x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

7,104 Philippine islands to go

Concerns about safety and the Philippines' geographical isolation means the country is frequently overlooked by travellers.

Concerns about safety and the Philippines' geographical isolation means the country is frequently overlooked by travellers. Rosemary Behan explores Manila, Cebu and Boracay, three of the archipelago's principal destinations

It's Wednesday night in Cebu and the Basilica Santo Niño is packed. From every corner worshippers come, filling aisles and doorways, corridors and courtyards, straining to catch a glimpse of the hymns flashing on an electronic board like karaoke lyrics in a nightclub. There are no prayer books here and it's standing room only. If the dress is casual - men and women in T-shirts, shorts and jeans, children held aloft on shoulders - the mood is soft and serious but tinged with electricity. It's warmer than Ireland, less sombre than Rome. In a chapel to the left of the altar is the subject of all the excitement: a small statue of the Infant Jesus, given to the queen of the Visayas after the islands' so-called baptism in the 1500s. The church is beautiful, despite being destroyed three times by fire - and the outdoor candle section, with its cobblestone floor and balustrading, as evocative as any in Europe. Still, this midweek mass is apparently tame compared to other occasions. "Fridays are the most crowded," says my guide, Val Lorenzo. Then, thousands fill both the basilica and the small replica of St Peter's Square beside it. The Feast of Santo Niño, celebrated every third Sunday in January, ensures that by the end of October, "most hotels are fully booked." As we wander around the compact centre of the Philippines' second city, the street names - Del Rosario, Asuncion, Gonzales - and the local dialect of Cebuano, with its many borrowed Spanish and occasional Arabic words - leave no doubt as to the depth of foreign influence. Although Arab traders and missionaries brought Islam to the southern parts of the Philippines from the 13th to the 15th century, it's Catholicism which dominates most of the Philippines' urban areas, so entrenched, long-lived and brutal was the process of Spanish colonisation. Cebu, the country's oldest city, was its gateway, although, on a tour of its museum, Val tells me that initially their arrival was a mistake. "The Spanish were looking for the Spice Islands (Meluccas) but they decided to stop here to get supplies. They were befriended by the king of Cebu." The friendliness did not last long. "The priests were more powerful than the officials. They recruited Spanish and Mexican teachers and their families to come and spread their message." Those who rebelled were imprisoned or shot - and the viciousness of the Church stoked a revolutionary independence movement symbolised by the writer Jose Rizal, now a national hero.

So it is that on nearby Mactan Island, today a dreary adjunct to Cebu Island that houses hotels, factories and the city's international airport and is linked to Cebu by a bridge, the site of the defeat of the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan is now a low-key shrine. It was here that in 1521, in a valiant but short-lived rebuff to western colonialism, Magellan was defeated by chief Lapu-Lapu (confusingly, the same name is given to a tasty grouper fish served all over the country). In a small park backed by souvenir stalls, a stone plinth marks the place Magellan met his fate and a triumphant metal statue of the chieftan is proudly displayed. Behind the statue is a tranquil muddy riverbank where, Val tells me, a re-enactment of the battle is held every year. "Magellan had already made friends with the King of Cebu but he did not realise that there were eight tribes on the island waiting for him. Lapu-Lapu and almost 1,000 warriors repulsed the invaders and he became the first Filipino to have repelled European aggression." The victory was brief - Spain then sent four expeditions and the commander of the last, Lopez de Villalobos, named the islands after Philip, the heir to the Spanish throne. After leaving the shrine, we pass several guitar factories - yet another, less violent remnant of Iberian culture. "The Mactan guitar industry started when priests taught the locals how to repair their instruments," says Val, before treating us to a rendition of The Beatles' You've Got to Hide Your Love Away. Modern Cebu, which now has a population of four million, also bears the marks of an even older association - between the Philippines and the Chinese, who have traded peacefully with the islands (there are a staggering 7,107 in total) for almost 2,000 years. The richest man in the country is the Jinjiang-born Henry Sy, who owns the China Banking Corporation and SM Holdings, the largest retail and shopping mall operator in the Philippines, and operates the BDO bank - we pass multiple examples of both outlets on the way to and from the airport. Behind the exclusive Beverly Hills mansions there's a large Taoist temple, but the most surprising addition to the religious landscape was a giant, brand-new and sinister-looking Church of the Latter-day Saints.

