Window on the Philippines

Martyrs, music, and a museum with mynah mimics

Manila was so hot the day we visited!

So hot that our shoes felt like they were melting onto the road surface. The temperature, the locals told us, was 33C. And very humid. It's like this most of the year, as the Philippines - a group of over 7600 islands - lies entirely in the tropics.

And of course we had come ashore from an air-conditioned cruise ship, so WE were not conditioned to the heat either. Unlike these very cool and welcoming musicians.

Filipino people are very musical, and so we had disembarked to be greeted by friendly smiles and happy voices, singing with a background of xylophones.

Cruise ships do not visit here as often as they might do to other ports, but we could see that tourism is alive and well - and 'more fun', obviously, if you take the stilt-walking clown's word for it.

The local language is Tagalog, but English is widely spoken due to the long years of American colonisation, so don't worry, most people will be able to understand you, and be happy to help.

These women are playing a form of angklung a bamboo instrument similar to many variations also used throughout Indonesia. The timber gives a melodic chime and, when played well (as they were here), is very lovely.

WATCH THIS VIDEO and hear for yourself....

As a child I had a penfriend in Manila. She lived in Tondo, the densely populated bay-frontage of Manila. Many years later, when I mentioned this to Filipino friends, they would take a breath and gently say something like 'that is not a very good area'. I often wonder what happened to my young friend Teresita C. Matias.

Today, much of Tondo has been razed, turned into landfill and reclaimed as sites for major public buildings and valuable open space, such as this park, dedicated to one of Manila's most revered heroes - Jose Rizal. About 100 metres from the site of the monument, in 1896, 35-year-old Rizal was executed by the Spanish colonialist government for fighting for the freedom of his country.

Nearby in the park we came across the Pathway to Glory at the Heroes’ Square which was established when it became the centrepiece of the 441st  anniversary of the founding of Manila. This park was formerly known as Luneta Park but was renamed in honour of Jose Risa I, as Rizal Park.

The winding concrete path of the Pathway to Glory is lined with 50 black granite tablets bearing the names of the Katipuneros executed during the Spanish colonial era at the same site. The National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) estimates that 800 revolutionary martyrs were executed in Bagumbayan, including several priests collectively known as Gomburza.

So important is this monument that a continuous guard is posted by the Philippine Marine Corps. Manila has had centuries of colonisation: Spanish, American and Japanese. Since the terrible events of World War II there has been a succession of Presidents.

Today the Rizal Park (also called Luneta Park) is channelling happier memories for families who visit and enjoy the lawns and trees and activities, like the little train - below.

And every good outing deserves food for a picnic. Most of this looks like familiar fast food fare - but what is Buko Juice? Turns out it is a very popular drink in the Philippines, made at home, and sold from stalls everywhere. It is a cooling and nourishing combo of young coconut water and flesh, mixed with milk.

And there's the train - as popular with youngsters here as it would be anywhere else in the world.

In fact this cheery little train is only one of the ways to get around this part of the park, the area of most interest to tourists.

It makes sense really. In a climate that is relentlessly humid and hot, a chance to sit under a canopy of some sort and be driven to your destination is very tempting. So here we have a horse-drawn carriage, although those who care deeply about animals being used for transport may want to move on to another type, such as....

...the huge range of jeepneys and various motorised vehicles. There is no end to the variety, and the ever-inventive Filipinos are not afraid to add artistic flourishes to the paintwork either. Keep your eyes open for the best examples of 'jeepney art' (and check the internet, too) but be prepared to be frustrated (as we were) because the traffic can be so dense and speedy that they're difficult to capture on your camera or phone as they weave through the traffic or zoom past.

They don't call them 'kings of the road' here for nothing!

Again, horses come to the rescue of a tourist. Note the wrought iron stair railing at the rear of the carriage.

Our choice of transport, though, was an e-Trike tour of the Intramuros area adjacent to the park. The name translates as 'inside the walls' and this was set up by the Spaniards in the 16th-century as a way of keeping safe the important people and their homes and offices. 

Our driver sat in front and we could follow our route on the pictorial map in front of us. Credit cards and US dollars are accepted in the Philippines, although the local currency is the peso.

The quoted price for our tour was 650 pesos for the two of us, for an hour. But it's most important to be careful when negotiating prices. When we eventually said we wanted to stop our tour, suddenly our 'friendly guides' wanted to charge us an additional 1000+ pesos, which we didn't have in our pockets. Only the intervention of another guide nearby was able to sort it for us.

This area, protected by a fort and walls, made a secure base for commerce, trade and the government. Because the Roman Catholic church was integral to Spanish life and thought at the time, a central part of Intramuros is Manila Cathedral. The roads around it are natural gathering places for tourists and their guides, and a short rest stop for the horses. Cafes line the streets too and you can easily take a break here to relax and enjoy the sights and sounds of this ancient area.


The cathedral itself was originally built in 1581, but has suffered damage and destruction several times over the centuries. This eighth and current restoration was finally completed in 1958. Manila is the premier Christian city of Asia, and it's a cosmopolitan city too, with a population over 1.5 million.


But despite the surroundings, this young local had more important things on her mind.

For a touch of style, these carriages, called either a calesa or a caritela, are the way to go. Notice the care that has been taken to decorate the carriage - and the horse. Please notice its gold hoof 'socks'. I am sure its owner would want you to take note!

At the far end of the area, we strolled though a lovely park filled with fountains, statues and memorials, such as this one for priests Jose Burgos, Jacinto Zamora, and Mariano Gomes, in the group known as the Gomburza, who were executed by the Spanish.

