By Donald Carr
For many, any conversation of Olongapo, Philippines conjures visions of 1980’s US naval presence in Subic Bay. Seedy dive bars and Go-Go girls with a two-day recovery from the weekend liberty beer binge that led to fuzzy memories and possible regrets, not that I myself experienced this of course. Well, maybe the two-day recovery, a time or two, all from a time long forgotten, and seems a life-time ago when I first served in the US Navy before moving over to the US Army to finish my military career.
Back then, Olongapo’s local economy was focused on the presence of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet strategic placement in the region. This of course, like most military installations worldwide, catered to the taboo aspects of the customer bases needs. Drinking and the sex trade was the driving force at the time. The streets clamored with prostitution and the roadways where lined with bar after bar. Trash and filth piled in the back allies and walkways from the gates of the Naval installation crossed over a river apply named due to the raw sewage that ran down into Subic Bay proper.
For visitors today, the concept and images of what Olongapo and the surrounding area was, is in stark contrast to what it is in the present. Don’t get me wrong, the presence of the bars and night life are still very obvious, but only a glint of what it once was. The streets are cleaner and the river, well, although murky, is nowhere near the source of pollution it once was. Even the once brown water bay is now clear and blue. That is an accomplishment itself for the communities surrounding the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, the current title of the once US Naval Station, Subic Bay.
Now, attractions such as Ocean Adventure and Zoobic Safari lead as attractions. There is an inflatable island and in Barrio Barreto a large, upscale casino threatens to push those iconic, long-standing late-night clubs that have occupied their space for so long. It is true, time will always change everything. You can feel the presence of change everywhere. There are 2 malls, SM Subic and Ayalia Bay View Mall located on or very near Subic Freeport Zone. The latter is higher end and caters to international visitors and their shopping tastes.
As an avid diver, one of my favorite places to visit and Stay is Johan’s Dive Resort out on Baboy Beach. This small, but perfect, resort caters to the adventurous diver looking for anything from a leisurely reef dive to a deep-water tech-dive on one of many deep-water wrecks that litter the bottom of Subic Bay. Johan and his staff can provide both support to the technical diver as well as training to the beginning diver. The resort itself has great rooms at a great price, around 1500 to 2500 PHP a night, and the food is both excellent and reasonably priced with a typical well portioned meal settling in at around 250 PHP. Set right on the beach, the resort is great for the individual and the family as well.
Olongapo is still visited by the occasional US Naval vessel, but today you are just as likely to see other Naval vessels from partnering countries visiting the ports as well. Both Russia and Japan have had visiting vessels in recent months. This makes for an excellent social opportunity for us veterans, to be able to talk to and meet the modern sailors from around the world. I have always found it exciting to meet fellow service members from around the world and learn about their experiences and view points of those experiences.
Now, let talk about the elephant in the room. Yes, the activities of sex trade still occur in Olongapo and in Barrio Barreto. Because of this, I would advise those bringing families into the area to simply refrain from walking those streets that have the establishments, and enjoy the pool or restaurants of the resorts they are staying in. Those activities generally start up around the 18:00 (6:30 pm) mark and you can find yourself face to face with some fun loving, but intoxicated visitors starting around the 21:00 (9:00 pm) mark. Because of the potential in these situations, that is why I advise to simply be cautious and stay away from those areas.
For Veterans going into the region, the once long-standing VFW next to the Sit n’ Bull and across from the Bella Monte Hotel has since been relocated along the main highway near the Grans Sea Resort side of the road. Called The WESTPAC Sailor, this establishment serves a great breakfast at prices you CAN NOT beat! During NFL season the games are always shown in the backroom live, however remember that will be an early morning visit for NFL fans as the casts are shown live from US time. I first became a Life Member of the VFW here, but have since moved my membership to my current residence in La Union so I can be active in my home Post 9892.
As I stated before, change is inevitable. Its going to happen and as much as we might want, we have no effect on father time. Yet, if we take the time to embrace the changes that seem to come ever so quickly, I think you will find that Olongapo and the surrounding areas have benefited extensively from change. I would strongly recommend that visitors of the Philippines come and take advantage of the changes and enhancements around the area.