Dirty Old Manila
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Before departing for the Philippines I had no real idea what to expect. Sure I had heard a few things from people who had visited but its usually best to politely ignore others anyway as a travel experience is always unique to the individual and is better experienced through a clean pair of eyes. The Philippines came at a stage of my travels where my wanderlust was subsiding a bit and the desire to just jump on a bus and go explore somewhere wasn't as strong as it has been previously. Whether that was because I was in the Philippines or not I wasn't sure but I just didn't have that same desire to explore here. I did however have a real desire to play some poker! I hadn't wanted to play for months but right now the urge was there and I figured that if I could win a few dollars and look after my deposit for when I move to a flat in Brighton then that would be a good thing. I had heard they are terrible poker players in the Philippines as well. With that in mind after some research I found a place where I could play poker in Manila and booked a hotel for four nights close by, which just happened to be the number 2 rated hotel in Manila according to the TripAdvisor website, which is usually on the money. My plan was to stay there and see how things went with the poker and take it from there.
The Philippines itself is a strange place - it just doesn't feel like Asia. Few travellers visit the country and when I told people I was going to go they either looked at me blankly or asked 'why'. If you ask your average person about the Philippines they usually think of either Filipino maids or Imelda Marcos' 2000 plus shoe collection. To be honest I only knew about that shoe collection as my father told me about it when I was young and the thought of someone owning that many shoes in a far away tropical land just stuck. So to admonish my own ignorance and provide some light to the reader on this country I now present a short history of the Philippines. In 45,000 BC 'Tabon Man', the oldest discovered inhabitant of the island left a bit of his skull in a cave on Palawan island, thus shedding some light on the long prehistory of the island. Nothing noteworthy happpens for about 45,000 years until the Malays arrived in boats from 100-1000AD; the archipelagos eight main languages derive from these various Malay immigrant tongues. In the 12th century traders from India, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand were regularly trading with the Philippine islands, apparently the Chinese began trading as far back as 100 AD. In 1521 Ferdinand Magellan landed and claimed the country for the Spanish, after skirmishes lasting fifty years the Spanish effectively ruled the islands for 400 years. Manila grew steadily from all this trading activity to become a big and prosperous city, called the 'Pearl of the Orient' in 1700 (no comment). The British then invaded and occupied Manila in 1762 but were kicked out two years later. Fast forward to 1898 and the Philippines fights back the Spanish, who themselves have a dispute with America over sugar and declare war with USA. As a colony of Spain, the Philippines was drawn into the conflict. Soon enough the yanks sailed into Manila and trashed the Spanish ships but then sided with the Filipinos and installed their exiled revolutionary General Aguinaldo as president of the first Philippines republic in 1898. The USA then effectively bought the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico for $20 million. Fast forward to 1941 and the Japanese after bashing the yanks at Pearl Harbour then landed at Luzon island and drove the Filipino and US troops to the Batan Peninsula, opposite Manila, where 75,000 troops from US and Philippines surrendered to the Japanese. From 1942-1945 a brutal Japanese rule followed and by the time the US had dislodged the Japanese in 1945 over 150,000 citizens of Manila had been killed and one of the finest cities in Asia reduced to rubble. Apparently the city has never recovered since. With this history you can begin to try and understand this country. Some other interesting facts about the Philippines - with around 100 million inhabitants it is the worlds twelfth most populous country, there are 170 different languages and dialects spoken in the archipelago with around 100 cultural minority groups, they all love karaoke and cock fighting and they love to give their children bizarre names like BumBum, Cute, BoyBoy and Bong-Bong (son of Imelda Marcos incidentally). There you have it, a cultural and ethnic soup which comes out in the bowl as the Philippines
Meanwhile the time I spent playing poker in Manila was interesting to say the least. Over the next week I played about eight hours a day, never playing beyond midnight and living a healthy diet and exercise routine to stay alert. In Macau I had lost a small amount of money but I knew exactly why - playing too long and not getting enough sleep. So I didn't want to repeat the mistake, and it seemed to pay dividends.
