Thursday, February 8, 2018


By Roger Pe
February 8, 2018
Business Mirror

The three-city tour was fast, ran in clockwork precision, 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.

I had gingerly slid my back on the seat, ready to coil, and doze off to catch sleep (it was going to be one and half hours 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 rght, I asked myself again. Afterall, 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 Las Pinas-Paranaque 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. Yes, 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 LPPCHEA was cleaned and almost vacuumed to the last piece of trash, it was gasping for its last remaining breath to survive. 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 Mall Of Asia and Naia 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 Wild Bird Club of the Philippines discovered a new birdwatching site along Coastal Road in Paranaque, specifically, 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, LPPCHEA emerged as the only site in Metro-Manila with the largest on record, while the rest have shrunk to pitifully low.

The following year, WBCP partnered with DENR-NCR to conduct a census of waterbirds flocking in the area. Researchers carried out an in-depth survey and found out that it's home to an amazing rich ecosystem and has a number of avian species. The list would make you fall off your seat.

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

Eco-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, Malabulak trees abound in the area. They will be become beautiful, sturdy trees in twenty-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.

Birdwatchers Lu-Ann Fuentes and Mads Bajarias who also wrote about the importance of LPPCHEA, said: “An increasing number of urban planners are realizing the importance of green spaces in creating livable and sustainable city. Modern cities are investing to preserve and protect their biodiversity hotspots for aesthetic, recreational, disaster-risk reduction and educational purposes. Hongkong’s Mai Po Nature Reserve and Taipei’s Guandu Nature Park are two examples of these that Metro-Manila can emulate.”

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, Senator Cynthia Villar, LPPCHEA has been getting well-deserved attention in recent years, joining the list of other places in the Philippines recognized by Ramsar.

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.)

Iconic Philippine jeepney

When US 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 Pinas trip would not be special without a sidetrip to Sarao jeepney manufacturing plant where fleets of multi-colored jeepneys are meticulously handcrafted. The company was a small automotive shop put up by the elder Leonardo Sarao in 1953. A mechanic and former calesa driver, Sarao built his company from a budget of seven hundred pesos to a multimillion corporation. 

Sarao jeepneys eventually ruled the streets of Manila and outnumbered other names by nearly 7 to 1 during its peak, making the name synonymous with the vehicle, eventually becoming it a symbol of Filipino pop culture. 

The Sarao jeepney has a rich, colorful history, among them being 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 London-Manila Express, a roadshow sponsored by the Philippine Tourism and Travel Association to boost the country's tourism and industry to European countries.

How are jeepneys in the modern era? Today, they are embattled and operators, including manufacturers, are on tenterhooks. Some of them are still on the road and a DOTr report noted that they are responsible for vehicular traffic and contribute 80% of air pollution in Philippines.

We were able to catch Eduardo Sarao, second generation of the famous family for an interview. Prepared to answer a barrage of questions related to the smouldering issue of “Tanggal Bulok, Tanggal Usok” and transitioning to modernize the jeepney, Sarao said his company is ready to follow whatever the government wants to implement. 

In fact, he said, Sarao has already made a prototype of zero-emission jeepney as early as 2014, manufactured an e-jeepney the following year and focusing on 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 (‘Dyan tayo nakilala’) but we will be ready for the future and make next generation jeepneys that will be relevant to the changing times.”

Bamboo organ

Tuesday, January 30, 2018, was special because it was the day I experienced the solemn grandeur of Las Pinas’ Bamboo Organ playing for the first time. I regretted having ignored it all these years, thankful now that I joined the DOT media familiarization tour. Had I said “no”, God knows when will I ever set foot on the doorsteps of St. Joseph Parish Church. 

As soon as we arrived, we were ushered upstairs to listen to a medieval song. Right then, I felt an adrenaline rush, and as the organ played, it transported me to the days of Romeo and Juliet. I was as if watching Shakespeare’s play, Act 2, Scene 1 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, was the builder of both the church and the famous organ. Records show that he was the parish priest of Las Pinas from 1795 to 1830. Back then, locals portrayed him as a gifted man, natural scientist, chemist, architect, community leader, as well as an organ builder.

Cerra built a number of organs and chose bamboos for most of them, except for the trumpet parts. The choice of bamboo was probably for both practical and aesthetic reasons. He began work on the organ in 1816, while the church was still under construction. The organ took many years to become playable, and that happened only in 1821. It was finally completed in 1824, after he decided to use metal for trumpets because he could not replicate certain musical characteristics using bamboos.

