“It was the pearl of the Orient”. “It was the most beautiful city in the East”. These are terms sometimes used to described the Philippines’ capital city, and it’s such a shame that when people speak of Manila’s beauty, it’s most often in a past tense, as if it is no longer anything more than a piece of history.
We cannot, however, blame anyone for having such an impression. At first glance, Manila could be an assault to the senses, and I do mean “assault”. The smell wafting from its esteros (creeks) would punch ones nose like a boxing glove, and sometimes it’s so bad you could almost taste the ugly smell. The sight of dirt and poverty on some of its streets could be enough to wet ones eyes. The humidity makes the dust stick to your skin, and the noise from all the jeepneys – and the barkers – and the peddlers, makes the whole city sound like a market.
But if you dig deeper into Manila, you will find traces of beauty in it. The Philippines has been described as a gem that hasn’t been polished, and the same could be said of Manila, except in this case, it looks like a gem that’s been pounded to submission, submerged in mud, and run over by a bus many times over. It is a beautiful city, whose charm has been buried deep in the dirt of decades of neglect and disregard. Still, Manila is a fascinating place, for those who are willing to leave the comforts of home or hotel, and embark on a search for the jewels that are scattered around.
Nothing symbolizes the city of Manila more than the Rizal Park, or more commonly known as the Luneta, Manila’s largest public square. Formerly an area called “Bagumbayan” during the Spanish era, the area has been immortalized in Philippine history as the execution site of Jose Rizal, the country’s national hero. Today, the Rizal monument, one of the country’s most important landmarks, stands in the middle of it.
Despite its historical significance, the place once gained a non-flattering reputation as a gathering place for vagrants, and a lot of people wouldn’t want to be seen strolling around it. However the park has been changeing for the better. The Luneta of today is a good place for a “cultural trip” with the family, and is a worthwhile stop for visitors coming from other places. It can get croweded, and noisy, and though reasonably clean and cared for, you still couldn’t expect to see anything like London’s mall or Taipei’s Chiang Kai Shek memorial, but at least I think Rizal would no longer be ashamed to have his monument stand in the middle of it.
On one corner of the Luneta sits the Japanese garden, a symbol of Philippine-Japanese friendship after a second world war. Inside it, one can find a nice “Zen-ish” garden punctuated by a man made lake, with a faux wooden oriental style bridge running across its entire width. The garden is a picturesque place, and is much more peaceful than the rest of the park – good for that brief moment of tranquilty while touring around the usually noisy and crowded park.
Next to the Japanese garden is the Chinese garden, a symbol of the Filipino-Chinese community, and role the Chinese community played in Philippine history.
Like the Japanese garden, the Chinese Garden also features a man made lake, plus some Chinese-stlyed pavillions and even a statue of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. Though not as clean and tranquil as the Japanese garden, a lot of peole like to rest under the shade of its trees.
Immediately to the North of the Luneta is the fortified city of Intramuros (now a part of the City of Manila). It was the seat of the Spanish government in the Philippines during the colonial era, as well as the center of religious authority. Built to withstand attacks, Intramuros is lined with thick walls all throughout, along with strong points called “baluartes” and ammunition storage magazines. Enclosed within it is the former office of the “gobernador-heneral” (governor general), the Manila Cathedral, various old government offices, other churches like the noteable San Agustin, and houses of some of the elite during that period. On the northern corner, one can also find the old military garrison, Fort Santiago, which was also Rizal’s prison before his execution.
Today the old city is Manila’s premier tourist destination, sort of like the Philippine version of Beijing’s Forbidden City, or Bangkok’s Grand Palace, though this one is just not quite as well kempt. Today the old city is still very much a part of Manila’s everyday life, and apart from the churches that are still very much in use, the city still hosts some government offices, some schools, banks, restaurants, and it even now has a boutique hotel right inside. Like the rest of Manila, Intramuros is, at present, still getting less care than it deserves, but it’s still one of the best places to see in the city.
To the west of Luneta, in a district of Manila called Paco, lies much smaller but much more peaceful park, the Paco park. The park is a Spanish era burial ground, and is the resting place for three famous martyr priests, Padre Burgos, Gomez and Zamora. Enclosed by thick walls, the park resembles a small fort, and inside it is a garden with lush canopy of trees. The park also has a small chapel that is still in full use at present, for masses, and even weddings. Though small, the park is calm, quiet, and generally a good place for spending a tranquil weekend afternoon.
