Manila Day Trip: Catching Hints of a Glorious Past

Downtown Quiapo is a paradoxical paradise.
(Photo by Kian Vicera)

Trekking shoes, check. Water bottle and umbrella, check. All systems set.

It is a pleasant December morning along the Pasig River and we have just boarded Passenger One. At 25 meters from bow to stern, the twin-hulled catamaran carries 150 passengers and cruises at a speed of ten knots.

Noting the relative lack of passengers, I gaze west towards crowded Guadalupe Bridge, amazed that so few people know that this ferry service–in its improbable air-conditioned glory– even exists.

Armed with a city map, six directionally challenged travelers will embark on a day-long adventure to find life in the grimy guts and hectic heart of this city. Old Manila, here we come!

The author (second from the left) and his traveling companions (from left to right: Elle Macatulad, Raisa Casugbu, Carmela Casugbu and Raf Reyes) set out on an adventure to explore the Old City of Manila. (Photo by Kian Vicera)

Brown River Cruise

José Rizal‘s El Filibusterismo begins with hero Simoun aboard the Bapor Tabo as it wends its way up the Pasig–also on a December morning. 

Five centuries ago and long before Rizal, all 25 kilometers of the Pasig River was in full-bloom. Droves of lush, flowering nilad shrubs lined its estuarine banks as predatory birds hunted any of the 25 types of fish inhabiting its brackish waters. From Manila Bay or the Laguna Lake would venture the rare marine crocodile.

Few people realize that Manila–originally “Maynilad”–got its moniker from the Pasig’s nilad shrubs, none of which remain today.

“Let’s ride out front,” suggests shutterbug Kian, breaking our reverie.

We transfer to the bow and regard the side-scrolling scenery. It actually isn’t all that bad, with small communities and river foliage interspersed with derelict factories. Quite a few shanties have been relocated as fresh public parks line both banks. We pass a graffiti-riddled wall overlooking the river, leaving us wondering how the artists were able to tread on water.

Tugboats help each other out in the Pasig River. (Photo by Kian Vicera)

Considering that some residents recall a time when holding one’s breath was a compulsory skill when nearing the Pasig, the river today doesn’t stink too badly. Though armadas of plastic bags cut across the waterline, signs of life pervade: Several whiskered terns flap overhead, while dozens of air-starved janitor fish form ripples on the surface. Butt-naked kids wave and shout from the banks. We smile and wave right back.

By Malacañang Palace, a heavily-armed Presidential Task Force trooper boards our craft, in case any of us thinks of initiating an all-out amphibious assault against the country’s nerve-center. The ferry stops several times to pick up more passengers.

To access the ferry service from EDSA, simply disembark at the Guadalupe MRT Station and head east, away from Rockwell. Within three minutes you’ll reach the Guadalupe Ferry Terminal. Inaugurated in February 2007, the structure is part of a newly built chain of terminals meant to service the growing catamaran fleet. Trips are pleasant and well worth the price, ranging from P25 to P45 ($.61 to $1.10). Definitely a must-do this year. 

After half-an-hour of river riding we get off at Quiapo’s Quezon Bridge, having passed Hulo, Valenzuela, Lambingan and Santa Ana. If we wanted to we could have sailed right into Intramuros.

‘Let’s go for some authentic Chinese noodles,’ suggests Elle, and soon we are headed downtown to the Ma Mon Luk noodle house, where a most unusual visitor came our way.

A Golden Mosque

”No pants, no entry,” concludes the beady-eyed gatekeeper. Raissa regards her shorts while we consider our options: We could don gigantic wigs to divert the guards, stack a dozen discarded boxes atop a drum by the wall, vault right over and hide among the crowd.

“Let’s just buy a malong so Raissa can cover up,” quips resident problem-solver Raf. Soon the mighty gates part to reveal a breathtaking view of Masjid Al-Dahab, the Golden Mosque of Quiapo.

Built in 1976 to celebrate the planned visit of former Libyan strongman Muammar al-Gaddafi, Manila’s largest Mosque lies at the far end of Globo de Oro Street and can accommodate well over 3,000 worshippers. An enormous crescent crowns its golden dome. Too bad the Libyan president never showed up.

Next, we scope out Plaza Miranda, famed for the notorious 1971 bombings that left eight people dead. As a result, former President Marcos suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus–a precursor to Martial Law. Some suspected that Marcos himself orchestrated the operation. 

Almost four decades later, few signs of the carnage is evident, the main attraction being the Black Nazarene Basilica or Quiapo Church. Within lies an ebony statue of Jesus Christ, which was brought via galleon from Mexico in 1607. Curative powers are said to emanate from the life-size, wooden statue. It looks scary.

Quiapo’s Golden Mosque is also Manila’s largest. (Photo by Kian Vicera)

The best time to visit both the Mosque and the Church is on a Friday. Both will be jampacked with devotees, rewarding keen eyes with unparalleled photo-subjects. By the bridge, Kian shoots an absurdly intellectual piece of graffiti.

The original plan to hunt for Quiapo’s famed P20 ($.49) bootleg DVDs was quickly thwarted by unanimous pangs of hunger. “Let’s go for some authentic Chinese noodles,” suggests Elle, and soon we are headed downtown to the Ma Mon Luk noodle house, where a most unusual visitor came our way.

