Birds, food and tricycles: Metro Manila offers tourism treasures

In Photo: LPPCHEA (Las Piñas, Parañaque Critical Habitat Ecotourism Area) Bird Sanctuary, last bastion of nature in Metro Manila

THE three-city tour was fast, ran in clockwork precision and very organized.

There was no time for waiting and we didn’t waste time second-guessing what was going to happen next. Inside the blizzard-cold coaster as we began rolling on Edsa, the atmosphere was warm and, surprise, very quiet. Far different from previous tours we’ve attended, where our ears would bleed from people tirelessly talking throughout the entire trip.

The world-famous Bamboo Organ in Las Piñas’s Saint Joseph Parish Church

I had gingerly slid my back on the seat, ready to coil and doze off to catch sleep—It was going to be a one-and-a-half-hour travel, I was told—when I heard two girls giggling and kept uttering the word “Elpipicheya.”

On the fourth mention of that strange name, I began to get curious and listened carefully. Were they going to hand out pieces of pichi-pichi or chichiriya? Did I get it right, I asked myself again. After all, we were heading to Malabon, and you know what the city is known for—glorious pancit and other wonderful kakanin.

Grabbing my travel bag, I learned that “Elpipicheya” was actually LPPCHEA, acronym for the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area, the vast, elongated stretch of coastal patch of land off limits to the public before because it was uninhabitable, choked by garbage and had a sensitive ecosystem. It’s the same mangrove forest you see while your airplane descends to Manila. It is the most beautiful thing that happened to this lonely patch of land, a welcome respite from a sea of buildings that suffocate the metro.

Before the LPPCHEA was cleaned and almost vacuumed to the last piece of trash, it was gasping for its last remaining breath to survive.

The 404-year-old San Bartolome Church, Malabon City

Now there’s hope.

Visitors could soon be flocking to this “no man’s land,” by boat or by land, to see a once dystopian place now miraculously sprouting different species of Philippine trees, bamboos and shrubs.

On its shores and branches of abundant trees, around 84 species of migratory and endemic birds have turned them into their habitat. In this oasis, just a stone’s throw from the Mall of Asia and the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, nature is reasserting itself and telling us, “You need us.”

The cycle of life has returned.

Manila’s last natural bastion

IN 2004 Mike Lu and members of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) discovered a new bird-watching site along Coastal Road in Parañaque. It was an islet ringed by mangroves beside a shallow lagoon that teemed with thousands of birds during low tide.

They recorded the number of species and, to their amazement, the LPPCHEA emerged as the only site in Metro Manila with the largest on record, while the rest have shrunk to pitifully low.

Tourism Secretary Wanda Corazon Teo with
Malabon Mayor Antolin A. Oreta lll

The following year, the WBCP partnered with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-National Capital Region (DENR-NCR) to conduct a census of waterbirds flocking in the area. Researchers carried out an in-depth survey and found out the LPPCHEA is home to an amazing rich ecosystem and has a number of avian species. The full list would make one fall off a seat.

Among them were the Philippine Duck, Yellow Bitern, the Black and Grey Night Heron, the Great Egret, the Western Osprey, the Barred Rail, the White-Breasted Waterhen, the Pacific Golden Plover, the Marsh Sandpiper, the Spotted and Zebra Doves, the Philippine Pied Fantail and many more.

Ecology-kindred souls have replanted Philippine trees to resuscitate the fledgling lungs of Metro Manila. Now you see juvenile kamagong, narra, molave, kamuning, bignay, madre cacao and malabulak trees abound in the area. They will be become beautiful, sturdy trees in 20 years’ time. Near the beach, where large flocks of herons and egrets rummage for food, there is also a hectare of land devoted to different species of bamboos.

The 175-hectare site received a global recognition and was declared a wetland of international importance in 2013. A source of pride and joy by its number-one protector, Sen. Cynthia Villar, the LPPCHEA has been getting well-deserved attention in recent years, joining the list of other places in the Philippines recognized by the Ramsar Convention.

