Regular followers of this blog will know that I am anything but a fan of the Philippines' capital Manila. It’s filthy, unsafe, floods whenever there is a drop or two of rain and any of the nice historical parts of the city are overshadowed by the unpleasantness surrounding them.
Yes, I’ve even been to hell – twice, and lived to tell the tale (it’s an area of Manila called Tondo, where the taxi drivers ask foreigners if they can draw a curtain so they can’t be seen from outside, and lock the cab doors securely in case of attack. It’s a place where even the police are afraid to patrol.)
But move 200kms north of Manila to the city of Baguio, nestled within the Cordillera Central mountain range in the province of Benguet in northern Luzon, and it’s a different story.
It takes between six to eight hours to get there on the bus, though they leave every 15 minutes or so from Pasay or Cubao in downtown Manila and have free onboard wifi and often show videos – though the majority of the films shown are gangster/shoot-em-up/violent films of which I am not a fan…
Baguio City was established by the Americans in 1900 and sits at an altitude of around 1450 meters. Because of this, the temperature in the city is around 8 degrees lower than the average temperature in the rest of the country. The Americans declared it the Summer Capital of the Philippines on July 1, 1903, and every year for the next decade from March to June, the entire American government contingency from the Governor-General to the humblest clerk was moved to Baguio to escape Manila's summer heat.
But in July 1990, a massive earthquake destroyed much of the city, which over the next quarter century has taken on a new persona. Want a decent hotel? Look no further than across the street from Victory Liner bus terminal and you cannot miss the bright blue Micro Hotel…
One of the oldest buildings still standing is The Mansion House which was the residence of the American governor-generals. You cannot actually go in, but you can enter the main gate and gawp at it from across the lawn.
The cathedral is another focal point, noted for its pink exterior, twin spires and traditional stained glass windows. Construction began in 1920 and it was completed and consecrated in 1936. It served as an evacuation centre during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II and not only survived the carpet-bombing of the city in 1945, but also the 1991 earthquake.
One of the nice things about Baguio is how green a city it is. There are plenty of parks and open spaces, such as Wright Park, where there’s even a musical fountain display – OK, not a patch on Dubai’s musical fountains, but pretty all the same. It draws the crowds most evenings.
Talking of water, the city has an extraordinary amount of precipitation during the rainy season, with the months of July and August having on average more than 1,000mm of rain. So it’s not surprising that during the monsoon season you regularly get spectacular waterfalls appearing from out of nowhere – which often leads to land slides and road closures.
It appears, too, that Baguio follows a different calendar from everyone else, with September having an extra day in it!
The shops are a lot more fun than what you find in Manila. I particularly like this sports shoe shop in the SM hypermarket complex which uses its staff to perch precariously along a thin bar that runs around the shop, retrieving boxes of shoes for the punters below and dropping the boxes to their colleagues on the floor. I can’t help but feel that the H&S lobby in Europe would ensure this practice was banned on safety grounds; but this is the Philippines where such niceties don’t count.
Another job that I wouldn’t much care for is sweeping up the shit from hundreds of horses that stand idly by waiting for tourists to hire them for a trot around the area. (Is this why the plants in Wright Park are so stunning?)
But what ignominy these horses must suffer! To make them “prettier” many of them are given a pink and purple hair wash…
Baguio is proud of its local indigenous ties and tries very hard to project itself as a city of culture. One of the so-called tourist attractions was set up in 1998 and is called Tam-awan Village – a 30 minute ride out of the downtown area itself. According to the blurb, it blends indigenous aesthetics and exquisite Cordilleran craftsmanship with an artist’s concept for a village adapted to a Baguio setting. Hmmm
The self-styled Garden in the Sky is where you get to have a glimpse of traditional lives of the Cordillera people showcasing Ifugao and Kalinga houses and promoting awareness for the Ifugao Tribe's indigenous customs. The Ifugao houses started out as three knocked-down huts transported from Bangaan, Ifugao; but now Tam-awan has seven Ifugao huts and two Kalinga houses. All use the original materials and have only had new cogon roofs added, and all are laid out to resemble the design of a traditional Cordillera Village.
In keeping with the spirit of the place, you can tell you are immediately entering an “ethnic” area as the doorboy – for want of a better word – is wearing practically nothing except for a loin cloth. Girls – keep your eyes averted!
Once inside you quickly discover, if you didn’t know before, that this is an artists’ colony through and through – a venue where local artists try to sell their work. To read some of the stuff on the web written by American tourists, you’d think you about to enter art heaven by coming here; but being the arch-Philistine that I am, I would simply say that the grounds include some questionable art that would not look out of place in a secondary school art room. Of course, there’s also an art gallery and a coffee shop to try to get you to part with more of your money.
A number of staircases take you to different ethnic huts – the first one on your right as you enter features a painted lizard on the rock face.
Though the art may be underwhelming, the garden itself is quite pleasant, though once again I think the health and safety lobby in Europe would have a field day condemning almost everything from the slimy slippery paths, to the broken handrails and the treacherous muddy slopes. Quite frankly, it’s an accident black spot waiting to happen.
Tucked into the sides of the very steeply sloped garden are the various huts that amazingly some people fork out to be able to spend the night in – “Tam-awan Village is an experience in itself. By living in the huts, guests get an opportunity to immerse in an atmosphere that allows them to get a glimpse of village life,” we are told. I guess this way gullible tourists can boast that they “went native” on their holidays.
