Dispatch from Manila

A few days in the Philippines is a festival of sights and sounds.

Boats at Coron harbor are for hire to get to various sites on Coron Island, May 27, 2018. (photo credit: HILLARY ZETLER)
Boats at Coron harbor are for hire to get to various sites on Coron Island, May 27, 2018.
(photo credit: HILLARY ZETLER)
There is never a shortage of sites, activity and bustling life in the Philippines.
We started out trip in the capital, Manila, a city with a population of more than 14 million. It is not overly large, considering that the country has a population of about 110 million. Most activity in the city is determined by the traffic density, which means that tours rarely leave the city after 7 am. We stayed in the Makati area, which, though not the best, was quite safe to walk around in any time of the day or night.
We went to the Intramuros, the old city of Manila by river ferry, which saved us hours of sitting in traffic. There are still a few old buildings there that escaped destruction in WWII. Manila was destroyed in the war by both the Japanese and the Americans. We attended a Friday evening service at the well-appointed synagogue in the Makati, built in 1982, the original having been destroyed in the war, and enjoyed a good meal after the service in the adjacent dining room.
Our driver arrived at 7 a.m. to take us on a five-day trip north of Manila, in the central part of Luzon Island. Some 11 hours later, we arrived at Banaue. Most of the trip was on roads that went through village after village and the average speed that can be maintained is only 30 to 40 kph.
The next morning we went to Batad by jeepney, a stretched jeep like those left behind by American forces. Today they can be any make of vehicle, but they are made to look like jeeps and of course they are stretched and intricately decorated. They carry at least 16 passengers and can be found all over the country. The road ended two kilometers from Batad and we walked the rest of the way.
Batad, a World Heritage site, sits on the edge of a bowl surrounded by mountains terraced top to bottom with rice paddies.
The 2,000-year-old terraces are repaired when necessary. We walked toward the top and marveled at the magnificent amphitheater of terraces all around with rice in various stages of growth.
We lunched at a teahouse in the village.
It was apparent that many Israeli youth pass through here, as there was a page on the small menu devoted to Israeli favorites such as pita, malawah and shakshuka. The area is popular for short and long hikes.
Another interesting site was the “hanging coffins” near the village of Sagada. It is a tradition of the local people to place the bodies of the deceased in coffins and hang them high up on sheer rock faces.
This is rarely done today, as the family has to donate 21 pigs to hang a coffin. We also went to a cave where there were piles of coffins, some of which were over 500 years old.
The last night of this trip was spent in Baguio. After dinner we went to the night market where everything from food to jewelry, electronics and clothes and more was on sale. It was noticeable that wherever we went shopping, the sales persons were very helpful and did not try to push us to buy anything. On the way back to Manila, we saw Mt. Pinatubo, a volcano that erupted in 1991, the second largest eruption of the 20th century; mudflows spread for kilometers around. We visited a rather big church where due to the volcano, the entrance is now near the roof and the floor is at the level of the top of the windows. All the houses were destroyed and new ones have been built on top of the now-solid mud and lava flow.
UPON RETURNING to Manila, we flew to Cebu city on the island of Cebu. We arranged for a car and driver for a day, first going to Moalboal, where one can swim with shoals of thousands of sardine-sized fish. We hired snorkels and masks and a guide and within 20 meters from the beach we were swimming with the shoals, an amazing experience. Form here we drove to Oslob and spent the night there.
At 5:30 the following morning, we took a tricycle taxi to the beach where one can swim with whale sharks. These fish, the largest in the world, can reach 13 meters in length and weigh up to 20 tons. When we arrived at the beach at 6 a.m., there were already hundreds of people around. For about $20 each, a boat and a guide are provided.
There were at least 10 boats out, with about 20 people per boat. We entered the water with snorkels and swam to within a meter of the giant fish. They were about eight meters long and weighed a few tons.
They are harmless, as they are vegetarians, feeding on plankton. This was probably the highlight of our Philippine trip.
From Oslob, we took a two-hour ferry trip to the island of Bohol. There is no harbor at Oslob, so we set out on a small boat with our luggage and were pushed to the ferry by a man, who, by the time we got to the ferry, had only his head above water. At Bohol, we took a day trip around the island and saw tarsiers, the smallest primate, which can fit in the palm of your hand. We went to a sanctuary where they live normal lives but are protected from humans and other animals.
