Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Thousand Island Blessing-- Philippines

Seven thousand islands nestled together in what seems to be an eastern extension of South East Asia on the world map, is the Filipino land, or simply, Philippines. Probably the first thought that hits anyone when you hear Philippines or rather Filipino, is the Black Eyed Peas chart-buster, Bebot. But as I was to discover, the archipelago of 7,000-plus islands goes beyond whatever you might have heard, seen or read about it. Gratifying and heady, Philippines has everything in its concoction for it to be a hot destination for us Indians, who want to look beyond the oh-so-done-to-death 'popular' South East Asian destinations.

It was a smooth six-and-a-half hour Philippine Airline’s flight from Delhi to Manila. The ample leg space in business class is always comforting, but it was the cordial flight attendants, Hindi-movie on-board and the hospitality that gave an idea of what was in store during the impending week long Manila-Cebu-Boracay trip. The sea has a certain way of calling you, with a knot in stomach here and serenity and calmness sprinkled there. The view from the flights were inviting, exciting and seductive, especially for me, ever a beach person. But we'll get to the beaches later.

More than being about luxury and panache, hospitality is more about an attitude, a culture, and a state of mind. So, be it at the hotels, restaurants or malls, Filipinos will charm you no end. An erstwhile US colony, the faint traces of Americanism are quite hard to miss. What the US occupation primarily did to Philippines was the apportion of the English language, so when interacting with the locals, language or accent is hardly a barrier. And for an Indian globe-trotter, that’s really the job half done.

When we first arrived in Manila, the torrential rains in the city gave me a feeling that this trip might just be a washout, with roads flooded and visibility poor. But it was everything, but a washout. The evening was memorable as we watched the Andrew Lloyd Webber Show at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines. Yes, I never imagined I would get to see the cult musical in Manila of all the places! The show attended by Philippines own posh and chic page-three crowd, transported me to another world, and well, this was just the beginning of many a memorable evenings in this country.

A visit to Manila is certainly incomplete without experiencing the nightlife. I spent last day in Manila partying hard at the hip night club Republiq, at the Resorts World, owned by TV host and eventologist Tim Yap. There are entertainers, there are party hosts, there are club owners and then there is Tim Yap, who knows how to make his people groove. If you are not the party types sipping a cocktail in the spacious lounge area is a good idea and the chances are you will bump into the glitterati, twitterati, celebs, actors of Philippines and if you are lucky enough you might just bump into the president!

From Manila it was a quick flight to Cebu, and Philippines Airlines offers not just good international but efficient domestic services as well. In Cebu, I soaked in the culture and did the touristy stuff. First we quickly visited Casa Gorordo, an ancient house built in the mid-19th century. Its a typical wooden Spanish house preserved as a museum and thankfully its not about bland history, but an experience that will take you back in time as you slowly stroll the living room adorned with ancient showpieces, climb up the wooden staircase to reach the dining hall with a well laid table... and then there's a bedroom with king-size beds and a wishing well in the garden too. After the peek-a-boo of the Spanish Era, that lasted in Philippines before the Americans took over, we visited the Heritage of Cebu Monument- a montage representing the events in the history of Cebu. But Cebu is not just a page of a history textbook. The flea markets at Cebu offer exquisite souvenirs, hats, wooden guitars of various sizes and other nick-knacks.
Breaking away from tranquil cultural hotspots, we went for a dose of adrenaline to Crowne Regency, the tallest Cebu hotel. On the dizzying 38th floor I went in a tilted coaster around the edge of the building! Really it is something not for the faint-hearted―the Cebu landscape looked truly breathtaking from 130 meters above the ground but it literally took my breath away. Post that I dint have the nerves to try zip-line or other sky adventures that the tower offered such as Sky Walk. Thankfully, the less adventurous evening slipped by getting a taste of local authentic food and trying luck at the slot machines and roulette tables at the Waterfront Cebu Hotel’s casino, that was abuzz with activity even post midnight, though locals at the casino easily outnumbered the tourists.

The best of the trip was still to come. The next stop was Boracay, which this year was adjudged by TripAdvisor as the second best beach destination in the world. But what a random Filipino told me was that Boracay is a place for lovers-- the picturesque white sandy beaches, lanes dotted with boutique shops and pubs with live bands playing in the evening, does make Boracay for a romantic getaway. The ferry ride from Caticlan Airport to Boracay, was seductive enough. Once there, the beaches looked inviting and sun not too harsh, so you can just lie under the palm tress, enjoying both at the same time-- the serenity of nature and hustle-bustle of a holiday destination . In Boracay, you can just enjoy watching the waves and the sunset and the salty sands, or you can stroll the bazaars picking up pearl jewellery, sarongs, beachwear or fresh fish for your meal.

But the best of Boracay lies in something else. If its sports that's your idea of a fun-filled holiday, and you are not scared of heights, deep water or the quintessential sun tan, then there's ample that Boracay waters can offer. Snorkel the pristine coral reef or go diving at the many dive sites around Boracay, for beginners as well as experienced divers. Or for or a fun-filled day just spend time mountain biking or driving an ATV vehicle hopping from one sight-seeing spot to another. But the experience that will remain etched in my memory for long is para-sailing above the crystal clear blue sea, soaking in the view of the mountains. Up in the air, it was just sea and me. The sea, vast and unending, deep and reassuring. It's calmness was infectious, and so was the adrenaline pumping excitement of being up in the air, over the deep blue sea. Of course, one must indulge in all water-sports available here, and there is a vast list of options to choose from. skimboarding, windsurfing and kitesurfing, waterskiing, Banana Boat, Glass Bottom Boat and parasailing, all of these are easily available, and provide an exhilerating experience. Of course they do leave you a bit tired, but in the name of adventure and the sea, they are good enough reasons to be tired, yet rejuvenated.

And of course no holiday is complete without experimenting with food. There were days when we had a lavish meal with variety of fresh seafood and Filipino dishes like adobo (chicken or pork dish), kare-kare (oxtail and vegetables cooked in peanut sauce) and crispy pata (deep fired pigs legs) on other occasions it was a quick meal at the local fast food chains like Jollibee or Shakeys. For drinks, I flirted with tangy green mango shakes, refreshing lemongrass tea, calamansi juice, the local beer and of course the king size coconuts―so all of these are highly recommended. Well the icing on the cake is, that whether you go to a fancy restaurant or a shack, the bill amount will always look smaller than what you expect.

What's more? Indulge in a beachside massage for as cheap as Rs 350 or just shop till you drop at a host of malls. Of course Greenhills Shopping Centre, SM Mall of Asia and Makati City in Manila are a must on every shoppers list. Philippines is a value-for-money destination and can easily give Thailand a run for its money.

That's Philippines for you, a blend of serene moments and modern hoopla. They say, “ You never really leave a place or person you love, part of them you take with you, leaving a part of yourself behind.” I am still wondering if I have left something behind, but a part of Philippines will always remain etched in my memory and their greeting ‘Mabuhay’ will resonate in my mind for long. It's no longer a group of islands in that one corner of the map, neither is Bebot the only recollection of its name in popular culture. Philippines is an experience, an experience that satisfied the wanderlust in me.

(A part of this Travelogue was published in The Financial Express )

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