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Within these walls

The gateway to Fort Santiago

Publication Date : 01-08-2012

 

To many Thais, the Philippines is just another Southeast Asian country that's not all that different from our own land. While there's some truth in that, those same Thais would find quite a few surprises were they to visit, among them much more ecotourism, pristine islands, well-kept paradises and a fascinating past with plenty of stories. Less than three hours flight from Bangkok, Manila itself offers a trip down colonial lane and appeals to anyone with a sense of history.

Many visitors tend to spend only a day or two in Manila before exploring the rest of the country. Some don't consider Manila a tourist destination because of its perpetually congested traffic. Coming from Bangkok, I'm able to shrug off the jams and get by without grumbling at all.

With only a day in Manila as part of a media junket, we spend the first half of the day on Corregidor Island wincing at the atrocities committed by the Japanese in World War II. The second half is devoted to Intramuros, the walled city, where we explore Fort Santiago as well as acts of Spanish barbarism.

The seat of the colonial powers of Spain, Britain and the US, Santiago is one of the oldest fortifications in Manila built in 1571. Under the Spanish regime, the fort's cold and creepy dungeons were where rebellious civilians were tortured and executed. It became the headquarters of the British occupation army from 1762 to 1764, then the headquarters of the Philippines Division of the US army. It was occupied by the Japanese military in 1942. The Japanese found it useful: they tortured and executed hundreds of prisoners. It was finally turned over to the Filipino government in 1946.

These days it's regarded as a memorial to Dr Jose Rizal, one of the national heroes. In the Jose Rizal museum, there's the room where he spent the last hours before his execution for inciting rebellion against the Spaniards in December 1896. He was executed by a firing squad in what's now the Rizal Park.

The bottom dungeons where prisoners were tortured are off limits to visitors. These dungeons have openings that allow the Pasig River to follow in during high tide, drowning the prisoners inside. Tourists are allowed to drop coins.

Aside from the dungeons, the Spaniards certainly loved courtyards and these are lined with abundant plumeria trees, something of a relief to visitors overloaded with tales of Spanish and Japanese atrocities committed here.

Intramuros is the old Spanish capital of Manila with well-planned streets, plazas, the Governor’s Palace, 15 churches and six monasteries. It also had dozens of canons that were used to keep the natives in their place. Manila's major attractions are here, and within easy walking distance from Fort Santiago. Just before dinner, we walk past Manila's oldest and most beautiful stone-built St Augustin Church and pop into for a few photos. Manila Cathedral, built in 1581, is nearby, but we don't have time to visit.

We then walk past old Spanish houses towards Plaza San Luis Complex where we have dinner at Barbera's, which is set in an old colonial house. This is where you have a "buffet with a cultural show." A dozen of dance troupes take turns performing before a gathering of diners. The show is terrific, the food less so.

While Siam received churches and egg-based desserts from the Portuguese, the Filipinos inherited a lot more churches as well as the waltz, fandango and polka from Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. The Maria Clara, Barrio Fiesta and other dance styles evolved from these and are still in vogue today.

On our way back from Palawan, we stopped in Manila for the night, and toured the newly opened Resorts World Manila, with its alluring bustling gaming zone complete with music and late-night shows.

Thais who feel they've dosed up on sufficient Southeast Asian colonial history via the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British, will find the Spanish chapter in Manila a little more vibrant. It's how Thailand would probably have looked had Magellan landed in Ayutthaya.

The writer travelled to the Philippines courtesy of the Philippines Department of Tourism and the Philippine Airlines.

 

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