Manila was my least favorite part of our honeymoon, but instead of lambasting its horrendous traffic, stifling pollution, and blatant class stratification, I’ll focus on the positive aspects and hope that you do a better job than I did when planning a trip to this metropolis.
Manila is the capital of the Philippines and is situated on the eastern shore of Manila Bay. It is the most densely populated city in the world, and is one of sixteen cities that make up the region of Metro Manila. In 1571, Mexican conquistadors founded present-day Manila. The city thus became the center of Spanish trade in Asia, earning its nickname “Pearl of the Orient”. The city underwent Chinese revolts, pirate attacks, earthquakes, numerous invasion attempts, and British occupation. Most of Manila was flattened by aerial bombardment by the U.S. Air Force near the end of World War II, so very little remains of Manila’s prewar and colonial architecture, which is a shame.
For anyone interested in Filipino history, a visit to Intramuros is a must. Intramuros, or “within the walls,” is the oldest district in Manila and was walled to defend the city from foreign invasion. It is the only district of Manila where you can find old Spanish-era influences. A museum dedicated to national hero Jose Rizal is located in Intramuros, as the site is where he was actually detained during his final days. The museum showcases artifacts that prove how extraordinary Rizal was — he was a political leader, an author, an artist, a poet, and more.
Manila is extremely humid, especially in the summer, so we constantly took refuge in underground walkways, shopping malls, and museums. My favorite museum is the Ayala Museum, which is located in the district of Makati. The six-story museum houses contemporary art and archaeological exhibits, but the best part is the diorama exhibit, which narrates Philippine history through 60 beautifully handcrafted dioramas. We borrowed a pair of headphones and took a fascinating audio tour of the museum. This was easily my favorite few hours in Manila.
It always saddens me when American tourists who visit the Philippines bypass places like Manila and Quezon City and go straight to Palawan and Boracay, reducing an entire country to snorkeling and postcard-perfect beaches. It’s similar to those who travel to Thailand just for Phuket or the Phi Phi Islands. I don’t blame them, as my preferred regions of the Philippines are also less built-up and quite touristy (e.g., Banaue and Davao). However, Manila is an interesting city that I hope will eventually gain the respect it deserves.
That’s it for the Philippines. Anyong haseyo, Seoul!
Tips for future travelers:
Avoid driving (and being driven) at all costs. You haven’t seen traffic until you’ve seen Manila traffic. Stay at a hotel within walking distance to most of your sites.
If you have time, take a day-trip to Tagaytay, just south of Manila. Per recommendation, my grandparents’ driver took us on a detour on our way to Manila so we could view Lake Taal from the city of Tagaytay. Lake Taal is a freshwater lake that fills a massive volcanic caldera formed after a series of eruptions. The lake was once part of the South China Sea, but the eruptions filled in the entrance, isolating it from the ocean. One very lucky Starbucks in Tagaytay just so happens to offer one of the best views of Lake Taal, so we ordered an ensamada and ube cheesecake and took in the scenery.
Travel with my parents. Back in 2011, they took me to Manila and we had a perfectly good time. We went to Intramuros, the Ayala Museum, and even the same shopping malls, so I’ll have to figure out what they did differently to make the experience so much more pleasant.
After a wonderful time in Japan, Anthony and I made our way to the second country of our honeymoon: the Philippines — land of our people! Anthony had never been to the Philippines before, so he was especially excited for this part of our journey. We decided to start in Los Baños to see my grandparents first. My cousin Justine met us at the airport in Manila (she even welcomed us with Hawaiian leis since our wedding was in Hawaii!), and her parents drove us the long two hours to my grandparents’ house, stopping at fast food joints along the way.
Los Baños is most famous for the prestigious University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), but it is also a fairly popular tourist destination, as its hot spring resorts are perfect weekend getaways. This explains why Los Baños is Spanish for “bathing place”.
However, the highlight of our entire time in the Philippines was having Anthony meet more of my relatives. My maternal grandparents have had such fascinating lives. My grandfather, or “Lolo” in Tagalog, spent most of his life working for the United Nations, so he and my grandmother moved around a lot. They’ve lived in places like Rome, Bangkok, Honolulu, and Papua New Guinea, but when he retired, they returned to Los Baños, where he was once a professor at UPLB. The University of the Philippines system is the equivalent of the Ivy League system in the U.S. Unlike in America, the smartest kids in the Philippines go to public universities, while those who didn’t have good enough grades must pay for private schools. It makes so much sense — I’m a big fan of rewarding intelligence over wealth! (Please learn from this, America.)Lolo is so obviously a former professor, as he can talk and talk about anything — give him any topic, and he’ll have an abundance of knowledge and random anecdotes to contribute. For someone whose mind is still so active, you’d never guess that he’s in his mid-80s. He and Anthony discussed everything, from history to travel to UC-Berkeley (Anthony attended college there, while Lolo was there for his PhD decades ago).
