Capital Of Cool - Baguio City!
Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor
This week we are running a series of features on the Philippines. Our theatre and travel man, Phil Hopkins, has been on an amazing three-week adventure to the other side of the world, and here recounts his journey to this country of more than 7,000 islands. Today it is the turn of the summer capital, Baguio City.
At 5,000 ft above sea level and officially the 'Summer Capital' since 1903, Baguio City is not only the Philippines' coolest city - some would argue in both temperature and style! - but its largely Catholic population would also attest that the additional height moves them a little nearer to God than their southern neighbours!
And, when in the capital, Manila, locals there will probably advise you to pack your winter woollies the second they hear you are heading to Baguio, not only famous for one of the most spectacular night markets in the country, but also its cooler climes.
But, for the average Westerner, the climate - averaging 18.5C year round - is still gorgeous if a little cooler in the afternoon and early evening and, for the avoidance of doubt, Leeds and its grey skies it certainly ain't!
Sometimes dubbed the City of Pines & Forests - its various aliases seem to be claimed on a variety of signs across the city - Baguio, with its 128 indigenous communities and 11 local dialects, is in the Cordillera region and largely offers both a rich cultural and green environment with plenty to see.
The American Influence
And it is in this place that you really sense the strong bond that exists with one its loyalist allies, America, least of all in the plethora of US style fast food outlets that sprawl across the city, offering everything from fried chicken to burgers, pizzas to doughnuts.
Baguio, like many other cities in this Third World country, is a little dog-eared at the edges and in need of structural investment, but, very quickly, you forget this because its people are lovely and, as with so much of North Luzon, the views are spectacular.
Your starter for ten is probably Mines View Park, appropriately named for its breath-taking view of mountain ranges and Baguio's 'Mineral Bowl', where gold, silver and other ores were once quarried.
Its raft of street vendors are always eager to sell you everything from ice cream to street food, or staged photos either in traditional tribal wear, next to a St Bernard dog or a grinning family pose alongside one of the numerous white horses tethered near the viewing platform, each with their main dyed pink! But this gauntlet run to one side, the views are amazing and free of charge! Summat for nowt, always of appeal to this Yorkshireman!
Interestingly as you start to move north of Manila, you increasingly hear the name Marcos. Many Filipinos equate the 20-year rule of Ferdinand Marcos with martial law, repression of civil liberties, imprisonment and torture of opposition, and embezzlement of public funds on an epic scale. In spite of this, the Marcos family - which hail from this part of the world - continue to be very popular, with many blaming the former president's wife, Imelda, for her husband's transgressions.
Hero or heretic?
To some he's a hero, to others a heretic; opinion always seems to be split in North Luzon!
This university town with its 20 major colleges, now boasts one of the largest student populations in the Philippines, and is also a crossroads between hill tribe culture and lowland settlers. Essentially it is the gateway to backpacker bliss further north in Sagada, Banaue and Kalinga.
However, in the heart of Baguio City jeepneys, taxis and tricycles all make their contribution to a chaotic city scene of snarled-up traffic, smog and noise, none of which seem to detract from the wider Baguio offering.
Camp John Hay, officially the place where the Second World War began in the Philippines on 8th December 1941, the day after Pearl Harbour, was a Japanese internment camp for Allied prisoners of war, then a US military rest-and-recreation facility, and now reinvented as a mountain resort with restaurants, hotels, shops and a golf course.
It also features the rather intriguing 'Lost Cemetery', where you can ponder an array of gravestones expounding why you should not lose your life to negative thinking or failed ambition! Surely the American influence!
Sixteen kilometres northwest of Baguio you will find the Asin Hot Springs, although there is plenty to explore in the city itself before taking a journey that will rob you of the best part of a day. You can take in Baguio Cathedral, one of the city's most prominent landmarks with its twin spires and one hundred steps, offering church goers and visitors a chance to get a bird's eye view of the entire commercial hub.
And, if you ever wonder what happened to Bradford's weaving industry, then look no further than Baguio's Easter Weaving College, opened in 1906 as a church school, and now a hive of industry for ladies making their living producing metres of traditional cloth, on more than 50 manual machines, which they operate seemingly quicker than any of their steam driven counterparts at Bradford's Industrial Museum!
King of the Jungle!
But you cannot depart Baguio without checking out the night time city market on Session Road, which is absolutely huge, stretching as far as the eye can see and boasting a menagerie of street food, any more than you can fail to cast your eyes over Kennon Road and its iconic Lion's Head.
Named after the man who was the final builder of this feat of civil engineering, Col. Lyman W. Kennon, Kennon Road is the shortest and most scenic highway linking Baguio and the lowlands; the Lion's head can be found along the way.
Burnham Park in the centre of town is the city's premier recreation spot and the oldest of all Baguio parks. There you can hire a pedal boat, a bike or don your skates but, beware, it is busy, very busy! In this country of 100 million people there are few places within densely populated cities where you can escape the crowds.
Remember the early Orange mobile TV ad where there were hundreds of bikes going in one direction and one, sole cyclist pedalling in the opposite direction? That was me in Burnham Park! Busy!
The imposing Mansion House is the President's official residence when he's in town, and its gate is patterned after that of London's Buckingham Palace. Nearby Wright Park, sometimes labelled 'Ride Park' by those who identify this pine tree area as being reserved for kiddy horse rides, features the Pool of Pines, a 100-metre long pool of water lined on both sides by towering trees.
Baguio City is a popular place so book your hotel in advance. The Azalea Residences are a great recommend. Beautiful and value for money.
In Britain, where cold weather, rain and grey skies seem increasingly to be the norm, our eternal quest is to find heat. In the Philippines the unending search is for 'cool'. One thing's for sure, to the average Filipino Baguio is certainly cool, but I feel sure that millions of tee shirt clad Brits would also be quick to agree that this is one of the coolest cities in Asia!
Take a small pair of travel binoculars.
Using a phone camera? Invest in a mobile charger pack so that you don't lose power on your camera half way through the day when there are no charger points within a five-mile radius!
Car / bus journeys can be long and arduous in a country with few rail links. Carry an 'inflatable' neck cushion with you at all times. Other, more comfortable versions, are often better but bulkier. Be prepared to carry them!
Be careful that you don't inadvertently drink the local water if you want to avoid tummy upsets - ice cream / ice in drinks being the two major culprits you forget about!
(in-country travel agency / nationwide city guides / Travel & Banue Hotel Bookings)
Nino Pelwigan - Baguio City Guide. Good English! - firstname.lastname@example.org
Capital Of Cool - Baguio City!, 20th May 2016, 9:22 AM