woke up at 9 feeling bright and breezy, surprisingly, and determined to leave Fields Avenue and the sleazy mess of Angeles behind for the sleazy mess of Manila instead. I had a morning stroll up and down Fields Avenue, and found a place called Evergreen Bus company, which operated from outside the Southern Cross Hotel. I booked a seat on the 1pm bus, which gave me enough time for lunch and to check out some hotels. A bloke called Chris, whom I’d met the last time I was here gave me what seemed to be some good advice. ‘Go to Bianca’s Garden. Looks really nice on the website. Haven’t stayed there myself, but it’s in Malate, good area, next to decent bars and Manila Bay.’ I was originally thinking of staying in Makati, but after some research into Malate, I realized this was the best base for exploring the tourist sites of Manila, and within walking distance of the bay, and, more crucially, of bars and restaurants.
The bus journey was comfortable, and, though expensive compared to local transport, far more convenient and hassle-free. The bus got into Manila – a twisted maze of concrete, steel, shacks, and colourful noisy traffic on first impressions – and stopped at the Southern Cross Hotel Manila – very handy. I still persisted with the plan to get to Bianca’s Garden, however, and hopped into a waiting taxi, whose driver eventually agreed on 100 Pesos for the trip. He’d never heard of the hotel, so had to ask a trishaw rider for the way. The 2 drivers had what appeared to be a slanging match in the middle of the street, and then the trishaw rider pedaled ahead indicating the way to go. ‘Man says hotel close. Finish.’ Said the taxi driver. ‘You want me take you another hotel?’ Thinking it a scam, I refused, demanding to see the hotel. The taxi driver shrugged and obliged. We pulled up outside wasteland, where the only evidence of Bianca’s Garden was the rusty sign hanging off a green gate. Great. For someone living around Manila, Chris wasn’t very clued-in on contemporary Manila accommodation options. I was at the mercy of the driver now, though to be fair he was quite a nice chap. I let him take me to one of his recommendations. We drove into the basement of what was obviously a short-time love hotel. The ‘receptionist’ showed me a room stuffed behind a boiler in the underground car park with no windows. The bed was unmade, and empty condom wrappers were strewn on the floor. Appealing. I gave up and told the driver to take me back to the Southern Cross Hotel; and, seeing the disappointment on his face at having to give back his commission to the receptionist, I promised him another 100 pesos, which put the smile back on his face. We were getting on well, and I asked him what I could do in Manila, then quickly added that I had been many times, but never sightseeing. He gave me some ideas – Intramuros, Manila Ocean Park, Fort Santiago. Good. He dropped me off at Southern Cross and I got his number in case I fancied a personal tour the next day. I checked into Southern Cross – basic rooms for around 1,600 Pesos, overlooking the busy A Mabini Street. It was fine. I dumped my bag and headed out into the busy street.
Manila is hectic, and isn’t really a city itself, rather made of smaller cities, and thus has no definable ‘centre.’ Each area is different. I walked down the street which was teeming with the colourful shambolicness that I love the Philippines for. Multi-coloured jeepneys hurtle past, trishaws struggle around them, the trucks, the cars, and all the motorbikes, which all skillfully avoid the roadside shacks spilling out into the street, the people in the road where there is no pavement, the lack of pedestrian crossings resulting in games of chicken everywhere, the sizzle of pinoy dishes filtering through the generally all-consuming noise pollution of belching traffic. All in a single narrow street. I walked across to another street and stopped a jeepney that was going the way of Intramuros. I hopped out where I was told, and paid my 7 pesos to the driver’s mate. I was at the entrance to the old walled city of Intramuros, founded in 1571, held at various times by the British, Americans and Japanese. It holds a real medieval kind of charm, and I could imagine what it must have been like in this amazing city within a city, as I walked the cobbled streets past the churches, monasteries, and many buildings of historical significance. Huge walls still surround the city. I walked around a bit in the drizzle, then finally gave in to a persistent trishaw driver, and hopped in for 150pesos for a 1 hour tour. We went down the cobbled streets, full of crumbling old buildings, past people being ferried around in horse-drawn carriages…I felt like I was living in Spanish colonial times. We came across San Agustin church, a magnificent place, where a wedding was taking place, and across from this is Fort Santiago, once the base of Spanish military power. I entered the peaceful gardens before the fort, and walked past some huge cannons, and horse carriages with drivers trying to a get a fare, and to a moat which surrounded Fort Santiago. Inside the walls, I saw the Rizal Shrine, dedicated to Dr Jose Rizal, who was imprisoned here in the days before his execution for inciting revolution against the Spanish and being the catalyst for the independence movement. Brass footsteps mark the final walk Dr Rizal took to where the firing squad awaited him in Rizal park. Next to the shrine is a building where Dr Rizal was held, and his writings, including ‘Mi Ultimo Adios’ which was smuggled out of his cell in an oil lamp. Dr Rizal is revered throughout the Philippines, understandably.
