Sightseeing with new eyes

Fri, 03/25/2011 - 08:00
originally published in SCMP Dec 15 2005
Things to do in Manila if you're a tourist: No1 - get out of town by sundown ... Many travellers barely touch down in the capital before they're off like a shot for the provinces.
And why not? Who would want to endure the city's crime and grime a minute longer when the beaches of Boracay, the seascapes of Palawan, the mountain vistas of Benguet and the dive spots of the Visayas beckon? True, there are dive spots in Manila, but they're really low dives, if you get my drift.
Having lived here all my life, I can affirm that while Manila can be squalid and depressing, anyone who stays longer is sure to find - more dirt and squalor. At least, I used to think so, until a recent conversation aboard a flight from Frankfurt to Manila.
My neighbour, a wry, lean and weathered man, turned out to be a retired Norwegian seaman intending to holiday in the Philippines. "Going to the provinces immediately?" I asked. "No", he replied, "I'll stay a few days in Manila." He admitted he was clueless about what to see.
For some reason, I felt that someone who would go out of his way to spend a few days in my city deserved something more than malls, billboards and pollution. I told him to see the Chinese cemetery in Caloocan and to get a guide to take him around the strange labyrinth, which has tombs built like apartments - some complete with garages and cars.
Then he should go and see the National Museum, which has acquired its own complex after years of squatting in various government buildings. Its respectable exhibits include one on the Manila galleons, the Spanish treasure ships from the colonial era.
From there it's a short walk to the old walled city, Intramuros, and the San Agustin church and monastery, which dates to 1587 and has a fascinating collection of religious artefacts covering four centuries.
He could then see Corregidor, the ruined American island fortress in the mouth of Manila Bay. I have heard about a tour that includes a hydrofoil ride and a sound-and-light show in the island's eerie command centre, Malinta Tunnel.
I told him to take a bus ride 60km south to see Tagaytay, the city overlooking Taal, the country's deadliest volcano. It consists of a huge lake with an island with a smaller lake in it.
Was Manila so interesting after all? I was surprised at the length of my list. So was the woman in front, a Filipina who had apparently been eavesdropping. Leaning over, she said: "That was good. Are you a travel agent?" No, let somebody else do the arranging. Me, I'm going to check out that Corregidor tour.

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