By Madelene T. Sheaffer
I recently had the opportunity to go on a six day trip to Manila and Hong Kong, courtesy of Cathay Pacific. I have never been to Hong Kong before and I haven’t been to the Philippines in 22 years, so I had no idea what to expect. I was so young the last time I went to the Philippines that I can’t really remember much of it. I remembered the heat, the heavy rains, the jeepneys and tricycles, and the smells from the local markets. And of course, I remembered hanging out with my family. But when I experienced the Philippines I was a sheltered child that had not been to other areas of the world. So, on this trip, I was excited to see Manila as an adult, when I can actually appreciate the sites and culture.
The thing I dreaded the most about the trip was the 16 hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong and then another 2 hours from Hong Kong to Manila. I have never travelled that far by plane or otherwise and the thought of sitting in a crammed space for that long was distressing. To my surprise however, the flight was not that bad, even with my economy seat. I flew Cathay Pacific, which just recently launched flights from Chicago to Manila via Hong Kong back in September 2011. The seats were comfortable and they allow you to recline in your own pod, so you do not affect the person behind you.
We also had more space between the seats, wider bathrooms, and overhead compartments that were bigger than the other airlines on which I had travelled. Although those details are often overlooked, I know that they played a crucial role in maintaining my sanity and in warding off misery. Having just travelled to and from Europe on three international airlines three weeks prior to this trip, I was able to really appreciate Cathay Pacific’s extra space.
One airline on my way home from Brussels had so little of a space that when the person in front of me reclined while I was eating, my face was probably less than two inches from his seat. Additionally, Cathay Pacific kept me well fed. They provided two hot, well-proportioned, meals, snacks and ramen on request.
When I finally arrived in the Philippines the little memories I did have of my home country came rushing back. The first thing I noticed was the heat. Granted, in Chicago we can get 97 degree weather, but for some reason 97 degrees in Manila feels hotter than the 97 degrees in Chicago. I immediately wondered how Filipinos could work, move, travel, or do anything in that heat on a daily basis.
As our driver took us from the airport to our hotel, the next thing I noticed was the traffic. I have never experienced anything like it. I am not only talking about the traffic jams and delays. I’m referring to the lack of lanes and turn signals, pedestrians unpredictably running into the streets, jeepneys suddenly stopping in the middle of the road, the disregard for barriers when making a u-turn, and cars driving inches away from each other. The experience was scary enough to make us scream out loud at times. Impressively however, the drivers did not run into each other in all the chaos.
When we arrived at the Pan Pacific Manila hotel, we were graciously greeted by the bell hops. The Pan Pacific is an elegant, modern, and luxurious hotel set in the heart of Manila’s historical and cultural district. The rooms were spacious, clean and comfortable and offered stunning views of Manila’s skyline and bay. And after a long day of travel, who can resist relaxing in the plush bed with your own personalized pillow? One of the best features at the Pan Pacific was breakfast buffet. This was no ordinary toast and fruit spread. The buffet had a great variety of food including, four choices of juice, sushi, miso soup, roasted turkey, potatoes, a salad bar, bacon, assorted pastries, desserts, breads, and even a separate cook to prepare your eggs however you like them. The buffet is held in their Pacific Lounge, located on the top floor with floor –to- ceiling glass walls all around. Enjoying a third plate of food, while staring off into the gorgeous unobstructed view of Manila, is not a bad way to start the day. If you’re lucky enough to stay on a Friday, Pan Pacific also offers a Sunset Barbecue in their elegant Garden and Gazebo.
The hotel, of course, had all the amenities a luxury hotel should have and the food was exceptionally good. It is no wonder that it is ranked the #1 hotel in Manila on TripAdvisor. But what I personally enjoyed most about my stay there was the staff. They made me feel like I was a celebrity or some kind of high roller from the minute our car pulled up to the property. The friendly and courteous manner of the staff was hard to go unnoticed. They immediately helped us with our bags and welcomed us with freshly squeezed mango juice. Being constantly addressed as “ma’am” and “po” was hard to get used to at first, but as the days went on and the more chances I had to interact with people the more I noticed that there was more to it than just good training. It was definitely a cultural thing that was universal among Filipino people.