Another interesting phenomenon is the “Chocolate Hills,” hundreds of majestic grassy hillocks. In the dry season, when we were there, the grass’s brown hue can make the hills look like chocolate.
OUR NEXT destination, Palawan, had not been planned, but we heard such good feedback from tourists that we decided to cut back on some of our planned activities and visit the island of Busuanga, off the northern tip of Palawan Island. The Philippines consists of over 7,000 islands, so everywhere we visited was on an island. We flew from Bohol via Clark Field, the former American base, 80 km. north of Manila, to Coron. Coron airport cannot handle large planes, so we flew from Clark in a turbo prop.
We stayed on the outskirts of Coron and got around on the inexpensive motorized tricycle taxis. At the harbor we hired a boat for the day to take us to various sites on Coron Island, which is a few km. from Coron town. We bought fresh fish and vegetables for us and the two-man crew for lunch. Our first stop was a coral garden, where we snorkeled and saw the amazing site of corals in the shape of leafless trees up to four meters tall, with many colored fish swimming around them.
Next we went to Kayangan Lake in the middle of Coron Island, surrounded by steep rocky cliffs. There are 300 stairs to climb to reach the lake. We swam in the lake with needle fish. With hundreds of tourists in and around the lake, everyone wearing the compulsory orange life jacket, there was no quiet or privacy.
After lunch on the boat, prepared by our crew, our next stop was the twin lagoons, separated by a rock, which, depending on the tide, you either swam under or climbed over. There were fish and colorful corals in the lagoons. Feeling dwarfed by the rock faces with tall needle-like vertical strata all around us, wee did more snorkeling in the Coral Garden.
TWO DAYS later we took a boat with 16 people to three islands, about an hour and a half from Coron town. This was a beach outing, spending time on three beaches of pure white, soft sand. Trees came down to the beaches, providing shade. The other tourists on the boat were typical of the tourists all over the Philippines: almost all Asian and in their 20s or 30s, a number of them Filipinos.
We flew to Manila and stayed in the Pasay City area, near the Mall of Asia, reputed to be the biggest mall in Asia, with hundreds of shops and restaurants, and thousands of shoppers. We actually found better shopping a block from our hotel at the much smaller and quieter Harrison Mall.
On our last day in the Philippines we took a tour to Corregidor Island, in Manila Bay, between the city and the Bataan Peninsula.
Bataan and Corregidor were the last two American bases to fall to the Japanese in 1942. The Japanese invaded the Philippines on the December 8, 1941, eight hours after Pearl Harbor. They were soon threatening the Bataan base and the commander, General McArthur, transferred to Corregidor Island.
Bataan surrendered on April 9, 1942, which resulted in the infamous Bataan Death March. Approximately 75,000 emaciated, starved and sick American and Filipino soldiers were forced to march to their internment camp near Clark Field. Thousands died or were executed en route. At one stage they were put in closed rail boxcars for 30 km., where many perished in the extreme heat. We passed some of the milestones on one of our trips and also visited the Capas National Shrine in memory of the march and the camp, where many more died.
Corregidor held out for another month after the fall of Bataan, and we visited the remains of the barracks, the huge guns still in their places – WW1 vintage, some of them, made in 1903 were sadly outdated in 1942. We also saw the jetty from where McArthur and his family were evacuated by PT boat on orders from Washington.
It is claimed that because it took the Japanese five months to conquer the Philippines, they were thwarted in their plans to invade Australia.
In Manila’s Fort Bonifacio district, we visited The American Memorial Cemetery where more than 17,000 are interred.
There are the names of thousands more whose bodies were not recovered. It is a vast area of beautifully manicured lawns that at the time was probably way out of town, but today is next to an upscale area of high-rise buildings.
The population of the Philippines is more than 80% Catholic and a number of people we spoke to had visited Israel on pilgrimage tours.
The Philippines is an excellent tourist destination with good hotels, good food and good transport, all reasonably priced. The public toilets are clean, the locals are helpful and all the signs are in English. They almost all speak English and are especially helpful to the elderly, often with discounted entry fees and separate lines for the elderly and the disabled.