Blog Updated! May 25, 2013
Story Updated! August 2, 2012

Philippines 2013: It's More Fun in the Philippines!

I'm back from my latest trip to the Philippines. The country is beautiful and fascinating and unless a goddamn submarine tender is involved, always a pleasure to visit. If you've never been to the Philippines please do not judge it by what you've heard about Manila or Subic Bay. That's like basing your opinion of the United States on single trip to (INSERT CITY YOU DON'T LIKE HERE) and it's back alleys.

Our journey took us to amazing places, some of which are one of a kind in Asia (or a dime a dozen in certain parts of Latin America, but Filipino-ized) and other that can be seen nowhere else.  My first vacation here went around central Luzon so this time we went north.

North is kind of a vague place so clarify, central Luzon is roughly from the general Manila area to the south to the mountain city of Baguio to the north. Baguio is the gateway to the Cordillera Mountains  and the self-proclaimed "City of Pines."

This trip we ventured past Baguio further into the mountains to see the grand rice terraces of Benaue, the great outdoors in Sagada and then had a few days rest on the coast in the Spanish colonial town of Vigan. Of course when you're that close to the northern tip... why stop there? We made a lot of unexpected stops along the way and also took the time to begin something we began three years ago in Mariveles. Former headhunters, rice terraces, Spanish towns and the well-preserved body of President Ferdinand E. Marcos... this trip had it all.

I travelled with Oli and Audrey, Filipinas and my adopted family. It was great spending time with them again.

 

DAY ONE: Manila... Again


A herd of beautiful wild Jeepneys running free across the plains.

 We spent the first day in Luneta Park and Intramuros. Before the Americans came when one spoke of Manila they spoke of Intramuros,  the walled city. Nearby Luneta is home to the old neoclassical American-era government buildings, rebuilt after being leveled in the 1945 Battle of Manila. I've been to Manila twice before so I didn't see the usual tourist spots here again like the Rizal Monument or walk through the Park but we did visit the National Museum of the Filipino People (NMFP) and the National Museum Art Gallery, formerly the Department of Commerce / National Library and Commonwealth Senate building. The NMFP can be confusing as the museum is a five story office building and has parts spread over multiple floors, but occupies less than a quarter of the building at most. The rest of it is locked doors and empty rooms giving it a distinctly abandoned quality. The ground floor exhibit is currently artifacts from the wreck of the Spanish galleon turned warship San Diego, which sunk after a fight with the Dutch on December 14, 1600.


San Diego artifacts


The first jars I saw on this journey... and definitely not the last.

By artifacts I mean jars. Lots and lots and lots of jars. Until this trip I didn't truly appreciate the importance of giant earth-ware jars to Filipino culture. On two floors there are rooms full of jars of every make that existed including the valuable Chinese jars which everyone seemed to covet. Oh, and there were cannons too. Even a few Japanese kitanas from the contingent of Japanese mercenaries aboard San Diego when she went down.

Before deciding not to visit the NMFP based on the account thus far please don't cross it off your bucket list just yet. The presentation is pretty bad the first few floors, with few exceptions it feels like the artifacts could quickly be stripped out and replaced with a few chairs for a seminar or table for a buffet and no one would ever guess it was a museum. Then the top floor happens and it's like visiting a completely different museum. One space is built like an old village complete with huts and boats, the burial chamber room feels like visiting a dark cave full of death jars and bones and the natural history part has volcanic walls. It's like a reward for putting up with the lazily designed museum the previous three floors.


The National Museum of the Philippines Art Gallery & Other Stuff Too
(Formerly the Commonwealth of the Philippines Senate Building)

The National Art Gallery is home to many works by the painter Juan Luna (1857-1899). Like the jars, until this trip I hadn't appreciated his importance to the nation's history, but as this trip went on I just kept hearing his name and seeing things associated with him and his brother, Antonio. Juan was a award winning artist as well as a patriotic Illustrado, a patriot, and his was brother a general who fought the Spanish during the Revolution and the Americans soon after. Juan died of a heart attack days after his brother was murdered by President Aguinaldo's men... Philippine politics of this era are complicated so I won't get into that.


Juan Luna's Spolarium, winner of a gold medal at the 1884 Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes

His great award winning work Spolarium and the discreetly allegorical Parisian Life reside in this gallery. Like the NMFP this place is a bit off, half the rooms are closed and a big chunk of the Art Gallery is actually the remnant of other now defunct museums. Amidst the rooms of Juan Luna's finest works there's also a room of animals bones and preserved plants. The restored, though entirely empty, main Senate chamber is also worth taking a peek at.

