A tricked-out Jeepney blaring Bon Jovi pulls up to the stoplight. The driver, wearing a stone-washed jean jacket belts out, “You give love a bad name,” touches his rosary dangling from the rearview mirror, and drives away. Where are we? The Philippines, colonized by the Spanish then the Americans (yes, the U.S. had colonies) is Catholic, largely English speaking, and loves 80s rock and peanut butter. Count us in! Manila, is not the Philippines’ most scenic destination but a fascinating gateway to the country’s 7,000 islands and a very different side of Asia.
Before we found out the Philippines was a mecca of American junk food, we stocked up on Skippy and Nutella in Australia. As we shuffled through airport security, our bag gets pulled aside for a closer look. How could we forget to check our liquid gold?! The TSA man goes to throw away both jars, we cried out: “No! Wait!” With a small window before our flight, we backtracked the security line, got out our sporkife, and started eating PB&N like there was no tomorrow. Shoving our faces while simultaneously making inch-thick cracker sandwiches to-go, we finished the jars as best we could and ran back to line. The TSA can’t stop you for peanut butter breath.
We made it to Manila, one of the world’s biggest cities and the capital of the Philippines, and took it all in from sparkling new malls to slums to Spanish colonial buildings to seaside promenades.
When you ask an inn keeper or read a guide book on Manila, their list of tourist attractions is a short one. Though the two zones that can keep you busy for a couple days are Ermita and the colonial district of Intramuros. We started in Ermita and strolled the regal Rizal Park, admiring the landscaping, statues, and horse carriages carting smitten couples.
On day two we went to the historic colonial zone of Intramuros, or in Spanish, “Within the Walls.” Fort Santiago was built in 1571 for the Españoles to defend their new walled city and has since been occupied by the Brits, Americans, and Japanese and in 1950 declared a “Shrine of Freedom.” Now it’s finally a place for locals to enjoy a stroll or watch sunset over the bay.
Colonial churches can be found all around Southeast Asia but they are shells from another era. In the Philippines they are the nation’s pride and the heart of religious activity. We strolled Intramuros and dipped into the UNESCO world heritage site of the San Augstin Cathedral and admired the Romanesque-Byzantine inspired Manila Cathedral from the manicured square.
The hustle, sizzle, and steam of the Manila night markets let us know we were firmly back in Southeast Asia. Many of the foods looked familiar, but in the Philippines you can actually ask the chef what’s in them—for better or worse. Duck embryo, dog stew, tripe with bile secretion…I’m pretty sure we’d eaten these things before in Asia but enjoyed them more in a state of ignorance.
When English wasn’t an option and menus were in the national language of Tagalog, basic Spanish can get you by. During centuries of Spanish rule, the languages and even the food styles blended. Empanadas, adobo, sopa, pastel…(that’s all in Tagalog). The cost of the feast in the photo above was 75 pesos or $1.66 USD. Not bad, right?
Now back to those tricked-out Jeeps. Jeepneys are a purely Filipino phenomenon and our favorite local transport in the world. These vehicles were constructed from U.S. Military jeeps left over from World War II and have since been stretched and customized into regional buses with a whole lotta flair. The origin of the word jeepney has different theories: “jeep” + “jitney,” while other sources say “jeep” and “knee”, because the passengers literally sit knee-to-knee on the parallel benches in the back. The best part is their personal expression. No two Jeepneys are the same and they bear the artistry, humor, and pomp of its driver. Jokes, family photos, and biblical verses are often displayed on the inside and outside it’s as like Pimp my Ride: The Frankenstein Edition.
I’ll admit I was a little skeptical coming to the Philippines. I had never heard much about it, besides that some islands could be a bit dangerous. It’s definitely not on the backpacker “Banana Pancake Trail” of Southeast Asia, but that is a very good thing. We rarely saw tourists and locals welcomed us with open arms, humor, and conversation (often in English!). After a few days exploring the capital city of Manila, we knew it was going to be a great three weeks exploring the mountains, rice terraces, beaches, and remote islands of what would soon become one of our favorite countries.