Surprising Metro Manila

When we told our friends and colleagues that we were going to spend some time holidaying in Manila, many expressed surprise at what can we be doing there. We had redeemed a pair of air tickets to visit our friends living and working in Manila. It was a long weekend over the National holiday of Singapore and we stayed with our friends.

Being the second time we visited Manila, we wanted to know a little more about the famed city of the ancient Galleon trade. Now we know that many of you are not familiar with this, but here goes.Manila galleon routes

Colonial legacy

In the 16th till 18th century, Manila was the end point of the famous Spanish Galleon trade. This was the trade route used to ship Chinese products to the New World (aka Americas) and Europe. Huge Galleon ships laden with silver bullion headed for China via Manila (crown colony of Spain) and return filled with silk, tea and porcelain. Plus, the spices of course that came from the Indonesian archipelago.

Today though the trade is long gone, Manila still retains a semblance of the colonial influence that the Spanish left behind, with Sunday markets in open squares reminiscent of Europe town squares. This is despite 50+ years of American domination from 1898 when Spain lost a war with an expanding United States. In fact, English is more prevalent despite the fact that the spaniards ruled for more than 300 years.Intramuros01

Indeed so much Spanish heritage has been kept that that Manila has the largest and best preserved colonial structure built in Asia. Known as the Intramuros, it is right in the middle of Metro Manila and is a walled city within the city. Loosely translated, it means in between the walls. It is from here that the Spanish colonial masters administered the region known collectively today as the Philippines.Intramuros28

Of course the walled city was also a way to segregate themselves from the locals, many of whom are openly hostile to these foreign colonials. It is interesting to note that of the 7,107 islands in the archipelago, not all are homogenously part of one country before the Spanish arrived. That, can the topic of another day. Someday if history becomes a topic on our blog.

Today the walled city is still alive and can be called a living museum as many of the old buildings are either restored or still in use. Of the many famous buildings in the walled city is the church of San Augustine. Intramuros05We visited the church and had the privilege of listening in to a couple taking their vows of marriage. We could hear the priest giving advice to the couple about their respective roles in this institution of union between two persons. The country is mainly catholic (exclude Mindanao which is predominantly Muslim) and the sanctity of religion and church is highly regarded. No funny businesses here!

Of course we did not just visit churches. We also came across some old manor houses in the vicinity of San Agustin and had coffee and cake in a lovely cafeteria. A fine place to take a respite especially with the high humidity that is prevalent in this climate.

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The day went by and we visited the lovely Fort Santiago, the best preserved fortress in the country. Along the way, we could still see the intact ramparts of the walled city – especially along the Ministry of Labor. Filled in cannons are still lined up here, demonstrating how important this was for the colonial masters as they sought to maintain their domination over the islands. The fort is a large museum today and commemorates the fallen hero Jose Rizal who was executed within these walls. Yes the fort served as a prison too.

But there is more than history in Manila!

You can bet that Suan did not just come to Manila because the views are nice. And you are right! At Green hills shopping area, more than 200 shops retailing pearls, coral and faceted stones are your choices for relinquishing your money. Many hail from the other parts of the country, travelling here to sell their wares. If we described the shopping area without mentioning there is another crafts market adjacent to the bling² one we would be biased, but you’d know which one had more seductive powers of keeping ladies glued to their wares.

Beware of getting knockoffs though!

Just so that you know, many stalls retail handicraft made from shell and bone. Some of best prices for Capiz shell wares can be found here. A set of six placemats with napkin holders costs just 400 pesos! It’s 2000 pesos in the shopping centers. Shops open from 11am and when we were there was a cash only market. With so many stores to choose from and differing levels of quality, you had better come with an experienced guide or local.

One more point. Beware of pickpockets and never brandish your hand phone or cash in public. While true in many other countries, take good heed of it here.

Yet another strong incentive to come to Manila is for the seafood. We came to this seafood market where we bought a sampling of fish, shrimps, crabs and vegetables. Located by the north bay, fresh catch come in probably every morning. Now we could have bought more – such as lobsters and a wide variety of shell fish, but since we were only four it was less wasteful to stick with what we already got. But it was tempting though…

After the haggling, we brought our booty to a local restaurant and got them to prepare a sumptuous meal. It cost us ~2000 pesos for all this effort and more than enough to fill the stomachs of 4 persons. This was with beer to wash it all down with lots of local beer! Ahhh… It can be exceedingly hard to get yourself to leave after such a heavy meal.

Wagyu Beef dinner8For those who do relish haggling in wet markets, well the city also offers high end fine dining. Something we also mentioned in our story about getting out to Tagatay (here). At Market!², you will be spoilt for choice. Wagyu Beef dinner1A 16 ounce wagyu steak cooked on hot stone cost us just 1950 pesos

(~S$61 at that time). Combined with an appetizer it is enough for two persons. A similar meal in Singapore would cost more than twice as much.Wagyu Beef dinner5

Or get around the Sunday farmers’ markets. Here, folks roast an entire cow and sell slices of the barbequed meat to willing diners. Have you tasted jackfruit before? How about breadfruit? Recall we mentioned the mangoes in the Philippines? There is so much to choose from.

And to combine both shopping leisure with dining pleasure, look no further than the Green Belt. Not Green hills (why all Green ah?) nor near it, this is an expanse of connected malls. One to us that puts little Orchard road to shame. Well, we are after all a little dot. Manila08Our opinion though is that such malls aren’t what one would go to Manila for.

So who is to say there not much to do in Manila? Before our first trip, we too cannot believe the wealth of sights, sounds and delights that can be had in this country and city. Manila04The metropolis of 12 million folks all live and play in this congested and often times frustrating commute of a city. Yes there will be the obvious issue for personal safety, but that would be in any city. A little common sense and being vigilant will mitigate.

For obviously we were incorrect about our previous biases and it was sufficient to convince us to visit a second time. Perhaps a third time soon! So despite the less than positive publicity, we’d say – let’s go and take a look. After all, one has nothing to lose and a lot to gain.

This journey took place in August 2009

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