At this time of year when most Taipei residents are thinking of an escape for the Lunar New Year holidays, Manila may not seem like a top choice.
However, for those who are not too keen on whiling the entire holiday away on a beach, the Philippine capital may be the perfect vacation destination. The obvious advantages are its proximity, the relatively low cost of getting and staying there, and year-round warm weather. And from Manila, it is very easy, simple and cheap to get to many of the country's numerous beaches and holiday resorts.
Of course, Manila itself has much to offer, particularly to the visitor who enjoys city life mixed in with a bit of history and culture.
One of the most outstanding features of the city is its architecture from the Spanish colonial period that lasted from 1568 to 1898.
A visit to the Sanctuario Spa on Jorge Bocobo Street provides an opportunity to see one of the Spanish era structures that was once a family residence, as well as to sample the range of services available at the establishment. The building's elegant fretwork, winding wooden staircase, wide verandahs and stone courtyard have all been wonderfully preserved. The hallway is now being used as the reception area of the spa, while the upstairs rooms have been converted into massage and changing rooms. At the top of the staircase is an altar that looks virtually untouched over the last three centuries.
On the lower level are the men's massage rooms, reception and dining areas. The small courtyard in the back has been converted to a spa area where a hot tub, jacuzzi and other types of tubs are located. A wide wooden verandah, furnished with low tables and floor cushions, serves as a dining room and has an ambience that is casual, intimate and exotic, all at once.
This small complex is but one example of Manila's rich architectural heritage, Scattered throughout the city are several churches that were built by the Spanish during their 300-year colonization of the country.
On the western edge of the city at Intramuros is Fort Santiago where hundreds of men and women were imprisoned, tortured and executed by the dreaded Japanese military police, the Kempeitai, during World War II.
It is also the site of a memorial that honors Philippine national hero Dr. Jose Rizal, who spent his last night on earth there before he was executed on December 30, 1896. The fort was destroyed by American forces during the 1945 Battle of Manila but was restored by the Philippine government in 1950 and declared a "Shrine of Freedom."
Numerous relics and ruins of the country's colonial and more recent past can be found on the compound. These include a former military storehouse built in 1663, a foundry at which cannons and ammunitions were cast during the Spanish era, a dungeon, and a moat around the fort.
Across the Pasig River from the fort is the older section of the city, where Chinatown is located. The area is also the site of the Binondo church that was built in 1587, the Santa Cruz church, originally constructed in 1608, and the Quiapo church, which is the shrine of the Black Nazarene cross that was brought to the Philippines from Mexico in 1767. Teenage boys ply their homemade crafts along the river and shoppers browse the many stores and stalls selling everything from jewelry to aromatic oils.
Where shopping is concerned, Manila is often overlooked because of the reputation of cities like Hong Kong. But with a number of new mega malls springing up around the city and the growing reputation of the Philippines as a source of specialized crafts, the shopping experience there can be quite an exciting one.
The Philippines is gaining a strong footing in the production of niche market items. One of the most exquisite and delicate fabrics in the world is Philippine pineapple fiber. A pineapple fiber shirt or gown is a thing of beauty. Worn with the jewelry made from genuine South Sea pearls, and perhaps a locally made hand-embroidered shawl or sash, these outfits can hold their own on any haute couture runway in the world.
Stores and smaller shop around Manila are stocked with a range of fine handmade items such as footwear, basketry, jewelry, porcelain and furniture.
Malate, just a short drive south of Intramuros, is known for shops that specialize in antiques, local handicraft and sculptures as well as clothing and accessories. At the plazas around the Quiapo church, there are street markets where one can find bargain prices on locally made clothes, household items, handicraft, medicinal herbs, fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers.
Prices on most goods - clothing in particular - are relatively low compared to Taipei, for example.
All that apart, I would visit the Philippines again and again simply for the food. Manila Bay is lined with a number of restaurants that offer the best in local cuisine. A stop at the unobtrusive Blue Bay restaurant yielded a feast at an incomparable price. At cost of 380 pesos (around US$8.50) per person, the restaurant serves up an "all you can eat buffet and bottomless drinks."
We feasted on a lunch of sinigang sa miso (fish-head soup with vegetables), paella (rice cooked with crab meat and vegetables), grilled liempo (pork), beef machado (beef slices steamed and marinated for a day then fried), rellenong alimango (stuffed crab backs) and baked mussels. For dessert, I sampled the mango crepe with chocolate sauce and washed it all down with fresh buko (coconut) juice.
With a keen eye on the tourist dollar, Manila's nightlife in recent years has expanded from music lounges, pubs and sing-along bars to cater to more sophisticated tastes. The PAGCOR Entertainment Center is one of the newer establishments that combine, for example, a casino, restaurant and stage show under one roof. On the night that I went there, the floorshow was a Broadway-type performance staged by a transgender group. The casino was also packed and some of the winnings I saw being taken that night were definitely not peanuts.
A visit to Manila could prove to be a trip to just another Asian city, or it could be an experience that distills the best of Asian cities. It all depends on where you go looking.