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The unsung Philippines

Not long ago, after spending ten splendid but pricey days in Hong Kong, I responded to bittersweet memories of the Philippines and booked myself out on a flight to Manila.
/ Source: TravelWorld International Magazine (NATJA)

Not long ago, after spending ten splendid but pricey days in Hong Kong, I responded to bittersweet memories of the Philippines and booked myself out on a flight to Manila. It was a short run and two hours later found me walking through Manila's shabby International Airport (plans are afoot to modernize it) toward the terrorist inspired obligation of Immigration-Customs. This matter, while it went slowly, was accomplished by pleasant, but no nonsense officials.

Beyond that barrier of necessity, old memories took over. There behind metal screens stood the same hordes of people I remember from earlier days, a multitude of folks who were there for either goodbyes or greetings. Beyond them was the unchanged melee of taxi and bus lines. Here, as always, there are no worries about finding transport into town. Taxi drivers and "shuttle bus" operators will seek you out. But as a word of advice, do not let a driver attempt to place your baggage in his vehicle without first establishing a destination fare. For example, going to the center of town by regular taxi will run about $6; a "shuttle bus" will be about $2.50.

My destination was the Ermita-Malate district, near the center of town, an area rich with accommodations, restaurants, lively bistros, and easy access to the upscale attractions of Makati, to the ancient walled city of Intramuros, and to the happy throbbing of Chinatown. My taxi driver, who found it curious, that I declined his offer of female companionship, drove me through the Manila I remembered - a ten million population collection of communities that make up what is known as "The Best and Worst of S.E. Asian Cities". In a near bedlam of traffic we moved through ultra smart shiny sections, through pestilential shanty areas, past sprawling malls, and finally we pulled up at the Swagman Hotel and the driver charged me an amiable 5$U.S.

The Swagman Hotel, which had, with tongue in cheek I'm sure, been recommended by a friend in Hong Kong was an actively happy place. It is, however, not the sort of hotel I would suggest to the more sedate of travelers, perhaps with children. This place, with a somewhat earthy appeal, is at $43 a single or double, a good bargain, and as its name implies, has a strong connection to Australians.

It was there in its animated bar that I fell in with congenial companions, a mixture of, mostly Australian men, their attentive Filipina girl friends, and a collection of other nubile young ladies who had not yet formed a friendship. Noise and hilarity reigned that evening, which was further enlivened by the appearance of two new - newspaper advertised - brides who were meeting their Australian husbands for the first time. The ensuing celebration was what the Aussies call, "A Tie Your Kangaroo Down," sort of party.

Kindred spirits to whom such a place has merit will do well by placing themselves on the Swagman's mailing list. This will keep them aware of such in house activities as "Wet T Shirt" competitions, Mardi Gras celebrations, and trips to a variety of provincial areas for "Chili Cook Offs," snorkeling, cockfights plus the promise of thirst quenching good times. To get on the mailing list contact them at 411 A Flores St., Ermita, Manila, The Philippines. Or by E Mail at -

I spent two nights there, and while activity in the bar-dining room was great good fun and my room adequate, two nights of frivolity was enough. So I left and moved into a nearby hotel, the Royal Palm, that at the same price provided a more sedate environment - and with the full gamut of amenities. It's the sort of place where non-ribald travelers, perhaps with their children, will be happy.

From my new quarters, and with the aid of Manila's variety of transportation - taxis, jeepneys, and trishaws - I moved about this vibrant city quickly and inexpensively. But for getting around in Manila I would advise visitors to use the comfort of taxis, for the short haul this will cost about $1.25. Save the inexpensive jeepneys and trishaws for use in provincial areas.

So it went for me, and for four more days I arose at a civilized hour and leisurely set out. One day I strolled about the museums and ancient churches in the old walled city of Intramuros. Another day I wandered through the narrow an aromatic streets of nearby Chinatown, and when hunger appeared I restored myself with Lumpia (spring rolls), fried noodles, pressed Mandarin Duck and washed it all down with icy San Miguel beer.

And, on one of those days I let nostalgia guide me into Manila's most famous hotel - the Manila Hotel. This is where General MacArthur, in the days before World War II lived for six years- and it is here in his suite you can now stay for the modest price of $1,800 per night. The other rooms in this beautiful old hotel are priced from $307 a double to a suite, which may be yours for $2,400. I settled for lunch only, and in the comfortable excellence of the Cowrie Grill I enjoyed the extravagance of a glass of wine and a fine seafood offering.

But because on earlier visits I had done the other attractions of Manila, her parks, museums, cathedrals, palaces and World War II battlegrounds, my requirements were simplified. This time I mainly wanted to let Manila's agreeable animation wash over me a few days, before going on to the less trammeled provinces - and I was curious about how affordable it could be. I'll throw in some more figures.

