
There are plenty of art-and-craft shops in Manila, though the quality varies from jaw-dropping kitsch to works of craftsmanship. Balikbayan on Pasay Road in Makati is the largest. The galleries on the fourth floor of Megamall sells works by some of the country's leading contemporary artists.
Silk Cocoon, which is close to the Renaissance Hotel in Makati, sells exquisite evening shawls made of gossamer-light cloth woven from pineapple fibre called 'pina'.
Taxis are cheap and plentiful in Manila. The flag-down charge is 30 pesos (less than $1) and most city rides average $3. Renting a taxi for the day costs around $44. Avoid expensive hotel taxis.
Manila is safe for visitors, though the usual precautions apply, especially the one about keeping your wallet or purse well protected in busy public areas.
Marvellous coffee is grown in the Cordilleras and Batangas uplands of Luzon island and around Bukidnon on Mindanao island. Unfortunately, it is enough only for domestic consumption at the moment. The local Starbucks is called Figaro, which has outlets in the better malls. The nouveau rustic Travel Cafe Philippines in Greenbelt 5 serves organically grown local coffees, including one harvested from the droppings of Philippine civet cats. The animals are 'free-roaming', according to the menu. A 210g bag costs $46.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Reprinted with permission.
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