Disclaimer: If you are not a fan of traffic, you may as well stop reading right now because the Philippines is probably not for you. Where an Australian would see potentially 2 lanes of traffic, a Filipino will see 6! Let’s just say, I will never complain about Perth “traffic” again… With that out of the way, let’s get started!
If you’re at all familiar with Filipino cuisine, you would have heard about the signature dessert dish, Halo Halo. Translating to “mix mix”, there is actually no better metaphor for the Philippines themselves. An eclectic, and at times manic, combination of Spaniard, American, Chinese and East Asian influences all come together to form a multi-faceted nation that is anything but dull. Being half Filipino myself, I had high hopes for my travels to the mother(s) land… Fortunately, I left feeling a much deeper connection to that side of my cultural heritage, identity and values. Plus I get to see where those weird little quirks I picked up from Mum, come from (what do you mean you don’t point with your lips?)
WHERE I STAYED – CITY GARDEN GRAND HOTEL, 8008 Makati Ave, Makati. Staying with family for the majority of my trip, I got a more authentic insight into the day-to-day life of a Filipino. I do, however, enjoy my hotels, this time choosing to stay at the City Garden Grand Hotel in the predominately business district of Makati for the last leg of the trip. Westerners will feel at home in Makati, with an expansive buffet of shopping centers to choose from. Speaking of buffets, the hotel’s one is not one I’ll be turning my nose up at, providing an impressive range from Filipino, Asian and Western cuisines. Pizza for breakfast, anyone? Even the traffic seems better behaved here! The magical rooftop sights over glittery Makati only provide a fractional viewpoint of the many districts making up Manila. Heading over to the Ayala Triangle, we watched an unassuming park transform into a stage for the annual “Festival of Lights”. The trees, strung up with what appears like millions of twinkling lights, pulsate and change colours to the hypnotic beats.
WHAT I DID – I was fortunate to have cousins acting as tour guides, spoiling us with (and importantly driving us around to) so many brilliant places. You can’t come to Manila and not drop into one of Asia’s largest malls, The Mall of … er, Asia. Okay, not the most imaginative name, but when it holds it’s own Olympic sized ice skating rink, you have no choice but forgive its name’s un-originality. If you need a break from the mall traffic (yes, foot traffic is a thing here, too) just take a short stroll outside and check out the food stalls along Manila Bay. I unashamedly took great interest in a few shops during my stay; in particular Filipino owned clothing brands Bench and Penshoppe. Think of them as an Australian equivalent of Cotton On… except, I’ve never seen Cotton On use the likes of Cara Delevingne, Sean O’Pry or Kendal Jenner in their advertising. Other impressive shopping centers we visited included Glorietta and Greenbelt in Makati. Whilst in the capital, make time to visit Manila Ocean Park and it’s aquarium where you can even get your photo taken… feeding German penguins. Yes, you read right. Penguins. From Germany. Only in the Philippines!
Now these concrete jungles are fun and everything, but it’s when you trek out into good old Mother Nature, that you get to experience the sheer beauty that the Philippines has to offer. We headed to popular attraction, the “People’s Park in the Sky”, in Tagaytay, which is a park converted from an incomplete mansion. It’s one of those “top of the world”, kind of places. Being eye level with the clouds as they roll over the mountainous surround is sure to inspire. The Sky Ranch, a mini amusement park, provides another vantage point over the impressive Taal Volcano and the lake that it is submerged in. Gotta admit, not an everyday sight for this Perthian. We bravely rode a flying fox, gliding directly over the mountain side, giving us a literal birds-eye-view of nature at it’s finest. There is an observation wheel for those who prefer a slower pace. There is perhaps just one attraction I woudn’t exactly encourage others to go see… Puzzle Mansion. Home to the, Guinness World Record certified, largest collection of puzzles, this “attraction” is one you may as well leave off your to-see list, unless, of course, you’re a hardcore puzzle fanatic, I suppose!
MUST EAT – I love explaining Filipino food to people because the dishes themselves give great insight into the nation’s history. Some dishes reflect it’s South East Asian neighbours, including the Chinese, some share traits with their colonizers, the Spanish, and some take cues from their allies during the war, the Americans in the way of fast food and fried chicken. Now, you can’t mention fast food and the Philippines in the same sentence and not think of its national fast food treasure, Jollibee (in fact, this is one of the few countries in the world where McDonald's is outranked as preferred fast food joint). Switch up your usual order with fries and try Chickenjoy (fried chicken) with a side of rice! There’s a Filipino noodle dish, palabok, if you’re feeling adventurous. Filipinos are also obsessed with pork, so you can’t escape it – just give into a plate of lechon kawali and worry about the treadmill when you get home. In the way of sweets, experience some authentic Filipino flavours by grabbing some ice cream in either keso, (cheese) or ube, a purple yam-like vegetable, flavours. It sounds weird, but is unsettlingly delicious. I was even shocked by how much I enjoyed a mais (sweet corn) smoothie! I have to say, my favourite desert had to be buko (coconut) tarts, which fortunately I did not eat too much of because I was in a constant state of “full”. The best overall dining experience was at a place called Villa Escudero, Malete, where a Filipino buffet is served. You sit in front of a waterfall, at bamboo tables, submerged in a few inches of its running water. Clear water, running past your feet and adobo on your plate makes for a memorable meal.
THE VERDICT – I’m obviously biased here, so it comes as no surprise for me to say I loved my time in the Pilipinas. For Australians, the Philippines does not have the same prominence as a tourist destination than say, Bali or Thailand, but do not underestimate what the “Pearl of the Orient Seas” has to offer. There is so much more to explore, especially for those looking for an island escape. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Filipinos are renowned for being one of the world’s friendliest people – and that it is home to the world’s most beautiful woman, Miss Universe 2015!