THE PASIG RIVER
Right next to Intramuros, and cutting through city of Manila, is the pasig river, the city’s historical birth place and area for commerce. The banks of the Pasig are lined with some of the city’s grandest buildings, like the Central Post Office, the old European styled buildings of the Binondo and Escolta stretch, and even the Malanañang Palace, the house of the country’s Head of State, further upriver.
The sight of this river is one that brings me tremendous lament. Looking at the Pasig, I could imagine glimpses of Shanghai’s Bund, or London’s Thames, but sadly whatever beauty there is in the river is covered by the thick grime and the foul stench of industrial pollution and human waste. Manila has lost a lot of its glamour due to a combination of corruption, neglect and the general bad behavior of us, the people – but I personally see the Pasig as the biggest among these casualties. If you take away all the grime and stench, the banks of the Pasig could really have been beautiful. The mental picture of what it could have been, and the visual picture of what it has become, is one that – to me – paints a very painful realization of what we have lost,
To the north of the Intramuros, across the Pasig river, lies Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown. As old Manila’s “central business district”, commerce has thrived in this district for centuries, driven largely by the Chinese who have settled in the area, alongside the Spanish on the other side of the river.
Today Binondo is still a bustling market for all sorts of stuff, something like Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui, though not nearly as dainty. Binondo has also been gaining popularity as a foodie destination, with its high density of tea houses and restaurants run by families who have been here for generations. For anyone who will brave the heat, humidity and seeming absence of public sanitation, Binondo is one of the most “fun” destinations in the city.
Stretching eastward from Binondo is an avenue called Escolta – another example of glory that was lost. It was Manila’s shopping district during the late Spanish and American colonial era, sort of like Manila’s version of Zurich’s Banhoffstrasse, or Paris’ Champs Elysees, but sadly it no longer is. The place has not been well preserved, and most of the shopping nowadays has migrated to the neighbouring cities of Makati and Quezon city. Still there are a few historic buildings left on its eastern end that are worthy of a few snaps, and gives a few glimpses of the area’s long gone past. There are also some recent efforts, small as they may seem, to regain some of its former luster.
Beyond the eastern end of Escolta lies Quiapo, an incredibly dense marketplace that’s like a third world version of Seoul’s Myeongdong, or Taipei’s Ximending, although unlike the two, you will find a lot more stuff in Quiapo, from cheap clothes, to cheap electronics to fruits, vegetables and even dried fish. Arranged as a grid of narrow streets, Quiapo is a prime example of organized chaos. The streets are segregated into areas for clothing, household tools, large electronics like speakers and videoke machines, musical instruments, photography equipment, all sorts of counterfeit items and wet goods. There are also a few good food outlets scattered about. However, it is as chaotic as ever. People walk shoulder to shoulder like a mob, and it gets more dense when you get into the afternoon.
Though I would not really recommend Quiapo to anyone who is looking to have a “nice” experience in Manila, it is an ideal trip for that rare kind of traveler who likes to rough it out and find jewels in the rough. Just be cautious though, as like any dense third world corner in the planet, you should expect unscrupulous people to be milling about.
At the southern fringes of Manila, one can find the country’s only public zoo. Though nothing really to boast of, the Manila Zoo is the only zoo accessible to the general population within Manila and the neighbouring areas. Entrance to the zoo is only a minuscule fee, and within it one can find an elephant, a hippo, tigers, zebras, and various other exotic animals, mostly mammals and birds.
The zoo is not in a state of good repair though, and some parts of it are downright filthy, however for the average kid from Manila who doesn’t really have any other opportunity to various animals up close, the zoo is still of marginally good value. I would recommend visitors from other places to skip it though, unless they’ve never really seen any kind of zoo before.
MUSEO PAMBATA (Children’s Museum)
On the south-western edge of the Luneta is Manila’s children’s museum. Inside, one can see a few items relating to the country’s history, as well a displays on a few subjects that would primarily be of interest to kids, like the human anatomy, the arts and agriculture. There isn’t really much here, and I would hardly consider it a must-see for any visitor, but it is relatively well maintained compared to other public museums in the country.
And of course, there is Manila’s prime jewel – sunsets over Manila Bay. Like the rest of Manila, the bay has become a dirty, smelly body of water, and sometimes the smell gets to your nose even when you just pass by Roxas Boulevard, the street right by the bay’s coast. However if won’t mind the occasional stench, a walk along the bayside on a fair weather day will give you a sunset to behold.