Royal city

CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - December 2, 2006 - 12:00am
I hope this Saturday finds everyone in one piece. As I write this, news of another super-typhoon, named "Reming," has just broken. With wind speeds close to 200 kph, the howler promises to put Metro Manila and the rest of the country to the test again. Some billboard tarpaulins are coming down as I write this, but many still are up. It is a wonder why we still tolerate these accidents-waiting-to-happen.

So, whatever disasters have happened over the last few days, this piece is diversion, a side trip to a place that sees little of the havoc wrought by natural disasters – Puerto Princesa.

I took a quick jaunt recently to the capital of Palawan (I’ve been traveling down to the Visayas often on consultancy work lately, due to the fact that tourism and real estate is booming in the country and the air is abuzz with prospects and projects). The flight was quick and easy. I was amazed to find the airport so close to the city – it is in fact parallel to the city’s main road and reminded me of the towns and cities of Sarawak in Malaysia, where planes land right next to the market.

The city looks small. Its listed area of over 2,500 square kilometers, however, is mind-boggling. The city is five times the size of metropolitan Manila and close to six times the size of Singapore! It is spread over a wide swathe of this stretched-out province of Palawan and has just over 150,000 residents – compared to 10 million of Metro Manila’s. This place is about space. Moreover, it is about lush green landscapes, caves, coves, corals and other delights. Surely its tourist arrivals of just over 100,000 a year can only increase.

The city has not grown too fast (yet) and enough of the older part of the city is evident. I visited the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, a gothic revival structure that stood out because of its Mama Mary-blue coloration and its height. The city, in fact, does not seem to have anything higher than its twin belfry. This harks back to settlements in the Spanish colonial era, where belfries were the only landmarks seen for miles around. Inside, I was amazed by the church’s roof trusses made from solid wood sections.

Surrounding the cathedral is a small-town fabric that includes a plaza (with the requisite American-period Jose Rizal statue), houses of the elite, and the remains of a cuartel (burned down during the liberation – and site of many treasure hunts ever since). The cuartel is now the site of a quaint café run by the local civic association. Cafés, in fact, are now popular here. I spied several downtown and even tried the local brew (bracing!) at Itoy’s Café, which boasts evening entertainment from visiting performers all the way from "imperial" Manila.

I wanted to visit the nearby Palawan Museum but it was closed. I had heard it had a good archeological collection, with stuff from the Tabon Caves and jars and porcelain that point to the island’s importance in historical trade routes and out-links to the larger economy and geography of pre-western infiltrated Asia. I’ll leave the museum for another visit – as well as the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm, which is now more like a leisure destination for inmates complete with butterfly paradise, zoos, and well-stocked farms.

I missed the visit to the crocodile farm (though a travelmate advised me that the crocodiles at the Batasang Pambansa were more entertaining to watch). I did nevertheless manage to enjoy cooked wildlife at several enchanting restaurants in and around the city.

I had lunch at Ka Lui’s. Owned by former Masbatean Louie Oliva, the bamboo and thatch complex is quirky and quaint, with a menu that includes crocodile, bayawak and Chicken Puerto Princesa – all good (even The New York Times thinks so). The restaurant has been much copied, with Ka this and Ka that clones evident all around.

Many of the restaurants around the city reminded me of the noodle and vegetable restaurants in urban Saigon. Converted villas and garages make interesting settings for wonderful food. Puerto Princesa is not to be outdone, however, as Vietnamese food is pervasive in a city that hosted thousands of Vietnamese refugees in the post-Vietnam-War period. Many have gone back or to the US, but French bread is amazingly authentic here and many Vietnamese restaurants offer full menus. (Many, though, have disappeared as the trend now seems to be La Paz Batchoy – okay, I enjoy that, too.)

The best restaurant, in terms of setting and meals, was the Badjao Restaurant on the city’s outskirts. The restaurant is reached by boardwalk and is built out among the bakawan mangroves. Sunsets here are stunning and the restaurant is a favorite meeting place for locals and visitors alike.

The last place I visited in my short trip was the market. No one leaves Puerto Princesa without seafood. I went home with five kilos of lobster and crab (for my wife’s wonderful black-pepper crab recipe). Remember to also bring home a couple of packs of lamayo– a less salty version of the Cebuano danggit. Just call it danggit light!

Leaving less than 48 hours later, I made a mental note to visit the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park and the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center, along with a weekend at one of the dozens of resorts reachable within a day from the city. I do believe that the current mayor, Edward Hagedorn, will increase visitor’ numbers. The city’s 1,780 islands are a great attraction, once infrastructure is improved. Hagedorn has also announced the building of a P100-million hospital to boost medical tourism in the region.

Well, it’s back to Manila. I really hope Reming was gentler than Milenyo. I read with alarm a few days ago that authorities were putting the demolition of billboards on hold for the Christmas season. Reports, too, from the DPWH were conflicting as to whether there was or was no billboard ban. The evidence is clear, though – billboards are back up and the only way to solve the issue is for a total ban forever. Will we wait for more accidents and deaths? To use the colorful expletive our recently departed and much beloved publisher Max Soliven often used, "Sanamagan!" When will we ever learn?
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Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at paulo.alcazaren@gmail.com.
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