— 05 Mar 2019
I was recently in Manila for PyCon APAC 2019, and I had one full day plus two afternoons to explore the city (hence “& a half”). Everyone—from locals to my friends who have lived in Manila—told me to get out of Manila and jet off to Palawan instead, the way us Indonesians would passionately say “don’t go to Jakarta, go to Bali instead!”. Unfortunately, yours truly here don’t have a ton of time, so I was determined to make the most out of my time here. After all, isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder?
My first impression was the traffic.
I arrived at around 4PM, and my online taxi driver suggested that we took the skyway to skip the traffic jams. When we exited the skyway to enter Makati, there was a time when our car got stuck for about 45 minutes. And by stuck, I mean we literally didn’t move an inch. I don’t remember the last time this happened to me in Jakarta. I even had to Google whether Manila is actually more congested than Jakarta, because from what I remember Jakarta’s traffic is either the worst or second-worst in the Southeast Asia region, rivaling Bangkok. According to a study by BCG, Manila is actually the third-worst after Bangkok and Jakarta. Perhaps I’ve taken ojek online for granted all this time.
The traffic made me reevaluate the loose itinerary that I had. I planned to go to Quezon City for the night, but Waze told me I’d spend about 1:30 hours on the road (and another 1:30 hours back to Makati). Waze’s red lines all over the city were reminiscent of how Waze would look like in Jakarta (especially during rush hours!). I was starting to think Manila is Jakarta’s long-lost sibling. I guess I could take the LRT but I wasn’t acquainted with the public transportation system yet.
Spending three hours on the road didn’t make much sense to me, especially that I only have a few days here. Instead of going to Quezon City, I decided to have dinner(s) at the Poblacion area. After all, it’s always a nice idea to get myself acquainted to the surrounding area first.
I headed to Commune - a hip coffee shop just around the corner from where I was staying. At first I sighed, thinking: why is the first place I’m visiting in a foreign city a goddamn coffee shop? I was secretly wishing for something more “authentic”, but then again, what the heck is authentic anyway? Coffee shops have become a large part of many people’s lives, & seen from that perspective, coffee shops are as authentic as they can be.
The place wasn’t very big, so tables were placed very close next to each other. On my right was someone working on his laptop, struggling to get the wi-fi working which is apparently a problem in every coffee shop in the world. To my left was a group of four people talking about working life after university. So relatable. I felt like I want to chime in, but instead I continued reading The Soul of a Machine while occasionally sipping my hot latte and munching on my cream cheese & pesto pandesal.
The pandesal, while heavenly, weren’t enough for me. Minutes later, my tummy grumbled in dissatisfaction. A book chapter & a quick sketch later, I headed outside & made a stop at a nearby Filipino restaurant, Lobo Filipino Tavern. I ordered the first dish that I saw on the menu: lamb adobo paired with white rice & calamansi.
Yesterday’s traffic jams taught me that to make the most of my time, I need to keep Manila’s traffic in mind, so I started the day early.
I had my breakfast Kanto Freestyle Breakfast which was within walking distance from where I was staying. The great thing about having everything within walking distance is you have an excuse to wander around the neighborhoods, & mornings are perfect for this. The sun was still hanging low, & everyone was just beginning to start their day—opening up their shops (Indonesia’s equivalent of warung), going to work, & gearing up their motorized tricycles.
Apparently, it was election season too. There were lots of posters promoting congressmen/congresswomen, & I was entertained by the idea that these posters pretty much look like Indonesia’s election posters with similar components: a picture of the congressman/woman, their name, their party, a (presumably) catchy tagline, an eye-catching color scheme, & some funky fonts. They were everywhere: trees, bridges, lamp posts, jeepneys, tricycles. Some buildings were also covered in a certain party’s color.
National Museum of Natural History
My first stop was the National Museum of Natural History which is located in Rizal Park. Rizal Park is not just any other city park—it is also the place where José Rizal was executed & buried, so the place has a great historical significance. The museum itself is one of the three museums surrounding Agrifina Circle. There were also the National Museum of Anthropology & National Museum of Modern Arts. I could easily spend half a day in each museum if time allows, but I chose the National Museum of Natural History because it was the newest one & admission was still free. I ended up overestimating the traffic & arriving earlier than 10 AM, which is when the museum opens. To kill time, I took a seat at one of the many steps that lead to the museum, & made a quick sketch of the Lapu Lapu Monument—a monument dedicated to Lapu Lapu, recognized as the first Filipino hero due to his fight against foreign invasion.
Once inside, I found that the museum was lacking maps, booklets, or any recommended path, so it took me a while to get acquainted with the area. Instead of regarding each part of the museum’s collection, I spent some time marveling at the building I was in. It’s relatively new, so that might explain why everything seems to be so pristine, clean, & overwhelmingly bright. The meticulous Neoclassical details & the Tree of Life—a tall double helix structure inspired from DNA in the center of the museum—ironically took me away from the fossils in the entrance that were supposed to be the stars of the museum.
I started my journey by circling the corridor that circles the museum, & entering each foyer as I pass through the corridor. Once I finish, I make my way upstairs & make the same rounds again.