Unfortunately my timing was slightly off with the arrival of Holy Week just round the corner. What this means is that for one week the 95 percent Catholic country celebrates the holiest of weeks and many Filipinos visit their families in the provinces. Basically the whole country would be on the move and all the areas I planned on visiting would be rammed with tourists and locals and accommodation prices would double or triple. Added to this heavy rain was forecast for the country in the coming weeks which pretty much ruled out travelling south of Manila and only left the colder north to explore. With all these things considered it seemed pretty pointless staying too much longer in the country and so I bought a flight back to Thailand for next week and decided to check out Manila in the meantime by moving to a more central hotel
After booking four nights at another hotel I took my taxi in the afternoon to get there. The ride took about an hour and I passed through shanty towns and general urban decay. It is horribly polluted and dirty with open sewers and huge potholes all over the roads. Largely due to industrial waste and heavy reliance on cars, Manila suffers from air pollution which results in more than 4,000 deaths per year. Open dump sites and industrial waste contribute to increasing pollution within the city and several rivers in Manila have been considered biologically dead! The Pasig River, where 150 tons of domestic waste and 75 tons of industrial waste were dumped daily in 2003 is now one of the most polluted rivers in the world. The district of Ermita is apparently the most air polluted district in the city and as luck would have it this is where I unwittingly booked my hotel - marvelous. In 2009 Manila was also hit by Typhoon Ketsana which submerged more than 80% of the city, spreading sewage and pollutants in the process. You get the idea; its smells in Manila
This is also a very poor city with a reputation for sudden violence on its streets. This was Manila proper and felt a lot edgier or just more plan unsafe than Ortigas where I stayed before, which is more of an industrial area. Its not that anyone is outwardly aggressive its more that you can smell the potential for trouble. Simply walking down the street is an exercise in vigilance as you move through the locals sat around on street sides and corners doing nothing much. After a afternoon spent wandering around the streets and exploring I decided not to use my camera in public and to not go out late at night without a friend. Its better to be safe than sorry so unfortunately this blog only has two photos!. On the very first day someone approached me in the local shopping center and pretend to be working at my hotel and asked to borrow some money - a well known scam here. This then happened the next day with another man doing the same trick but this time he wanted some money for his son's birthday. I met several foreigners at the hotel bar who had experienced the exact same scam and one who had his gold chain ripped of his neck when walking down the street. Over the next few days I met several Americans, Canadians and Filipinos at the hotel bar where I spent a lot of time during the day. One night a Canadian guy called Dave and I went out to some local bars and after having a good time we decided to make our way back to the hotel. As we did a local women who was drunk or just a bit crazy started hassling Dave for money and she was being quite aggressive and loud. We just continued to walk on and ignored her as the last thing you want to do is create a scene, but within five minutes I looked around and we had fifteen other people slowly following us! It was a bit freaky but we just walked calmly on and hoped it wouldn't get ugly. Thankfully when we made a right turn down the road they stopped following us. Although it was only about 1km from our hotel we heard other guests say they always take a taxi when returning at night and now we knew why!
After being in the Philippines for over a week I still felt like I hadn't make a connection with the place or that I wanted to spend much more time there. When I arrived in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia there was an immediate connection, but I just didn't feel it here. It just didn't feel like Asia or like my kind of place. Partly it was because it is so heavily influenced by American culturally with the many huge shopping malls Filipinos love to trawl. Partly it was because the food is crap. Partly it was because of the constant attention you get. In the Philippines if you are white you are a rock star, they love foreigners and seem to have this inferiority complex where they think if you are white you are better than them. I first experienced it at the poker club where when I walked in the staff would fuss over by bringing me a table over for my rucksack and making sure I had everything I needed while constantly calling me 'sir' and bowing to me. Very weird, some might like having their egos stroked but I found it off putting that they fawned over me just because I am white - which to me is ridiculous. The Philippines had been interesting but I didn't want to spend anymore time there. With a month or so left on my travels I decided to head back to Bangkok and spend it with Oi - what better way to finish my trip?