The Mami Crusader

Ma Mon Luk, believe it or not, was an actual person. Originally a teacher based in China, he left for the Philippines during the waning days of the First World War in 1918 and peddled chicken noodle soup to eke out his empire. After many years– and quite a few vats of soup later–fame and fortune finally came his way. Now his name is synonymous with lip-smacking, funny smelling mami.  

We enter the cavernous restaurant with its lazy ceiling fans and recon the prices. Regular siopao or dumplings cost P40 ($.98). A special version with top-secret spices retails for P55 ($1.35). The famed mami costs P85 ($2.08)–its accompanying special version is ten bucks pricier.

Half of us were still fumbling with the menu when, from a parallel dimension, a hermit-looking wizened man parks himself at our table. We smile, nod and honor the ancient cafeteria code: Share a seat, win a friend.

Without warning he turns to us and mysteriously asks, “You know what to say when you’re looking for your mother in a Chinese restaurant?”

Knitted brows and a few gurgled coughs were all we could muster.

“Sio-mai Ma-mi!” (Show my mommy! Get it?)

Enough food choices to last a lifetime can be found in Binondo. (Photo by Kian Vicera)

Quiapo, the Melting Pot

Thirty minutes later we are dining in Cho Nam Panciteria, having narrowly escaped the clutches of the mysterious Mami Crusader, who kept laughing way past the punchline. Probably the second-best noodle-house in Quiapo, Cho Nam can be easily overlooked as it resembles little more than a hole-in-the-wall. Surprisingly delectable Chinese dishes like lechon strips and fish with black beans are served by a dude who looks like Elvis.

After lunch, we move swiftly to cover lost ground. Quiapo is probably the most culturally complex shopping hub in the country, a no-holds-barred melting pot for the Christian, Buddhist and Islamic cultures. In these parts high-tech cameras are peddled alongside herbal remedies; fake passports are sold next to military gear; and bootleg material is sold by vendors without any legs.

Our final stop is the shopping strip near Raon, where both electronics and martial arts equipment can be found. We inspect Chinese broadswords and six-foot long staves. Realizing that commuting with a giant pole would look extremely stupid, we postpone shopping to a later date and take a jeep to see the nexus of Chinese culture in the country–the food-trippin’ haven of Binondo.

Protector of Mama Mary

“What’s the difference between Poland and Holland Hopia?” I ask the counter girl. “It’s simple. Mister Po owns Poland and Mister Ho owns Holland.” Ah, the mystery is solved.

Munching on hopia (bean cake) and sipping fruit-shakes, we are en route to well, anywhere. Particularly in big cities, the finest trips occasionally stick to no itinerary, granting adventurers freedom to go wherever it seems worthwhile and to inspect whatever seems interesting at the moment. Soon we come across a Buddhist temple.

If you ever see a statue of a giant, red-faced, bearded warrior-God brandishing a nasty-looking Guan Dao glaive, you’re probably eyeballing Guan Yu.
Once a general during China’s turbulent Three Kingdoms Period, his deeds became the stuff of legend. A friend I met in Hong Kong told me of his amazing exploits, including single-handedly attacking an army and slaying the enemy leader without a scratch. Such a man deserves remembrance.

“Guan Yu is the protector of Mama Mary,” explains a Filipino-Chinese devotee as we pay our respects. 

I think it’s beautiful for the Filipino-Chinese community to retain their ancestry by fusing the best of both religions. After all, postmodern spirituality should be a mix of what works.

Binondo’s colorful alleys are always a blast, but the promise of sunset lured us to the walled city of Intramuros, right across the Pasig River.

Ilustrado’s courtyard takes travelers back in time. (Photo by Kian Vicera)

Off to the Old City

The oldest district in Metro Manila, Intramuros and its battered walls have seen it all–the last steps of a national hero, fleets and armies of foreign invaders, the joyous cackle of weddings and wistful sojourns of travelers.

Four hundred years of history have woven a rich and tangible tapestry of the past, with heavily scarred parapets standing defiantly against the times. The day almost done, we gaze west towards Manila Bay and take in one of the joys of Manila life–the breathtaking sunset.

Countless vermillion rays urge us to think of a perfect way to cap off the trip. 

“I told you, sampaguita ice-cream is an absolute must-try, especially in Intramuros,” says Carmela, a frequent visitor to the old city.

Sampaguita ice-cream it is, then.

At under P100 ($2.45) a cup, the fragrant offering is a specialty of Ilustrado, a converted Spanish-era house that offers both Indios and Insulares possibly the finest dining in old Manila. As promised, the atypical dessert presented us with a perfect end to a perfect day.

As I sit eating ice-cream in this ancient house I come to realize that Manila just cannot be experienced in a day. She is a city that must be visited time and again, each trip revealing different flavors and slices of life. So whenever free time presents itself, take the time out to see the raw beauty of our Manila. With the spirit of wonder and a bit of luck, you may just catch hints of the glorious past, like the flowering nilad of olden times.

Gregg Yan (Photo by Kian Vicera)

Gregg Yan (Photo by Kian Vicera)

Gregg Yan brims with both mystery and power (his power is exceeded only by his mystery). His dream is to see a live dinosaur up close. Six days a week, he writes for Earth's largest and most awesome conservation organization, the WWF, World Wide Fund for Nature. Add him up on Facebook–especially if you know where to find some dinosaurs.