Bacolod - A City That Hardly Smiled (At Me)Sunday, January 13, 2013Ryan Mach
In the sprawling city of Bacolod, despite the various establishments that line the busy avenue, life can still be laid-back and slow, a total contrast from the bustling metropolitan life of Manila.
It was November of 2010 when I went to Bacolod City, a place that - at that time - held a special spot in my heart. The familiarity of its language, spoken with tenderness and musicality, was an evocation of the good old days of my childhood when listening to radio dramas was still our favorite pastime. We didn't speak Ilonggo in the province but we grew too familiar with the language since our transistor radios had always been tuned in to Bombo Radyo, a broadcasting company based in Panay whose regular programming featured voice drama of different kinds - love story, magic, comedy and horror.
Coming to the City of Smile, I was quite ready to practice my limited Ilonggo, which wasn't so bad, modesty aside. The moment I heard a local speak in local tongue, I found a way to butt in, in a non-intrusive way. The local whom I first conversed in Ilonggo was the driver of a van from Silay Airport to SM Bacolod. I merely asked him how far we were from the destination. The driver glanced at the mirror, slightly surprised to hear a tourist speak in Ilonggo. I secretly gloated at my own simple accomplishment.
My trip to Bacolod was memorable for two main reasons - it was my first time to ride on a plane and Negros Occidental was the farthest province I've gone to that time.
Bacolod was the first destination that came to mind when I was thinking of a place to spend the Thanksgiving Holidays. I wasn't sure exactly why I chose it, perhaps I was eager to see whether Bacolod was indeed a city of smile. A friend of mine dissuaded me from going because according to her there wasn't much to see in her hometown (yes, she was born and raised in Bacolod). I didn't believe her, I just couldn't, especially that the flight booking was already made. I started researching online and the dearth of tourist attractions in the city almost made me think that booking a round trip to Bacolod was a terrible idea. But there was no turning back, I had to go.
City of Smile?
To say that most people in Bacolod rarely smile is like debunking a widely accepted truth about Bacolod being a city of smile. It's like messing with a fact and we all know the messing with a fact is a dangerous game. It can get you into trouble. But say I didn't know that Bacolod's the City of Smile and someone told me, after my trip there, that it indeed is, I'd have a hard time believing it. If I were to base it on my actual experience with its people alone, I'd have to say that the title is unfitting.
Mine could be just an isolated case though. I haven't heard anyone say that people in Bacolod are unsmiling folks. Or maybe, I was just expecting too much. Expectations, I realized recently, are a great spoiler. That people in Bacolod smile more often than usual is probably not a fact but a sheer observation. You really can't blame me for assuming that since they're called the city of smile, I should see their people smiling all the time. Even for no apparent reason.
Smiling had played an integral part in the history of Negros. It was a way for them to cope up with depression when its economy hit rock bottom some decades ago, after years of abundance and affluence. They now celebrate the dark moment of their history through the infamous Maskara Festival.
We went to Bacolod a month after the festival, which was quite untimely. The city must have been tired, its people exhausted from all the partying and celebrations. Its atmosphere was in a lull, the streets were calm, and the people rarely smiling. Despite the rather cold welcome, we had fun in Bacolod.
Day 1 - Bacolod Pension, Chicken Deli, Lagoon, PalaPala
From Silay Airport, we took a van to SM, Bacolod where we hailed a cab and asked to be brought to Pension Bacolod, one of the many pension houses that line Rizal Street.
Pension Bacolod had cheap rates but we found its staff unfriendly. The receptionist, who wore a scowl, didn't even greet us. The room was decent but had a funny smell. We could look for a better inn but we were starving so we booked for a one-night stay and headed to Chicken Deli where they served authentic Chicken Inasal. Their atay (liver) was very tasty.
We left the table with our stomach close to bursting. We decided to take a stroll along the street, checked out a showroom that sold Christmas decors and souvenir items.
We were about to go back to the pension house when it started raining. We sprinted to the closest establishment where we could take cover. We ended up at McDonald's and bought a sundae. My travel buddy joked that traveling a hundred miles from Manila just to eat at McDonald's was simply ridiculous. I retorted that not everyone can say that they had Sundae at McDonald's Bacolod.
The rain had finally let up, allowing us to go back to the inn. We took a nap, which was supposed to be quick but woke up rather late. It was already dark when we went to Capitol Lagoon to have a stroll. There was a loud music booming from the park, and some teenagers were dancing to the modern track. There wasn't much light in the park, but we felt very safe lounging around. We checked the imposing capitol building that was bathed in dim light. It's probably elegant during the day but at night, it looked spooky.
