Red Ryder - Trip to the Phillipines 2012

I’ve just come back from a fantastic trip which included the Phillipines (or as the locals say “Pillee Peens”), Kuala Lumpur, hiking the jungles of Borneo and stopovers in Brunei and Singapore. One of the highlights of my trip was taking the bus from Manila up to Subic Bay and spending a couple of days there and looking around the infamous city of Olongapo. Singapore was also interesting. I knew I was in an Asian country as soon as I got in the transport from Manila airport to the hotel and had a chaotic ride in very busy traffic. Always good fun. The other thing that reminded me that I was in Asia was the humidity. Very hot and steamy. It had been 40 years since I was here so I was expecting a lot of changes and wasn’t wrong. Manila in particular is huge and I have never seen so many banks or security guards. They are everywhere including McDonalds. Just about everywhere you go you have to get past a security guard to enter and they are all fully armed even with sawn off shotguns in some cases so they obviously are to be taken seriously.

 The Phillipines are known for many things including the famous Jeepneys as a means of transport.  Apparently they were first built by someone called Sarao after the second world war using parts from the front of jeeps left behind by the Americans. He added more passenger seats on the back and painted them up in bright colours. He was fascinated by the way Americans called their sweethearts “Honey” and he started calling his beloved wife by that name. When he built his vehicles he decided to dedicate them to his wife by combining the words “Jeep” and “Honey” and they became Jeepneys!!  Now, 85% of Filipinos are Catholics. Most of the jeepneys have religious signs such as "God Bless our Trip" "God Knows" “God Bless Me” etc  I am not sure whether they are just expressing their religious views or the signs are a reflection on their driving but just in case it was the latter, I avoided getting on the jeepney I saw that had "Sweet Jesus Save Us" across the front! They have “regulated” the Jeepneys in most places now so they aren’t as colorful and decorated as they used to be. 

Took myself off to Subic Bay where I had been 40 odd years before on the Perth during Vietnam War and also visited there again on the Stuart in 1972. It was very interesting coming back here and reflecting on how things were back in those days and how they have changed. Funnily enough, back in the old days I always assumed that Manila was north of Subic Bay when in fact, it is south. The trip up to Subic was very interesting in that it took us two hours just to get out of the Manila traffic and then another 3 hours to make the journey. To give you an idea of costs, a cab ride from my hotel to the local bus was $5.00 AUD (Brisbane Airport to my place $75.00 Aud) and the bus trip Manila to Olongapo $6.00 AUD! And you even got free wifi on the bus! I sat next to a very nice lady in her 60’s and chatted with her throughout the journey. When we arrived in Olongapo she chased away all the peddlers and negotiated a cab ride for me to my hotel. She really screwed him down to a very cheap deal too!! She had only lived in Olongapo for the past 20 years so fortunately, she wouldn’t have remembered a lot of you!!!! 

As I said the last time I was in Subic Bay was in 1972 and before that it was from 1967 – 69 probably on about 10 occasions. When we first arrived from Australia on our first Vietnam tour we berthed alongside a US Navy ship the same class as ours and it was full of holes from shore battery shell fire off the coast of North Vietnam. Little did we know that within a month we would have the same thing happen to us. Everyone will remember that during the Vietnam war, Subic Bay was the base to the US Navy 7th fleet which was the largest fleet ever in the world. There were literally hundreds of Navy ships and thousands of sailors and marines there at any given time and one solitary Aussie ship. The base itself was massive with every available facility to keep the troops comfortable. There were two junior ranks clubs called the Sampaguita Club and the China Seas club that were always good “starting off points” prior to a night on the town in Olongapo but more of that later. I recall there was a lovely waitress called Cora at the Sampaguita Club. She wasn’t one of “the Girls” and on the odd occasion I had a date with her, I had to take her cousin along as a chaperone!!! When I left there in 1969 I made her promise to wait for me but imagine my dismay when I went back in 1972 and there was a heavily pregnant Cora (she had married a Yank!) still working at the club. Apparently she didn’t regard my slurred words and an engagement ring fashioned from the ring pull of a Schlitz beer can in 1969 as a binding marriage proposal!!! I was shattered!!!! 

Today the base is barely recognisable and literally no sign of what it was before it was closed down in 1992. I spent the best part of 4 hours wandering around trying to get my bearings and managed to piece together what I remembered from the layout. All of the base buildings are now gone and even the wharves are no longer in use. It is slowly being developed in to a resort complex but from the look of it, it will be another 10 years before it will even look like a decent place to have a holiday (although my hotel was fantastic) The former Clark Airforce  base over the harbor is now the Subic Bay international airport but you can still take a cruise out to Grande Island where there used to be another club and recreational facilities. I recall that in a typical piece of Yankee logic when the US military was developing Grande Island as a getaway for the troops, they completely rid the island of any venomous reptiles such as snakes etc. Can’t have the troops being poisoned by snakes and other beasties before they send them off to be slaughtered in the killing fields of Vietnam!!! I enjoyed my little trip down memory lane and as you can see by the photos, there are still some remnants of the old days like the Spanish Gate, what is left of the mini golf course and one of the football fields still remains where I am sure quite a few of us lost some “bark” on the dry rough surface. During my wanderings I had an impromptu game of basketball with some construction workers on their building site. Funnily enough it was 40 years ago when I had my last and only game of basketball against a team from one of the US navy aircraft carriers. We got an absolute flogging as most of them were black dudes about 8ft tall!! 

