Baroque Churches of the Philippines

Baroque Churches of the Philippines - UNESCO World Heritage Site

From the World Heritage inscription of the Baroque Churches of the Philippines:

This group of churches established a style of building and design that was adapted to the physical conditions in the Philippines and had an important influence on later church architecture in the region. The four churches are outstanding examples of the Philippine interpretation of the Baroque style and represent the fusion of European church design and construction with local materials and decorative motifs to form a new church-building tradition.

The Church of San Agustin in Manila is the principal property of the Baroque Churches of the Philippines World Heritage Site. San Agustin is the oldest church in the Philippines. The current church dates back to 1607 but previous Spanish churches have existed on the spot going back to 1571. The church has survived several major earthquakes in Manila as well as both American and Japanese bombardment in WWII.

Overview of the Baroque Churches of the Philippines

There are four churches around the Philippines which are included on this site. The churches that were included in this UNESCO World Heritage Site property played a crucial role in the country’s colonial past and identity. Most of these churches were built during the 16th century at the time of the Spanish colonial rule of the country. The churches’ unique design features are the integration of the Spanish and Latin American architectural styles with that of the Philippine indigenous architecture. In fact, the prominence of these churches also provided a glimpse into the power that the Church had in ruling the state during the colonial history.

The Spaniards held a great deal of power during the 15th to 16th century wherein they went on an expedition and colonized many countries. The Philippines was one of those countries. When they landed on the Philippine islands in 1521, they were able to infiltrate the country and establish their rule by spreading Catholicism in the country. They ruled the Philippines for more than three centuries until the country eventually declared its independence from Spain. However, those three centuries of Spanish rule have influenced the way of life in the Philippines – from the language, religion, belief, and architecture, to name a few.

The four churches are:

Church of San Agustin in Manila

The San Agustin Church in Manila features a design that is derived from the Augustinian churches in Mexico. In fact, it bears a strong resemblance to Puebla Cathedral in Puebla, Mexico. It is located in Intramuros, which is in the southern district of Manila. It is the only church that had survived the bombardment during the Second World War.

Given its location in Manila, it is the most popular and visited of the four churches which comprise this world heritage site.

Church of La Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur

Located atop a hill, the Church of La Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion served as a citadel once that profess to how this architectural feat has served several purposes. The two huge columns at the facade of the church are among its most distinctive feature. Meanwhile, the reddish exterior and exposed brickwork define its unique style.

Church of San Agustin in Paoay, Ilocos Norte

Baroque Churches of the Philippines

This particular church was pointed out in the UNESCO listing as the most outstanding example of the Earthquake Baroque Architectural Style. Next to the Paoay Church is a coral stone bell tower. These two are one of the most recognizable landmarks in the country. The fact that the bell tower is detached from the main church building also makes it unique.

Church of Santo Tomas de Villanueva in Iloilo

This church, also known as Miagao Church, is built on the highest point in the town of Miagao in Iloilo (to which the church was also named after). The towers of the church also served as a lookout for Muslim raiders. Meanwhile, both the church and its watchtowers were built with secret passages and thick walls to defend from the Muslim raids. It is considered the finest example of “Fortress Baroque”. The facade of the church exemplifies how Filipino churches have adapted Western decorative elements.

The Philippines is no doubt a haven for historical churches. Due to its colonial past and a rich Christian belief, it comes as no surprise how the church is an integral part of the system. In fact, the national government and both public and private sectors work together to safeguard these national treasures. The aim is to preserve and protect the historical and cultural heritage that are tied up with these baroque churches. In addition, they are also rapidly growing as top tourist destinations.

View my complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Philippines.

View my complete list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The Seven Wonders of the Philippines

The The Seven Wonders of the Philippines are:

  1. Rice Terraces of Banaue
  2. Underground River of Puerto Princessa
  3. Tubbataha Reef
  4. Chocolate Hills
  5. Taal Volcano
  6. Mayon Volcano
  7. Boracay

Rice Terraces in fog
Rice Terraces in fog

Rice Terraces of Banaue
The Rice Terraces of Banaue are perhaps the most well-known attraction in the Philippines, and no list of the Seven Wonders of the Philippines would be complete without them. Located in central Luzon, they have been carved by local Ifugao people over the last 3,000 thousand years. When you visit, you can see terraces still being built today. The locals often describe the terraces as the largest man-made structure created without forced labor. If each terrace were laid end to end, they would stretch almost 14,000 miles. They were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 and are one of 6 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Philippines.


Underground River
Underground River of Puerto Princessa

Underground River of Puerto Princessa
The Underground River on the island of Palawan is not only a UNESCO World Heritage site but was named as one of the Earth’s New7Wonders of Nature. The Underground River is the longest subterranean river in the world, extending 8.2km underground. Over 2km is accessible to the public. The surrounding National Park includes many species including monitor lizards, the Blue-naped parrot and macaque monkeys. The park is located 50km north of the city of Puerto Princessa on the island of Palawan.