Food tourism

The South is wildly famous for myriad of food havens but few come close to the food wonders that BF Homes offer. So off we went, from Midas Hotel, our Roxas Boulevard meeting place, to Container Turf, where we were supposed to have dinner. 

We passed through the newly constructed Naia super skyway and within an hour, Aguirre Street beckoned, and after a few minutes, we’re inside BF Homes’ favorite chow and fun stop, Container Turf.

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

Here’s a rundown of must-try food stalls: 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. In addition, we will have the original “paluto” from the famous “Dampa”, a hawker-style shop of Singapore and more,” Jovic Susim, the tall, dashing and handsome owner of Container Turf, said.

Only 26 years old, Susim and his business partner were dining in a Congressional Avenue food park two years ago when an idea popped up his head. “Why don’t we put up something like this in BF Homes?,” he asked. 

He then went on hunting for a spot. To make the story short, he bagged the contract because his idea was innovative and the design he submitted was category breaking. Today, his pet project has become synonymous to delicious food, great family bonding place, fun hangouts for groupies and concert venues for millennials looking for a feel-good experience.

Life is a feast

Ordinary folks only know about floods in Malabon. But extraordinary people know that 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. DOT Secretary Wanda Teo, together with city mayor Lenlen Oreta were already mingling with foreign tourists who were all amazed at how the church’s Baroque interior has survived since the construction began in 1599.

“The ceiling is amazing, only the paintings of Michaelangelo 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 serve as centerpiece of the beautiful adobe-covered courtyard.

Here’s a little bit of history as provided by Malabon City Tourism Office. Malabon came from the words “Maraming Labong” (lots of “labong”, meaning 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 Company 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 HuĂ©rfanos, 
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

DOT wanted to start the year with big bang and did it with an auspicious, uniquely Malabon start to promote emerging destinations in the Philippines, jewels in their own right, but hardly publicized. 

No less than Secretary Wanda Teo and Asec 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 trike, and as she, the mayor and members of media snaked through narrow, busy streets. 

Our 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 Katipunero blood compact, medallions and other mementos of a bygone but not forgotten era abound in this gem of a house.

City Mayor Oreta was very proud to tell us that ever since Malabon’s “Tricycle Tours” were launched, more and more tourists were coming in. “The most notable was a group of students from Harvard University last year. Culture, history, the best food in the Philippines, we all have it here, so help us promote our beloved Malabon,” he said.

Teo, on the other hand, said: “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. We will definitely support and help promote them.”

Want to avail of Malabon’s Tricycle Heritage Tour? Here are some of amazing places you’ll see: 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. They are priced at PHP250 per person, Food Trip Special Tour at PHP750 and combined Food and Heritage tour at PHP900 per person.

The city tourism office then brought us to experience what many people are raving about - the city’s “Lugaw Experience”, a hole-in-the-wall eatery that is always packed with customers. So how was the dish? The “lugaw” was indeed, delectable, you could ask for another serving. 

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

Next stop, 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, wide array of “kakanins” were then served. What a feast! 

Promote emerging destinations

“The Philippines has many attractions for the world to discover. Metro Manila alone has hundreds of “emerging” tourist destinations offer not only the usual sun and beach recreation, but widely diverse fun experience and they deserve publicity. We want media to promote them so that foreign as well as local tourists would come in,” Teo told the media members, emphasizing the importance of domestic tourism.

“Thailand has “Tuktuk”, Indonesia has “Bajaj”, and Vietnam has “Cyclo”. 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,” said Teo, after she herself took the Malabon Tricycle Tour.

Malabon City Mayor Lenlen Oreta was very thankful to Secretary Teo for visiting Malabon City. The dashing mayor hosted the “Lugaw Xperience” for Teo’s media entourage with the eatery’s specialty, Chicken Arrozcaldo.

Brighter tourism future

Meanwhile, Chinese tourists propelled the Philippines’ tourism industry in 2017, by registering a whopping 43.3 percent (968,447 arrivals) increase. 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 starting February 10. More flights are scheduled on February 14, 18 and 22. DOT is also working on developing a Tianjin-Puerto Princesa route in time for the Chinese New Year on February 16. 

Corollary to this, DOT Asec Ricky Alegre said: “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 Duterte administration. To complement this, the DOT is undertaking its “Promote, Promote, Promote” program to entice more foreign tourists to come to the country. It 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 said.