The case for The Philippines
‘If you have any problems getting through, just give them $100 US’ was the advice given to me when entering the Philippines for the first time. On my way back to Hong Kong, 2 weeks later, I was stranded in the Manila airport for 24 hours due to a typhoon. I had no money, no mobile phone and I was the only western female to be seen. I was also being clocked every half an hour or so by ‘security guards’ carrying AK-47’s. In all my years of travelling, I have never been as scared.
Manila in its heyday was called the Pearl of the Orient with its beautiful Pasig river running through Asia's busiest port. The Spanish colonised The Philippines from 1521 and bought religion, culture, beautiful furniture, food and spices with them. It was destined to become the only Catholic country in Asia. The first Philippine Republic, after its break with Spain, was declared in 1898 but would not gain full independence until 1946 - after the devastating bombing of Manila’s old city during World War 2. In 1965 Marcos was elected President and there followed 40 years of corruption, martial law, and a complete drain on the country’s finances.
Today, Manila is still bedevilled by the tag ‘The Wild West’ of Asia’, but thanks to overseas foreign workers sending home upwards of US$ 1 billion every month and sensible government fiscal policies, things are definitely improving. Wines sales are booming; the luxury car market is growing by 30-40% every year and 40-storey condominiums are springing up like coconut palms. New highways are creating industrial and commercial corridors - north and south. But tourism is still weak - a fraction of that enjoyed by Thailand and Malaysia. Vietnam attracts more visitors. But that’s part of its charm - “7,000 islands and hardly a tourist in sight.” Infrastructure to support tourism previously developed at snail’s pace but things are speeding up so visit quickly.
It has taken me 10 years to fall in love with this country and, thanks to family and friends who live there, I think it is a love affair that will last.
There really are 7018 islands to choose from with some of the most beautiful beaches and rain forests in the world. Un-crowded, and undiscovered…think of Thailand, maybe 50 years ago, and you will get the idea. Fresh produce is plentiful and cheap and so is decent wine. Makati City in Manila – the most sophisticated place in the Philippines, is home to fabulous malls and every type of food you can imagine.
Despite living in a fundamentally corrupt society the Filipino people are truly beautiful. They are a unique blend of Latino, Chinese and the indigenous clans. Their single-minded sense of family, the importance of the family unit and the local community or barangay, is at the very core of Filipino life. On my second trip to The Philippines, when I was 21, I was asked by inquisitive neighbours on the coastal town of Anilao, whether or not I was married. When I exclaimed that I was far too young to think of such things, and that I might never get married, the shock was palpable. Over the next 3 days came 3 offers of courtship and potential marriage from local boys. Like I said, they take this stuff seriously.
Not surprisingly, Scuba diving is a major draw to the archipelago. It is considered to have better diving than Egypt or the Caribbean and with places like the Apo Reef (second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef) and Puerto Galera (a historic Spanish port and major diving centre) keen divers are no strangers to the Philippines. There are some amazing resorts – like Amanpulo on Palawan and Out of The Blue in Puerto Galera. The waters are clear and pure, the sea life colourful and the beaches covered in beautiful white sand.
Back in the old city of Manila you can take a horse-drawn carriage (kalesa) tour or check out Greenbelt for some brilliant shopping and some rather good bars and restaurants, or spend the afternoon in the Ayala Museum in Makati to learn more about the tumultuous but interesting history of a country that is yet to reach its full potential. The Philippines is a jewel, cut but as yet unpolished, and deserving of close examination. If you are looking for that road less travelled and can put up with one or two potholes along the way, then allow the Philippines to warmly embrace you.
Follow Lisa Jenkins on Twitter @Lisa_J73