There was so much to take in during such a short visit. Some of the most memorable ones include seeing the skeleton of Lolong in the Ayala Hall as well as its replica in another floor. Lolong, a saltwater crocodile, was the largest crocodile in captivity measured at 6.17 m. There was also a replica of the Nilad mangrove, where you can feel the sensation of walking through a mangrove jungle. In the third floor, there were displays of various taxidermied animals such as the spot-billed pelican that went extinct in the 40s.
I also enjoyed reading about the pioneering naturalists in the Philippines such as Francisco Ignacio Alcina & Francisco Manuel Blanco. Having spent the past few years mainly in the tech field, it was really refreshing to read about others’ work in fields completely different from my own. Although I didn’t read every panel (trust me, I really wanted to), there was one that particularly interested me. It was about the connection between nature & language. Being very close to nature, Filipino ancestors had many words to describe nature. For instance, the word ulan means rain, but shower is called ambon, & rain that is gentler than ambon is called tikatik. That’s just too fascinating! I wonder how this phenomenon is reflected in our language, Bahasa Indonesia, considering that our ancestors were very close to nature too.
Considering the impressive collection of fossils in the museum, I knew I couldn’t leave without sketching one, so I took a seat & sketched a replica of a T-rex fossil while stealing glances at the Tree of Life towering over me once in a while.
Quiapo Market & Quiapo Church
I didn’t set any plan for the rest of the day except for the afternoon. I made it my mission to try out the local public transportation, & considering that the UN Avenue LRT station was just a few hundred meters away, I thought it would be a good idea to try it.
Most people in the Internet have said one thing: don’t bother unless you want to get your bag slit open. I was scared, but just for a short while. I realized that perhaps other people have said the same thing about Jakarta’s CommuterLine, which I basically use to commute every day! As a once-Tanah Abang regular, let me tell you this: if you’ve survived commuting through the Tanah Abang station, I believe you can get through everything.
I randomly picked a station as my destination. Well, perhaps a bit pseudo-random, because calculated risk, y’all—I chose a station that is just a few stations away from UN Avenue (if things go wrong I could just go back), didn’t involve any transits (I wasn’t ready for that yet), & wasn’t on any “place to avoid” list (for sure): the Carriedo LRT station. I wasn’t sure which platform I should go to, so I just walked up until the person behind the ticket counter said that I should take the train from the opposite platform… which means I should go downstairs & cross the street. Yeaaaap. Again, I put my local knowledge to good use: if you’re used to crossing the Depok’s notorious Margonda Road, you can ace this one too.
Thankfully, it wasn’t the rush hour. The train was rather crowded, but it was just like how it was in Jakarta. Still, it was somewhere foreign to me, so although I enjoy being spontaneous every now & then, I did exercise some basic caution like hugging my handbag (as someone who regularly commutes using Jakarta’s CommuterLine, this has pretty much become a reflex action).
The surrounding area of the Carriedo LRT station was quite something. I felt like I was dropped off in the middle of a bustling market. I’m not sure why people would shop in a market midday, so it was something new to me because the markets I know back home would start very early & shut down at around 11. For a good half an hour I was lost in a maze that was the market, with mixed feelings: I was scared because it appears that there were no tourists in sight, I had no idea where I was going, & Google Maps seemed to be as lost as I was. On the other hand, I was excited, because I love markets! I didn’t plan on going to one because a quick search of markets in Manila led me to places like Divisoria & Escolta Street Flea Market - both seem to be the ones that sell clothes instead of vegetables & farm produces, which I personally prefer when it comes to exploring markets. While fact-checking for this post, I just found out that the market was probably Quiapo Market, a.k.a. the largest market in the entire country. No wonder that it took me 30 minutes to find my way out…
My market adventure ended up in an open square. On the opposite of the market was a church, & apparently there was a huge event or a mass going on. People came & went, but the church was amazingly crowded. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people inside a building before. I managed to find my way in & stayed inside for perhaps about fifteen minutes. I didn’t understand what was going on, because everything was entirely conducted in Filipino. However, what amazed me was despite the scorching heat & the unbelievable crowd, everyone paid attention. No one said a word, no one complained, no one was distracted by anything else, & at some point I guess I was carried away too. It was such an amazing experience.
So, back to my mission: trying out the local public transportation. At this point, I thought I should go to Intramuros, which I already planned to go for the afternoon. How can I get to Intramuros from Quiapo Church using public transportation, aside of the LRT?
The answer is: the jeepney.
Taking the jeepney
Jeepneys are everywhere. I saw one as soon as I exited the airport the day before, because they really are everywhere, & gosh I really wanted to try it. I just wasn’t sure if I could do it. jeepneys are like Indonesia’s very own angkot, except their decorations are funkier that jeepneys end up becoming a whole cultural phenomenon on itself. They’re similar in every other way, though: they have a semi-fixed route, don’t have a timetable, & don’t have stops. They’re so unstructured that the only way to know how to ride them—just like angkot—is to ask the locals.
