Think about it: when there isn’t a typhoon or some natural calamity do we, in India, ever hear of the Philippines? Does it even cross our minds that it is a beautiful Asian destination that we could pick for our holidays?
The honest answer is: no. The Philippines is simply not part of the Indian consciousness even though there is a prosperous and flourishing expatriate Indian community. When we do talk about the country it is in the context of Typhoon Yolanda, the Asian Development Bank, which is headquartered in Manila, and – if you are part of a certain generation – Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection.
At first I thought that the reason for our mental block when it came to the Philippines was the lack of direct flights. But that makes no sense: there are no direct flights to Bali from India either and that does not stop thousands of Indians from wanting to go there. Nor can distance be the issue. It takes less time to get to Manila from Delhi than it does to get to say, Hong Kong.
The only explanation I can find is that the Philippines has never looked like a part of South East Asia. In many ways, it is a quasi-European society with strong Spanish roots and it tends to look to America for most of its reference points. The Asian tourists it does get tend to be wealthy Japanese and newly rich Chinese.
From our point of view, this is India’s loss. Because the Philippines is really the great secret Asian destination. There are many, many reasons to go there. Firstly, it is nothing like Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Bali. Because of the years of Spanish colonisation, the temperament of the Filipinos is more Latin and less East Asian. They are a happy, laid-back people who like to live it up with grand weddings that rival Punjabi weddings in their exuberance and music runs through their veins.Everybody seems to sing in the Philippines.
Then, there’s the English factor. The story goes that when the Americans moved into the Philippines, they sent teachers to every village to make sure that the people learned English and forgot their Spanish. Today, Filipinos laugh at the futility of this American endeavour. Americans may have stamped out Spanish from a faraway part of Asia but there are at least a dozen states in the US where much of the population speaks more Spanish than English.
For Indians, the advantage is that language is never an issue. Shop assistants will speak English as well as we do and if you ever get lost, you can ask anybody on the street for directions and conduct a complex conversation in it.
And there’s a third advantage: price. Ever since the rupee became, basically, worthless, Indians have felt even poorer everywhere in the world. Forget about Europe where bell boys now expect tips of Rs 800 to Rs 1,000, even such Asian destinations as Singapore and Hong Kong now seem prohibitively expensive.
In the Philippines, however your money goes a long way. The peso is around 42 or so to the dollar (roughly where the rupee was in the last decade) and each peso buys far more, in terms of food, taxis, shopping or hotels than the rupee does in India.
Those are the arguments for going to the Philippines. The argument against going is that the big cities are not plush and glamorous like say, Shanghai or Singapore. You will see poverty and beggars will come up to your car. In many ways, it is just like India and each time I’ve gone to Manila, it has reminded me of Bombay. This is fine by me because I love Bombay. But if you want glitz and glamour, go to New York instead.
Just like India, there are enclaves within Manila that seem modern and First World. On my first trip to the city, I was at the grand old Manila Hotel where General Douglas MacArthur stayed in the last century and which has neither been cleaned nor renovated since he left. (Okay, that’s a bit harsh. But think of the old Great Eastern in Calcutta before the Lalit group took it over. It has that kind of dubious charm.)
Makati is a new, modern part of Manila (it’s Gurgaon or Bandra-Kurla Complex if you want an Indian parallel). It is full of tall office buildings, malls and top hotels (the Mandarin Oriental, the Dusit Thani, the Fairmont etc). So it is vaguely reminiscent of Singapore. I stayed at the Shangri-La, usually regarded as the best hotel in Manila, and thought that the food and service were exceptional.
But Manila was a transit halt. I was on my way to Boracay which you’ve probably never heard of, but is, in fact, the top resort destination in the Philippines. It is a 50-minutes flight from Manila and then you take a speedboat to your hotel. Mine was the Shangri-La Boracay Resort which is managed by Amit Oberoi, who many Delhiwallas will remember fondly from his stint at the Imperial during its glory days. I knew very little about Boracay before I got there but the island is a sort of cleaner, more upmarket version of Goa: same lazy Latin feel but no drug-dealers or sleaze. The Shangri-La has two beaches, one of which is entirely private, and many of the villas open directly on to the sea. The sand is unusual, a soft white powder that crinkles gently beneath your feet as you walk to the sea.
The hotel itself is large (over 200 rooms) and caters to all tastes with huge standard rooms on a cliff, giant suites and 36 villas, some on the beach and some high above the ground, touching the trees. (They call them treetop villas, naturally).
Unlike most Far Eastern resorts I’ve been to, at least half the guests were wealthy Filipinos, many of whom had come here again and again, hosted weddings here and had their favourite villas. It is the sort of relationship that many Indians have with Goa except that this resort is much nicer than any Goa hotel I can think of.
There are many, many restaurants and bars on Boracay, all serving good food. There are lots of hotel options as well. But I liked the Shangri-La resort because it had an air of peace and quiet about it. Most days, I stayed in my villa or sat in the garden, relaxing and unwinding. In many ways I had the best of all worlds: a hotel where everybody speaks perfect English and yet, there is no chance of running into anyone who knows you. (There were no Indian guests at the resort.)
You can, if you like, engage in water-based activities like diving, snorkelling, jet-skiing etc, and because the landscape is so beautiful, it is advisable to rent a boat and cruise the sea around the island. But as you may have guessed, I chose to do none of these things and just enjoyed the solitude.
I asked Amit if they got many Indian guests. He said around two or three couples a season was the norm. Most Indians regard Boracay as being too far. You need to change planes to get to Manila and then there’s another short plane ride. On the other hand, you can bypass Manila completely and fly to Boracay directly from Singapore (a three-hour flight), which makes the resort as accessible as your average Bali hotel. But I don’t think enough Indians have worked out that this is even possible. And most don’t think of the Philippines as an option anyway.
The Shangri-La is the top resort in the country so it costs around Rs 18,000 per night which puts it in the same range as top Bali hotels or even the better properties in Goa. Amit concedes that some Thai beach resorts can be cheaper but his position is that Boracay is not for everyone. It is the sort of place you go to once you’ve done Phuket, Koh Samui or Nusa Dua. It is targeted at the experienced traveller not the novice.
I don’t know how many Indians will head for Boracay (though I imagine that it would be a great location for a rich Indian wedding now that the usual places have been done) but I do think that you should include the Philippines in any future holiday plans you may make. You don’t have to stay at top-end hotels like the Shangri-La, as wonderful as they are: there’s a fair range of mid-priced accommodation.
But once you’ve got your hotel out of the way, there’s nothing else that’s very expensive, not the food, not the bars, not the shopping and as for the music, well you always get that for free in the Philippines.
From HT Brunch, January 12
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