Love on a Discount: Metro Manila’s Cheap Motels

Motels3 Huddled in certain city areas all around Metro Manila, motels have taken on a different kind of notoriety. They have huge flashy signs, spelling out specific hour promos, and sometimes feature Christmas lights in the middle of the year. Attendants position themselves on the driveway, ready to direct cars to empty rooms. Beyond providing respite for travelers, motels are a favorite destination of lovers and everyone in need of a quick romantic getaway, availing of the per hour rates which have gone lower and lower over the years. The signs which often feature lovers sleeping peacefully, or pictures of roses and wine, can be availed of for as low as two hundred pesos (less than five US dollars), for the standard three hours.

These motels feel like an adult’s version of a theme park, with each featuring its own packages, themes, promises. The buildings huddle together, compressed into one area, as if asked politely, to contain themselves. Certain cities are famous for having their own motel centers. Pasay City is famous for its pollution and its petty crimes, its cheap late night entertainment of seedy bars and a quick five minute ride to the motel of your choice. These forms of entertainment, susceptible to police raids and Phoenix-style resurrections, are also a quick ride away from century old Churches.

Sex is still a controversial issue for the Philippines. Motels are looked upon as centers of sin and prostitution, immorality at work. The society is still vastly conservative and largely influenced by the Catholic Church. Some hotel staff still interrogate heterosexual couples and ask for marriage certificates or proof of unions such as wedding rings. The Church has a huge say on government policies and businesses. When Playboy Philippines came out in 2008, it asserted that there will be no frontal nudity, so as not to displease the sensibilities of the people.

One of the precursors of the motel business was the Anito Lodge chain of hotels. Anito, with its logo of a bitten apple, stood for pleasure among the denizens of Manila starting from the early nineties. Its owners eventually closed operations in 2008, after they decided to shun the immorality of owning a business that catered to sex. Its closing ceremony featured the owner sprinkling holy water on beds to ward off the demons, and apologizing for all the lives ruined by the business. A banner hung outside their building which read–Closed for the Glory of God. In a popular Filipino internet forums, customers of Anito relived their memories of that place, of long and short loves, pining for some irretrievable part of their youth.

Like prodigal children, motels struggle to be accepted into the mainstream. A popular chain introduced free wifi service. Several motels learned to advertise their food as real food, along with their 100% safe and effective condoms. Another motel chain started to feature packages for honeymoons, debuts and birthdays, as if highlighting legitimate occasions when it’s actually okay to have sex. And still those behind this business know they thrive on their ability to be able to deliver the best pleasure to its customers, by staying true to its identity. In a play of Baudrillard’s simulacra, motels are pushing, enhancing, pumping up the experience of sex, the idea of more and more, up to the point it becomes rather ludicrous. It is perhaps typical for a moderately priced motel to feature mirrors on the walls or on the ceiling, to have lights you can dim and change, to have ready bottles of mineral water and tissue on the headboard. Perhaps modeled on the concept of Japanese fantasy hotels, a high end motel features different themes to ‘excite the senses’. However unlike Japan’s fantasy hotels which feature St. Andrews crosses, Sylbians and cater to every fantasy there is–S&M, alien sex, Spiderman or even children; motels in the Philippines tend to be tamer, and yet, harder to define. There are rooms modeled after the Seven Wonders of the World, a suite called the Oval Office Suite, perhaps in a weird rendition of the American dream and an Austin Powers room which thankfully doesn’t feature midgets. One room is modeled after a popular television show for the masses; it features a stage and bright fluorescent lights, while another has a sea creatures theme, feature pictures of friendly, smiling dolphins.

And all these can be had for rates that seem to be going lower and lower, to accommodate the competition, with discounted rates for longer time intervals. Three hours is often referred to as short-time, long enough for pleasure, and short enough that you do not inconvenience the one you’re with. To subvert prostitution, a local city government demanded that the shortest motel stay should at least be twelve hours. In another city, a motel featured a two hour, discounted promo rate which it termed, not so subtly, as the Quicky promo.

And as motels are looked down on by parents of women who are afraid their children are being seduced to enter these rooms by sweet talking men, as they are looked on as sites where rape and sexual abuse happens, and while activist groups struggle to have them regulated–to have attendants check for id’s and filter out the minors, which according to motel loving minors and minor loving patrons, is a gross violation of their privacy rights, as politicians speak against them and Church leaders refer to them as cancers of society, ultimately, the transgressive nature of motels is individual and private. Perhaps it exists somewhere in the love affair with quick erasures and memory edits, in how strangers can exchange sob stories, deepest fears and dreams in an enclosed room, before becoming polite strangers again. Perhaps it is with the distancing—that if you lose this person later on, you do not find his long lost sock under your bed. In the exchange of the ambivalence, of awkward language for a closed room where you know what is expected of the other.

And these have become a place of comfort in a society where the rules of time are being quickly altered, where the proliferation of call centers in the noughties have called for a shift on when people wake, eat and sleep, how much these hours are worth and what exactly they’re supposed to mean. And when these hours mean pleasure, they mean the live-now-or-never kind. And dissected per moment, perhaps people do live, perhaps even honestly, finding a moment to say a story, a reason, a finding that perfect joke. There is integrity in that, still. Before the knock on the door or the telephone ring which means you must go, and then you go.