My parents used to tell me that in the Philippines, kids spoke to their elders with respect. After witnessing it first hand, I have no reason to ever doubt it. But it wasn’t just limited to kids speaking to elders. Once I picked up on the politeness and respectfulness which seemed ingrained in Filipinos, I noticed it everywhere no matter the relative age. In a big, bustling city you would expect the people of Manila to have that fast-paced mentality and individualism we see in the big cities here in America. Instead, the people are somehow able to maintain their kindness and good manners, making it an even more charming and unique city.
While the friendliness of Manila’s people give it a “small-town” feel, in reality Metro Manila is huge with a population of over 10 million people. Needless to say, in my three days in Manila, I barely scratched the surface. However, even with the limited time I spent there, I can tell that the Philippines can offer sights and activities to all sorts of travelers.
Manila offers good food, nightlife, and plenty of shopping. I visited Makati where I had dinner at the Greenbelt 3. This area is filled with enormous shopping complexes which has all the modern shops and restaurants. I also visited Fort Bonaficio, also known as the Global City in Taguig City, Metro Manila. Walking around this highly urbanized area I actually felt like I was in LA or Miami. The streets are lined with palm trees, fountains, lights, and skyscrapers. For me, it was easy to stay out until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning because I was feeling jet-lagged, but the locals didn’t seem to be slowing down either. The bars and clubs still had a lot of people and plenty of good music by the time I left at 3:00 am. For shopping, there’s also the Mall of Asia, another ridiculously big mall. However, I think the outdoor markets where you can bargain with the vendors and squeeze through little aisles along the street going from shop to shop, makes for a more fun shopping experience.
For young, hip, adults, shopping, nightlife, and adventure, is a perfect formula to successful vacation. I admit, during my younger days, that’s probably all I would want to do. However, now as a more refined adult (wink wink), I have come to appreciate learning about a country’s past. For me, to really understand Filipino culture and really appreciate my country’s background, paying tribute to some of the historical monuments was necessary. I started with a visit to Manila’s oldest district, Intramurals, also known as the “Walled City”. Intramuros was constructed during the Spanish Colonial Era, which dates back to the late 1500s. Spanish influence in the architecture and buildings are plentiful within this walled city. There, I saw the defensive walls of Fort Santiago, which now also has beautifully-maintained park and garden. I was also able to see the oldest church in the Philippines, San Agustine, built in 1607, which remains standing within Intramuros. I was able to admire the giant original oil paintings from the early 1600s, which hang in the church hallways. Within the Walled City also stands the Shrine of Freedom. This statue was built in dedication to the 100,000 civilians who were killed in 1945, during the one month battle to liberate the Philippines from the military occupation of the Japanese.
I also visited the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, a 152-acre cemetery containing over 17,200 graves of U.S. and Filipino World War II soldiers. The cemetery also houses giant limestone walls carved with names of unknown soldiers, and artfully displayed mosaic maps that featured the battles in the Pacific. And of course, a history tour would not be complete without a visit to the monument of the national hero and martyr, Dr. Jose Rizal.
The Philippines is rich in history to satisfy those history buffs, even if you are not Filipino. As for me, after visiting these sites, I left with a better understanding of my country. Growing up exclusively in America’s educational system, despite the Philippines’ important role in American history, I was deprived of lessons in Philippine history. I’m glad to have learned a little about my heritage on this trip, even if it was just a crash course. More importantly, I am glad that I had the opportunity to visit the sites and pay homage to those valiant and dedicated Filipinos who helped shape the country.
All in all, my trip to Manila was fun, surprising, and even eye-opening. I got lessons in history, I was immersed in the culture, I shopped with the locals, and I swear that I even learned a little Taglish. My only regret is that I didn’t have enough time there. I wish I had more time to spend with family, who I haven’t seen in ages. I wish I also got to visit my parents’ hometowns. I wish I could have shared it all with my husband, friends, and brothers, who like me, have not really experienced the Philippines. Although it is a good start, Manila is just the tip of the iceberg when rediscovering this country. For people who do not have family there, a random vacation to the Philippines would probably not be in their radar. But if you keep an open mind, you’ll discover that the Philippines does have a lot of charm and character, and some of the most hospitable people you’ll ever encounter, making it all worth the 18 hour journey.