This is Lynn's first trip to the Philippines. I was here for three days about 35 years ago. On that memorable occasion my hotel room was robbed and I spent most of three days filling out statements and attending line-ups of hotel staff in a dingy security office down in the hotel basement. Then I spent another half day filling out statements and being interviewed at the local Police Precinct. Then there was the embarrassing incident of me accidentally paying the equivalent of about $200 for a taxi ride because the taxi driver had painted over the decimal point on his old fashioned analogue trip meter (no wonder he took off so fast). To cap matters off, Air New Guinea didn't bother to tell me that their flight to Port Moresby had been cancelled so I arrived at a near darkened Manila airport at 11.30pm to find a hand written cancellation notice on their unattended check-in desk. It's taken 35 years for me to pluck up courage for a return visit to the Philippines!
We've been apprehensive about how to get from Manila Airport to our hotel. It's supposed to be about a 30 minute trip "depending on the traffic". The hotel has a Limo service but I baulked at paying the equivalent of $70 + taxes + service charges + tip for the ride. We're going to try a cab but apparently that can go badly wrong in Manila if you get one without a meter or if the driver doesn't turn his meter on. We speak to a couple of cabbies and ask "what's the approximate cost of a ride the the Edsa Shangri-La?" We can't get a straight answer other than "it depends on the traffic". Another driver informs us "I don't know coz I only new this week". In the end we just give up and hop into one of the cabs ensuring that he turns his meter on.
Our cab driver turns out to be pretty decent sort of guy but the trip is horrendous. It had apparently rained heavily a couple of hours before our arrival. Whenever heavy rains occur the drains block up and lots of streets become flooded. This forces all traffic onto a few freeways and they then become gridlocked. Six to eight lanes of cars, trucks, buses, jeepneys and tri-cycles were inching along with everybody aggressively changing lanes by bluff, deception, arrogance and horn blowing. There seems to be a pecking order too. The trucks buses and jeepneys have the greatest bulk, height and loudest horns. They are the most aggressive of all. Why all the lane changing given the hopeless road conditions.... I don't know. It certainly wasn't getting us anywhere.
Some 1½ hours after leaving the airport we reached our hotel. I was prepared for a big taxi shock but surprisingly the fare plus extras only came to about the equivalent of $12 despite the length of time we were on the road. As we make our way through the military dressed security guards with their guns, dogs and wand scanners at the hotel's entrance we eventually walk into the most serene reception lobby. "Shangri-La" seems such an apt name for this hotel chain and this property certainly lives up to its name. What a relief to leave all the mayhem out in the street.
Unfortunately this brief period of serenity is quickly threatened. It seems that the two room suite we'd booked is not available. They have given us a different room (at the same price) which is supposed to be just as big but the bedroom is not separate. I can feel that I'm being finessed so we reserve our position subject to seeing the room. It turns out to be great. It's a wonderfully spacious 67 square metres and looks down on a swimming pool and gardens (see photos below). This will do us. Let's drop the bags and flake out.
At 500 plus rooms, this hotel far too big for our liking and hardly intimate. Still it's hard to fault in appearance or the level of service..... I should say over-service. There's about six times more staff than seems necessary and a trip from anywhere to anywhere in the hotel means passing 12 to 20 members of staff who smilingly greet you every 10 metres or so. It gets to the stage where we jokingly say to each other, "Lets go for a swim. How many good mornings will this trip take? I'm guessing about 16 this time but on our last visit we actually exchanged `good mornings` 21 times". Still it's all worthwhile for the hugely happy smiles we receive from every staff member without fail. I'm sure these wonderful smiling people are typical of the overall Philippine culture. And this in a city of over 10 million.... it's pleasantly surprising!
Overstaffing is rife everywhere we look whether inside the hotel or in the nearby shopping malls. Even so, the Philippines apparently has 24% unemployment at present. Unemployment has increased by 9 million people in just the last three months alone according to the newspapers. A significant portion of these numbers are attributable to returning Filipino "Guest Workers" who have lost their jobs in Europe the Middle East and elsewhere as the world financial situation has begun to implode.
One could spend a month photographing Jeepneys and motor-trike "taxis" and never duplicate a shot. All are highly customised by their owners and when it comes to the jeepneys nothing is too flamboyant or over the top. A real treat for the eyes but I've never actually ridden in one.
We had two shopping malls opposite our hotel. The really large regular mall was the most interesting but we preferred to have meals in its more up-market neighbour next door. Talking of food, it's extremely cheap here if you get away from the hotel's offerings. Even in the Food Hall of the more expensive Mall there were heaps of hot meals being offered for prices between 80 Aussie cents and $2.00. A typical $1.50 meal comprised a plate of rice, a decent sized spoonful of chicken or pork with a tasty sauce and a few salad leaves on the side. Lynn and I tried a Japanese cafe and had the absolute works for about $8.50 each including tea and soft drinks.
Our three days in Manila are quickly over and we've enjoyed a good rest as we recovered from the stress of getting everything organised at home, the setbacks in Coffs Harbour, the 10 hour flight to Manila and the gridlocked taxi ride. We feel confirmed in our decision to go with the Shangri-La chain throughout the Philippines. We've earned our bit of luxury and long saved our points for an occasion like this. Besides, Lynn and and I are too old now to be roughing it in a Third World Country, even if it does mean missing out on some earthy cultural experiences.
Our taxi trip back to the airport only took 25 minutes and cost a mere $6.50. The driver was less refined this time and belted us with loud rock music for the whole trip. And I didn't really enjoy sitting on a seat which had no padding to mention and a broken spring to boot. Still, it was relatively stress free and we were able to gaze around and see some of Manila's slums along the route. They probably come a lot worse in this mega city but it still left us feeling rather shocked.
Our taxi driver had two sets of rosary beads hanging from his rear-view mirror. My first theory is that this grants the occupants double luck and protection. My second theory is that the spare set is for nervous passengers like yours truly.
Philippine Airlines' Business Lounge at Manila Airport was a disgrace. The furniture was cracked, worn out and absolutely beyond it. The walls were grubby, the snacks and drinks were very sparse stale and uninteresting. The toilets didn't flush anymore and a plastic dipper was provided for that purpose. The apology sign gave no instructions but one presumes that you take the plastic dipper to a sink, fill it with water, return to the cubicle and pour in some water. How this would work in practice is anyone's guess but I decided I didn't need to go afterall !!