Photo by Lexxmax

Tubbataha Reef
Located in the middle of the Sulu Sea, Tubbataha Reef is one of the largest and best-preserved reef systems in the world. Actually composed to two atolls, Tubbataha is far removed from any human settlement, it is a 92-mile boat trip from the city of Puerto Princessa. The marine park covers over 968 km² and is home to over 300 coral species and 400 fish species, rivaling the diversity of the Great Barrier Reef. The few pieces of atoll which are above water are also home to a large number of seabirds. It was inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 1993.


Chocolate Hills:
Public Domain Image from Wikipedia

Chocolate Hills
The Chocolate Hills are located on the Island of Bohol. They are over 1,200 hills, covering over 50 km² and get their name because the grass which covers the hills turns brown during the dry season. The hills are almost all conical in shape and made of limestone. Many people have believed that they were human creations. Geologists are not entirely sure how they were created. Theories include erosion of limestone, volcanic uplift, and accretion of limestone around basalt fragments from a volcanic eruption. The government of the Philippines has declared it one of their flagship tourist destinations. The Chocolate Hills are so central to the people of Bohol, they appear on the flag of the province.


Taal Volcano: Image by Johs Bousel

Taal Volcano
Taal volcano has a unique distinction in the world. It contains the largest island, inside of a lake, which is on an island, which is inside a lake, which is on an island. (got that?) Taal is a very active volcano which has killed over 5,000 people in recorded history. It has been named one of the 16-decade volcanoes in the world worthy of special study. Inside the Taal caldera is Lake Tall, which is a 25km across. The lake is known for its high sulfur content and is also home to many endemic species of freshwater fish. Taal is only 50km from the city of Manila.


Mayon Volcano:
Mayon Volcano: Image by Kool.Angot

Mayon Volcano
Mayon volcano is perhaps the most perfectly shaped conic volcano in the world. It has been called by some the “Filipino Mount Fuji”. Located in southeast Luzon, it is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. It has erupted close to 50 times since the year 1600, with the most recent eruption occurring in 2006. 77 people were killed in an eruption in 1993 and 75,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes during an eruption in 1984. It rises 2462m over Legazpi City in the province of Albay.


Public Domain image from Wikipedia
Public Domain image from Wikipedia

Boracay is a small island approximately 200 miles south of Manila and is very close to the major island of Panay. Its white sand beaches and direct flights from all over Asia have made it one of the Philippines most popular tourist destinations. White Beach is the longest beach on Boracay and extends 4 km on the west side of the islands.


Honorable Mention Wonders of the Philippines

El Nido
Located on the northern tip of the island of Palawan, El Nido is known for its distinctive limestone islands and inlets. El Nido consistently scores high in surveys of top eco-tourist destinations in the world. Forbes magazine rated the wreck dives off the island of Coron as someone of the top 10 dive sites in the world. Archeological evidence of human habitation dating back 22,000 years has also been found in El Nido.

The Province of Batanes is the northernmost, and smallest province in the Philippines. It is located almost halfway between is island of Luzon and Taiwan. The culture of the Ivatan people is unique in the Philippines. Crime in Batanes is almost unknown as many police officials have complained of nothing to do with zero crimes reported and no one in the jails.

Mall of Asia
It may be surprising to some, but one of the largest malls in the world is in Manila. The SM Mall of Asia is the third largest mall in the world in terms of gross leasable area, surpassed only by two malls in China (neither of which is anywhere near capacity). The Mall of Asia consists of four separate buildings connected by open air walkways. It is 50% larger than the Mall of America and 10% larger than the West Edmonton Mall. It addition to the standard mall fare, it also is host to Olympic-sized ice skating rink.


Other articles in Gary’s Wonders of the World series:
Seven Wonders of Australia | Seven Wonders of New Zealand | Seven Wonders of Japan | Seven Wonders of Egypt

The Pinoy Dispora

Filipino kids in Vigan, Philippines. They begged me to take their picture
Filipino kids in Vigan, Philippines. They begged me to take their picture
I don’t just like to write about what I see in certain places and then drop the country as I move on to the next. There are some subjects that deserve revisiting, and one that sort of jumps out at you in Hong Kong is the Philippines. Why the Philippines? You’ll notice it if you spend a little bit of time here. You’ll not only run into a lot of Filipinos but you’ll find many money wire stores that advertise sending remittances back to the Philippines. Some have Philippine flags on the front of the store.  If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that Filipinos constitute the largest group of foreign workers in Hong Kong.

Why? Not hard to figure out. The Philippines is relatively close, English is widely spoken in Hong Kong and almost universal in the Philippines, you can visit Hong Kong without a visa, where as most places require an application process. While I was in the Philippines, the most popular Filipino movie was Apat Dapat, Dapat Apat whose plot involved several female friends who go to Hong Kong to work as domestic servants. (When I was in the Philippines I was watching a TV show when some ads for foreign work opportunities flashed across the screen. I was taken aback at one which was for Hong Kong domestic help, and the position required a college degree. Kind of reflects poorly on job opportunities in the Philippines when they can demand a college degree to get a job as a maid.) As I write this, I’m in a pub eating lunch and the entire wait staff here is Filipino.