The lazy walk-in-the-park came to an end when we heard our stomach grumbling. Right outside the park were a few food stands selling different kinds of street food - balut, penoy, boiled peanuts, empanada and rice cake. My travel buddy bought a handful and offered me some, but I refused since I can easily lose appetite. I was looking forward to eating at Palapala.
The old PalaPala Market is located in San Juan Street, just a few blocks from the Capitol Lagoon. What sets this market apart from other wet market in Bacolod is the presence of various eateries around the area. You can buy any seafood (which are fresh!) you want and have them cooked at any eatery surrounding the place. You can tell the cook how you like your seafood served.
We bought some prawns (chili!) and squid (grilled). As they have videoke, I decided to take one for the team (lol) while waiting for our order. We downed the generous serving of seafood with a bottle of coke Red Horse.
Day 2 - 11th Street, Ted's, Cathedral of Bacolod, Imay's
[Out early to look for a new inn]
Our Day 2 in Bacolod started by checking out at Pension Inn after finding a much better alternative - 11 Street Bed & Breakfast, which is located just a few yards away from Pension. We had toured around the city after finding this pension house. The good thing about our new accommodation was it's nearer to Lacson Avenue. It was so much better than Pension Inn - the room was tidy, they offered free breakfast, and we received warm hospitality which we didn't get from the previous inn. The rates were reasonable too.
[11th Lacson Street Bacolod City]
After settling our stuff, we headed out with no itinerary in hand. We took a cab and found our way inside SM Bacolod. They say its structure is different compared to other SMs in the country. We didn't find any difference though. We were gobbling on a huge serving of hot Batchoy from Ted's when we decided to check out The Ruins.
[Hot bowl of Batchoy, perfect for the rainy day]
Unfortunately, the rain was pouring down in buckets which led us to devise a new plan. And the plan was to wait for the rain to let up by singing in videoke. Touring under the rain didn't seem particularly inviting so we decided to spend a few more time inside the mall by watching a movie. I think it was a Tagalog RomCom starred by Sarah G.
[Detail. Cathedral of Bacolod]
The thought of flying all the way to Bacolod to watch a Sarah G movie was too silly I couldn't suppress a laugh. I was still shaking my head at the ludicrousness of it all as we were winding our way on foot to Bacolod Cathedral. The rain had finally stopped but the atmosphere was still gloomy. An interesting scene happened inside the Cathedral - two women had a brawl over something. They were already getting physical when a man broke them apart.
They were still arguing when we left the church to check out the plaza nearby.
[Kids playing cards at the plaza]
We capped off the day by having dinner at Imay's, a local restaurant known for its seafood. The atmosphere inside was festive and the decorations were interesting, they would make you feel as if you're at a beach-side restaurant. There were fish-shaped lanterns hovering at the ceiling. We ordered some seafood mix and vegetable, which weren't so bad.
[Ceiling decors at Imay's]
Day 3 - The Ruins, Chicken House, Aboy's, Bacolod Night Life
Something happened on Day 3 of our Bacolod Getaway. Some misunderstanding with my travel buddy which prompted me to post a rather negative status on Facebook. "Sometimes a trip is not just about the place, it's also about the people you're with. They can either enrich the whole experience or ruin the entire thing. It sucks if it's the latter." Despite the drama, we still went out together - to The Ruins, Chicken House and Aboy's.
[Elegant even in ruins]
The Ruins seemed to mirror what I was feeling that day - ruined (vacation). Haha. Going there late morning was probably not a good idea because there's not much shade around the area. It was scorching! We didn't see those dramatic lights as well because apparently, it doesn't happen in broad day light.
The Ruins is an iconic structure in Negros Occidental. Located in Talisay, it was once a grand mansion that was reduced to its skeletal frame when it was set ablaze by the guerilla fighters during the early part of World War 2. (It is open to the public from 8:30AM until 8PM everyday).
The heat made us dehydrated and hungry, so before heading back to the pension house, we dropped by at Bacolod's Chicken House situated right beside Lacson Street. The ambiance and food selection don't differ much with that of Chicken Deli but you can't say the same when it comes to the taste of their chicken inasal. It just tasted different, not in a negative way though. I decided that it would be the last time I'd eat chicken in Bacolod because I was afraid that I'd grow feathers. Lol
[Chicken House along Lacson Street]
With the afternoon heat becoming unbearable, we decided to have some downtime. We just basically slept the rest of the afternoon off. For dinner, we headed to Aboy's where - we heard - they serve good seafood. Our order, halaan and ginataang pagui (stingray cooked in coconut milk) didn't disappoint.