The Ramsar Convention (on wetlands of international importance, especially as waterfowl habitat) is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. It is also known as the Convention on Wetlands named after the city of Ramsar in Iran, where the convention was signed in 1971.

Parañaque’s food-trip avenue, Aguirre Street and

Iconic Philippine jeepney

WHEN American soldiers left many Willys jeeps in the Philippines at the end of World War II, they were reconstructed and converted into the “Kings of the Road” we see today—with distinct Filipino design and artistry. Over the years, small local companies started to produce newer versions of them by importing engine parts and reassembling them locally. Since then, they have become part of the Filipino culture.

In Manila, a Las Piñas trip would not be special without a side trip to the Sarao jeepney manufacturing plant, where fleets of multi-colored jeepneys are meticulously handcrafted. The company was a small automotive shop put up by Leonardo S. Sarao Sr. in 1953. A mechanic and former calesa driver, Sarao built his company from a budget of P700 into a multimillion-peso corporation.

Sarao jeepneys eventually ruled the streets of Manila during its peak, making the name synonymous with the vehicle and eventually becoming an icon of Filipino pop culture.

The Sarao jeepney has been exhibited at the Philippine pavilion of the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and traveled from Manila to London and across Europe in 1971, as part of the London-Manila Express, a roadshow sponsored by the Philippine Tourism and Travel Association to boost the country’s tourism and industry to European countries.

Today, however, jeepneys are embattled and, operators, including manufacturers, are on tenterhooks. Some are still on the road but not for long, if the Department of Transportation (DOTr) would have its way. The DOTr has blamed vehicular traffic on jeepneys. A report also noted that jeepneys contribute 80 percent of air pollution in the metropolis.

But Eduardo Sarao, representing the second generation of the clan, is unfazed. He said the company is ready to follow whatever policy the government wants to implement.

In fact, Sarao has already made a prototype of a zero-emission jeepney as early as 2014. His eponymous firm manufactured an e-jeepney the following year and is focusing on creating a third this year. Asked whether the e-jeepney will take off, Sarao said, “We were still kids when this modernization thing was being talked about. My opinion is that we will still build the traditional jeepneys. D’yan kasi tayo nakilala [We became renowned because of this]. But we will be ready for the future and make next-generation jeepneys that will be relevant to the changing times.”

Bamboo organ

JANUARY 30 was special because it was the day I experienced the solemn grandeur of Las Piñas’s Bamboo Organ playing for the first time.

After stepping foot on the doorsteps of Saint Joseph Parish Church, we were ushered upstairs to listen to a medieval song. Right there and then, I felt an adrenaline rush.

And as the organ played, I was transported to the set of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo was waxing poetic with his cousin Benvolio listening.

Were those pipes really made of bamboos? I moved to the back to play like a sleuth.

Oh, yes, indeed.

Father Diego Cera de la Virgen del Carmen, a priest from Spain, is recognized as leading the construction of both the church and the famous organ. Records show he was the parish priest of Las Piñas from 1795 to 1830. Del Carmen is portrayed as being a gifted man, a natural scientist, chemist, architect and community leader.

Del Carmen’s choice of bamboo as material for the organ was probably for both practical and aesthetic reasons.

Documents available on the Internet said the priest began work on the organ in 1816, while the church was still under construction. The organ took many years to become playable. It was finally completed in 1824, after Del Carmen decided to use metal for trumpets because he could not replicate certain musical characteristics using bamboos.

Food tourism

THE South is wildly famous for a myriad of food havens, but few come close to the food wonders that BF Homes offers. One of these is Container Turf.

We passed through the newly constructed Naia superskyway and within an hour, Aguirre Street beckoned. After a few minutes, we’re inside BF Homes’s favorite chow and fun stop.

From the name itself, the food stalls in this hip food park are located in individual shipping containers, thus the name Container Turf. The colors around the three-level food hideaway will definitely brighten one’s mood. The 34 shops, each with its own distinct persona and character, will liven up one’s taste buds.