Filipinos have become the modern day versions of Jews and Chinese. In every European and Middle Eastern country you used find a population of Jews who filled an economic niche. Likewise, Chinese and Chinatowns can be found all over Asia which they often owned many businesses and were brought in originally as laborers. The same was also true of Indians during the British Empire who went to work in Guyana, Fiji, or Africa. Filipinos are filling that role today. Not only can you find Filipinos in Hong Kong, but also in Saudi Arabia, and throughout Asia. If I were a betting man, based on what I saw in the Philippines, I would bet that you see Filipinos follow the same course in these countries over the next several decades. They come in as laborers and end up owning businesses and having a higher standard of living than the local population. And, like the Jews and Chinese before them, they will probably end up getting the short end of the stick by locals if they become too successful.

You see a lot of signs like this in Kowloon
You see a lot of signs like this in Kowloon
Filipino Hong Kong laborers aren’t the only thing that was the impetus for me writing this. I’ve noticed in the last few weeks that there has been an explosion in the number of Filipino bloggers and websites. As a percentage of the population, they seem far more represented online than you would expect. While I wasn’t something I had considered, in hindsight it makes perfect sense. Working online is basically the same thing as working overseas, without the overseas part. You can have an international audience, earn US Dollars, take advantage of technical training, and do it all under the radar of local officials and not have to leave your family. Based on the small sample of nerds I saw in the internet cafes and game rooms in the Philippines, they have a core of an internet culture on a par or better than other countries in the region.

The Philippines has been slower than most of SE Asia in developing, but I think it probably holds more potential then other countries in the region, in the long run. People however, have been saying that since Marcos fell. If they can overcome their political problems and corruption, I think they might be the next Asian tiger.

Final Thoughts on the Philippines

The Hon. Mayor Edward S. Hagedorn
The Hon. Mayor Edward S. Hagedorn
I think I should finish up writing about the Philippines before I get too much farther in my trip. The farther I get away, the less fresh it is in my mind.

From the moment I landed in Manila to the moment I left, there was something that just didn’t seem right with the Philippines. The Philippines in an Asian country, but it feels like a Latin American Country. I mean that in the best and worst sense.  It gets its latin influences from being a Spanish colony, same as most of Latin America. But it also seems to have caught the disease that most former Spanish colonies suffer from.

Let me start at the beginning…

While traveling through the Pacific, I noticed on most islands there was a lot of idleness. People just sitting around doing nothing.  I wont pin down a reason, but I think it is part geographic, cultural, and even environmental. I could write a lot more on the economic prospects of Pacific countries, but let me just say they aren’t good. No matter what happens, being isolated in the middle of the Pacific ocean with few resources or people isn’t a recipe for success.

The island in the center of Ulugan Bay is owned by MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN
The island in the center of Ulugan Bay is owned by MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN
In the Philippines I saw something very different. Everywhere I went, people were busy. In every village, no matter how small, I saw signs in front of houses offering services. Everyone seemed to be selling something, offering tire repair services, welding, operating tricycles, all usually in addition to farming. Even the guys in Manila who were trying to sell me fake Rolex watches were at least hustling, trying to make a buck. There seems to be no lack of work ethic or entrepreneurial spirit in the Philippines.

Every college I drove past you would see a sea of white from the uniforms of nursing students. Nursing is a very popular area to get into in the Philippines. They produce an abnormally large number of nurses.

English is widely spoken in the Philippines, which gives everyone them a leg up over other companies in the global economy. They also have close ties with the US, which you would think would also be to their benefit. To top it all off, they are in a region, South East Asia, which is experiencing tremendous growth.

Despite all this, the Philippines is poor. By all rights, they should e doing much better. The question that kept running through my head during my entire stay was “why”?

Approximately 8,000,000 Filipinos work overseas. That is about 10% of the country. One of the reasons that nursing is so popular of a profession to enter is that it is relatively easy to study (compared to becoming an MD) and it provides an easy path to getting a work visa outside of the Philippines. In particular, to the US which has a nursing shortage. The country is suffering from a tremendous brain drain. I went to the US Embassy in Manila to look into getting a new passport. I was stunned by the lines at the embassy for people applying for an immigration visa to the US.

One young man I talked to flat out told me he has six years to wait before he can go to the US. He will probably study nursing and maybe even get into a sham marriage so he could move to New York. The sham marriage would cost him 20% of his income. I read one article in a paper which lamented how common it was to have doctor appointments canceled because the doctor has left the country.

Another editorial I read stated that for bright young people, you desire to either a) leave the country, or b) get into politics or law enforcement. Everyone I talked to sort of took it for granted that they wanted to leave the Philippines, preferably to the US or Canada. In fact, when I brought the subject up, I usually got a look that said “duh”.

After having spent two and a half weeks there, I wont claim to be an expert in Filipino domestic affairs or know what the answer is to the Filipino problem, but I think it lies squarely in the political system. (BTW, if you are Filipino and reading this, feel free to chime in the comments. I’d love to hear your opinion)

This visitor center was a project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN
This visitor center was a project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN
The only thing you ever really hear about the Philippines in the international news is about politics. For much of the post war era, the Philippines was run by a dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. He was tolerated by the US because he was an anti-communist and allowed the US keep a naval and air force base in the country. When he was overthrown in the mid 80’s, there was a lot of speculation that the Philippines would be the next Asian economic miracle. It never really happened.