Driving away from the colonial centre, we pass families sitting outside homes of wood, breeze blocks and corrugated iron, washing hanging from windows, and the smell of street food wafting in the air. In Labangon's busy market area, lechon manok, or roast chicken, was on sale at virtually every restaurant - variations included barbecued chicken heads (helmet) and deep-fried intestines (isaw) and feet (adidas). Puso, boiled rice wrapped in small, picnic-sized coconut leaf pouches, hung in bunches and baluk, embryonic duck eggs, were advertised for 15 pesos (Dh1.20) apiece. A local delicacy, Val tells me they're an aphrodisiac and that Cebu baluk are bigger and better than those found in Manila. "To eat them, you make a hole, drink the soup, then open the egg and eat it with salt. The first time you do it, eat it in the dark. You won't see the feathers." I declined, preferring the fare at at a smoke-filled, indoor street food market. From Cebu it's less than an hour's flight over steep mountains and scattered atolls to Kalibo on Panay Island. Kalibo, with its coloured buildings around a central square and relaxed ambience, has a Latin American feel to it. Its museum showcases the annual Ati-Atihan festival, the work of local artists and details and photos of the curiously-named local boy Cardinal Jaime Sin, a former leader of Roman Catholics in the country. The 90-minute drive to Caticlan took us on rural roads, past green rice paddies and villages where rice was being dried on sheets and piles of coconuts waited for buyers. At the coast the road cut a line between endless empty beaches and rugged mountains draped in thick clouds and jungle. From Caticlan we took a 10-minute ferry crossing to Boracay. The sky had cleared when we arrived on the island, the country's most popular beach destination. Just, 9km long and 1km wide, Boracay does a good job of hiding its 300-plus hotels behind a canopy of coconut trees - from its stunning and aptly-named White Beach you can't see much of the back-to-back hotel development behind the 4km shoreline; turn the other way and all you can see is turquoise water, a sea of boats and the dramatic mountains of Panay. The beach was busy (mainly, it seemed, with South Korean honeymooners in matching cotton shorts) but the strict control of litter and low-rise nature of construction has so far maintained the island's good looks. We stayed at Discovery Shores, a designer retreat at the northern end of White Beach which was a haven of minimalist luxury - other new five-star properties include the Shangri La and Asya hotels. In the middle of the strip are fast food restaurants, bars, small shopping malls and even a Starbucks. We escaped the crowds by taking a boat on a snorkelling trip; when this was curtailed by bad weather, we landed on a beach the other side of the island and whiled away the afternoon at a seafood barbecue. From Kalibo we flew north to Manila, a capital so sprawling and its sites so spread out you could spend at least a week touring it. The Spanish sold the Philippines to the Americans for $20m after the Spanish-American war in 1898; they stayed until the country was finally granted independence in 1946. In that time English became widely used, public schools and democratic elections were introduced, along with shopping malls and a taste for fast food. Due to its strategic position, it was also, according to our guide, Tom, the third most bombed city in the Second World War. After the 23-year reign of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos from 1965, which brought widespread poverty, corruption and extra-judicial killings, as well as allowing the Americans use of Philippine bases during the Vietnam War, the maximum length for a presidential term was cut to six years. "It's still too long for a bad one," Tom tells us wistfully, "and too short for a good one." In Manila both death and religion are omnipresent. First stop on our tour of the city was the American Memorial Cemetery. A gated, finely-manicured expanse of rolling lawns and white marble crosses amid acacia and mahogany trees marks the graves of over 17,000 US Army troops, most of whom died in operations in the Philippines or New Guinea; a further 36,000 whose bodies were never found are commemorated. Right outside the 60-hectare site is a modern residential district, a slum and a building site.

