Thursday, June 6, 2013

Manila's Moment

Manila is now more than just a jump-off point to the island destinations that the Philippines has to offer. The city is buzzing with its countless developments -- business districts, city parks, suburban food streets, massive casinos, and, in true Filipino fashion, small pockets of calm and charm. This often-overlooked city in Southeast Asia is stepping out of the shadows, and everyone can sense it -- Manila's time to shine is now.  

The New Kid On the Block
There was a time when the Philippines was something of a joke -- the sick man of Asia just as recently as 2003. But look at it now -- a irresistible wave of revival has swept  throughout the nation. The country has had two investment grade upgrades from  international credit ratings agencies, Moody's and Fitch. It has clinched a spot on the hot lists of travel magazines like Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and DestinAsian. International stars have recently graced  local and international events here, or have flown in, to simply swim in our beaches (Sarah Jessica Parker appearing for the opening of the newest mall, SM Aura, Vin Diesel  hosting  the Asian premiere of his movie Fast and the Furious 6, and TV star Emily Van Camp from Revenge, enjoying her beach vacation in Amanpulo, Palawan).

DestinAsian magazine with beautiful Bianca Elizalde on the cover

It's an electric feeling -- and it is most palpable in the streets of Metro Manila. Sometimes I'll be standing in the middle of the towering buildings, brand-spanking new restaurants, shops and clubs of Bonifacio Global City -- and I can hardly believe that  I'm in Metro Manila, and not Singapore or Seoul. Was it only a couple of years ago -- after having visited several Asian capitals, that I looked around at my own city and wondered: "If I were asked to tour a visitors around Metro Manila, where would I bring them?" I remember being very hard-pressed for an answer.
But now --  with so many things to do and so many places to see --  where do I even begin?

A Very Good Place To Start
Perhaps  the beginning is a best place to start -- and a guy named Carlos Celdran is the best guide for a  little trip down Manila's memory lane. He'll walk you through the walled-city of Intramuros, with insights and tidbits  that you can't find in any history books. Within and beyond the walls, are glimpses of Manila's charming past. There roads here are cobblestone paths, there is the occasional kalesa (horse-drawn carriages), and standing stately --  the churches of yesteryears, the Manila Cathedral and the San Agustin Church, which is the oldest church in Manila.

photo courtesy of Walk this Way: Carlos Celdran Manila Walking Tour

For a bit of culture, the Ayala Museum in Makati, is a breath of fresh air, as it is a far cry from the stuffy museums from school field trips of before. Its sleek, modern design is very open and inviting and inside you can marvel at Fernando Amorsolo's paintings of the Philippine countryside awash in sunny hues, or check out the pre-colonial gold that ancient Filipinos had in spades.  

photo courtesy of Ayala Museum

The museum also holds interesting talks, such as the upcoming one by Ambeth Ocampo, a Philippine historian whose primary expertise is on Jose Rizal. And lest you think it's a snooze fest of a lecture, you obviously haven't heard Ocampo's version of Rizal. Author of the book, Rizal Without The Overcoat, Ocampo likes disclose the most intimate, surprising, and irreverent details of our national hero's life, and you will never see Jose Rizal, the same way again.

Modern Manila
Now fast forward to modern day Manila, and what you find is a city that is on the cusp -- nearly there,  but not yet, budding, but not fully blossomed. And right at this moment, it's a very exciting time to be in Metro Manila.

photo courtesy of

Perhaps the most vivid example of this is Bonifacio Global City  or BGC-- with its intelligent urban planning, which combines greys of concrete buildings, with the greens of parks, and the vibrant colors of art. Businessmen, employees,  joggers, dog-walkers and shoppers mingle seamlessly in such surroundings.

photo courtesy of
Here you can find the wide, airy promenade of the Bonifacio High Street, which is said to be inspired by places like The Grove in Los Angeles, and the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Most days, visitors stroll these grounds with their dogs and kids and tow, shopping at the rows of flagship stores and dining in restaurants that serve Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, American and of course, Filipino food.

photo courtesy of

Elsewhere in BGC, you'll find The Fort Strip and Burgos Circle, which are clusters of restaurants and shops, with their Italian and French desserts, Korean canteens and burger joints.

photo courtesy of

The Makati area of course, is shoulder to shoulder with Bonifacio High Street in these modernizing and beautifying efforts. The city has long held the title of 'business capital of the Philippines,' but now Makati now has more sparkle and shine with malls like the sprawling Greenbelt complex, which boasts of high-end retail stores such as Hermes, Louis Vuitton and Prada.