What seems to have happened, is that the corruption which was concentrated in the hands of Marcos go distributed throughout the whole system. It is as if they Filipinos said when Macros left, “No longer will we be subject to the whims of a corrupt dictator! Now we will be subject to the whims of corrupt democratically elected officials!!”

The Philippines is very corrupt. Their previous president, Jose Estrada, was ousted by a popular revolt due to his corruption. While I was in the Philippines one of the big stories was if he was going to be given a pardon. There were also charges in the newspapers against the current president,  Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA for short), of corruption regarding her and her husband.

Transparency International ranks the Philippines 131st in the world in the perception of corruption index. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks the Philippines one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist in the world. 53 journalists have been assassinated since the presidency of Gloria Arroyo started. Sort of makes it difficult to fight corruption when there is a good chance you’ll die if you do.

To really hammer home what Filipino politics is like, I need to present the case of the HONORABLE MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN, mayor of Puerto Princesa. I should note, that I really don’t know anything about MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN. MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN might be a great guy. MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN might run a really clean city. I have no idea.

This rest stop was a project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN
This rest stop was a project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN
I do however know the name of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN because on anything which is remotely touched with city funding, you will find the name and face of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN. In the taxi tricycles, every license sticker has the photo of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN. Every garbage can in the city has “A project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN” printed on the side. The road to the Puerto Princesa underground river park has signs saying the road is a project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN. The rest stop on the way there is touted as a project of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN. When you get to the park, the building at the park says it is a project of “MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN”. There is a giant billboard at the park with the photo of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN at the mouth of the cave. At the airport, there was a poster of MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN looking at you in the waiting area.

MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN was usually printed much larger than the name of the project itself.

The only public works projects that didn’t have MAYOR EDWARD S. HAGEDORN printed on it were the bus stop shelters. They had GOVERNOR JOEL T. REYES painted on it.

The most egregious example of this I saw in Manila. I saw a sign congratulating a man who won the purple heart award in the US Marines. The sign had a photo of the young man shaking the hand of the local mayor and below that, was a portrait of the mayor, with the name of the mayor in very large font. This guy was injured in battle, and yet it was only there to promote the mayor. Kind of sad.

The reason why law enforcement and politics are such desirable professions is that it allows you to attach your car to the corruption train. Every public works project is liable to kickbacks, cronyism, and will all be used to keep the incumbents in power.

Sadly, so long as the best and brightest keep leaving the country, those who might have the greatest incentive for reform aren’t around to make it happen. Then again, I can’t really blame them for wanting to leave the Philippines for greater opportunity elsewhere.

My Visit to Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park

Underground River Entrance
Underground River Entrance
Along side the rice terraces of Banaue, the highlight of my trip to the Philippines was my visit to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the longest, navigatable, subterranean river in the world. (got that?)

Puerto Princesa is the capital of Palawan province, the westernmost province in the Philippines. If you look at a map of the Philippines, Palawan is the very long island running NE to SW on the far western edge. Because of the subterranean river and other natural features (El Nid and Tubatha Reef) it has dubbed itself as the Ecotourism capital of the Philippines. I didn’t have time to get out beyond Puerto Princesa, but everything I have heard and read from other tourists about Palawan has been positive. Given how affordable the Philippines is, I can easily see this becoming a bigger destination for the backpacker crowd in the future.

Technically, the underground river is within the city of Puerto Princess, however, it is an hour and a half drive from the “city” to the river. This is more a function of the how the borders of the city are defined. My day started out at 7 am getting picked up by the tour company. Entrance to the park, transportation there and back and lunch was P1,200 (about US$25) which is a pretty good deal. My group for the day was myself, two girls from Japan on vacation and four retired Filipino women who did/are living in the US.

Water Jeepneys
Water Jeepneys
The road out to the park was interesting. As you got further away from town, the pavement stopped and the road became a dirt road. That was not a big deal. What was interesting is that every so often, the pavement would start again….and then stop…and then start…and then it would only be paved on one lane. There appeared no rhyme or reason to where things were paved. The Filipino ladies later told me that they were joking that the pavement was only in front of homes that voted for the mayor/governor. What is sad is there may be some truth to that (more on that in my final Philippines report).

The road going out was really beautiful. We stopped briefly at an overlook of Ulugan Bay and drove through some amazing limestone formations and rice paddies. The underground river and all the surrounding landscape is due to karst formations in the surrounding limestone. As water seeped through the rock, the carbonic acid in the water would slowly eat away at the limestone. The result here is the underground river. In most places you find extensive caves, you will find a similar process going on.

After 90 minutes of alternating paved, non-paved roads, we finally arrived at the park….or at least the staging area for the park. The actual entrance to the cave was about a mile away from the parking area. The only way there is via boat so there are tons of water taxis which take people six at a time to the river entrance. Like the jeepneys in the Philippines, the boats were all very colorful and customized.

The cave entrance was surprisingly small given how big the river is. The river goes into the mountain about 8km and the height of the cave is about 60m in the largest cavern.

