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Winter Vacation 2011, (Vol. 1): Philippines

The first thing that hit me as soon as I got off the airplane in Manila and made my way into the airport was that I have officially been in Korea for too long.  The warmth of the Philippines and its many kind, mostly English-speaking people should have felt like home to me.  But it didn’t. You know why?  Home is freaking South Korea now. 

Instead of feeling at ease in my first steps outside of Korea in more than five months, I found myself paranoid when people were friendly to me and chose to talk to me without any apparent reason.  Instead of feeling right at home, I found myself a little taken aback by the prevalence of English everywhere we traveled.  And what’s more, I found myself needlessly bowing to people when I greeted them—something that I feel fairly certain is going to follow me back to the United States some day in the not-too-distant future.

The Philippines were the first and longest leg of our tour of Southeast Asia in January and February of 2011, and an endurance test that grew on me somewhat nearly every day of our stay.  Admittedly, the first day was a little rough for me.  The first reason is that I would liken the people associated with my bank in the United States with something akin to the hypothetical monkeys to which one refers when they speak of “The Infinite Monkey Theorem” (yes, it’s a thing:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinite_monkey_theorem) and upon arriving in Philippines I was unable to take money out of any ATM I encountered despite repeated efforts to let my bank know in advance that I would be traveling.  I was also rather surprised at the number of beggars and, more specifically, child beggars that we encountered, something which I had been exposed to a’plenty in Nicaragua but had not prepared myself for in naively considering this trip a “vacation”.

Accordingly, Manila was an adjustment.  We didn’t have the luxury of escaping to some of the more tropical paradises one might consider when thinking about the more beach-offering regions of the Philippines.  We had to make due with whatever we could find in Manila’s vicinity.  We weren’t in the cleanest part of town (although we weren’t more than a few blocks walk from it) and hookers, alcoholics, strip joints, and street urchins were just a corner’s turn away at almost any walk to the more ritzier neighborhoods around us in Makati City.  Accordingly, it took us a while to learn to navigate, even though we did eventually discover the Greenbelt Mall area—this “Metropolis”-esque island of wealth and lavish temptation not more than a kilometer away from some fairly endemic poverty and your typical-looking cinderblock slums.

Seriously, you should check this thing out:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenbelt_Mall  We literally could have spent our entire vacation there (and we almost did).  The place even has a fully functional and well-attended open-air chapel in the middle of it, surrounded by a moat.

Once wearisome of Manila, we decided to take a couple of day trips, including one to Corregidor Island and one to the Taal Lake Volcano near Tagatay, which is said to be the smallest active volcano in the world, although it still looked pretty damn big to me.  Let’s start with Corregidor.  This tiny island located near the mouth of Manila Bay was a focal point in that city’s defense from Japan during the Second World War.  Lead by none other than Douglas MacArthur himself, a combination of American and Filipino soldiers bravely fought to isolate Manila Bay from Japanese use during the war and, eventually, the whole ordeal resulted in this movie http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036367/ which, frankly, sounds just dreadful.

I quite enjoyed our time on Corregidor Island.  It’s an insightful and well-organized tour that included a very delicious lunch and you’ll get to see plenty of old cannons and great vistas of Manila Bay and the island itself, and even a couple of plucky monkeys if you’re lucky.  However, touring the island is also a great chance to see obnoxious Korean tourists (Koreans are wonderful people but tourism seems to bring out the worst in them) climb all over the prized cannons that are celebrated across the island and just show a general lack of respect for the memorials and monuments scattered throughout Corregidor.  I personally watched a group of about seven Koreans climb all over one cannon just so that they could all pose for a picture, completely oblivious of the OTHER tourists who were content to have a picture simply standing next to it.  Way obnoxious and offensively disrespectful, in my opinion, and this is coming from ME.

The Taal Lake experience, though, was easily the highlight of my time in the Philippines.  Wary of the grueling bus and jeepney rides that it would take to cover the roughly 90 minute travel time between Manila and the lake, we managed to swing a private car thanks to the wonderful people at our hostel, Our Melting Pot.  We were delivered to the edge of the lake at some time around 1:00 in the afternoon and given a price that included travel across the lake (which took about 40 minutes roundtrip), the disembarkment/entry fee to the island, mule rental, etc.  The trip across the lake was choppy as Hell and got us quite soaked, but it was completely worth it and I, for one, enjoyed the horse ride tremendously, even though my horse panted enough to convince me that losing a bit of weight ought to be my 2011 resolution. 

The view at the top is not to be missed; not just for the fantastic view of the volcanic crater, which is pretty impressive, but also for the view of the lake itself which makes for some wonderful photo ops on the way back down.  We did get rained on a bit but there were plenty of tourists along the way so at no point did we ever feel completely isolated.  And the locals are plenty accustomed to dealing with tourists.  They all spoke pretty decent English and didn’t seem to offended when we constantly declined their offers for Tagatay/Taal Volcano t-shirts, which are freaking everywhere in that area.  You’re better served to simply enjoy a $3 bill (which is highway robbery for Philippines prices) and enjoy the view at the top for a spell and then apologize to the sweet ladies at the bottom as you make your way back to the boat completely t-shirtless. 

I wish I had had a little bit more time to explore Tagatay and Talisay as the communities surrounding the lake really seemed very colorful and friendly.  The town at the top of the cliffs leading down to the lake also seemed pretty nifty and I would have loved to have lunch there or something if we could have planned for it, but it wasn’t exactly in our funding.

Anyway, it took the Philippines about a day or two to really win me over but there really is some wonder to behold even around Manila—a place that many people who travel the islands will tell you to avoid.  Don’t believe the hype.  Manila has its rough spots for sure (stay away from China Town) and I wouldn’t go to places like Intramuros alone, for example, but there is also some fantastic eating and shopping in Manila, and the people area as kind as you’re liable to meet in Asia.  If you’re hard up for something to do, ask the locals as they’ll know the best things to do and the best (read: cheapest) ways to go about doing them.  Next time I’ll be making my way for Boracay and Cebu, for sure, but I’m happy that I planned the things the way I did my first time around in the Philippines.

And, hey, at least I’d like to go back.

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