Of course just outside the gates of the Subic Bay base and across the bridge of the canal is the then infamous city of Olongapo. During the Vietnam times and up until when the base closed down in 1992 it’s primary purpose was to “service the needs” of US and other servicemen and as you will remember it consisted mainly of a main street full of knock shops and seedy bars. Now the only reason I know about this is that the main street was about a kilometre long and at the other end of the street were the Olongapo Cultural and Arts Centre where I used to go and watch performances by the Olongapo Philharmonic Orchestra and also attend the church of Our Lady Imelda Marcos Patron Saint of the Holy Peso. As a result I was FORCED to endure passing by these seedy establishments so I became well aware of the nefarious activities that went on within. As you can see again by one of the photos, the only part of the Subic Bay Arts Centre (where I was a regular) that remains is a wall.

Anyway. As seedy as Olongapo was in those days it was an “interesting” place to say the least. As I said, full of bars and knock shops and really just a muddy street with drains down each side. Every where you walked you heard the girls calling out “Hey I lub you no shit! You buy me dlink!!!” I recall there was a 12.00pm curfew for service people to be back on base and if you missed the curfew, the worst was assumed in that you had received either a “Filipino Haircut” (where they start cutting at the throat) or a “Bamboo Massage” where they split a piece of bamboo and flogged you with it. Guaranteed to rip the skin off. On more than one occasion, American servicemen who had committed indiscretions in some of the bars were found floating trussed up in the canal that separated Olongapo from the base.  

We will all remember wearing our 7A’s (?) when we went ashore in those days, not conducive to the Olongapo mud after a tropical thunderstorm. I often thought it would have been a good idea to have saved some of my mudstained bellbottom trousers and brought them back to Australia and challenged some of the so called “wonder detergents” to get the stains out! Also I remembered some of the bars having signs outside that said “Air Conditioned Bar” When you went inside it was as hot as Hades and when you asked about the airconditioning – they opened a window!!!! By the way, I went to a place in Subic Bay one night that had live music and I was watching some of the girls dance. They still dance the way they used to back in those days with the hip dip, arms out to the sides and the head bobble from side to side!!!! Some things never change.  

One place I recall in Olongapo (help me out here) was the “New Jolo Bar” (maybe it was the “Old Jolo Bar” refurbished) that had a pond out the front with a live crocodile in it. An “enterprising” young Filipino used to sell ducks and chickens and feed it to the croc to entertain people coming in to the bar. I think it might have been Ray Head that once bought all the livestock to “save” then from the jaws of the croc one time. Legend has it that a group of Australian Navy Animal Liberationists rescued the crocodile from the pond and threw him in the back of a Jeepney. There are two stories of what happened next. One is that the crocodile got a little too frisky for the sailors to handle and slithered out the back of the jeepney and was run over and the other (more preferred story) is that he was released in to the canal and grew fat feasting on the various body parts of those indiscreet servicemen mentioned before! 

On one of the days I was there about 5 hours in the “new” Olongapo. Not a knock shop or bar in sight and it is actually nothing like it was 40 years ago (there certainly wasn’t a McDonalds there in those days!!!) The gate across the canal is still there but the main street is now a thriving commercial area. Whereas 40 years ago if you ventured up one of the side streets or alleys you were almost guaranteed of being relieved of the burden of carrying your wallet and other valuables (not to mention the chance of the aforementioned Filipino haircut or bamboo massage) you can now walk pretty much anywhere. In the time I was there, I did not see a single other western person which I thought was a bit strange as I expected there might have been some ex servicemen from the US there revisiting like I found in Saigon a few years ago. Did not at any stage feel uncomfortable walking around by myself even in the markets area which is about 5 blocks from the main street.  

One thing I will always remember from my previous times here is the music. Those were the days of the Four Tops, Temptations, Supremes and the Motown sound. Everytime I hear one of those songs, it takes me back. No such music heard there today but there was a certain sense of “I can’t believe after 40 years I am back in bloody Olongapo” I guess that is where I am blessed, I have managed to survive 40 years and am able to come back. Had dinner twice in a place called Texas Joes Bar and Grill in Subic Bay which if you turn left outside the gates to the wharf is about 300metres from the main wharf gate on the road that runs parallel to the wharf. As you can see by another one of the photos attached – the girls are just as gorgeous today as they were 40 years. Whilst I was there I made a silent toast to all of us who had passed through Subic Bay and Olongapo over the years and the job we did during those times. 

It was fantastic going back there after all these years and seeing the changes. So different to back then. Had a great bus trip back to Manila. 62 people on the bus, 61 Filipinos and me!!! The most interesting thing was the kids as many of them had never seen a white person before!! 

At the end of my trip I spent a couple of nights in Singapore which included having the mandatory Singapore Sling in the Long Bar of Raffles Hotel. I also took a wander down to the infamous Bugis Street albeit during the day. It is nothing  like it used to be although it might be different at night but is now home to Bugis Station which is a multi million dollar upmarket shopping complex. There is a market there but very little recognizable from the old days. No “Flamers Wall of Fame” or the stalls just shopping now. Progress I suppose they call it. Still. It was worth a look. 

Next stop for me is South America then Antarctica. Once that is done I will have been on every continent coincidentally in the same pair of Merrill hiking shoes.

Red Ryder

Can't remember Olongapo being known for its shopping back then..  Bugis Street was where a lot of alternatives used to cross!..  Bugis Junction - Multi-million dollar shopping centre..  The girls of Texas Joes Subic Bay..  I think this may have been the China Seas Club..  I guess the only way is up from the past..  Looking back down the main street towards Subic..  Jeepneys in the main street..  Back towards Subic Bay..  Subic Bay Arts Centre (where I would have spent most of my time LOL)..
 Main street of Olongapo taken from bridge..  The famous bridge between Subic Bay and Olongapo..  Bridge across the canal to Subic..  I think the Godspeed would have said it all back then..  Grande Island still exists..  The old Spanish Gates..  Clarke Airforce Base is now Subic Bay International Airport..  Main gates to wharf area..