I have about a dozen photos that I took inside the cave. I took about 200, the vast majority were garbage. Taking photos on a moving boat in a pitch dark cave isn’t easy. Especially when the primary light source is a lamp held by an old woman in the front of the boat that you have no control over. I had to sort of figure out everything on the fly during the 45 minutes we were in the boat. Eyeballing the photos as they came upon the LCD panel, I figured out that the best photos came when I set the ISO to about 400 and pointed the camera away from the spotlight and just used my flash. If I had the ability to stop and get out of the boat at a few points and could set up a tripod, some really amazing photos would have been possible. Sadly, that wasn’t in the cards. What you see on Flickr is not only the best of the lot but the only ones that came out close to respectable.

All the black dots are sleeping bats
All the black dots are sleeping bats
The boat that goes into the cave is paddled. Any sort of motor used inside of the cave would have been 1) very loud, 2) eventually covered the inside of the cave with soot, and 3) used up oxygen deep inside the cave which would take a while to replenish. Air circulation is poor the farther in you get. The guys that do the boat tours paddle groups of six out and back in a 45-minute trip all day long.

The one thing you are warned about before you enter the cave is to close your mouth when you look up. There are an estimated 40,000 bats which live in the cave and if you look up with your mouth open, there is a good chance you will end up with the taste of bat poop. You can still see bats as far as 1km into the cave, which means they have a helluva flight in and out of the cave every night before they can even start worrying about food.

The boat guides had their spiel down pat. I’m sure they tell the same jokes and describe the same things on every tour. The things which were constantly pointed out were the various stalactites and stalagmites which looked like people and things. One room was called the Cathedral because of all the stalagmites which looked like religious things. There was one that was called the Three Wise Men. From just the right angle, it kind of, sort of looked like three heads wearing crowns. Another was called the Holy Family, and from the right angle it kind of, sort of looked like a man, a woman and a child. There was one that looked like a candle with melting wax.

The Mushroom Formation
The Mushroom Formation
The next area was called the produce section. There was one formation that looked like a giant mushroom cap and there was one that looked like a giant ear of corn. There was a stalactite that looked like two hands holding each other, one that looked like the butt and back of a naked woman, and one that looked like the head of a diving bird. You had to be at the correct angle to make out most of the images, but they were there. There was even the obligatory formation that looked like Jesus.

When the cave trip was done and we were back to blue say and firm ground, we had a plesant suprise. There were several macaques monkeys near the dock. The monkeys, I was told, have learned to steal plastic bags from people because they know that plastic bags are more likely to have food in them. Two of the monkeys even put on a show for the crowd.

The other really neat thing which was waiting for us were monitor lizards. This wasn’t a zoo and the animals weren’t plants. We just got lucky to see up close two of the major animals in the national park. The monitor lizards moved very slowly and constantly had their tongues out looking for food.

When we finally got back to the parking area, we had lunch waiting for us. It was nice little buffet with coconut soup, some fish and pork with rice and fresh coconut to drink.

I should also finish my post on Puerto Princesa by noting, that while I was there I got to try birds nest soup for the first time in my life. Birds nest soup is made from nests of swifts which create them with their own saliva. It sounds gross, but it tastes pretty good. In Hong Kong, a bowl of soup can go for upto US$100. A kilogram of bird nest can sell for thousands of dollars. I got my bowl of soup for US$4. At that price, I couldn’t pass it up.

Transportation in the Philippines

Jeepneys in Baguio
Jeepneys in Baguio
Perhaps the most unique thing about the Philippines is the transportation system. With the exception of a short light rail line in Manila, there is zero public transportation in the Philippines. Well, they call it public transportation, but the ‘public’ refers to who the service is aimed at not ownership like in the US.

The thing which makes Filipino transportation unique, and the hardest thing to figure out, are the jeepneys. Jeeneys are small, privately owned buses. They got their name because they were originally made out of Jeeps left by the Americans after WWII. Filipinos took the jeeps, extended the back ends and used them to ferry people around.

I wont claim to be an expert in the art of taking a Jeepney. Most of the jeepneys appear to run particular routes between preset locations which are written on the side of the vehicle. My problem was I didn’t know what or where the places listed were, so it was sort of hard to know what jeepney to get on or when it would be leaving.

Jeepneys fill the role that intercity buses or subways would fit in the US. The difference is that there are a LOT more jeepneys than buses and they are used by a larger percentage of the population. Unlike the American taxis, jeepneys do not appear to be artificially limited by regulation. For example, in New York City, to own a taxi you have to have a taxi medallion which is purchased via auction. The number of medallions is set by the city and is artificially kept low. It is basic supply and demand. If you artificially reduce the supply, the price will increase. The number of taxi medallions in New York today is actually lower than what it was in 1937 (by 1,200 or about 10%). The cost of a medallion today is over $200,000 in an auction. The cost gets passed on to New Yorkers in the form of higher transportation fares.