Hotels in the Ermita-Malate section, of which there are many, will run from $35 to $60 a double. Food in an infinity of varieties comes next and covers all needs - to wit. The restaurants in the first class hotels will be very pricey, and for splurging a top restaurant in the fashionable Makati area will run $25 or more. But, all over town there's such familiar names as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Tony Romas, Wendy's, Benihana, Domino's Pizza Hut, the list goes on and on, all places that provide sustenance at somewhat less than Stateside prices, and in the Ermita-Malate district there are seafood, Chinese, local food, and BBQ restaurants where between $3 and $ 10 will see you happily fed. And, for those of us who, following a good meal, require amiable nightlife - be it at the Swagman or otherwise - opportunities are unlimited. Ask almost anyone.

Finally after those gala several days in Manila, which I think ran me less than $100 a day, I was ready to leave the hue and cry, I was ready to search out something quieter among these 7,100 islands, some of which are very large, while others resemble the tiny cartoon island, that has a single palm tree in the center. I wanted a destination where I could swim, dive, hike, consort with the locals, eat seafood, or just do nothing. Choices were many. I could set out to sea on one of the Inter-Island ships, fast, punctual, inexpensive vessels that deliver passengers up and down this archipelago of islands. And, aboard these ships that offer either cabins, dormitories or sit up facilities, passengers may find merit in the lively discos that are often present.

Or I could fly domestic air services in any direction. I could choose nearby Mindoro with its palm clad beaches and its jungly mountainous interior that's productive of visiting primitive tribes and viewing animal life. I could go to Tagbilaran, the provincial capital of Bohol and from its wide range of inexpensive hotels I could enter markets bustling with seafood just brought in by local boats. I could set off on a river safari - complete with waterfalls. Here too there's good diving, old churches to be seen, and perhaps best of all is the hiking among some of the most curious creations of nature - the perfect cone like Chocolate Hills.

Then there's Bacolod, the capital of Negros island where I can put up at what is described at $70 as an expensive hotel, or down a notch $25 will see me comfortably installed in one of 13 or so budget hotels. Near here there's good hiking on the verdant slopes of Mt. Canlaon, there are fine beaches, and close by there are wonderful get-away small islands. Then when it comes to dining, Negros food is among the best in the Philippines.

Cebu, with its multitude of beach resorts - both pricey and cheap - is a good choice, and the two day trip by sea from Manila to Cebu City is one of the most amenity filled voyages in the Philippines. Or I could revisit the scenes of my war among the cordial inhabitants of the green and lovely islands of Samar and Leyte. Another choice - by air or sea - would be the little island of Siquijor, which is noted for beaches, waterfalls and quaint villages, where as in most provincial areas life goes on in a laid back sort of way and a smile is rewarded with a smile.

But unfortunately, I must advise travelers, I hope temporarily, to avoid parts of the far southern islands. Inquire carefully before going to parts of Mindanao, and for the time being it's wise to avoid the Muslim islands of Basilan, Jolo, and Tawi Tawi. There have been kidnappings and ambushes in this area.

In the end, I chose the island of Busuanga, which is at the northern end of Palawan, about 300 kilometers south of Manila. Here in this place of beauty, where people live off the proceeds of fishing, cashew nuts and raising cattle, a domestic flight delivered me to Busuanga for a round trip fare of $115. A jeep sent by the Kalamayan Inn - in the small town of Coron - bore me across this verdant island to my temporary home. It was a comfortable refuge, a small place that sported a congenial bar, which attracted equally congenial locals to its happy hour. Importantly too was the dining room - the scene of good home cooked Philippine and western fare. My room, fully plumbed was pleasant, and my host apologized about recent rate increases that had upped the cost to $25 a day.

I had made a good decision, and the management plus fellow guests, saw to it that my island life was productive of festive, sometimes exhausting fun. Among them were a gathering of American divers who included me in their activities. While they dove in the translucent waters I snorkeled, snoozed on the boat or beach combed along white beaches at jungle's edge. There too I fell in with islanders who often appeared in the bar for "happy hour" and who invited me along on their outrigger boat for a picnic outing to a close by island, a verdant place complete with palm trees arching over a beach and a background of curious limestone hills. There, under the palms while the afternoon sun made its decline towards a colorful ending we restored ourselves with grilled reef fish, rice, lumpia (Philippine egg roll) papaya, drinking coconuts, plenty of San Mig beer, and ended the day with one final plunge into the gin clear water.

As to the town of Coron, it's right on the water, a leafy green community with a colorful market filled with the bounty of sea and shore. It has the necessary shops, a cinema and hordes of trishaws that provide transport to neighboring beaches and villages, Fares for a local run will be much less than a dollar.

For those into diving, for which all of Palawan is famous, fees will be about $25 per dive. Boat included.

Eventually my vacation ended. I was back in Hong Kong, and while I continued to enjoy that splendid city, thoughts kept surfacing about the quiet beauty of the Philippines - at a distance from Manila - and how in these unsung islands it takes little skill to have glorious vacation for less than $100 a day.

Side Notes:

  • The exchange rate in the Philippines is about Pesos 27 to the US dollar
  • A good hotel, the Royal Palm, is at 1158 Mabini St. Manila
  • A lively hotel - the Swagman, is at 411 A Flores St. Ermita, Manila
  • The Kalmayan Inn is in Coron, Busuanga, Philippines
  • If you're a senior citizen, request the reduced fares domestic ships and airlines offer.