TBEX Asia 2016 took me to Manila. I was a speaker there – my topic being Architectural Photography. For those who may ask – “What is TBEX?” Well, TBEX is the largest conference and networking event for travel bloggers, online travel journalists, new media content creators, travel brands and industry professionals. Once there, my mind went through a roller coaster of thoughts. Go on, read about them! This article appeared as a 10-page photo feature in a leading photography magazine in India – Smart Photography.
A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes
I was on a ‘Smoking in Balcony Only’ floor of Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila. It was evening when I checked in. As I opened the blinds and stepped out into the balcony for a smoke, a stunning cityscape greeted me! Beautifully illuminated high-rise, a couple of merry-go-rounds draped in psychedelic lights, a seemingly-reclaimed peninsula jutting into the bay, much greenery and smoothly gliding traffic – everything that marks a throbbing, buzzing town, was there!
Later that evening, we had to travel to Hotel Shangri-La at the Fort. A quick Google Search revealed a horrendous truth – this 9.9-kilometer journey was likely to take us over an hour! I suddenly realised the horrors of ‘smoothly gliding traffic’ in Manila! But, thanks to the police escort provided by Tourism Promotions Board (TPB), Philippines, the journey time was reduced to about 30 minutes!
Next morning, we were to visit an Island that held strategic importance during WW-II – Corregidor Island. The gory events of WW-II have turned this island into a ‘Top 10’ haunted Island in the world – mainly because of mass suicides by Japanese soldiers in Malinta Tunnel.
For more on Corregidor Island, visit Eerie, not abandoned – Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines.
As we reached the Sun Cruises Jetty, a delightful sight warmed our hearts. Scores of serious cycling enthusiasts were zipping around, engaged in their morning routine of completing their workout targets. And the road was a blurry riot of their colourful attire!
The Photo Walk Route
These initial glimpses were exciting! TBEX folks had requested that I conduct their pre-TBEX Photo Walk next morning. But then, October normally has moody weather in Manila and it falls bang in the middle of the typhoon season. There was a threat of rain. A typhoon named Sarika (local name – Karen) was threatening to hit Luzon, the island that houses Manila.
This reality was making TPB veer towards caution, as they did not want the Photo Walk disrupted by high winds and a downpour. They suggested we do our Photo Walk in an area dotted by shopping malls – Bonifacio Global City.
Having read a little about Manila and having chatted with our guide to Corregidor Island, I requested that the Photo Walk route be changed. I proposed that we flag off from Bayleaf Hotel as this property has a viewing terrace that gives a panoramic view of Manila and its Spanish walled city called Intramuros.
From there, we would continue our walk on the famed city wall of Intramuros. Then, proceed to check out the San Agustin Church (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and round off the walk at Casa Manila – a heritage house that showcases the colonial lifestyle. Despite their weather-related misgivings, TPB was pleased with the route, as it would showcase the real Manila! And, without much persuasion, they agreed!
A Photo Walk to Remember
After a night of pouring rain, the day of the Photo Walk presented a bright sunshine – the type not seen in Manila for days! I guess, the elements were with us!
The usual police escort whizzed us past the US Embassy en route Bayleaf and we were chaperoned by the pleasant hotel staff to their gorgeous viewing terrace. A glance around accorded us a visual understanding of Intramuros and its surroundings. One side presented the Manila Port while the other showed us the colonial quarters! The view was totally breathtaking!
A few hundred photographs and a refreshing iced tea later, the group stepped out to climb up the city wall. Post-rain high humidity made its presence felt – especially for those who wore grey Tees, with sweat visible all over!
But this humidity was not going to dampen the spirits of the group. They charged on regardless, admiring the moat along the city wall that is now a stunning golf course created by the Americans and the Jolly Bee tableaus spreading some jollity and bonhomie along the way! Ronnie, our guide, told us Jolly Bee is the most successful example of entrepreneurship in Philippines – a fast food chain even McDonald’s hasn’t been able to challenge!
Walking on the wall, we went past Manila University and suddenly found our way blocked by a gate! Even our guide seemed surprised by this little barrier. Surely, it was a new development. We backtracked, got down to the street and walked back to enter ‘Baluarte de San Diego Gardens’. Inside the garden was a 16th-century rampart that was constructed to fend off the high-frequency attacks by the Chinese pirates.
The gardens were beautiful. Here, our guide pointed out an insignificant-looking ornamental plant called Manila hemp or Abaca. He told us it is used to make the paper on which Filipino currency is printed!
By now, the heat and humidity were visibly affecting the group. Sensing that, TPB pulled another surprise out of their invisible witch-hat. We were treated to ‘Sorbetes’ (Filipino for Ice Cream) – that too, in a shaded cabana, well covered with huge trees!
Suddenly reinvigorated, the group refused the offer of getting into the van and instead, chose to walk to San Agustin Church, the star of the day’s walk. In a way, it was good, as we stumbled upon the gallery of the Philippines Presidents as we walked!
Art meets Heritage
San Agustin Church remains closed for lunch from 12noon to 1 pm. And that was the time we reached there. To meaningfully utilise the time till the church opened, our guide steered us towards Casa Manila, the colonial lifestyle museum. Like many museums, photography inside Casa Manila is not permitted. Since we were on a Photo Walk, we spent minimal time here. But what we saw during that brief while, sure gave us a good idea about the colonial lifestyle. Here, we also figured that Manila is also known for its Bamboo Bikes.
We entered San Agustin Church sharp at 1 pm. While being ushered through history, Ronnie talked about the superlative work of art that adorns the church ceiling. He talked of how flat ceiling has been painted in a magical way to give an illusion of 3D bass relief work, just like what you see in the Gallery of Maps (Sistine Chapel), Vatican!
The church building doesn’t only seem imposing and indestructible, it truly is. It has withstood calamitous damage multiple times at the hands of raging fires, enemy attacks and high-intensity earthquakes.
Back to the future
As we exited San Agustin, we were herded into our transport to return to the conference venue. Since Ronnie had endlessly talked about an air-conditioned church (The Manila Cathedral), the group requested for a quick, short stop there. Though the air conditioning makes Manila Cathedral sought-after for weddings, it is notoriously jinxed and weddings held here normally end up in divorces!
Over the next few days, TBEX conference kept us busy. But the evening parties were taking us places – from Chaos in City of Dreams to The Blue Leaf in Aseana to the Long Bar in Raffles, Makati. The drive to these venues showed us the buzz that is Manila!
I can broadly conclude that this little bit of Manila in my life has been addictive. Leaving Manila gave me cold turkey. And I am resolved to be back here sooner than later, for more of my Manila fix!