Jeepneys are the most popular and distinctive form of transportation in the Philippines
Jeepneys are the most popular and distinctive form of transportation in the Philippines
The cost of a trip on a jeepney is 7 pesos. (less than $0.25) and there is no real barrier to entry if you want to drive a jeepney. There are some rules. You have to register and drive a regular route and have a special drivers license. However the supply of jeepneys are not restricted. Hence, there are a lot of them and they provide low cost transportation. (I should also note that jeepneys are very dirty. Almost all the ones I saw belched black smoke. I don’t think there are any regulations regarding emissions in the Philippines.)

While jeepneys aren’t luxury vehicles, their owners take a great deal of pride. Because of my lack of knowledge about Manila, I didn’t take any jeepneys there, but I did manage to take a look inside of several and talk to a few drivers while walking around the city. Some have small televisions installed in the back for riders. Almost all are decked out with some sort of elaborate painting and are named. Most names tend to have a religious theme or are named after women.

The customization can get really elaborate. REALLY elaborate. The closest thing I can think of are lowriders. You will see all sorts of lights, hood ornaments, paint jobs, chrome finishes and other doodads on jeepneys.

Between cities, you usually have to take a bus. It took me a while to figure out the bus system, but eventually I did and it wasn’t that hard. The buses, like the jeepneys are privately owned. Unlike the jeepneys, they tend to be owned by companies who run a fleet rather than owner operated buses.  All the buses I road on (and I probably spent close to 24 hours on Filipino buses) were older and I noticed that none had a working spedometer. That really didn’t matter because it would be next to impossible to go very fast on Filipino roads.

Please note the monster truck 4x4 morphing into a flaming cheetah on the side
Please note the monster truck 4x4 morphing into a flaming cheetah on the side
The buses were also cheap. I could take an 8 hour bus trip for about $6-7. An equivalent trip in the US would probably cost 5-10x that amount depending on the route.

Taking a Filipino bus is different in several ways from taking a Greyhound. For starters, there is a conductor who rides on the bus in addition to the driver. The bus will stop and pick up passengers at any point on the road. People get on and then pay the conductor who issues the ticket as the bus is moving. Also, the bus will sometimes stop and pick up mail. People will give a package to the conductor or driver with about 20 pesos. Someone will have to be waiting for the bus, pull it over and show ID to get the package.

Every so often you would see private bus stations along the side of the road. They would often have restrooms you had to pay for. (One restroom I saw charged you on the basis of what you did. 1 peso for number 1, 2 pesos for going number 2). The bus stops seemed to have cut deals with certain bus lines as you would only see certain companies at certain bus stops. They would sell actual cooked meals in addition to a limited selection of snacks.

What was really unique were the bus vendors. Every so often, in cities or at intersections, the bus would open the doors and let food vendors in the bus. They would walk up and down the isle for few minutes and get dropped off a few miles down the road, where they would get on another bus going the other way. The most popular thing to sell were chicharon, or pork rinds. The vendors would have a giant plasitic bag of smaller bags of pork rinds. I also saw vendors selling a wide variety of foods, including hamburgers, fried chicken, sandwiches, peanuts, and some things I had no clue what it was because I didn’t speak tagalog and I couldn’t see inside the package.

The political sytem is the Philippines is pretty much a disaster (more on that later). Rather than suffer a lack of publicly funded transportation, the people of the Philippines have created a system which is affordable, works, and is run by themselves. I developed an odd sort of affinty for it, which is one of the reasons I bothered to write this.

…that and I wanted an excuse to post photos of tricked out jeepneys.

Visiting Baguio and Banaue

City park in Baguio
City park in Baguio
There are some cities in the world which can only be described as great cities. Cities where you can walk around all day and never cease finding good street food, restaurants, parks and shops. The people are nice and the streets are clean.

Baguio is such a city.

I probably spent too long in Manila. Once you’ve seen the Intramuros, there isn’t a whole lot there to see. The Mall of Asia was interesting, but I think my stay was probably about 2-3 days too long. Most of that is accounted for my by confusion over the Filipino transportation system. (More on that later)

It is a shame that the entry point into the Philippines is Manila, because Manila is the least desirable place I visited in the Philippines. Once you leave the city, things and people become much nicer.

Through asking on the internet and people in the hotel, I eventually figured out exactly what I needed to do to get to Baguio. I would go to Baguio and use that to get to Vigan and Banaue rather than going directly from Manila to Banaue. It takes more time, but it was worth it.

Baguio Cathedral and Skyline
Baguio Cathedral and Skyline
Baguio is up in the hills. It is sort of considered the summer retreat of wealthy Filipinos because the temperature is usually about 10F cooler there than it is in the rest of the country. In fact, the Filipino equivalent of the summer White House is located in Baguio.

Unlike most of the cities in the Philippines, Baguio is a city founded during the American occupation, not the Spanish, so it lacks many of the Latin features you see on other places. The city is also much cleaner than any other city I’ve seen in the Philippines. For starters, there is green space. There is a large park in the middle of the city with a lake. It almost reminds me of Central Park in New York. (In fact, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if that was the model for the park). You can rent a boat in the lake, you can rent bikes in the park, and there are tons of food vendors around the park and in the downtown area.

Baguio is also a college town. It is the only place in the Philippines where I saw students studying at restaurants between classes.