Honestly? Asking strangers is not my forte. I got myself a seat at a nearby 7–11 & tried looking for information on the internet but information was sparse. After playing the should-I-should-I-not game for almost half an hour, I decided to ask a woman sitting next to me. I told her that I want to take the jeepney.
“The jeep?” she asked. At first I thought I had said it wrong or something.
“Yep. The jeep.”
“But it’s the cheap one!”
I laughed, & then she laughed along with me too until I said, “that’s OK, I ride these back home, too.”
Now that I managed to convince her that I really want to take the jeep, she asked me where I want to go, & I said Intramuros. However, she said she didn’t know, so I ended up asking another person with her help in translating. I also asked what words I should say, how much I should pay—basically, the rate is flat for the first few kilometers & it would cost me 9 PHP. I also memorized some jeepney vocabularies before I went. I realized that this is important because this is how I learned how to take angkot, too. No one would remember to tell you that you should say, “kiri, bang!” unless you ask, but if you don’t know the word you’d get trouble trying the driver to stop. You probably can tell that I learned this the hard way.
I had a little trouble finding where to take the jeepney, & luckily another kind human being pointed it out to me. My biggest fear when taking the jeepney was I had to be the designated money passer whose seat is nearest to the driver. Unlike the angkot where you pay after you get off, when taking the jeepney the usual thing to do is you pay when you’re onboard. Since jeepneys are usually very crowded, it would be difficult if everyone directly pays the driver, so usually people pass their money forward to the next person. Now, the one who sits closest to the driver has the responsibility to tell whether it is actually their money or is it someone else. It probably sounds so simple now, but back then, the thought of it made myself sweat.
I got into a jeepney that heads to Pier 15 & asked a fellow passenger if this stops at Intramuros. He said yes. I wasn’t the designated money passer, but still, I took some time to watch how everyone paid for their trip. Finally, I was confident enough to hand my 10 PHP coin while saying “paabot po”, which basically tells the person next to me: please pass my payment to the driver. Now that all payment was done, I could begin to enjoy the ride while closely watching my Google Maps app so I would know where to stop.
I stopped right in front of the Manila Cathedral which is located within Intramuros. The cathedral has gone through 15 different constructions because of various reasons, ranging from fire, earthquake, to World War II bombing. The last renovation was as recent as 2014. Admission to the cathedral was free.
After that, I couldn’t help but admire the cathedral from outside while eating ice-cream. I later discovered that this ice-cream is called dirty ice-cream, because when kids ask their parents for this ice-cream, their parents would just say “no, it’s dirty!” without any further explanation. Funnily, the name sticks.
Intramuros literally means “within the walls”. You can tell that you’re entering Intramuros when the asphalt roads turn to cobblestones, more Spanish-influenced buildings gradually appear, & street names are now adorned by Spanish-style tiles & decoration just like in Spain. It was indeed a nice change of atmosphere from the hectic streets of Manila.
There are several ways to get around Intramuros. It’s actually not really big in size, but at the same time it’s also too big if you want to get around by walking. There is the kalesa, which is some kind of horse-drawn carriages which is equivalent to delman in Indonesia. You can also find a lot of tricycles, too. I opted for another mode of transportation, which was bicycle.
Honestly, I was overwhelmed regarding where to start. There were so many monuments, parks, & statues to see. This being a historical place, I figured that I would have got so much more value out of my visit if I have a knowledgeable tour guide with me. I opted to go on a tour from Bambike Ecotours. There was just me & one other person, plus our tour guide who is a history major.
I came in having zero knowledge about the history of the Philippines, & by the end of the day, I learned a lot. I learned a wide range of things, from how come the oldest Chinatown is in Manila of all places to The Beatles incident back in 1966. I had no idea that Japan also occupied the Philippines, & it was so striking how a lot of things that happened in the Philippines also happened in Indonesia. I can’t help but wonder if our shared history can—at least partially—answer the question why I feel we have a lot of similarities. If the Philippines weren’t colonized by the US & Spain, we probably would be a lot more similar now.
After Intramuros, I was supposed to head back to Makati, but my iPhone cord wonderfully snapped & I had to get a replacement ASAP. That presented me the opportunity for another unplanned adventure, in which I got to walk, take the underground pass along with other people who seemingly were returning home from work, spent the night at the mall, & had dinner at Jollibee.
This was the day of the conference, but I still took the time to enjoy every moment that I had to explore! To get to the conference venue, I tried Angkas, the local online motorcycle app. At first I wondered why the existing online transportation app only offers car rides - it seems like a no-brainer, given the ubiquity of motorcycles. Angkas does fill the gap here.
In the afternoon, I also took a stroll around the Makati area while passing by Legazpi Active Park, which is a well-maintained city park situated in the middle of the business area.
Manila is, in many ways, a lot like Jakarta. But there are some differences too, mainly because they have Spanish & US influences that we don’t have. Despite most people & articles telling me that there’s nothing to see in Manila, I had a great time trying to spot the differences in the similarities & the similarities in the differences while doing my casual morning strolls & people-watching. Like most things in life, I guess it comes down to what you make of it after all.