Pagsanjan boat

John Burke visits the tropical Philippines


Risky photography at Pagsanjan   © JOHN BURKE


The archipelago named after Philip of Spain forms the most westernised country in Asia.  Although the 101 million Filipinos are mostly of Malay stock, their European and American heritage has influenced everything from language and religion to culture and politics.

There is also geographical diversity among the 11 main islands and 7,079 smaller ones that cover the same area as the British Isles,  For a start, the Pacific side is monsoonal from June until October, whereas the Philippines’ western shores, are less rainswept.

At a regular 80° Fahrenheit, it is humid everywhere except in the mountains that start on the largest island, Luzon, where the rice-terraces of Baguio are 5,000 feet above the South China Sea.  The north-south range includes volcanoes, which is why beaches may be black instead of white.  The snorkelling and scuba-diving as well as surfing and sea-fishing are excellent for those who know the coral that has also impeded invaders.

It was in 1521 that Magellan, the Portuguese explorer, was killed off Cebu while circumnavigating the globe.  But his Spanish masters built a fort there in 1565, and soon conquered the islands.

Manila.- Intramuros.

Part of old Manila     © JOHN BURKE


Luzon, however, got the capital, Manila, which treasures such colonial masterpieces as Fort Santiago and the rebuilt Cathedral of the Virgin (1600).   On almost every island, an urban centre boasts a colonial townhall and plaza as well as massive baroque churches, most of which withstand earthquakes.

Even the odd bull-ring survives, although cockfighting is the sport nowadays.  Place-names like El Nido and San Carlos mingle with native ones like Iloilo and Lapu-Lapu – all worth visiting – while onetime rule from Mexico has left a legacy of spicy cooking.

Thanks to three centuries of conversion, nine Filipinos out of ten are christened with saints’ names in Spanish, even though it has not been an official language since 1973.  Yet nothing could stop Arab traders from bringing Islam to Mindanao, the big equatorial island with the Philippines’ highest point on Mount Apo (9,689 feet). Travel is unsafe outside its multi-ethnic port of Davao, even if communist insurgency has abated elsewhere.

Only the capital is larger, having long outgrown the walled colonial district named Intramuros.  Just off Taft Avenue, soldiers guard the Rizal Monument that marks the 1896 uprising against the Spanish whose ships were sunk in Manila Bay two years later by the Americans.  In 1942, they were overwhelmed at the same spot by the Japanese who later fought fanatically to keep the Philippines.

Corregidor guns

The guns of Corregidor   © JOHN BURKE


   Boats go out to war-torn Corregidor Island with its Battery Way, Middleside Barracks and General MacArthur’s bunker, from which he escaped.  On southerly Leyte, a bronze monument shows the “I will return” general and his staff wading ashore after the largest naval battle in history.  His metropolitan base was the Manila Hotel – built with marble and hardwood in 1912 – whose other guests have included Ernest Hemingway.

Uncle Sam gave the Philippines independence postwar, but still has huge bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay, which is why four out of ten Filipinos speak English as well as Tagalog or Cebuano, especially in Metro-Manila whose teeming northern half is divided by the Pasig River from smart suburbs like Makati.  Tours include the riverside Malacanang Palace, from which Ferdinand Marcos and his wife fled in 1986, leaving behind 3,000 ladies’ shoes, some of which survive in a Marikina museum.

Manila.- Coconut Palace

Too luxurious for a papal visit   © JOHN BURKE


Imelda used to house her guests in the Coconut Palace where they showered in a golden bathroom, although John Paul II declined its hospitality.  Other sights include a rare zoo and a cigar factory as well as Quinta Market (watch your valuables).  Horse-drawn cabs go there around the bayside boulevard which is close to budget hotels, but the gaudy jeepneys are quicker.

  Besides the mass-transit system, there is an American-built railroad on Luzon, but it is a bumpy 61 miles by bus to the living museum of Villa Escudero.  Visitors are serenaded by Filipinos in native costume before a buffalo-cart takes them to rice and coconut plantations.

Villa Escudero

Japanese tank at Villa Escudero   © JOHN BURKE


A few miles south is Pagsanjan – reached through an arched gate – from where black canoes, sleek and shallow, glide to shoot a series of rapids (protect your  camera) as far as the Magdapio Falls.  There is fun all over the Philipppines, although it takes time to get from island to island, especially on ferries that are often overcrowded.

The central  Visayas group is laid-back.  Negros is mountainous whereas Bohol

has coral reefs and hillocks like cones of chocolate ice-cream,while Cebu is a narrow island whose namesake port is called Queen of the South.  Besides rare relics, it boasts a Chinese temple in a suburb named Beverly Hills.

Provincial cuisine varies widely, but the staple is rice, and food is always sweet and sour, salty and spicy, so it needs to be washed down with San Miguel beer or green mango juice.   Spirits are distilled from rice, sugar or coconut-milk.

Crime is a problem despite the summary execution of drug-dealers ordered by Rodrigo Duterte, the first president from Mindanao and a strongman like Marcos who may have ordered the 1983 slaying of his rival, Benigno Aquino, at Manila airport.  It has borne his name since his widow became president, and today’s arrivals are greeted by garlanded musicians who cry  “Mabuhay” (welcome).  Philippine Airlines has just upgraded its non-stop flights from London on B.777s.