Friday, October 3, 2014

Philippines: The Banana Republic of Asia

"It's More Fun in the Philippines". Officially. At least according to the marketers in the Philippine Department of Tourism. Generally, if a place needs a slogan to inspire people to visit, it may be an overrated trap. Just think of Baltimore — the "Charm City" that is anything but charming. Or Malaysia — "Truly Asia"... but what does that even mean? If it means the street trash and cockroaches which I saw in Kuala Lumpur, then please don't send me there. Or just consider all of the random dull cities in Korea with slogans — "Happy Suwon", "Colorful Daegu", "Fantasia Bucheon". But now I digress.

In any event, I was eager to visit the beaches of Boracay after a stressful and unhappy few weeks at work. I was at risk of burnout and I definitely needed the time off.

I wanted to take the direct Seoul flight to Kalibo, but my Vietnamese girlfriend talked me into meeting her in Manila and transiting from there. Flights from Ho Chi Minh City to Philippines are not readily available, so I agreed to inconvenience myself a bit with an overnight layover at the decrepit Manila airport. After reading the awful things about the airport online — "worst airport in Asia" was pretty standard — I decided to rent a room for 5 hours at the Manila Airport Hotel to catch a short rest. An awful hotel, but convenient to the airport, and for $73 was totally overpriced given the quality. But at least I had the peace of mind that I wouldn't be robbed while napping at the airport.

My girlfriend's flight from Ho Chi Minh was supposed to arrive at 4:30am, giving us a tight time window to make our scheduled 6:30am flight to Caticlan. But, of course, her flight was delayed — I ended up checking in solo and waiting in the mobbed and chaotic Cebu Pacific boarding area ... actually "cattle chamber" would be a better description ... hoping that my girlfriend would make it in time for our flight (which was also delayed, as seemingly every flight was at Manila airport on this crystal clear, sunny morning). The puddle-jumper airplane to Caticlan had an open seat next to mine, and I ended up taking the water jetty and tricycle taxi to the beach front alone. But the shower at the hotel felt wonderful, as did breakfast, and thankfully my girlfriend showed up (a bit frazzled) a short while after.

Boracay is not a place with history or culture, and it is not the place to make a lot of plans. The island is a beach and a very nice beach at that — comparable to the Caribbean. You get there, you put on your flip-flops and you walk around the beach. Unfortunately September is still rainy season in the Philippines, and while the rain certainly wasn't long-lasting or overly disruptive, the prevailing winds churn up enough waves such that swimming isn't recommended. Aside from the continual hawking by tour operators, jewelry sellers and the like, as well as the crowds along the beach strip (even during rainy season) Boracay is a good place to chill out and enjoy the simple life. That is, however, unless you're looking to escape Korean tourists, who seem to be ubitiquous.

Puka Beach was very relaxing

We spent the first day walking the beach in bright sunlight (recommendation: bring strong sunscreen to Boracay) and found a sailboat operator near our hotel to take us out on the second day. The sailboat took us around Boracay Island, stopping at the nice Puka Beach on the northern edge of the island, snorkeling in the sea, walking through the Crystal Cave. It felt really relaxing to be on a sailboat again after several years. We were supposed to go cliff jumping as well but the boat commissioner was a bit unscrupulous and we didn't receive the full tour which we had negotiated for. When the young boat handlers asked us for the full payment at the end of the tour my girlfriend and I were really upset, but with patience we managed to bargain down to a discount from our agreed-upon package. A much-needed massage afterwards was just what the doctor ordered to calm us down again.

Dinners were also a highlight. One night my girlfriend and I walked to D'Talipapa seafood market, home to the biggest live lobsters that I had ever seen! We bought one to share (they were a little expensive) and had it cooked in one of the adjacent restaurants. Another night we ate a sumptuous outdoor buffet at the Boracay Regency Hotel.

Unfortunately we had only planned 3 of our 5 days in Boracay, and on the 4th morning we were taking the puddle jumper airplane back to Manila. We checked into a hotel on the sleazy edge of the otherwise upscale Makati area, then caught a taxi to see the historical sights in the walled Intramuros area. It was a rainy day and the taxi stalled in terrible midday Manila traffic. Inside Intramuros we ate a so-so tapas lunch and then walked around to see the old fortresses and churches. Intramuros is not impressive at all — it is run-down, dull, and full of annoying bicycle taxi drivers who yell at every foreign face in sight. I was really unhappy that my girlfriend had chosen to visit this instead of remaining in Boracay. Maybe she wanted me to gather an appreciation for "real Philippines". However we did have a wonderful sashimi dinner at a Japanese restaurant near our hotel, so I ended the day feeling a little better.

Sunset from the highest point on Boracay Island, Mt. Luho

We probably should have left Manila for a day trip on the 5th day, but we woke up late and didn't accomplish anything until lunch. We ate at an upscale Western-style restaurant, Blackbird in the Nielson Tower, and I was feeling quite at home munching calmly on beef carpaccio and beetroot salad. The afternoon was pretty lazy aside from walking around the American Cemetery, the largest US-administered military burial ground outside of the 50 States, where we gathered an appreciation for all the great battles fought in WWII in the Pacific.

We ate a slow shabu-shabu hot pot dinner in Makati's Greenbelt Mall and expected to reach the airport in plenty of time. But on a rainy weeknight we ended up in horrific 9pm traffic and my girlfriend very nearly missed her plane back to Ho Chi Minh City. In fact it was a struggle for me to take a taxi between the newish Terminal 3 and the dilapidated Terminal 1 at Manila Airport. A 4-hour flight back to Seoul, a shower at Incheon Airport, and I was back at my desk at Samsung for the Thursday workday. Ahh... the sacrifices we make to save our precious vacation days.

After my first visit to Philippines I think the term "Banana Republic of Asia" is definitely a more apt description. The infrastructure is terrible. The Manila traffic is horrific. The begging for tourist dollars is aggressive. Filipino food is bland and uninteresting and unhealthy. And prices are expensive compared to Southeast Asia. But the beaches are wonderful and you can drink mango or coconut juice to your heart's content. The diving opportunities, which I did not take up, I am told are amazing, and even during rainy season the weather was reasonable on the beach. Boracay felt safer than a Caribbean island and along as you stay away from Manila, I think you can have some fun in the Philippines.

There are some nice parts of Manila. But not many.