During our three weeks in the Philippines, we got to experience four very distinct areas and manners of living. We stayed in private homes for our entire visit, no hotels at all. So far, we have just a glimpse of this nation of 100 million people, but during our visit, we got to experience:
- Metro Manila boomtown area of Bonifacio Global City
- Metro Manila informal settler’s area of Las Pinas
- Baguio City in the north at an elevation of 5,000 feet (1500 meters)
- Simple living on the shores of Lake Taal
Bonifacio Global City
Our first two weeks were spent in a 37th-floor condo in Bonifacio Global City. This is a booming financial district just 11km (7 miles) southeast of downtown Manila. The area was formerly part of the Philippine Army base, Fort Bonifacio. Before that, it was the USA military base of Fort McKinley. Starting about 2003, the area began to be developed as a commercial and residential area. There are countless 50 story plus skyscrapers and we counted more than a dozen construction cranes building more and more office buildings and luxury condos.
Our one-bedroom condo overlooks the American Cemetery where over 17,000 American and Filipino soldiers from World War II are laid to rest.
Just a few blocks away is the large, five story shopping mall that houses many upscale shops and restaurants. International chain stores are there such as Forever 21, Columbia Sportswear, Rolex, Marks and Spencer, and Ace Hardware. In addition, there are many Filipino and Asian stores. We made an almost daily visit to Starbucks where we got good, free internet service.
Just a few more blocks from there is the High Street pedestrian mall. This is a great place to just go and hang out, or enjoy walking around, looking at the public art, or visiting one of the many trendy shops or restaurants. On the weekends, various events are held. While we were there, there was a display of bonsai trees and a Farmers Market/Food Fair event.
The area is a planned community with a great mix of offices, commercial and residential spaces. Parks and public areas are sprinkled through Bonifacio Global City. It really was an impressive place.
Motorcycle taxis and tricycle taxis are banned in the BGC area. However, you can still catch one of the ubiquitous Philippine Jeepneys. These colorful, unique vehicles are a popular method of transportation throughout the Philippines and are a tremendous bargain. It costs just 8 pesos for a typical ride, about $0.15 USD. The only trick is you need to be able to find the right one that is going where you are going. We took one ride in one, with the help of a friend.
From Bonifacio Global City, we took Uber to visit many of the Manila tourist sites: Intramuros area, boat to Corregidor Island, National Museum, and Ayala Museum. English is widely spoken in the Philippines in general, and I think especially in the upscale BGC area. We had no problem getting around, the Uber app is especially nice. Traffic can be a nightmare in Manila, but even a one-hour ride to go 10 km (6 miles) was less than $8.00 USD.
We have several close Filipino friends. Some of the things we have learned about the Filipino people are that: they cook great food, they are hardworking, they typically have large families, and that there are Filipinos all over the world. As we travel the world and meet more people, we keep getting more contacts of Filipinos around the world. “If you ever go to Norway, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Italy, Saudi Arabia, etc. etc. I have a cousin, uncle, aunt, etc. there. Let me know, give them a call, they will take care of you.”
The condo we stayed at in Bonifacio Global City belongs to some very dear friends of our’s in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. They gave us great advice on places to visit while in Manila. When we asked if there were any English-speaking churches they knew of that we could go to on Sunday, he said, “I have a cousin who is a pastor of a church nearby. I will call him and he will pick you up for church and he will probably want you to preach for them.”
We did go to the church in Las Pinas two Sundays and I did deliver the Sunday morning message both times. It was a great experience. We really enjoy visiting churches across the world as we travel. Many of the times, there will be someone to interpret for us. Some of the time there is no one to interpret, but we enjoy the service and meeting the people anyway. In Las Pinas, the service was mostly conducted in English, perhaps for our benefit.
The church is about 20 km south of Bonifacio Global City. The Las Pinas neighborhood is very different than the booming, urban, high-rise BGC area. The area where the church is used to be what they call “squatters’ area” in the Philippines. I have learned the more politically correct term is “informal settlers’ area.” These are areas where people live and build homes without having title to the land. We saw a number of these areas as we traveled around Manila. The pastor told us that this area used to be a squatters’ area, but in the 1990s the government started granting title to the land that people occupied.
The streets in the neighborhood of the church are narrow. The common method of transportation is human powered or motorcycle powered tricycles. Small individually owned shops and restaurants replace the 7-elevens, McDonald’s and other chain stores and restaurants. People live simpler lives here.