The US is no longer allowed to use its bases in the Philippines; in its stead expensive new apartments, DHL and the call centre industry prop up the local economy. Jollibee, a Filipino-owned chain, has overtaken McDonald's as the number one fast food outlet, and just down the road from the cemetery, on the site of a former US base, is The Fort, a smart, low-rise area home to Encore, formerly the Embassy club. On a refreshingly unstuffy hip-hop night there, we saw local professionals rubbing shoulders with models, TV celebrities and music personalities including apl.de.ap from The Black Eyed Peas. Similarly, Greenbelt 3, a sleek shopping complex in Makati, the central business district, is a maze of escalators, designer outlets and bars. At the Travel Cafe, where we had dinner, a cup of Alamid coffee - the coffee beans have famously passed through the digestive system of the Philippine civet - costs 240 pesos or US$5.20 - some two-thirds of the average daily wage. A 210g bag of the delicious (smooth, no bitter aftertaste) coffee costs $200 (Dh735). In the other, grittier parts of the capital, jeepneys - originally stripped-down US Army jeeps but now giant, creaking, hybrid hulks, rule the roads. As well as cheap transport - trips are around seven pesos ($0.15; 50 fils), the jeepneys bring a swirl of colour and religion to the streets, being elaborately painted and named (think "God's Gift" or "The Lord is my Shepherd"). There are also "tricycles", or motorbikes with sidecars attached, for short trips; again, there always seemed to be a crucifix attached to the rear view mirror. From Makati, we boarded the crowded but fast, efficient and air-conditioned rail system, the LRT and MRT (both of which, handily, have separate compartments for women) north to Abad Santos. There we found the Chinese Cemetery, a small city of tombs built for Manila's richest residents. Along with streets, temples and tombs the size of small houses, the dead's journey to the afterlife is made more comfortable by the provision in some of the buildings of running water, chandeliers, air-conditioning and even kitchens. Much of the site, however, has fallen into disrepair and some families, fallen on hard times, have moved into their family tombs permanently. A different sort of shrine is on show in Fort Santiago, the historic heart of Intramuros, Manila's old walled city. The building houses the cell where the Filipino nationalist Jose Rizal was incarcerated before his execution by firing squad in 1896: moving tributes to his fearless death are on show in both the cell and accompanying exhibition. From Intramuros I walked north through the districts of Chinatown, Binondo and Quiapo, revelling in the older, wooden buildings, some inlaid with mother-of-pearl, which escaped bomb damage. Quiapo, a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood on normal days, was packed on Friday evening due to its market and mass at Quiapo's baptist church, where worshippers crowded to be blessed by holy water scattered by priests at the entrance. Designated "Priest's Parking" - in an area crammed with cars - was carefully roped off.

From Quiapo it was a short trip to Pacquita Street in Sampaloc, the home of the gym Manny Pacquiao first used in Manila and which he now owns. We knew we were close because the area was decked with flags and banners; children playing in the street and on parked jeepneys stopped and posed for pictures. Formerly the L&M Gym, the new Manny Pacquiao Tower is a six-storey, double-glazed, air-conditioned yellow and orange building which will accommodate some 120 poor girls who want to continue school free of charge; they will live in relative luxury in dormitories above the boxing ring. The manager, Jojo Delacruz, welcomes us inside. "Manny started training here in 1995," he tells me. "Actually, he used to live here. It was a former boarding house but he used to sleep here in the ring. There were only four of them, so there was plenty of room." Upstairs, Jojo offers us pancid noodles and soft drinks and shows us around. "Manny bought this place last year and renovated it," he said. "He's coming here tomorrow, will you come and meet him?" Sadly we are flying home, but Jojo and his assistant Lorie are undeterred, plying us with Manny-branded water coolers, T-shirts and clocks. He takes us into Manny's office, then upstairs and out onto the spacious roof terrace, which now houses a comfortable games room and bar. From the top you can look down at the slum but also across at the new skyline miles away in the distance. While most hail the latter, all the colour - in the jeepneys and the scrambled heaps of corrugated iron strewn with washing, and the painted wooden houses, the shop signs obscured by huge nests of wiring and the children at open windows - is in the foreground. The further you look, the greyer things become - and I know which view I preferred.

rbehan@thenational.ae