Ifaguo woman at rice terraces
Ifaguo woman at rice terraces
Getting from Baguio to Banaue was much harder that you’d think just looking at the map. As the crow flies, it is about 50 miles. The bus trip, however, is eight hours. This is partly a function of having to drive around the mountains and part a function of the roads being less than stellar. (I did not travel in a single bus that had a working speedometer. I’d guess that we were moving at about 40-50mph most of the time).

I wasn’t really certain where to get off. Baguio is a big city of about 250,000. Banaue is about 1/10 the size and it is all stretched out along a road for miles. There doesn’t seem to be a city center of any sort. The bus eventually stopped in front of the Banaue Hotel and Youth Hostel and everyone on the bus pretty much mentioned to me that this is where I was supposed to get off. The hotel itself seemed way over staffed. Maybe it was just the wrong season for tourists or it could be the fact that it was a government run hotel opened during the Marcos era. I dunno.

When you first see the rice terraces in Banaue, it is pretty stunning. I saw some modest terracing going into Baguio, but nothing remotely approaching this. The people of Ifugao (the province where Banaue is located) have been terracing the sides of the mountains here for over one thousand years. The tourist brochures you see for the province go out of the way to point out that the rice terraces, unlike the pyramids or other great structures, were made by the people who lived there for their own benefit, not by slave labor. Moreover, unlike the other great wonders of the world, the rice terraces are still in use according to their original function.

The rice terraces are also not just located in Banaue proper but are spread out for miles. To view some of the more remote terraces can take an entire day of driving and hiking. Due to time constraints and weather, I decided to stick close to Banaue. Knowing that I had to spend a day on the bus going back, a day going to Vigan and a day to get back to Manila, I figured more days driving around in a jeepney wasn’t worth seeing an extra terrace.

The day after I arrived, I walked down to the village which was directly below the hotel. A girl met me on the steps and followed me around, offering to be my guide through the village. I figured “why not” and she showed me what there was to see. There was one old man who wanted me to pay 200 pesos to see the skeleton of his grandfather he had kept in a burlap sack in the closet. I passed. Seeing a dead body really wasn’t something I had in mind when I set out that morning to take photos of rice terraces.

The hotel described the village as an authentic Ifugao village, however, the only thing that seemed authentic about it was that a few huts were up on stilts. Everything else about it seemed just like every other Filipino village I’ve seen, except for the fact that it was off the road near the bottom of a valley.

A terrace level view
A terrace level view
The girl eventually took me down to the bottom of the terrace into one of the actual rice paddies. To see it close up gives you an idea for just how difficult and time-consuming it must have been for people without any modern tools to sculpt the sides of mountains. I don’t know how long it would take to make a single level of a terrace but it would least have to be a year of clearing brush, moving stone and earth and creating the barriers to hold in the water. I’m also not sure how they manage to keep the walls of the terrace from breaking if they get too much rain. It would seem that a really bad rainstorm could potentially destroy everything. Some terraces probably had as many as fifty levels and they would extend in either direction for sometimes over a mile.

The next day I rented a jeepney to go to some of the better lookout spots around Banaue to take photos.

I was impressed with what I saw around the hotel but was blown away when I got to some of the better locations. It was raining during most of my stay, so while the photos may not have been the best, I got to see some of the streams and waterfalls going at full blast.

During the bus ride into Banaue, large stretches of the road for almost the entire trip was take up by people drying rice. They would spread the rice out over large plastic sheets, or sometimes just on the bare pavement, and constantly turn over the rice with a flat shovel to dry it out. It seemed like every square inch of flat, paved surface in most villages was taken over by rice. Basketball courts, schoolyards, and walking paths were all covered with rice. I was told that most of the Philippines have three rice harvests per year, but in Banaue, they only have one. Usually in March. I assume this is due to the climate up in the hills vs lowland regions.

UNESCO has the rice terraces listed as an endangered World Heritage Area. The terraces themselves are not in danger, however, the construction of shanties around Banaue is starting to take away from the beauty of the area.

The rice terraces of Banaue are what I’d call one of the Secret Wonders of the World. Like Nan Modal I visited earlier, they are impressive human accomplishments created by pre-modern people, that almost no one has ever heard of. You can’t just go Banaue. It takes some effort. There are no airports anywhere nearby and the only way there is overland.

If you bother to make the trip it is well worth 20 hours of bus time.


Big Mac value meal only 99 Pesos
Big Mac value meal only 99 Pesos
When I came up with the idea of writing about McDonald’s around the world, the idea was to compare how various restaurants differ based on how their countries differ. During my trip through the Pacific, there wasn’t a lot to set the various restaurants apart.

The Philippines is the fist place where I’ve noticed some substantial variation in the menu compared to what you might see in the US.

For starters, rice is the primary accompaniment. Every meal comes with rice and the rice is packaged in small, consistently shaped conical mounds. You can get fries, but they are secondary to rice. McDonald’s in the Philippines also sells a lot more fried chicken that I’ve seen anywhere else. They call it Chicken McDo. I had breakfast at one McDonald’s in Manila and had corned beef and rice. I have also seen McSpaghetti on the menu.