Later in the day we visited Fort Santiago, the stronghold of Intramuros. It's a three century old Spanish that mostly survived the 1945 battle and was restored in the early 1980's. I still remember the tour I got on my first trip here from a very helpful guard, so this time we came here simply to enjoy the view and so my little sister could take some pictures for her 18th birthday party blow out thing.

The fort is full of stories from its centuries of service. The standout ones comes from World War II were Japanese forces that refused General Yamashita's retreat order used it to make a last stand and 49 years prior when it held Dr. Jose Rizal.

Dr. Jose Rizal, National Hero of the Philippines, was held here prior to his execution in 1896. His death set off the Philippine Revolution. His prison is now a shrine and the path he took from the chapel to the front gate for his exectution are marked in brass footsteps. A less gruesome museum on the grounds is the Rizaliana Furniture Hall that houses antique furniture from his family home in the Philippines and his medical practice in Hong Kong. Like the jars and Juan Luna a third item here suddenly became a part of our trip that once seen would be everywhere. Oli asked what the small pot was beside the bed, so I explained to her that it was a chamber pot. Then I had to explain what a chamber pot was. This would become relevant later on as we visited more old home up north that had preserved rooms with the furniture left as was, including more chamber pots.


Spanish crest over Fort Santiago's entrance


Fort Santiago; inside the building is Jose Rizal's chamber pot.


Jose Rizal's chamber pot and other furniture too. Isn't history fun?


The golden steps of Jose Rizal. At 4'11" the statue is life-sized. Besides being a good reason for Revolution Rizal was also the first Western-trained eye doctor in the Philippines, a writer, painter, sculptor and ladies man.

 

HOTEL: Hyatt Hotel & Casino

My usual Manila hotel, the Pavilion, was undergoing a major renovation accompanied by a drop in service quality and room cleanliness standards so I stayed at the Hyatt instead. I usually have nothing but praise for the Hyatt hotel chain, and while this one was good I felt it was a bit over-priced. I'd always gotten the club benefits when staying at the Kota Kinabalu Hyatt but the $70 a day price tag for access to the clubroom simply wasn't worth it here. The breakfast buffet was worth writing home about though and had food from both East and West. Finally I could enjoy pancakes as they were meant to be- with a side of mangos and dim sum! I am not joking.

After dinner I stopped in the club room to make use of my $70 a day mistake for a drink. I asked a waiter what kind of rum they had on hand to which he replies, "We use Jim Beam rum." When I asked what kind of vodka he had the reply was, "Bacardi vodka." I should have asked for the Jose Cuervo Scotch.

Manila Bay sunsets are, weather permitting- and it didn't, spectacular, so I paid a little extra for a Bay View Room. When I say bay view I think that means I can throw open the curtains and there's the blue waters of Manila Bay, dominating the view. What I got was, throw open the curtains and there's a lot of city under renovations and construction, but if I look to the left there's some bay. On the plus side I was upgraded to a suite since I was willing to take a smoking room. My nose is backed up and the perma-smog of Manila doesn't help so it wasn't like I could smell the former occupant's bad habit.


Manila bay at Sunset. The picture looks more impressive than the actual view was.


DAY TWO: Tarlac & Capas
 

Welcome to Tarlac City: We have a mall now! To the left is that famous symbol of Tarlac, the McDonald's sign. It's about the only thing Tarlac is known for. Typical conversation involving Tarlac, "We're going to pass through Tarlac." "They have that McDo's, right?"

Our first travel day we took the Victory Liner bus from Cubao station to Tarlac, a ride of about three hours via the SCTEX (Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway). Tarlac is a small rural city that seems little different than the rest of the ramshackle shanty town that runs the length of MacArthur Highway. But it has a SM Mall now is it's officially city. Generally people ride from Manila to Baguio and Tarlac is a bathroom and bite to eat. We stopped here because it's the nearest city to Capas.


Capas National Shrine esplanade

 The only World War II site in the original itinerary was a stop at the Capas National Shrine. Capas is built on the site of Camp O'Donnell. This POW camp was the end point of the Bataan Death March and between April 12, 1942 and July 25, 1942 claimed the lives of about 30,000 POWs. It's situated in the absolute middle of nowhere plus a few kilometers. We took a long jeepney ride from Tarlac to some point down the highway where a tricycle would ferry us off the main road to Capas. A tricycle is a motorcycle with a covered sidecar. It can comfortably hold two Filipinas. I am a 6' American. I kind of poked out the back but me and Oli fit while Audrey rode sidesaddle with the driver. Don't worry, we didn't over  load it. This is the Philippines, there's always room for one more and maybe a few live chickens.