The Philippines has been on our list to visit for years. The timing of our visit this time was because another friend of ours from Salt Lake City was in the Philippines for a memorial event for her parents who had passed away a year before. We spent a week at their family home on the shore of Lake Taal, 70 km (45 miles) south of Manila. We took an overnight trip to Baguio City.
Baguio City is about 350 km (220 miles) north of Lake Taal. It is a city of about 350,000 people and a popular tourist destination due to the history of the area and the cooler climate. The city is in the mountains at 5000 feet (1500 m) in elevation.
We spent a night at a huge house owned by a friend of our friends. It was nice to see the mountains and the cooler temperatures were certainly a treat, the 70’s Fahrenheit! We hadn’t been in a place that cool in about six months.
With only about a day and a half in Baguio City, it was a whirlwind of touristic activities. We visited the market, the reportedly haunted abandoned Diplomat Hotel, Burnham Park, Miners View Park, drove by the Mansion House – summer palace of the President of the Philippines.
Overall it was a very nice visit, but pretty short. We definitely need to go back to get the full experience.
When the parents of our friend from Salt Lake City retired, they moved back to the Philippines and built a home on the family property on the shores of Lake Taal. The opposite side of the lake has a number of hotels and resorts, but the side of the lake where our friend’s parents’ house is still pretty rural.
As we have traveled around the world, we have seen a range of income and lifestyles. I know that from a USA and Canadian perspective, we would probably say that in a lot of the places we have visited, the people are “poor.” I have learned that it is probably not entirely accurate to put the labels of rich and poor when talking about different lifestyles in different countries or regions of the world. Friends of ours in Bangkok described people living in a far different lifestyle than us as, “living simple lives.” I think that is a better way to put it. In the Philippines in 2015, the average family income was the equivalent of $440 USD per month according to the Philippines Statistics Authority. Of that, about $176 USD is spent on food. In contrast, in the USA in 2015 the median family income was $55,516 USD per year or $4626 USD per month, 10 times the average for the Philippines.
However, it is not as simple as using a dollar figure to determine who is rich and who is poor across the world. In tropical regions, food often grows year-round and many people grow some of their own food on their own land. Housing structures are simple, no need for heating. Air conditioning might be nice, but it is not considered a necessity. Clothes are washed by hand in the lake or in a large steel bowl. You can get around by walking or taking a low-cost motorcycle taxi or a jeepney.
We had a great time during our week with our friends and their extended family. The food was fantastic, of course. The area is quite peaceful and beautiful.
Our friend, her two brothers and one sister, a sister-in-law and a niece and nephew all came to the Philippines for the one-year death anniversary for their parents. Both of their parents passed away within a week or so of each other. It is a custom in the Philippines to have a ceremony and gathering on the one-year anniversary of someone’s death. There were probably about 125 people that came to the ceremony and luncheon.
We spent the better part of one day walking up to the top of the volcano in the middle of Lake Taal. The last major eruption of the volcano was in 1965. It is one of the smallest volcanos in the world, only 311 meters (1000 feet) tall. The lake and Volcano Island are a National Park.
A boat picked us up and took us on a pleasant 20-minute boat ride to the island. Along the way, we enjoyed the scenery and saw quite a few fish farms.
Once on the island, you had the choice of riding horseback up to the top or walking. We chose to walk, partially because of the extra cost, not that it was that much, and partially because, quite frankly, I didn’t want to subject the horse to try to carry me up the trail. The horses were quite small and looked kind of skinny to me. It seemed a little cruel to make a small animal carry me all the way up.
The Philippines is a very Catholic country and along the pathway, they had the stations of the cross.
At the top was an awesome view, and something I wasn’t expecting. You could hit golf balls off the cliff and into the lake formed by the volcano crater. It seemed a little cheesy, to me, but I thought, “Why not? When will I ever get to hit golf balls into a volcano?” So, I paid the equivalent of about $5 USD and hit six balls into the crater. I am just glad I didn’t embarrass myself too badly. I hit the balls fairly well, a little bit of a slice, but still, not too bad. Next, to my surprise, a guy appeared with a framed photo of me in hitting the balls. That was quick! I was feeling extra touristy that day and paid another $2-3 USD for the photo.
Although we only spent three weeks in the Philippines, I think we got a good start on exploring the country and will be back to explore further before we leave South East Asia.