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Mega Manila

story by: Tom Ricketts

Manila is a city of contrasts. Beautiful old Spanish colonial buildings sit alongside soaring skyscrapers. Chaotic traffic clogs the city streets around peaceful Rizal Park, one of the largest urban parks in the world. Some of the world’s largest shopping malls offer global brands like Gucci and Dior, as do the many city markets (and at much cheaper prices). Home to over 24 million people, there’s also great food, pulsating nightlife and UNESCO World Heritage listed sites to discover in this amazing city.

Let’s start with a little history lesson. The city dates back to 3000 BC and regularly is mentioned as a trading partner to the Chinese Ming Dynasty. The Bruneian Empire took over at some stage, then the Chinese, and then in 1571 the Spanish arrived, an event that would mould the history of Manila, and that of the Philippines for hundreds of years. Manila became the centre of the Spanish colonial interests in Asia and offered unobstructed access to their Latin American interests with the Manila-Acapulco route becoming a major route of the Spanish galleons and their treasure hoards.

While the Spanish were in charge they built Intramuros, today one of the city’s biggest attractions. Intramuros means ‘within the walls’ and is of course, a fortified city. It was protected by Fort Santiago and home to many beautiful Spanish colonial buildings, plazas and churches including Manila Cathedral. Unfortunately during World War II much of the area was destroyed in the Japanese invasion, and then again in the Allied invasion four years later. In fact, it’s believed only one building survived the war, that being the San Agustin Church. The Filipino’s have since set about restoring much of the city today. There’s an incredible amount of history to be learned here, particularly how prisoners of war were incarcerated in the basements of the ruins, and the rumours of hoards of treasure apparently buried here by the Japanese before they retreated.

Along with the war, much of Manila’s historic buildings were lost in a series of devastating earthquakes. However every cloud has its silver lining, and Manila’s is what’s called ‘Earthquake Baroque’. Basically it’s the rebuilding of the earlier Spanish colonial buildings but in a much stronger way to resist damage in later earthquakes. So while the buildings might not be the original versions, they certainly resemble what was once there, and retain all the beauty and grace of their European counterparts.

It wouldn’t be Asia without great shopping, and Manila will not disappoint. Most popular with locals today are the many mega malls popping up over the city. However for us tourists, they’re not too different to home so you want to head to Quiapo, also known as ‘Old Downtown’. This is where most markets or ‘tiangges’ (fleamarkets) are to be found. Recto Avenue is where you’ll find all the traditional department stores, and most importantly, Divisoria, a mall known for its discount prices. Finally there’s Binondo, the world’s oldest Chinatown which has all your typical Chinatown rubbish (but a good spot to pick up token souvenirs for workmates and extended family etc).

Being the capital city of the Philippines, there’s plenty of museums and galleries to be seen. Rather conveniently, the majority are all located in the same place too, the National Museum of the Philippines Complex. Obviously the National Museum is here, as well as the National Museum of Fine Arts, the National Museum of Anthropology (about Filipino people), the National Planetarium and finally, the Museum of Natural History which is particularly good thanks to the distinctly unique flora and fauna found across this island nation.

Now, what about the all important food I hear you ask? The Makati City district is the main eating and drinking precinct in town. Like its neighbours, traditional Filipino cuisine involves a lot of rice and noodles. Spices are used, but certainly not to extant of other Asian cuisines. For cheap eats and roadside vendors, head to Pasay Road where you’re sure to find great something to fill your belly. Makati is also home to the city’s upscale restaurants, and many specialise in Western and/or Spanish cuisine.

Manila is just the gateway to the Philippines, and while in the country you will have to explore its beautiful islands, beaches and jungles that she’s known for. And with Philippine Airlines launching services to Auckland this December, there’s never been a better time to travel to Manila and the Philippines!


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