In Makati also, one can find the Ayala Triangle Gardens -- a 20,000 square-meter  haven  of trees and jogging lanes, where harried workers can relax, and unwind, and catch a meal or have a drink, amidst serene greens. Come Christmastime, the trees here are draped with multi-colored lights that delight the crowds with their nightly light-shows.

And like every cosmopolitan city, Manila does not sleep early. Her nightlife scene consists of thumping clubs like Republiq and Opus, snazzy speakeasies like the Blind Pig, rooftop bars like Skye Lounge, and pub crawls like Draft with their excellent selection of local and international brews.

photo courtesy of Mark Alvarez, Skye Lounge

The Next Macau?
But if you're the high-roller type, Manila has its very own answer to Las Vegas and Macau. Resort's World  is a casino resort located near the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. This massive development has 1,574 hotel rooms, 30,000 square meters of casino floors, and another 30,000 square meters devoted entirely to it shopping, dining and entertainment section. Its Newport Theater showcases world-class productions of beloved plays such as The Sound of Music, and recently, The King and I.

photo courtesy of

Meanwhile, the very recently opened Solaire is a $750 casino, which is 18,500 square meters big, and offers  500 hotel rooms, 300 gaming tables and 1,200 slot machines. And there's more to come -- with another $400 to be injected in this project, there are VIP rooms, some 300 suites and a 1,800-seat, world-class theater that are going to be built in the coming days.

photo courtesy of

More casino entities are already in the pipeline, with collaborations from our very own billionaire tycoon Henry Sy, and his partners from Australia, billionaire James Packer,  and business mogul Lawrence Ho from Macau.

Manila On the Edge

Scaling things down a bit, Manila is also peppered with the side streets and side project that cater to the more artistic, eclectic types. Cubao X in Quezon City , for example, features shops that sell vinyl records, vintage refrigerators and electric fans,  while hole-in-the wall bars, showcase the latest indie or alternative band.

photo courtesy of Sa Kanto and Lee Salvador, The Collective 

On the other hand, The Collective in Makati, which used to be a car shop, has now been reincarnated as a hipster haven. It's stocked with  vinyl toys, quirky art prints, and cutting edge clothes shops, while musical genres rotate throughout the week in its bars.

Photo courtesy of (clockwise from top): Pipino Restaurant, Poco Deli, Pipino, Poco Deli and Kazam

Very recently, smaller strips of dining options have sprung up in Manila -- with niche restaurants that focus on a smaller, more intimate dining experience. The Maginhawa and Teacher's Village area has a smattering of affordable restaurant choices, serving everything from samgyeopsal  buffets,  katsu dishes, vegetarian specialties and all-you-can eat shawarma. In Kapitolyo, in Pasig, there are comfort food nooks that have great brunch menus, a deli  that offer artisanal sausages, a ramen bar, and Thai restaurant that serves fusion cuisine.

Good Morning Manila
And while Manila nights are long and heady, the mornings are exceptionally  bright and cheery. Weekend markets like the ones in Salcedo and Legazpi street in Makati, recall the Farmer's market in Los Angeles and New York city. Buy fresh-cut flowers here, or sample the many dishes on display -- everything from tom yum served by a gracious Thai lady, chipotle quesadilla made by a lively Mexican woman, and a Fil-Chinese lady's delicious dimsum, which she swears is MSG-free.  At the Sidcor Sunday Market, you'll find not just food, but a wet and dry market. Potted plants, organic red rice, Indonesian crafts, Bangkok bags, boneless bangus (milk fish) and Batangas beef are all in one place, and make for a merry kind of chaos that is distinctly Filipino.

The Manila Medley

Manila courtesy of

The Manila that emerges from these myriad offerings is not so much a melting pot of the different cultures and influences that have descended on our shores throughout the years. I say this because even with the international cocktail we are ready to serve, Manila is very much infused with the Filipinos' warm smiles and singular charm. Filipinos are delighted at these new blessings, and are genuinely happy to share it with friends, old and new.  The distinctly Pinoy brand of hospitality  and charm presides over, and resides in, the mosaic of all that the city has to offer.

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