Manila feels much more like a city in Latin America than a city in Asia. This is undoubtedly due at least in part to the Spanish influence from the 300 years that the Philippines were under Spanish rule. The Philippines have a very interesting but also tumultuous history, being controlled by Spain (and briefly by Britain during the Seven Years’ War) until the U.S. took over in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, then being occupied by Japan during World War II until the U.S. regained control at the end of the war. Manila was all but destroyed during the Battle of Manila between Filipino, American, and Japanese forces, one of the most brutal and devastating battles at the end of WWII. The U.S. finally granted the Philippines independence on July 4, 1946. Since then, the Philippines have been struggling to establish a strong democracy but in recent years seem to be making strides in obtaining political and economic stability.
I arrived in Manila at 1 am, which is really not a good time to arrive in an international city that you’ve never visited before. It seemed an especially bad time to arrive in Manila, a city whose safety I was a bit unsure about after reading descriptions of hostels saying things like “we are in a safe area, don’t believe the rumors you’ve heard” or “we have 24-hour security guards outside the building for your safety.” With this in mind, I took a taxi directly to the security-guarded door of my hostel, which was really the only transportation option anyway, as Manila doesn’t have an extensive subway or bus system. I was pleasantly surprised that my hostel had a bed all ready for me to crash into, which I did for the next 10 hours.
My visit to Manila was mostly just meant to be a stepping stone to get to a more desirable place (i.e., a place with beautiful beaches) in the Philippines, but I figured I’d better explore the city since I was here. My first stop was at Rizal Park, a huge park dedicated to the national hero Jose Rizal, who died fighting for the country’s independence.
He was executed in 1896 by a Spanish firing squad at a spot in the now-park for being a traitor to Spain. There are several monuments to Rizal in the park, as well as a marker of his actual execution place. The park also has several fountains, but none of them were on at the moment. Too bad, I really love fountains.
Next I visited Intramuros, known as the “Walled City,” the site of historical Manila during the Spanish colonization. It is called the Walled City because it is surrounded by a massive stone wall, meant to defend the area from attack (which is the purpose of all ancient city walls, it seems). Unfortunately, the walls weren’t enough to fend off attack during WWII, and most of Intramuros was destroyed in the Battle of Manila. Today, some of the historical buildings and most of the surrounding wall have been restored, but much of the Walled City is now home to newer government buildings and schools (and even a Starbucks), with signs at each structure marking the ancient building that used to stand in its place.
My first destination in the Walled City was Manila Cathedral, one of the restored historical buildings in the Walled City, which is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Manila. It was originally built in 1581 and was destroyed by several natural disasters (typhoons and earthquakes) and subsequently rebuilt a few times over the next few centuries. The fifth version of the cathedral was ultimately destroyed in the Battle of Manila, and the sixth and current version was built in 1958.
Manila Cathedral was conferred the rank of Minor Basilica (a very important honor for a Catholic church) by Pope John Paul II in the early 1980s, making it the most important church in the Philippines. I was surprised to learn that 80% of the Philippines is Roman Catholic! Another result from the years of Spanish control, I imagine.
After visiting Manila Cathedral, I realized you could actually walk on top of the wall surrounding the Walled City. This I thought was really cool, so I walked on the wall as far as I could around the perimeter of the Walled City.
At the edge of the Walled City is Fort Santiago, an area that itself has a history as extensive as Manila’s. It was built as a fortress during the Spanish occupation and served as the center of Spain’s eastern empire during that time. Britain used it as its army headquarters during its 2-year occupation of Manila in the 1700s. The Fort was later also used as a prison. Spain imprisoned Jose Rizal here in 1898 for his alleged treachery against Spain before he was executed, and Fort Santiago now contains a shrine to his legacy with a connecting museum memorializing his life. The Fort was used as the headquarters of the Philippines Division of the U.S. Army after America took control of the Philippines. During WWII, after Japan occupied Manila, Japan sent Filipino and American prisoners, including thousands of Filipino civilian hostages, here.
