May 31, 2011

Culture Shock: Our First 24hrs in the Philippines

Jim and I have traveled to many countries all over the world and after 4 months spent traveling in South East Asia on this trip with the kids, we’ve become fairly accustomed to the general ‘Asian’ way of things—the smells of local markets, squat toilets, hectic traffic and pollution, religious overtones, and general cultural elements that are similar and yet differ between them.  However, none of this prepared us for what we encountered in our first 24hrs in the Philippines.

A Typical Jeepney
Immediately after exiting Clark airport, which was 60km north of Manila, we took our first crowded ‘jeepney’ ride to the local bus station, Dau, in the city of Angeles where we had hoped to get a bus to Baguio City, which was 167km further north.  Jeepney’s are basically modelled on the Jeeps and are like a shared taxi/sawngthaew with 2 rows of bench seats and are used for ‘short’ designated routes.  It was about 12:45pm on a Tuesday afternoon and the bus station was buzzing with people and activity.  But instantly we felt wary—small dishevelled children in raggedy clothing approached us begging for money and dodgy-looking men and women were seemingly everywhere.  We saw only 1 other pair of foreign backpackers.  We instinctively clutched the girls’ hands tighter in ours.  Luckily we didn’t have to wait long before our bus arrived and we were able to settle in, content to be able to observe this new society within the ‘safety’ of the bus’ confines.  It soon became very apparent to us the number of security guards that we passed along the way in front of banks and shops, all armed with shot guns.  While this might seem normal in inner-city Los Angeles or in large cities such as Cairo, it wasn’t a sight which we were used to in SEA and a bit alarming.
Inside our Jeepney--Yasmine Atop our Packs.
Five hours later as we finished winding through the last curves in the road, we saw Baguio City spread out across the tops of the approaching mountainsides.  It was an incredible sight to see such a densely populated place in amongst the mountainous terrain at an elevation of about 1500m.  It’s meant to be a popular destination with the local Filipinos too due to its cooler climate and its youthful college-student population.  

After arriving we set out to search for dinner and ended up at the centre of town in the huge ‘SM Mall’, where the entire middle class of Baguio seemed to be on this cool weekday night.  Before we could enter, we first had to pass through a security pat-down, conducted by armed guards. There were many of them.   Then at the entrance to most of the larger stores and restaurants in the mall, there were further security guards, all again armed.  So much security for this city of 305,000.

That's the SM Mall at the top of the hill.

Security Check Upon Entry To SM Mall

The next day we walked down to the centre of the city, passing by many banks along the way.  Again at each of their entrances were guards with their shotguns at the ready.  One bank even had a sign to ‘Deposit your handguns’ before entry.

Look where his left hand is...
So far, the Philippines has been a country of extreme contradictions.  On one hand, the people here are extremely polite and peaceful.  Everyone addresses you as ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’, shopkeepers don’t harass you for business and you face hefty fines for littering or spitting in public.  Yet the level of security is so extreme.  When we asked the attendant at our guest house what the security officers at the shopping mall were checking for, she nonchalantly answered, ‘bombs, handguns, knives, but they are checking for your security’.  Nice.  

According to The Lonely Planet, there are apparently 7,107 islands comprising this archipelago.  Given the amount of time that we have plus the fact that we are here sort of in typhoon season (!), we’ve decided to concentrate just on the northern part of the big island of Luzon, on which Manila is located.  It’s generally not territory that most people associate with ‘the Philippines’ as it’s mountaineous and cool versus beachy and hot, but we’re up for a change.  After Baguio City, we’re planning on visiting Segada, Bontuc, Banaue, Vigan, Manila and other points in between if time and/or interests permit.   We’ll see what the next 3 weeks has in store for us!


  1. Wow! Security pat-downs at a mall? Check your handguns at the door? I'll be interested to see how the rest of your trip turns out.

  2. Yeah, it felt a bit like we were in the 'bad part of town' in an American city except we were in a middle class, touristy small city in the Philippines in a very popular shopping mall! The scary part was that they obviously had a problem which wasn't evident on the surface to warrant such heavy handed security, and not just in the mall or in this city...Can only imagine what manila's like!!

    1. I think you have to be informed that there is a high rate of crimes in the Philippines. Hence the Guards have those guns with them. But you said that right, Philippines is a country full of contradictions, it is very beautiful yet ugly at the same time. It is a paradise, yet also hell. (poverty) No, you can't even compare Manila with Baguio, Manila is too hot, crowded, dirty and is a nightmare. i went there for legal purposes, and i never wanna go back. wew. But yeah, beaches are beautiful. Visit boracay in case you still wanna go back :D

  3. Re: Heavily-Armed Security Guards. Even us local Filipinos hate this, so you're not alone there. I mean, the guards have to open-search your bags and touch your waist and all for hidden arms and "knives"/ "bombs", as the lady you asked said. But, still, we do hate it too.

    1. Thanks for your interesting comment--very insightful :)
      x Jess