From picturesque beaches to award-winning restaurants, a kitschy art scene and expansive shopping malls, there is something to suit all tastes in this tropical paradise.
It’s more fun in the Philippines – that’s the official tagline for the country’s tourism industry and I have to say, a week in this gorgeous tropical paradise made me realize there might be more to this saying that just an empty marketing gimmick. Take the best of what Southeast Asia has to offer, put it together in one package and that’s the Philippines for you. It’s Thailand with just as much character but minus the seediness and it’s Malaysia with better food and prettier beaches.
How to get there: Thai Airways operates regular flights from all major cities to Bangkok and it’s just a short three-hour flight from there to Manila. Having flown all night with barely any sleep, my first bleary-eyed impression of Manila came as somewhat as a shock, maybe because I was expecting the gloss that is Bangkok airport. Small and dingy, it reminded me of a railway station back home, what with the same teeming masses of humanity sitting and sleeping on every available surface. Be warned: if you’re catching a local flight from this airport to one of the islands, as I was, be prepared for massive delays and even cancellations, especially when it rains (as it does all year around in Manila).
Where to stay in Manila: I don’t know about you but I’m the sort of person who likes to be in cushy surroundings when on a vacation, and there’s no better place than Makati when it comes to modern, upscale comfort. Makati is the financial heart of Manila and this is where you will find the best restaurants, bars, nightclubs and malls, most within an easy walking distance.
Manila’s rich and beautiful can be found walking the streets here; but don’t be surprised if you see locals in flip flops and shorts even at the swankiest of places – chalk it up to the temperate tropical feel of the place, but Filipinos have to be the most laidback, chilled-out people I’ve come across. A day into the vacation, my make-up bag and hair straightener were relegated to the back of my suitcase and I was ready to face the city as a true Filipino – casual and unhurried!
Where to eat: From trendy, organic cafes to Michelin-star restaurants and local food markets, Manila is a food connoisseur’s dream come true. If you’re staying in Makati, you must pay a visit to the Legazpi Food Market – a vibrant collection of food stalls that springs up in a pretty part of town at 8am every Sunday. This is your chance to grab delicious, fresh-cooked street food and chat with an eclectic bunch of friendly locals.
I met a Sindhi man from Pune selling Shrimp Biryani – he zeroed in on me amongst the huge crowd (a brown person can spot another brown in crowd of non-browns with a radar-like precision!) and asked me where I was from. Despite a fun chat, I was not going to waste one of my four meals in Manila on biryani and luckily, there was enough exotic food on display to please the adventurer in me. Where it’s a fiery Thai curry or a Moroccan tagine you desire, Indonesian fritters or Greek moussaka, there’s all that and much more on offer. Do try the local Buko (a drink made with coconut) and if you have the stomach for it, the local delicacy called Balut – an 18-day old fertilized duck egg. A bunch of enthusiastic locals tried to get me to try it but the sight of the half formed beak, wings and veins made me gag (cultural sensitivity be damned!)
Shopping in Manila: The city is full of some great shopping destinations that provide surprisingly good value for money so make sure you go prepared. There are huge shopping malls, one often connected to the other, so it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth of shops for the whole day. From the usual designer and high streets brands to local handicrafts and pearl jewellery, the shopaholic in you will be spoilt for choice. If you’re looking to take souvenirs back home, check out Kulturra, a specialty label that brings together artisans from the many provinces of the Philippines and with stores all over Manila. I managed to pick up everything from wooden bread baskets to indigenous musical pipes and some gorgeous chunky necklaces from here.
Manila is big on art and once you’ve had enough of being a mall rat, a trip to one of the local arts scenes is a must. If you’re staying in Makati, check out The Collective, a collection of hip art galleries, stores and restaurants. This is where the city’s cool crowd hangs out. Or make the trek to the similar but much bigger Cubao X area in Quezon City and be charmed by the quirkiness of the local arts and antiques scene. A quick browse will unearth treasures such as a 1940s trumpet, Japanese kamikaze flags from WW II, vintage comics, old jazz records and offbeat art from upcoming local artists.
Sun, sand and surf in Boracay: A delay of four hours at what has been consistently voted one of the worst airports in the world (yes, Manila had that dubious honour until the mantle passed on to good old Islamabad in 2014) ensured that I was annoyed and cranky by the time I finally managed to get on the plane to Boracay, the tropical island that was my ultimate destination.
It took but one look outside the window as the plane landed at Caticlan (tiny Boracay doesn’t have an airport and this is the nearest city) for my bad mood to melt away – white sands, aquamarine waters and cotton-candy clouds in a tranquil blue sky, Boracay is the epitome of a tropical paradise. If you’ve been to beaches in Thailand and loved them, be prepared to be completely blown away by the beauty of this place.
Boracay is what Koh Samui wishes it could be – with whiter sand, bluer waters, and fewer tourists. The place to stay here is the White Beach, where most of the island’s hotels, restaurants and watersports activities can be found. There are quieter beaches not too far off, but if you’re like me and love people-watching, White Beach offers the perfect balance between a party-like atmosphere and picture-perfect serenity.
I would have been happy to spend all my days lying on the beach, sipping pina coladas and reading my book, taking the occasional dip in the water when the sun got too much to handle, but the adventurous hubby wanted to indulge in a bit of activity and took me parasailing with him. I wish I could say that I loved it, but that would be far from the truth. What on paper sounds like a thrilling experience had me reduced to a nauseous, quaking bundle of nerves suspended about a 100 feet above the sea.
More up my alley was a trip to the local ‘wet market’ known as Talipapa. Choose from a mind-boggling array of live seafood displayed in front of you, haggle over the price by the kilo, bag your buys and take them to a nearby restaurant to be cooked to your liking. From king sized prawns to blue crabs, lobsters, squid and octopus, clams and mussels, cooked with just a hint of spice to retain the original flavours, this is local food at its best.
Spend one evening taking a walk down the entire stretch of the White Beach (a walk from one end to the other will take not more than half an hour). Stop at different bars to enjoy the live music – everything from Air Supply and Richard Marx covers at 5-star hotels to blues at an Italian restaurant called Ayala run by an Italian who came to Boracay on holiday five years ago and never went back. Local ‘fire’ dancers put up a cheesy performance at some beachfront venues every night that would be described as tacky anywhere else in the world but here in Boracay, the sound of the waves crashing on the shores, the palms swaying in the breeze and the party vibe of the island lend a surreal quality to it. Everything is, after all, more fun in the Philippines.