If you do buy a normal American type meal of a burger, fries and a drink, you’ll immediately notice that the portions are significantly smaller. If you up-size your drink and fries, you still will get a portion as small or smaller than the smallest size you can get in the US. If you are old enough to remember eating fast food in the 70s or 80s, you used to get small, paper packages for fries. That is pretty much the size you get in the Philippines. The “large” drink is the size you’d get in a small plastic beer cup at a party. In addition to cutting back on portions, you will often (but not always) find non-disposable silverware and cups.

The prices here are also the lowest I’ve seen so far. You can get a regular sized burger value (Big Mac, Quarter Pounder, Double Cheeseburger) meal for 99 Pesos, which is about $2.15. Part of that can be explained by the smaller portion sizes, but it is mostly a reflection of lower Filipino prices. I wasn’t able to find out anything regarding where the food is from. I suspect the rice and chicken is from the Philippines but the beef is not.

All of the fast food restaurants in Manila delivered. You’ll see a small fleet of scooters with an insulated box on the back outside each restaurant. I saw several signs which still offer the old Domino’s deal: 30 min or the food is free. They all also seemed to have the good phone numbers. Shakey’s will deliver if you dial 7777777. KFC is 911-11-11 (a number most Americans would be hesitant to dial).

Jolibees is a Filipino owned fast food restaurant with 12 stores in the USA
Jolibee's is a Filipino owned fast food restaurant with 12 stores in the USA
McDonald’s, however, is not the interesting fast food story in the Philippines, however. It is Jollibees.

Jollibees is the largest fast food chain in the Philippines and is Filipino owned. They also have stores in several other countries including twelve in California and Las Vegas. They are probably the only Filipino brand which has any presence outside of the Philippines. Jollibees has over 600 locations across the Philippines, Hong Kong and the US. In the Philippines, they did things I haven’t seen anywhere else. Because public infrastructure is so poor, I saw several scenic overlooks along highways sponsored by Jollibees. Everywhere there was a McDonald’s you’d find a Jollibee, but you would find Jollibee in places you wouldn’t find a McDonald’s.

I made one trip to a Jollibees and ordered a hamburger. It was one of the worst hamburgers I have ever had. Eating a hamburger isn’t usually something you even think about. You don’t often go into a fast food restaurant and think anything, good or bad, about what you’re eating. This, however, was bland and tasteless. I would swear the patty was boiled. I looked around the restaurant and noticed I was the only one eating a hamburger. Everyone else was eating chicken or spaghetti. They probably knew something I didn’t.

I also haven’t been able to write much about local foods on my trip. (See my previous post on the lack of a cuisine in the Pacific) The Philippines is also the first chance I’ve gotten to really experience some local foods and street food. One dish I ate (while writing most of this post) was called “Kare Kare de Pata’t Buntot”. It was a beef dish in a peanut sauce, served on rice with a side sauce…and I’m not sure what the sauce was made out of. It was really more of a paste than a sacue. It was really good and very rich. There were also large pieces of the beef fat in the dish. It was not at all spicy, like all the Filipino food I’ve had so far.

Kare Kare de Pata't Buntot
Kare Kare de Pata't Buntot
In my hotel in Makati, they had a breakfast dish made out of pork. I have no clue what the name of the dish is, but the pork was a bright pink color from the sauce and was sweet. It wasn’t as sweet as sweet and sour pork, but it also wave very good.

In Banaue, I ordered a local Ifague dish of crispy pork knuckle. There really wasn’t much too it. It was a big hunk of pork with bones which was fried served with soy sauce and rice. The best part of it was the friend skin of the pig.

In VIgan I had a dish fried pork belly. It came with a side sauce that was probably be best thing I’ve had on my trip so far. I don’t know the name of it, but it was clearly based on soy sauce, but with a lot more to it. I asked was it was and I was only told it was a “fish sauce”.

The street vendors were also much greater than anything I’ve experienced so far. You could walk out on a major street and see people roasting whole chickens. In Bagiuo there was a block it seemed of nothing but roasted chicken vendors. In Puerto Princessa, I saw someone serving an entire roasted pig, with the pigs head displayed prominently on the cart. I also got to experience the bus vendors, but I will write about that more when I post about my experiences with the Philippines transportation system.

Given the number of Filipinos in the US, I’m surprised you don’t see more Filipino restaurants. I think more Americans would have no problem with Filipino cooking, even if they didn’t like Asian food in general. Nothing I experienced was very spicy and they don’t use chopsticks.

I Shall Return…….Or Not

I’m off to Taiwan in a few hours. Since I got in from Palawan yesterday I’ve been trying to figure out my ticket situation. I purchased the ticket. I’m in the computer system for Philippine Airlines as being on the flight. However, I need a paper ticket which I was never given. Why I need a paper ticket when I have a passport and I’m in the computer is beyond me, but I have to go and jump through some hoops to get my paper ticket, then walk a few hundred feet and give the paper ticket to someone else.

Philippine Airlines is the worst airline I’ve flown on so far. They manage to not crash just fine, but everything else around their operation sucks.