Exiting the fort, I hopped back in my bicycle pillion, and headed to Manila Cathedral, erected again in 1951 after being annihilated during WWII. It was suitably grand inside, with a huge 4,500 pipe organ and huge stained glass windows. Casa Manila, a lovingly restored Spanish colonial home, was next, and then a few more buildings of interest. I noticed a lot of students milling around – several specialist universities are housed within these huge walls, and the pubs were already open. I went up to the wall at the entrance, which offered some nice views over Malate, and the iconic Manila Hotel, full of young couples relaxing as the sun died over Manila Bay. The walled city took on a seedy and slightly sinister edge now, but was still thronging with people. It was the kind of place I imagined some travelers from foreign lands might come knocking at one the inns asking for shelter from the dark horses….
My trishaw guy dropped me off at the entrance to Rizal Park, and I paid him 300 pesos in total, as we’d been going for at least 2 hours. He wanted 400, but then, they always want more. The last of light was dwindling out now, and those neon lights which promise so much were starting to take over. A man in the park jogging came by with a cheery ‘Welcome to our park sir!’ It’s patrolled by security guards, and was full of people tonight. The park is spread over 60 hectares, with monuments everywhere set on the clean paths and well-manicured lawns. The area has lots of little fountains, and is an oasis of calm in this concrete jungle. I took a walk around, then headed back to my hotel on foot, to get changed and head out into the Manila night.
I didn’t have to go far tonight – all the nightlife is on the same street as the hotel, pretty much. I started in the hotel bar, where I had a San Miguel as the waitresses swooned over me, much to the annoyance of the older, fat expats in the place. Guess they don’t get that many young, relatively fit guys in these parts. I got chatting to an old Aussie bloke called Luke, who had lived in various parts of Asia, and had a few stories to tell of cheating, money-grabbing ex-wives from Indonesia. Add them to the list. He was depressed because he’d just been told that the most infamous club in Manila, LA Café, had been shut down by the moral police. ‘Where the hell can I go now? Not so easy to pick up’ he moaned. I told him on my earlier walk up and down the street I had seen a couple of promising bars full of ladies, and he cheered up. He regaled me with some of his best bar-girl stories, and I realised that I really didn’t want to end up like old Luke in this bar when I’m 50, moaning about the lack of hookers. Dear me.
I didn’t stay for another beer, fearing Luke might try and be my wingman or something, so I set off alone down the street. I stopped in the Hobbit House for dinner, which had a live band and passable Mexican fare, plus over 200 varieties of beer! One more interesting thing about the bar was that everybody was a real hobbit. Or a dwarf. Or a mini-me. Or a vertically challenged person. I was slightly shocked at first when I looked down at a menu seemingly floating in the air next to the table to see a tiny woman holding it. My conversational skills suddenly disappeared. ‘What can I call you? I think ‘hobbit’ isn’t very nice’ I said, by way of conversation. ‘You can call us ‘little people’ shir. We’re used to that. I’ve worked here all my life, and my family work here too. It’s a nice place to work’ she replied. All I could think about to start a conversation was ‘have you seen Gandalf recently?’ or ‘poor old Bilbo. Off wandering Middle Earth again. When do you think he’ll come back?’ I didn’t say any of those things out loud and instead asked if I could have a Brazilian beer. ‘Certainly shir’ replied the little woman, and off she went with a purposeful waddle.
After this interesting culinary experience, I headed on down the dark streets, hands in my pockets lest any wandering hand should slip in and relieve me of my wallet or phone, like one of the many grubby-face street-kids that kept tugging at my arm and looking at me with expectant eyes. Poverty is rife here. Kids in tattered shorts hang around outside the restaurants with street-side balconies, waiting like dogs to be thrown scraps. Other kids as young as 5 sleep together on cardboard under glowing signs that promise food, drink, and out of reach material possessions. Women and children sit in the filth begging. The most touching thing I saw was an elderly couple spread out on cardboard, sleeping in the street, holding each other’s hands tightly, a symbol of human comfort in a comfortless place. Poverty like this breaks my heart. I can’t stand it, but I don’t really know what to do about it….what difference would I make? Society is cruel….not everyone can ride the gravy train in the rat-race of life. People fall and can’t catch up again, ever.
I headed somewhat reluctantly into Manila Bay Café, formerly LA Café. I can’t imagine much has changed. It was still wall-to-wall hookers, and I was by far the youngest guy in there. I perched on a stool next to a guy with long blonde hair who looked life a surfer, John. John is from England, and owns a surf-shop and school in Cornwall, where he works for 6 months a year, and then takes 6 months off and travels somewhere in the world. He’s been everywhere. He told me some great stories of his time in South America, which really whetted my appetite to go there. He’d been in Manila for a month already, and was clearly jaded and wanting to move on. We clicked well, and had a few more beers together, before he was dragged off by one of the bar girls and back to his hotel for supper. I left the bar and headed down a few side streets, stumbling upon a very cool area full of high-end establishments on a cobbled street. There was an open air area with a stage and a live band, so I sat there and had a few beers and some chips and watched the excellent Filipino band perform faultless cover versions of pop and rnb, and some of their own stuff too. It was around 2am, and it was great that all this was going on, and it seemed pleasant and safe enough here. I headed back, and managed somehow to find a casino on the way. Go on then. It had been a while. 10 years since I’d won anything. I played roulette with 1000pesos, and walked away with 3,000 in the end. My favourite roulette number, 0, had come up when I was on my last 100 pesos. Result! I was delighted to walk away with the money….years gone by I would have been greedy and tried for more. I walked back up the dark street towards my hotel, and finally reached it, a night out in Manila finished. Incredible.