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In modern Pampanga, progress is unstoppable

There’s a lot of spending going on here. The money isn’t just in Manila anymore.

It’s 10am. I board my cousin’s pickup, an old tourism jingle playing in my head. “Natikman mo na ba ang sisig ng Pampanga…Tara, biyahe tayo! (Have you tasted the sisig of Pampanga…Come, let’s travel!)”  It could have been any other song on my playlist, but I don’t know much about the region, save for its most popular dish and the fact that one has to pass through the territory if one is to head to the Philippines’ summer capital, Baguio City. Also, that particular jingle sticks to the caverns of one’s memory like gum for some reason.

After a couple of hours in transit, I notice that the small road lined with eateries and other tiny establishments has been replaced by expansive thoroughfares and modern structures akin to those at Bonifacio Global City (BGC) in Taguig, only the urbanized space is the size of several BGCs put together and is still under development. We’ve entered the Clark Freeport Zone in Pampanga, and this is a prelude to what the region will look like in a decade or so. Suddenly, I ditch whatever preconceived notion I have about Pampanga. This is not what I had imagined.

We check in at the ABC Hotel in Angeles City, right outside of Pampanga’s BGC. The place is sprawling, with a large pool area at the ground floor, a pool bar, a Thai restaurant, and another restaurant that serves local and Western cuisines. In place of standard hotel rooms are expansive suites that give off a Hugh Hefner vibe: a steam room, a grandiose bathtub beside the bed, and interior styling that seems to invite one to express certain vigorous desires. This hotel knows its clientele.

In the same compound, atop the tower next to the building where we’re staying, is a luxurious pool club that simulates the fancier bars in Metro Manila. Guests can rent out cabanas or linger in the pool with dates while sipping champagne and cocktails. Php 500 (less than US$ 10) gets you in the club; wearing the appropriate swimming gear gets you into the water; and having friends or a lover with you gets you in the mood to grind to the DJ’s music. For those who prefer a more reserved nightcap, the club has a penthouse bar on top of the pool area, which gives one a marvelous view of the Angeles cityscape.

Curious about the surrounding area, I march out to the street to see what I can find. In other provinces, it would normally be several modest restaurants and sari-sari (general merchandise) stores separated by large open spaces. But not this part of Pampanga. The place is packed with pubs, modern restaurants, clubs with sexy dancers, souvenir stores, and an entire side street dedicated to a dry goods bazaar, all of which partially resembles the darker areas of Bangkok. I also notice that there are more foreign nationals than locals. For a moment there, I forget that I’m in a province outside Manila. It feels more like I’m in a different country.

The following day, I go out with my cousin and his wife to explore Clark Freeport Zone. Our first stop is The Mansion, a boutique hotel styled like an actual mansion, with more than 30 rooms, a couple of swimming pools, a soccer field, a playground, and a gym. This is where we grab lunch. With the exception of a strip of restaurants, there are no commercial areas nearby. Perhaps they have yet to be developed, making the hotel ideal for the traveling recluse.

Our next destination is one of the fanciest casino hotels in the region, Royce Hotel & Casino. The function rooms are expansive and can be linked together for particularly large events. It is also home to a huge Chinese restaurant, another dining area for buffet meals, and a candy store that’s a hit with the kids. There are a lot of people in the lobby, with the crowd diverging to the casino, the restaurants, and the event area. There’s a lot of spending going on here. The money isn’t just in Manila anymore.

By nightfall, we return to our hotel to try one of Pampanga’s signature dishes, sisig. Some of the places I frequent in Metro Manila serve delightfully crispy renditions of this dish, and there is the novelty of tasting one of my favorite meals in the province of its origin.

When the sisig finally arrives, my spoon dives in faster than the speed of an idea and gathers more than enough pork bits to render a flavor profile. It’s different. Rather than being an upgrade of the countless plates I’ve downed before, Pampanga sisig is a dish entirely its own: sour, far gamier, and with more exotic meat parts, like pig ears and chicken liver. It’s delightful for those with a palate for adventure.

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After dinner, we go back to the Freeport Zone to grab coffee. We pass a slew of commercial hubs with tall office buildings and several establishments, then enter one with a Starbucks and a Burger King. This is when I realize that Pampanga is in the process of transitioning into a metropolis that could easily rival any of Metro Manila’s commercial areas. The big department stores and hotel chains are there, as well a host of high-end casino resorts. The busy old world towns remain intact, but will be forced to concede clientele and perhaps culture to the urban juggernaut that would soon flank—or overlap—their borders. One can only hope that traditional practices and beliefs can be intermingled with the modern sensibilities of Pampanga’s soon-to-be new face.

We exit the highly developed area and drive through Friendship Road, which is full of Korean restaurants and modes of accommodation. “So the ‘friendship’ in Friendship Road stands for Korean-Filipino relations?,” I ask my cousin’s wife, a native of Pampanga. She laughs.

“No, it pertains to the friendship between the US and the Philippines. Koreans were drawn to the Pampanga because land is cheap here and they can learn English. There is a large Korean community in Pampanga.” Fans of Korean barbecue will suffer from option paralysis, as there are dozens of establishments that serve as cheaper alternatives to the popular restaurants, without sacrificing the quality.          

The following day, we prepare to head back to Manila. We grab one last meal at Seafood Shack, a Pampanga original with the design of a modern Metro Manila establishment. I dig into the well-seasoned meat, and I’m delighted by the harmony of varying flavors on my palate, reflective of the state Pampanga will be in in the next ten years. I have to say, this is exciting stuff.

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