The must-try food stalls include Pothead Pig, Swig and Guzzle, El Chapo’s, Eatnam, The Steak Joint, Fromagerie, Red Buffalo, Wok Your Way, Smoke Grill House, Noona’s, Melt, Ayan’s Rumah Makan, Zig-ah-Zig and Dip n’ Dough.

“We have a large community here, in fact, the biggest subdivision in Asia. That explains why we have a wide array of local and international cuisines,” Jovic Susim, the owner of Container Turf, said. “In addition, we will have the original paluto from the famous Dampa, a hawker-style shop of Singapore and more.”

Only 26 years old, Susim and his business partner were dining in a food park along Congressional Avenue two years ago when an idea popped up his head.

“Why don’t we put up something like this in BF Homes?” he mused and began hunting for a spot.

The rest, they say, is a continuing history.

Life is a feast

EXTRAORDINARY people know that Malabon is not only about floods: the city has one of the oldest churches in the Philippines, well-preserved heritage houses in the entire country, plus excellent food treats.

The city folks of Malabon gave us a rousing welcome inside a 404-year-old church that looked like the Pantheon of Rome from afar. When we arrived at San Bartolome Church, city tourism officials, all garbed in different shades of pink, ushered us inside. Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo, together with Mayor Antolin A. Oreta III, were already mingling with foreign tourists who were all amazed at how the church’s Baroque interior has survived since its construction in 1599.

“The ceiling is amazing, only the paintings of Michelangelo are missing, otherwise you’d mistake it as the Sistine Chapel,” one tourist was overheard as saying. Outside, three huge 17th-century bells lie as mute witnesses to a glorious past. A few steps away, an antique fountain serves as a centerpiece of the beautiful adobe-covered courtyard.

Documents provided by the City Tourism Office said Malabon came from the words “Maraming Labong” (lots of labong, or edible bamboo shoots). Originally called Tambobong, Malabon was founded as a visita of Tondo by the Augustinian friars on May 21, 1599, and remained under the administrative jurisdiction of the province of Tondo from 1627 to 1688.

The city boasts of a rich economic history by playing an important role in the late 19th century. It was the site of La Princesa Tabacalera in 1851 and the Malabon Sugar Co. in 1878. The former was under the corporate umbrella of Compania General de Tabacos de Filipinas, which was owned by the King of Spain, while the latter pioneered the refined sugar industry in the Philippines.

The newspaper La Independencia was first printed in an orphanage in Malabon’s Asilo de Huérfanos.

The first Mayor of Malabon was Don Agustin Salamante, a Spanish mestizo originally from Cavite.

For 70 years, Malabon was a municipality of Rizal until 1975 when it became part of the National Capital Region.

Tricycle heritage tour

THE Department of Tourism (DOT) wanted to start the year with a big bang and did it with an auspicious, uniquely Malabon start to promote emerging destinations in the Philippines. They are jewels in their own right but hardly publicized.

No less than Teo and Tourism Assistant Secretary Ricky Alegre joined the barnstorming as they participated in Malabon’s tricycle tour of the city’s heritage house treasures. Teo gamely hopped inside a quaintly decorated tricycle that brought her, Oreta and members of the media snaking through narrow, busy streets.

The first stop was the Syjuco Mansion. Once inside, our world turned back to the days of the Katipuneros. Malabon, being close to Caloocan, the hub of Andres Bonifacio’s campaign against Spain during the 1898 uprising, was also part of that tumultuous chapter in our history.

The mansion is a virtual repository of a storied past. Photos, furniture, curtains, resplendent floors, sturdy balustrades, intricately designed window sills, paintings of the Katipunan blood compact, medallions and other mementos of a bygone but not forgotten era abound in this gem of a house.

Oreta said ever since Malabon’s “Tricycle Tours” project was launched, more and more tourists were coming in.

