Manila, Cousin to Bangkok: A Tale of Two Cities

Manila is one of those sprawling mega-cities that somehow defines the modern era, somehow defines Southeast Asia, and somehow defines what it is to be human in an era in which quantity seems to have triumphed over quality.  We just may be victims of our own success—reproductive, that is—as the fruits of our collective loins threaten to overwhelm us.  The Philippines share much of the blame for this, being the only Catholic country in a region mostly Buddhist or Muslim, and with a reproductive rate higher than almost anywhere outside Africa.  That may not change any time soon, as religious fears weigh heavily on a largely under-educated population.  Other travel writers celebrate the “post-modern” nature of travel.  It’s maybe post-apocalyptic, I’d say.

            Manila suggests nothing so much as Bangkok, a city I’ve been to many times in the ten some-odd (some very odd!) years I lived in Thailand.  Bangkok’s not so much a city as it is a concept, the place where hundreds of thousands of otherwise-impoverished Thais go to stake their claims and claim their steaks—and a disproportionate number of females among them—serving variously as restaurant workers, factory workers, customer service representatives, you name it, and hopefully Mom and Dad will believe it.  Thais have a saying: “Don’t think too much,” one which they follow without much concern for the logical conclusions, because that would be to… you guessed it…

            But Thailand is a country literally swarming with foreigners.  Now I can’t claim to know too much about Manila after only two days, but the obvious question that comes to my mind is why there aren’t more foreigners here.  There is the language problem of course—everyone speaks near-perfect English.  That wouldn’t work at all for someone like me who prefers a good challenge.  But otherwise the two places are almost indistinguishable.  If you plopped me down here blind-folded in the middle of the tourist district, I’d have to look around awhile to correctly identify the place. 

            And I’m sure most people could deal with the language problem better than I.  It’s certainly better than the pidgin poop that passes for English in the Land of Smiles, and would seem far preferable to the local tongue, or language, here in the Philippines, too.  Ever hear the way Bollywood stars talk in the movies, translating Hindi to English as they speak every other sentence?  Filipinos do that in real life within each sentence!  Linguists have a concept they apply to bilinguals that they call “code-switching” to describe the circumstances under which a speaker will speak one language or the other.  Here I think it’s just mindless mingling.  Describe those circumstances.  Welcome to SE Asia.

            But Manila seems less modern than Bangkok and other similar cities in Southeast Asia.  While the others were modernizing, Ferdinand Marcos was apparently siphoning off $5-10 billion from the country’s coffers, efforts to recover it still plodding along to this day.  Thus the Philippines are only now getting the makeover that most of the rest of the region has already experienced, with the help of the Japanese, certain Europeans, and now, Chinese.  Or maybe the American connection hindered it, or maybe the Christianity.  Manila gets bad press for crime, but I don’t really see it, just poor people living on the street, no big deal, certainly not compared to Africa.

            Manila is sprawling and shambolic in the Asian fashion, centrality not the operative concept, shared transportation terminals the stuff of travelers’ dreams.  As it is, individual terminals are scattered about and around, and so are the other functions of the city.  Intramuros is the ancient Spanish heart, the area long enclosed by its eponymous walls and something of a museum at present.  It’s pretty nice, but no great shakes by my estimation.  Ditto for Chinatown, laid out sprawling across the river with not much more than a few red lanterns to define its presence.  Just a guess, but I don’t think the Filipinos—and Filipinas—need a red lantern to tell them where and how to do business.  I think they’ve probably got a natural instinct for it.  Still “the Chinese” have always specialized in doing Asia’s business, and it’s no different here. 

            Here the difference is that they maintain their separateness from the local population, something not the case in Thailand, where after a generation or two, they’ve somehow “become Thai, so that’s okay,” and Chinatowns as such don’t really exist.  Sure, they’ll take you to Yaowarat Road in Bangkok, but if there’s a “friendship arch” by now and epicanthic roof line eye-folds, it’s strictly for tourist consumption.  Any urban core in Thailand could pass for Chinatown in the Philippines, that being about the only other difference between the two cultures.  Genetically I’d wager they’re darn near identical, along with the other half-dozen or so countries that comprise SE Asia, a region that includes as many languages and every major religion in the world.    

            So Manila is pieced and patched together without much order or too many ordinances, the law of survival pretty much the operative concept.  This must involve a certain amount of crime, I suppose, given the fact that all businesses inspect bags upon entry (except churches) … but not upon leaving, so that’s terrorism prevention, not theft.  The Philippines has a problem with its restive Muslim populations.  I don’t know why.  They tolerate the loud speakers at five o’ clock in the morning here.  But that’s not enough for the people of Mindanao, is it?  They want an Islamic state, don’t they?

            Me, I just want something cold to drink.  After slogging through Chinatown and Intramuros, I take the wrong exit and find myself in the port district, neither a short cut nor the scenic route.  Just about the time I’m sure I’ll die of mid-day heat or at the hands of desperate slum-dwellers, one or the other, there ahead of me looms what must be like an oasis to the eyes of a caravan driver in the Sahara: Starbucks, one on either side of the street in Asian copycat fashion.  It’s real, and so are the prices, the equivalent of three bucks US for a twenty-ounce big boy brew.  And they even comp me dessert bite-size freebies supermarket style.  I’m good.  So’s the coffee, losing nothing in translation.  It’s ironic that I rarely frequent Starbucks in the States—too generic.  Here it’s like a gift from heaven, and prices reasonable by comparison. 

            Seven-Eleven charges half that for twelve ounces of dreck and no apologies.  They’re ubiquitous, too, at one point close to my hotel three of them visible in three different directions.  They serve hot food, too, ready to nuke, and not bad, either, though not much for a vegetarian.  I’ve already lowered my culinary standards and figure to go even lower before it’s over (I can’t believe I ate sit-down style in a 7-11).  But the coffee works its magic and the remaining distance to my hotel suddenly seems walk-able, notwithstanding my new-found foot pains from the previous few miles.  Still the sun seems not so hot in the leafier neighborhoods of Ermita and it all suddenly seems so familiar, cousin to Bangkok’s Sukhumvit district so many miles away.

            It transforms itself at night, when the antique shops fade into the background and entertain takes center stage, pun intended.  The bright lights come on—no brownouts, guaranteed, indeed—and young girls in Catholic-girl-school uniform (that’s not fair!) line the entrances to what lies inside.  I can guess.  At this point in my life I don’t even want to look at the four-color brochures of the touts and taxistas, letting my fingers do the walking and talking to inform them of my intent.  One guy on a perch simulates eating a banana air-guitar-style for my benefit—he looks like a monkey—but I ignore the suggestion.  I get it, but I’m not hungry.

            Sex in these parts has been variously described as a commodity on a shelf ripe for selection, or maybe a catalog item available for order, but I’m here to tell you that those reports are false.  It’s more like fast food, actually, eat-in or takeout, billing options negotiable.  Would you like fries with that?  How about something to drink?  Don’t forget your condiments!  Still it all seems so sanitary and pre-packaged that it must be intended for high-yellow Japanese and Korean consumption, an emotion seconded by the food selections available in the neighborhood.  So I take another turn down a darker street, like tractor beam GPS honing in on the familiar.  I finally find it, three dingy GI bars strung together with raucous blaring music, full of Western foreigners and bar-girls in T-shirts and blue jeans!  Any comment would be superfluous.

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