[Ginataang Pagui. Never dared to taste it]
[I was okay with this. Halaan]
I read from the Internet that Bacolod has an interesting nightlife but we had no idea which bar to go. We told the driver to take us to a place where there were bars, and he did, although we didn't find it particularly fun. I even don't remember the name of the bar we stayed at. After a few drinks, we decided to leave the place. It was already close to midnight when we were taken to a famous bar by a local, a friend of my travel buddy.
[Forgot the name of the place already]
Day 4 - A Long Bus Ride to San Carlos City
I didn't want to go to San Carlos, a city located a hundred miles east of Bacolod, but my travel buddy insisted that I should come along. I went under the condition that we should get back to Bacolod before sundown. I didn't want to spend the night at San Carlos because we needed to be at the airport early in the morning the day after. My friend was visiting a friend in the city and was promised to be toured around for interesting tourist spots.
[Bound for San Carlos aboard Ceres]
We boarded on a Ceres Bus bound for San Carlos. It was a four-hour ride. For the record, I enjoy long bus rides. At first, seeing vast fields of sugarcane and rolling hills was fun, until the bus started to traverse uphill. Heights scare me.
[Rice fields on highlands]
There isn't much to do in San Carlos, I observed, after a swim beside an interesting man-made pool. Apparently, the beach was a hit among the locals because people began to flock around the area. Apart from the huge, unused pool, the place looked rather ordinary. You can't even swim properly because the water's quite deep and the seawall which also served as a swimming platform was strewn with sharp rocks.
[Unused man-made pool]
Getting to the beach required a 20-minute boat ride from San Carlos and an uncomfortable habal-habal transfer (it's amazing that four persons were able to ride on an average size motorcycle). But there were two things I enjoyed most about the random journey - a short visit at a house beside the road to buy fresh danggit and the view of Mt. Kanlaon on our way back to the city proper.
Our host insisted that we must spend the night in the city and purposely held us up by taking as to a park downtown. Vans and air-conditioned buses bound for Bacolod City are only available until 6:30 in the evening. Obviously we weren't able to catch the last trip. I swear I saw the triumphant look of our host. She egged us on to stay but I was just adamant on leaving. The only option we had was a non-air-conditioned bus that took a different route to Bacolod.
[Public park in San Carlos City]
So many things were going through my head as the bus traversed through a long and winding road. Morbid stuff. It didn't help that the weather was bad that evening. I imagined the bus broken or stopped by a group of armed men. We reached Bacolod a little past 10 in the evening.
[Almost empty bus]
Day 5 - Calea, Back to Manila
[Lourdes - C Bldg., Lacson Street, Bacolod]
On our way to the airport, we stopped by at Calea, a cake shop in Bacolod famous for its great selections of quality cakes and succulent pastries. I bought three slices of chocolate cake, which my travel buddy didn't approve of because it's an ordinary choice and we can buy one in Manila. There was no customer yet as it was quite early. They have many cakes on display - cheese cake, Oreo cake, Banoffee Pie, etc. What I liked about this cake shop is the way they package your goodies. They're sealed well and intact so you can be sure that your cake is still in a good state when you open it at home.
Some Thoughts About Bacolod
Don't expect that every person you see in Bacolod City will smile at your, just because they're touted as the City of Smile. To say that they can be a bit snobbish is harsh but that's what I felt during my 5 day stay in the city. My travel buddy told me that the community in Bacolod is composed of two groups - those who are extremely poor and those who are extremely rich. I can't say whether there's truth to. Regardless, such observation is irrelevant. I'm not sure why I even mentioned it. Haha.
For what it's worth, Bacolod is a quaint and peaceful city. It can be a perfect destination if you want to gain weight. It has wide array of good restaurants that offer great menus and food selections. Authentic Chicken Inasal, for instance, tastes more savoury in Bacolod compared to those ones offered in commercial restaurants in Manila.
[Pasalubong from Bongbong's]
I didn't get to practice my Ilonggo in Bacolod because we never talked much with the locals, which was a shame because I really wanted to converse with them in their local language. A few days before the trip, my friends who were going to Sagada tried to convince me to cancel my Bacolod trip and go with them instead, but I was adamant to fly to Bacolod. They said they had a swell time at Sagada, and asked how was my trip in Bacolod.
I quipped, "It was bumpy but memorable." Will I go back to Bacolod? Definitely.