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Introducing Baguio

Vibrant, woodsy and cool by Philippine standards, Baguio (bah-gee-oh) is the undisputed nerve centre of the Cordillera. For Filipinos, it's the escape of choice from the stifling heat of the lowlands. For foreigners, it's the primary gateway to backpacker bliss up north in Sagada, Banaue and Kalinga.

The city was constructed as a mountain retreat by US military forces in the early 1900s. WWII in the Philippines began when the Japanese bombed Baguio's Camp John Hay, which later served as General Tomoyuki Yamashita's headquarters. The city was subsequently flattened by US bombs dropped to drive out the Japanese - who had already left. It was levelled again by a massive earthquake in 1990.

The bombs are long gone but today the city's residents are faced with a new threat: overdevelopment. The local press repeatedly lambast city planners for inviting environmental destruction, while longtime Baguio dwellers wax nostalgic about the days before SM Mall marred every view and traffic clogged every street.

The area's original inhabitants, the Ibaloi and Kankanay, long ago assimilated into Baguio society. The city's character is now shaped by the quarter of a million college students that double Baguio's population for much of the year. Acoustic music wafts out of windows on every street; walking around with a guitar strapped to your back is decidedly de rigueur.

Away from the traffic-snarled city centre - and this is minus tricycles, since they can't make it up the hills - Baguio is airy and pleasant. If you're returning from the mountains, the small-scale urban mayhem, nightlife and youthful population can also be refreshing.