“The most notable was a group of students from Harvard University last year,” he said. “Culture, history, the best food in the Philippines, we all have it here, so help us promote our beloved Malabon.”

“By promoting emerging destinations that are hardly on the consciousness of people, we will also be able to help the local community, notably, tricycle drivers and those working in the tourism industry,” Teo said. “We will definitely support and help promote them.”

The Tricycle Heritage Tour includes the following stops: the San Bartolome Church, the Nepomuceno, Ibaviosa, Rivera and Raymundo Ancestral House, Syjuco Mansion and El Casa Katipunero, which also includes a tour of Artes de Paseo Art Gallery owned by Angel Cacnio.

The basic tour is priced at P250 per person, a Food Trip Special Tour at P750 and a combined Food and Heritage tour is at P900 per person.

‘Lugaw’ and art

THE city tourism office then brought us to experience what many people are raving about: Malabon’s “Lugaw Experience,” a hole-in-the-wall eatery that is always packed with customers.

The lugaw, rice porridge, was indeed, delectable.

The place is located just in front of another famous heritage house, the Ibaviosa Mansion, the house that patis (fish sauce) built. Old-timers say this was the birth of the original “Patis Malabon” that spawned a lot of other brands.

Next stop was the Angel Cacnio Art Gallery and Residence. I immediately noticed Cacnio’s University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts diploma signed by National Artist Guillermo Tolentino in 1954. The artist’s gallery had many paintings depicting Katipuneros at war.

In one corner hangs several glass-encased modern-day peso bills he designed. Now having a difficulty to speak clearly, Cacnio proudly told us that he never commercialized his paintings and brought them outside of the country.

“I painted for the Filipino people and for the Filipinos only,” he said.

Our Malabon tour ended with a grand lunch at the grand Borja-Gonzalez Mansion. The residence, located right beside a heavily populated area, was everything grand: from the grand staircase to the grand piano to the grand art-deco mirror, grand ballroom and, of course, grand long table, grand ceilings and turn-of-the-century memorabilia.

As soon as we stepped into the living room, a couple garbed in Filipino-Spanish outfit depicting that era greeted us and danced to the tune of “La Jota Moncadena.” Crispy pata, morcon, Pancit Malabon and a wide array of kakanin were then served. What a feast!

Teo told reporters the Philippines has many attractions for the world to discover.

“Metro Manila alone has hundreds of emerging tourist destinations to offer, not only the usual sun-and-beach recreation, but a widely diverse fun experience, and they deserve publicity. We want the media to promote them so that foreign as well as local tourists would come in,” Teo said. “Thailand has tuktuk, Indonesia has Bajaj and Vietnam has Cyclo [but] ours is very unique. There’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world. We should make an effort to promote this touch of local color.”

Brighter tourism future

CHINESE tourists propelled the Philippines’ tourism industry in 2017 by registering a whopping 43.3-percent increase or a total of 968,447 arrivals. With that figure, the country’s tourist arrivals jumped to 6.62 million, exceeding the 6.5-million target of the Duterte administration under its National Tourism Development Plan (NTDP).

The Philippines sees an even larger increase in Chinese visitors when Philippine Airlines (PAL) brings in tourists from Xiamen to Puerto Princesa, Palawan, starting February 10. More flights are scheduled on February 14, 18 and 22. Teo said the DOT is also working on developing a Tianjin-Puerto Princesa route in time for the Chinese New Year on February 16.

“We are looking forward to the resulting effects for the country’s tourism industry once all the massive infrastructure projects are completed under the ‘Build, Build, Build’ program of the administration. To complement this, the DOT is undertaking its ‘Promote, Promote, Promote’ program to entice more foreign tourists to come to the country,” Alegre said. “It [the program] must be three times harder to promote the Philippines now.”

“We have to keep the momentum going now that we are in the implementation phase of the Tourism Development Plan for 2017-2022, which aims to unleash the potentials of our tourism industry and make it more competitive,” Teo added.

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Turning Points 2018