 
Now add 6' and 180 lbs of me to that sidecar.


Lunch at the no name cafe next to the current Camp O'Donnell.

Approaching the shrine we saw the last few white Death March kilometer  markers, but unlike kilometer 0 there is no special park or notice give to kilometer 111. You just keep riding and a minute later are at the gates of Capas National Shrine. There are yellow obelisks that continue after 111 and coincidentally continue on from 112 to 124, which is in Barangay O'Donnell near the Crow Valley Military Reservation aka Clark Air Field's bombing range. Yes, we rode all the way out there on that country road just in case those counted as death march markers too. Turns out they're not but it was a fun 30 kilometers we spent in a tricycle. We stopped outside the current Camp O'Donnell, a Philippine Army base and had halo-halo in a one room store across the street. The lady running it made the delicious deserts, served drinks and sold Armed Forces of the Philippines souvenir shorts, shirts and pillow cases at the same time so getting the bill from her took awhile.


Under the obelisk

Capas is a grand and solemn shrine, very different from the Shrine of Valor on Mt. Samat, where the Battle of Bataan ended. The memorial is composed of an obelisk surrounded by a round black marble wall, like the black marble of the Vietnam War Memorial. According to a plaque the obelisk's three legs represent the American, Filipino and Japanese peoples who've learned the lessons of the past and now live in an age of global peace. I'm guessing the Japanese paid for the obelisk.


The wall around the obelisk contains the names of everyone who died here at Camp O'Donnell

Audrey set about looking for relatives on the wall and found two. Her family is from Bataan so it wasn't surprising. Near the great monument is a smaller and older one built by the Battling Bastards of Bataan, the American Bataan survivor's group. At first I thought it was a small cemetery off to the side near a one room museum and the last surviving cattle car used to move prisoners from the railhead at San Fernando on the Death March. The train ride section of the Death March was as deadly as walking part. Sixty men were crammed into this small car, in the larger ones 150, so tight they could not sit or move but were pinned in place by the press of bodies. The floor was covered in excrement. The April heat cooked them in these cars and men could suffocate due to lack of air as the doors were shut to prevent escape. Men died standing up and remained upright as there was no room to fall. The car is outside and somewhat exposed to the elements, but it covered by a good roof that seems to keep it dry.


The last existing train car used for a portion of the Bataan Death March


The small memorial beside the main shrine erected by the Battling Bastards of Bataan (American Bataan survivor's organization). The cross is a replica of the original cement cross made by POWs as a memorial for the Americans who died in Camp O'Donnell. The original is now in the National Prisoner of War Museum at Andersonville, Georgia.

Before finishing with Capas we stopped at the last Death March Marker, completing what we began back in 2010 when we saw the kilometer 0 in Mariveles, 111 kilometers away. So it took us awhile. It wasn't like we were on a forced march or anything

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The final Death March Marker near Capas National Shrine

HOTEL: Grand Prix Inn
 

Definitely not the Hyatt. We had reservations at the Victory Liner's Grand Prix Inn, located above the bus station. For about $10 you get a room. For $20 you get a room with a toilet and cold shower. Regardless of the price  you get all the noise and ambience of sleeping in a busy bus station. I made the mistake of paying for the room with private bath. The cold water trickled from the shower head and I left a roach trapped under the waste basket for the maid to deal with. Sadly it was a waste of $10 as I and my companions were the only guests that night.

I hope you enjoyed the travelogue so far, next we'll venture into the mountain provinces to visit Baguio and Banaue.

Philippines Vacation 2013: Baguio-Banaue

Ghosts of Seattle

Mariveles, Bataan Province, Philippines

This metal 'Soldier's Grave' is part of the Death March Memorial at Kilometer 0, where the march began in Mariveles. An identical sculpture is on Corregidor as well. We found this by accident, we were driving to the bancay boats to get to Corregidor when we missed our turn. I noticed the Death March marker we passed said "2 km" on it, so I asked our driver if he could go another two kilometers before turning around. Sure enough two kilometers down the road, across the the beach and nestled in a quiet little park next to a Jollibee fast food restaurant was the Death March Kilometer 0 Memorial Park.

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