Fort Santiago, the city's original defence, built as a stone fortress at the turn of the 17th century, marked the beginning of the walled city's riverside barricades. It is located at the riverside tip of Intramuros. A water lily-filled moat separates Fort Santiago gate from the park. Cross through this and you will find the business end of early Manila. Huge thick stone walls protect the area that still has the ruins of a Spanish barracks, a central plaza, a memorial cross and a Rizal shrine. 

Manila is a massive and complex city that is still working through many issues, including air pollution. It is the fifth-most densely populated city in the world, and sprawls over 600-plus square kilometres.

Slowly covering the scars of centuries of domination and misuse, today's Manila has its sights fixed on becoming a major centre for commerce, banking and finance, and well as tourism, fashion, and the arts. Formerly repressed Tondo, where my young friend once lived, is now known as the shopping heart of the Philippines, with numerous shopping malls selling products and goods at bargain prices.

So change is in the air, it seems.

As we begin to leave, our wharf-side farewell group makes happy music (actually Auld Lang Syne from one group and We wish you a Merry Christmas from another!) while the sign ensures us that 'It's more fun in the Philippines'.

Until World War II, Manila was considered the most beautiful city in Asia, but it was almost completely ruined during the war. Sadly, it was second only to Warsaw in Poland as the most-destroyed city during that conflict.


As our ship pulls away into the South China Sea, we say farewell to a city whose people has seen too much suffering, yet are still always ready with a song and a smile to welcome visitors.



Puerto Princesa

After a day at sea we arrive in a very different port. Puerto Princesa (Princess Port) is on Palawan, a long thin finger of an island, poking into the Sulu Sea. The city is located at around where the knuckle would be and crosses the island at its narrowest point. The locals describe it as 'a city in the forest' and that's pretty apt as, although it has a population of around 250 000, there is much rural land too.

Here again is the ubiquitous local transport, brightly and individually decorated. There are jeepneys, mega-trikes and cars available for hire, but do negotiate carefully and be sure that both sides of the transaction understand and agree!

Once again the Catholic church is central to people's lives. Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral is close to the port and itself immaculate in pale blue and white paintwork. 

Inside, the soaring ceiling and simplicity is very lovely.


Let's take a trip around Puerto Princesa with this VIDEO:

There are a number of lighthouses on the coastline of Palawan, but this one is near to the port and is eye-catching with its spiral staircase. 

A major attraction on the island is the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park - often simply referred to as the Underground River. Over eight kilometres long, it is said to be the longest underground river in the world and has spectacular cave formations. In 1999, the area was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Planning to go there? Allow yourself time as the river is only navigable by small boats from Sabang Beach. From the city, the trip to Sabang can take from 1.5 to 3.5 hours each way, depending on whether you choose to go by a jeepney or not.

With not enough time to see the river on this trip, we decided to head for the beach. 

After all, with a name like this, it seemed a great choice.

At present this is a delightful place to visit. Quiet, tranquil and unspoiled. 

Let's hope tourism allows it to stay this way.

After all, this generation deserves a chance to enjoy it too.

It seemed just the ideal place for people to hang out and enjoy the sea air....

... before a feast of freshly grilled local seafood.

Opened in 2011, this private museum was established in memory of local hero and guerilla Dr Higinio Mendoza, senior, who was slain by Japanese troops at Canigaran Beach during World War II.

An amazing number of exhibits represent many countries and their involvement in the war. Jeeps, helmets, flags, old photographs and uniforms - they are all here, and for those keen on tracing recent wars, this will be intensely interesting.

For some reason, Imelda's shoe fetish gets a showing too.

Now, if you missed watching the video above, please go back and see these amazing birds in action. They are Indian mynahs and their capacity to mimic is incredible. They laughed, they wolf-whistled, they wished us good morning over and over, and you would swear there was a recording of human voices hidden somewhere in their cages. 

While the roads to the beaches and the museum were fairly quiet, back in the town's main street, it is Filipino frenzy again.

And yes, the locals also like to drive a Harley!

We stopped for a quiet coffee, and in this courtyard at the back, all the noise dropped away again.

Well, there's the Buko again. We know what that is now. But what about guyabano? That's the Filipino name for soursop.

Mais con Yelo is a mixture of evaporated milk, condensed milk and corn kernels, served with ice. WATCH how to make it.......

If there is a market around we have to visit, and Puerto Princesa's one is a fascinating maze of lanes and narrow corridors. The entrance is from the main street, and these straw brooms are both an eye-catching and effective signal.

Inside the market was almost dark, and we felt like we were in tunnels as we passed the stalls.

Everything was clean and even if not too appetising....

... it was fresh....

...and carefully crafted, like these tiny sausages, probably made from spiced pork.

The seas around the Philippines provide a wide variety of seafood. The most common way of having fish is to have it salted, pan-fried or deep-fried, and then eaten as a simple meal with rice and vegetables. 

It may also be cooked in a sour broth of tomatoes or tamarind as in pangat, prepared with vegetables and a souring agent to make sinigang, simmered in vinegar and peppers to make paksiw, or roasted over hot charcoal or wood (inihaw).

These sea grapes are extremely healthy and popular, and may be served in a salad such at this one....

How fresh and healthy do these green-lipped mussels look?

These huge banana blossoms will probably be shredded finely to add colour and texture to a salad.

The work day over, it's time to catch up on messages.

And of course no market is complete without the tools every good cook needs to prepare a meal.

Back onboard ship again, we see the twin spires of the cathedral, a serene and gracious landmark.

Waterside, the fishing villages explain how the market was filled with such fresh seafood....

....and as we pull away, the full extent of the thriving fishing community is apparent. 

Visitors may well have more fun in the Philippines, but there is a huge amount of local industry and very hard work that is going into making this country a vital and more attractive place for visitors.

We wave goodbye, adding our wishes for success for this plucky and indomitable country.


More information about the Philippines....


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Text and photographs: ©Sally Hammond 

Videos: ©Gordon Hammond 


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