Seeing my grandmother, or “Lola” in Tagalog, was my favorite part. She has always reminded me so much of my mom — street savvy, naturally beautiful, with a quiet intelligence. As I expected, she constantly stuffed us with Filipino snacks and thought of every little detail to make our stay perfect.
On our first day, Lolo took us on a long tour of the university, which is when we first met his driver Jojo, who became our personal driver throughout our stay. It is quite common for people in the Philippines to have drivers, but Jojo was so much more than a driver. Apparently he spends a lot of time on his motorcycle, driving all over the country by himself. Because of this, he knew everything — from secret short-cuts, to best places for the most stunning views, to the traffic patterns in Manila. A few days later when we had left my grandparents (and Jojo) and transferred to Manila, we had to deal with other drivers, and that’s when we really appreciated Jojo’s skills. (I still kind of want to make a film about him. If you have any film connections, please get in touch.)
We drove past rice fields and through jungles, had fresh coconuts, visited a rice museum, and ate lunch in the cafeteria. After, Lola took us to a spa where we got incredible massages. Massages are a must in the Philippines, as they are dirt-cheap and may be the best you’ll ever have. We were able to walk back home from the spa, along a commercial street filled with food vendors. Since Los Baños is a college town, there seem to be pretty good food options, and it’d be nice to try more of them next time we visit.
The next day was spent at Villa Escudero, a coconut plantation that has become a huge resort. I love this place. Every time I’m in the Philippines, I always ask to come here, even though it’s embarrassingly touristy. Much of the plantation exists thanks to Don Arsenio Escudero, who built the country’s first hydroelectric plant in the early 1900s. The plantation became a tourist attraction in 1981, as an entertaining way to show plantation life.
When we arrived, we rode a cart pulled by a carabao (water buffalo), with a live musician in the backseat. Lunch took place in an al fresco restaurant below a waterfall, so we got to partake in a huge Filipino buffet with our feet soaking in running water. The Philippines is disgustingly humid in the summer, so waterfall restaurants are life-savers. The waterfall is a lot of fun to play in, with hidden nooks and ledges from which you can slide off.After lunch, we walked past a performance of Filipino folk dances on stage. I’d seen this performance before, but I was surprised that we could watch it now, as it was a Thursday and these performances are typically done only on weekends. Filipinos are fantastic dancers, and if you haven’t seen tinikling before, or those dances that involve balancing candles on their heads, you need to find a Youtube video of one of them now.We went out onto Labasin Lake on a bamboo raft. This was my first time rafting at Villa Escudero! Some of the guest rooms of the resort protrude over the lake — what a wonderful place to stay. Unfortunately, it started to rain, so we quickly paddled back to the dock and dried up while watching the end of the dance performances. Apparently, the only reason there was a performance today was because the owner of the resort had visiting friends in town. And we had even sat on their table in the front row — oops!There’s a pink museum at Villa Escudero that houses the family’s private collection of random things from their travels around the world. Lots of religious artifacts (typical Catholic Filipinos), furniture, and clothing. After the museum, we headed back to my grandparents’ house, where my family surprised us with a party with all my relatives (two cousins, two aunts, and one uncle) for our last night there. I hadn’t seen them in five years, but it felt like no time had passed. Even my grandparents’ maid Marina remembered me! (I wonder if she remembers bathing my baby brother in the sink?)
The next morning, we stuffed ourselves with one last homemade breakfast before moving on to Manila, with my cousin accompanying us on the long journey. Our time in Los Baños had been short, but my parents visit the Philippines often, so we look forward to be back soon for the next Vergara reunion.
Tips for future travelers:
Go to Villa Escudero on the weekend so you can watch the dance performance. Growing up as a Filipino in Hawaii, I had many opportunities to see some standard Filipino dances at weddings and cultural events, but none of them were ever quite as good as these. Make sure to stay for the very last dance, too. I don’t want to give everything away, but their tinikling choreography will blow your mind.
If you have any interest in nature or agriculture, take a tour of UPLB. Its specialty is agricultural education and research, and it plays an influential role in biotechnology. We were surprised by how many foreign students were there (the blond hair gave them away), but I guess it made sense, considering the number of internationally-renowned research centers UPLB hosts.
On long vacations (2+ weeks), spend at least a few days with familiar faces. It’s a nice break from hotel rooms and feeling like a constant outsider.