Friday, June 6, 2008


When I was a kid living in the Philippines, my favorite place to visit was Baguio. Baguio is a popular vacation destination for Filipinos, a city nestled atop mountains in northern Luzon. The city was constructed as a mountain retreat by US military forces back in the 1900s and still serves as the primary training camp for the Philippine National Army. During WWII Camp John Hay served as the headquarters for the invading Japanese forces.

At 10 years old I remember boarding a bus for an eight-hour ride from Manila. It was a fancy bus – we took the one with air conditioning and a TV, which, back in those days, was a VERY BIG DEAL. I don’t remember which movie we saw but I was transfixed by the fact that we were watching a movie! They could’ve shown us a movie of someone reading the telephone book and it would still have a magical effect on me. I am easily impressed.

The reason I liked Baguio so much is because it was so unlike Manila. Up in the mountains, the air was clean and crisp. The temperature was cold enough to wear a sweater, something that hardly ever happens in heat and humidity of Manila, where tank tops and shorts were my daily uniform. You could go horseback riding in a park, and afterwards you could shop for strawberries and strawberry jam. Best of all, you could see Igorot (indigenous people who live in the area) up close and even take a picture with one of them. These are the things that made Baguio exciting for me as a kid; this, along with the extended family and friends that would always accompany us on the trip. For me, going there was like combining my birthday and Christmas into one weekend, and I counted down the days to our departure.

During my recent trip to the Philippines, we visited Baguio overnight and stayed at an enormous house – it was comprised of three levels with four bedrooms on each floor. It was actually a company house for my dad’s high school friend, who kindly drove us to Baguio and all over Manila during our stay (thanks Tito Larry!).

Given my wonderful memories of the place, I was disappointed to find that it did not live up to my expectations. Gone is the Baguio of long ago, with lots of open space and beautiful parks. In its place is a city with too many jeepneys, tricycles, houses, and people. It feels like many parts of the city had fallen into disrepair and lost its glory, chief among them Burnham Park (named after the American architect who planned the city). I don’t recall the park being so small but it was, and we circled the entire place in about half an hour.

After walking the park, we visited the area where you could rent horses and ponies by the hour. This is where I rode my first horse as a kid, and have always stopped by every time I visited Baguio. This time I didn’t feel like riding the horses because they looked so sad, and also because only kids were riding horses at the time. All the adults were on the sidelines watching their kids, making me feel too old to ride.

At the end of the night, we had dinner at the SM Mall overlooking Burnham Park. Have I mentioned how many malls there are in the Philippines? Everywhere I went in Manila there was a mall not too far away, which I’m convinced is the reason why Manila has so little green space. It’s a shame really, having so many of these concrete structures mar the natural beauty of the place. It’s not that I’m against malls – I do live in SoCal after all, and there are many malls where I live – but I like them spaced apart enough to allow room for parks and gardens. In Baguio the SM Mall is built atop a hill overlooking Burnham Park and the city center, which if you ask me, ruins the scenery.

The next day we drove around Baguio and stopped by Mines View Park to admire the view. From the vantage point you could see several small rice terraces, with the granddaddy of them all, Banaue, about four hours northwest by car. Nearby is Good Shepherd’s Convent, were the nuns sell strawberry jam, peanut brittle and ube (sweet purple yam) to help welfare programs overseen by the convent. We always buy our jam at Good Shepherd’s not only because it goes towards a good cause but also because it’s the best jam in all of Baguio. We also stopped by Camp John Hay to walk amongst tanks and other weapons from left over from WWII.

Right now it’s the beginning of the rainy season in the Philippines, and that means rain every afternoon in Baguio. After visiting Camp John Hay we called it a day, right as the raindrops started to fall. The rain reflected how I felt about seeing Baguio again – it brought tears to my eyes, like seeing an old friend wasting away, becoming a remnant of their former self.

Click here for more pictures.

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