Since everyone was a bit travel weary after the long trip, we decided to rest up a bit before going out to explore what was available around the hotel at 4:30pm. We walked down the block and turned into Mabini St and had our first introduction of the hectic pace of the area. Mabini St was packed with wall to wall money changers and small shops selling daily items. At first glance, I would say it was like being in a bigger version of Chow Kit that was full of Filipino instead of Indonesian. There were also runner/touts who were approaching us to offer money exchange services and/or companions for the night. They would call out the exchange rates that they were offering to anyone who looked remotely non-local. I guess the tourists were easy to spot since they would be the ones who looked frazzled at the amount of people on the street.
The touts came up to us and asked us where we came from. When we told them we were from Malaysia, they told us that they could show us a place where we could get better foreign exchange rate than what they were offering in the hotel. They were actually quoting 14.20 pesos to 1 ringgit compared to the 13.50 offered elsewhere. My trouble radar started to ping like crazy when I heard this too good to be true offer. Since I already had changed all my ringgit to pesos before coming to Manila, I didn’t needed to change any more cash. My traveling companions however were looking to change their cash to pesos and decided to do so at the place that this tout was taking us to. I didn’t really want to since I thought that there was something fishy about the whole deal but unfortunately I did not voice my concerns to the rest of the group. I stayed outside the place where the others went to change their money and tried to fend off the people who came up to me offering girls for the night.
After changing the money, our group walked further down Mabini St. There were a few shops there selling halal food items and Muslim restaurants. We thought of stopping by for dinner but it was still early for that. As we walked further down the road, we stopped at an establishment selling authentic Philippine handicraft items called Tesoro’s. Since I was looking to buy uniquely Philippine made items to bring back as gifts, I wanted to window shop for what kind of prices that I should expect them to be. What I didn’t realized was that Tesoro’s catered more towards the high end clientele for these items which were truly authentic and exquisitely made. A pińa (pineapple) fiber embroidered hand fan cost about 1700 pesos (RM 133) and a barong Tagalog made of the same fibers would cost about 8000 pesos (RM 624). Given that I had quite a number of people to buy for, these prices were well beyond my price range. It was really a shame since they really had very good pieces in the shop that in hindsight I wished that I could have got for myself.
It was when we left Tesoro’s that the guys who changed their money realized that they were shortchanged by quite a lot from the money changer. Since I was not in the money changer shop when they changed their cash, I didn’t really know how they did it. From what I was able to gather, they were folding the cash when they were counting it and there might be some slight of hand involved in conning the people who came to change their money there. The guys were also ushered out quickly out of the shop after they handed them the money and were told not to count their cash in the open for fear of someone snatching the money away. We actually walked back to the money changer place later that evening but we decided not to confront the people there. The funny thing was there was a street vendor nearby who recognized us from the visit earlier and kind of smiled when we told him what happened. It seemed that the con was a very well known and we just walked into it like lambs to a slaughter.
Walking through Mabini St, I noticed that a lot of the buildings here seemed to be at least 20 years old and could use a fresh coat of paint. Other than the construction site near our hotel, there doesn’t seem to be any new buildings in the area. A lot of them looked fairly worn down and neglected. The other thing that I noticed in the area was the lack of color in the building façade compared to KL. The old buildings seemed to favor more muted colors and I felt that it in part contributed to the run-down appearance that I saw. Coming from a visually frenetic city like KL, Manila seemed like the older dowdy sister who refused to wear makeup for fear of not looking her age. I was particularly surprised to see that even the Jeepneys that I saw was less colorful than the ones that I had built an image of based on what I had seen in films before. My travel guidebook did mention that Mabini St was part of Manila’s red light district that was recently cleaned up but I would have pegged it to be more vibrant than the reality I saw.
(Sunset at Manila Bay)
After walking the length of Mabini St, we ended up at the Baywalk at Manila Bay. I wanted to stay there a while to watch the sunset at the bay in hopes of getting a good photo op. Unfortunately for me, much of the day was overcast and grey which meant the sunset was quite disappointing to watch. It was also strange that being that close to the sea, I didn’t actually smell any sea water in the air. It didn’t feel like I was watching the sun go down at Manila Bay at all since I couldn’t smell the sea where I sat. A disappointing sunset aside, the Baywalk was full of locals doing their own thing and surprisingly very few tourist that I can see from where I was at. It could be that it was too early in the evening from the tourist crowd other than us who had came here for a rest. There were also a few bronze statues in the area of famous Filipino historical figures. Unfortunately the plaques that they placed beside them were only in Tagalog so I could not figure out their significance to Philippine’s history. I was sorely tempted to ask some to help translate them for me but decided against looking more like a dumb tourist that I already was. It was a pity actually since I really wanted to know who these statues were for.
(These horse drawn carriage called calesa took tourist from one end of Manila Bay to the other for a small fee)
(Bronze statues at Manila Bay. I watched this girl happily playing with the statues for a good number of minutes. I wonder if she knew who they were)
After resting for a bit at Manila Bay, we decided to walk back to Mabini St to look for a place for dinner. After retracing our steps for earlier, we decided to have out dinner at a Muslim restaurant called Fharniza Halal Fast-food Restaurant. While the name mentioned fats-food, they don’t actually serve any fast food items that we would expect. They actually served dishes we would most commonly find at your regular “nasi campur’ place in KL. Our meal consisted of a simple combination of fried fish, chicken curry and white rice. They didn’t really had any vegetable dishes on the menu and while the food did hit the spot since we were all hungry at that point, it was nothing to be excited about. It was quite bland relative to what we are used to here and the rice was slightly more undercooked compared to the way we like it in Malaysia. The big surprise for me of the meal was that our bill for food and tea came up to only 250 pesos (RM 20) for the 4 of us. A similar meal in KL would definitely have cost us much more.
(Night view of the street corner across my window. There was more than one type of "business" happening on that street corner at night)
After the meal and the slightly unsavory experience of being conned, the group decided that we would turn in early for the day instead of the earlier plan of going out that night. I have to admit that I was still smarting over my lost handphone at the time and was looking forward to go out to forget about it even though I was feeling every bit travel weary as the others were. While there were more than a few places that I could have gone to for some nightlife action nearby the hotel, I wasn’t confident that I would be OK going to them alone that night given the stroke of bad luck I had today. The last thing I wanted to happen to me that night was getting into trouble that I could have easily avoided by not going out alone. After taking a cold shower to clean off the traveling dust and hopefully the bad luck that followed me, I turned in early for the night with hopes that tomorrow would be a better day.
More pictures from Manila Trip '07 - Day 1 are uploaded here.