The Ifugao houses are compact and built without nails. It is said that because they use heavy hand-hewn timber elevated to shoulder height by four posts made of hard wood, they can last several generations with just occasional re-roofing.
There are a couple of wooden bridges one can shuffle across and behind them what the garden owners have called “dreamcatchers” – ie some painted old car tyres hanging from the side of another path. Oh please! Who is taken in by this crap? Apparently quite a few people, if you read the web comments on the likes of Trip Advisor!
After walking round the death-defying trails you might feel the need for a bit of refreshment – well they have a café located in the garden which I’m afraid I also found very underwhelming. All the walls are covered in art works for sale with No Photography signs everywhere. Again, why anyone would want to photograph any of this stuff in the first place is completely beyond me; but I guess there is no accounting for taste.
Regular readers of your favourite blogger will know I already have a theory about what counts as “ethnic” and sure enough, I am not disappointed here: plenty of wooden statues and second rate works of art, featuring a penis or two gratuitously thrown in, to hit that ethnic button in the punters’ minds.
For me, the only real surprise – and something I found absolutely lovely – was a broad diversity of plants, most especially a clump of what is known locally as Ginger Torch: a Beehive cultivar of the species Zingiber Spectabile. Quite stunning. The café even had stems from this plant as table decorations.
But enough of such tourist traps. A much better experience for plant lovers must surely be Baguio’s botanical gardens which are still being put together. As you walk along the chicken-wire fencing towards the main entrance you are left in no doubt that they will not tolerate the dumping of garbage…
And just in case you are not American and don’t understand words like garbage, the message is once again rammed home – all four notices posted within a 50 metre stretch of fencing. Hmmm - I wonder if they have a problem here?
Obviously these injunctions have done their job. Inside there is (hardly any) litter to be seen. At this altitude, the tropical Luzon pine forests are highly conducive to the growth of mossy plants and orchids.
And the powers that be have even taken it upon themselves to offer visitors who are senior citizens, students or the disabled a 20 per cent discount on using their public loos … a shame therefore that the doors are tightly locked shut! (And yes, the Men’s side is called “He”!)
The gardens are also used as a nursery to produce new plants for planting around the city. This area is off limits to visitors – well, off limits if you obey all the signs, that is!
Yes, Baguio is indeed a nice and pleasant city. But for me, the best thing of all, and something no visitor should miss, is the free show put on once a week by The Philippine Military Academy, which is positioned at Fort Gegorio del Pilar 10km out of town, right next to the airfield.
Every Sunday, members of the public are allowed to explore parts of the 370 hectare grounds and to view some of the cadets performing their silent drills – a 45 minute presentation with only the sounds of the band together with an announcer telling us all what is going on.
The Academy, whose history dates back to 1905, but which only moved to its present grounds in 1947, trains not only the army cadets, but also cadets for the navy and air force. In 1993, the first female cadets were admitted and specialisation based on branch-of-service was introduced into the curriculum.
Today, cadets who will graduate in 2016 are parading for our enjoyment – the white uniformed cadets belonging to the army division and the black from the navy.
The cadets exercise their manoeuvres without any verbal instructions being given at all – forming messages from their positions – “Hi”, “PMA”, “Bye”, and so on; throwing their rifles to one another as they march in opposing concentric circles (which reminds me a little of some of the moves in Scottish Country Dancing!); and even breaking out into disco dancing, as well as Gangnam!
It’s all impressive stuff and the 45 minutes is over far too quickly.
But then it is time to explore some of the grounds. Many of the camp’s features have been designed by past student classes as part of their team building exercises – like this “tree” house (actually made mostly of concrete) constructed in 1956.
There's a number of small garden areas too, again constructed by past cadet classes. This yellow hibiscus hedge catches the eye from afar. Splendid stuff!
As the PMA is located in Baguio, the senior officers wear a sash made of the local Igorot cloth design as a mark of respect for the city.
Although many classes are held for all cadets, there are of course separate classes for the different branches of the armed forces. Outside the air force building is an old propeller standing guard which could surely work wonders in a home air conditioning system.
Walking further through the grounds, one comes across a collection of old self-propelled howitzers, amphibious landing vehicles and old tanks – such as this Sherman M4 A1, which was used extensively in the Pacific war arena…
Yet another thing that the PMA is famous for is that it was here in Baguio that they originated the art of fine dining known as Boodle Fight. Never heard of Boodle Fight? Well, you’ll find plenty of BF restaurants in Baguio, that’s for sure.
In a Boodle fight, long tables are prepared and food is placed on top of banana leaves. A huge pile of rice is placed in the centre of the leaves, and fish, meat and vegetables are then placed around the rice.
Before the "eating combat" begins, everyone is meant to wash their hands (though in the restaurant I was taken to we were all given plastic gloves – a bit like the ones that come with boxes of hair dye (I am led to believe!) – and once the signal is given, everyone dives in using their fingers to cram their mouths with as much food as they can possibly eat. You have to be fast to ensure you get your share, as no one is going to wait for you or offer you titbits from the other side of the table.
What a glorious way to end a visit to Baguio. It’s definitely a place you will want to come back to again and again.