The last part of my historical lesson in the Walled City was at Casa Manila, a reconstructed Spanish upper class colonial home with authentic furniture, artwork, fixtures, décor, and artifacts from the 19th century. I absolutely love touring houses, especially old museumed-out houses where I can daydream about what life was like, living then in that house. There were several very cozy-looking bedrooms, an informal siesta room for chillin’ in the afternoons and playing games, and a formal sala for entertaining important guests and having balls. Imagine, having a ball in your house! The funniest part about the house is the “comfort room” – what Americans call a bathroom – with a comfortable looking bench sporting two toilets right next to each other. I guess families during that time really didn’t value privacy while on the toilet!
I had heard that the sunset in Manila Bay is famous for its beauty. After leaving Casa Manila, I was determined to find a good spot to watch the sunset, but I couldn’t seem to find an area near the bay where there weren’t buildings blocking the view. I even snuck into the trendy pool area of the Manila Hotel, a very luxurious hotel right on the bay and famous for being where General MacArther stayed before WWII when he was a military advisor to the Philippines. Unfortunately, the western view from the pool area was blocked by the hotel. Since I still had one more sunset in Manila, I decided that would be my goal for the next day.
All day I had seen funny-looking jeep-type cars driving all around the city crammed with people. They were each very colorful and uniquely decorated. I really wanted to figure out what they were and how they worked. Before heading in for the night, I followed a young Filipino girl and hopped on one at a corner.
The thing was packed, and I definitely got some gaping stares when I jumped on. It was 8 pesos for one ride, which to me seemed like a great deal. I couldn’t quite figure out the route system or when and where it would stop to drop off and pick up people, so I just rode it for a while. Then, as it was going in the wrong direction and the sun had already set (without me seeing it, of course), I disembarked with some other people. I was in an area of Manila that looked exactly how I would have pictured the city before I visited – super crowded, dirty and a bit seedy-seeming, noisy, and full of street vendors. I crossed the street and immediately got on a jeep-bus going the other way to get back home.
Later, I found out that these jeepneys are a main form of public transportation in Manila. They are called jeepneys because they were originally made from U.S. military jeeps that were left to local Filipinos after WWII. I think this was an incredibly creative way to make use of leftover supplies from WWII, especially given the fact that Manila’s infrastructure was basically in ruins after the war. In addition to that, it is a very interestingly crazy experience to ride in them!
The next day, I couldn’t resist trekking over to SM Asia, the biggest mall in the Philippines, to see what it was all about. I had also heard that it’s a good place to see the sunset. To my surprise, the biggest mall in the Philippines is at least twice as big as any mall I’ve ever been to. It is ridiculously enormous. It has store upon store of anything you can think of, including a ton of Western stores. The food court extends around the perimeter of the mall looking out to the bay and has everything from Sparro, Cinnabon, and Dairy Queen to Chinese fast food, expensive sushi, and authentic Filipino cuisine. The mall itself is part-inside, part-outside, which gives it a combo tropical-modern mall feeling.
After strolling around the mall for a bit, I still had a few hours until sunset, so I decided to see a movie. I absolutely love seeing movies in other countries. I also love seeing movies at home, so maybe I just love seeing movies. The difference is that abroad, I don’t mind seeing movies by myself – in fact I like it – whereas at home, I wouldn’t even think of going to the theater alone. The only thing showing within the next hour was Rise of Planet of the Apes, which I probably wouldn’t have seen normally, but I really enjoyed nevertheless. It was showing in the “Director’s Club” theater, which had reclining arm chairs and a waiter that served free coke and popcorn. So fancy.
I was all excited to see the sunset when I exited the theater, and what do you know, the sky had completely clouded over and the sun was nowhere to be seen. A rainstorm was clearly on its way. So, stuffed with popcorn and more than a little bit disappointed, I taxi’ed home.
Tomorrow I’m jumping on a quick flight to Puerto Princesa, the main city on the island of Palawan, on my way to see those famous Filipino beaches!