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Thoroughly Modern Manila

Manila, Phillipines

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Once upon a time Manila was the glory of the Spanish Pacific Empire, a splendid fortified city with broad cobbled streets and regal townhouses. But history has taken its toll and there are few physical reminders of the Spanish colonial past nowadays. Look around you at this thriving modern metropolis and it's hard to guess how Manila looked after the ravages of the Battle for Manila at the close of the Second World War. The high-rise buildings surrounding you are all less than thirty years old.

Manila today is an overwhelming experience for the traveler. The heat, the noise, the traffic and the smog make moving around an ordeal. Manila's also a schizophrenic city - the successful entrepreneurs live in air-conditioned luxury, their seclusion guaranteed by the best security their money can buy them. The sprawling shanty towns remind you that even since the end of the Marcos era, luxury isn't even a fantasy for most Filipinos.

As a visitor to Manila you'll spend most of your time in the tourist belt - Intramuros, Ermita and Malate. Intramuros is, or rather was, the old walled city. Take the three mile stroll round the ramparts and let the history of the place seep into you. Built as a fortress to embody European military might in Asia, the grandeur of Intramuros in its heyday packed an intimidating punch. During the Second World War it passed through British, American and Japanese hands, but was completely destroyed in the closing phase of the war by bombing. Time your walk for sundown - sunset over Manila Bay viewed from the walls is amazing.

For a glimpse of the legendary riches of old Manila, pay a visit to the San Augustin Church. Built in the 16th century it is the oldest in the Philippines and the ornate interior with its intricate frescoes and vaulted ceilings is glorious. The monastery next door holds a real treasure trove of historical and cultural mementoes.

After this you have to come up to date a bit. Check out Quiapo church, a 1951 baroque design in cream which is one of the city's best known landmarks. It's home to the Black Nazarene, a sculpture credited with miraculous powers which is paraded through the streets by a frenzy of the faithful every January.

Manila's Chinatown is also well worth a visit. As you'd expect there are goldsmiths, teahouses, herbalists, shops selling money to burn for the ancestors, stalls selling sweets, moon cakes, fruit and roast nuts. This part of town is all about atmosphere rather than heavy duty sight-seeing, so give yourself plenty of time to relax here. If you're a fan of Chinese food the best places to eat are on Ongpin Street. The best, most bizarre outing you can take as a tourist in Manila has to be a tour of the Chinese cemetery. The mausoleums are ostentatiously decorated with crystal chandeliers and paintings, but they're also fully kitted out with air-con., hot and cold running water and flush toilets for the use of the deceased on their journey to Paradise. Guided visits to the most elaborate mausoleums are offered and the guides are very informative about local Chinese folklore.

You're bound to need a refuge from the bustle and smog at some point, so get familiar with Rizal Park, which is where the locals come for some R and R. As well as the paved walkways and inevitable statues of Filipino heroes there are ornamental gardens to suit every taste: a whimsical Chinese garden, a Japanese garden of minimalist aesthetic purity and a tropical orchidarium. There's a martial arts display every Sunday afternoon, and you'll see people practicing martial arts or t'ai-chi whenever you're here. There's even a chess plaza, where budding grandmasters take on all comers. Alternatively, you won't have much difficulty finding the Metropolitan Theatre - stunning, but dilapidated Art Deco - and next door is the Arroceros Forest Park, one of Manila's best kept secrets - a slice of real jungle amidst the concrete jungle of the city.

You'd be crazy to spend all your time chasing the Spanish past when modern Manila has so much to offer. Take the pulse of commercial enterprise by wandering round the likes of the Ayala Center and Ortegas Center in Makati. Manila is a shopper's paradise too and has a reputation as an arts and crafts centre. You'll find all the big brand names at bargain basement prices in the department stores and boutiques and even cheaper fakes of very high quality in the markets of Divisonia and Ballaran. Dine out in style at one of Manila's trendy restaurants and if you're feeling brave, enjoy nightlife the Manila way in one of the ultra-trendy karaoke palaces!

Go on, you're on vacation - secretly you know it's great fun, and here it's even chic!

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