The Philippine Kalesa
THERE WAS A TIME in the Philippines that only the nobles, rich and high ranked officials can afford to ride a “Kalesa” or “Calesa”.
A Kalesa is a horse drawn carriage, which according to historical accounts, was introduced in the Philippines during the 18th Century. This carriage was at that time a status symbol and mark of prestige. Owning a Kalesa is akin to having a luxury car of today.
When the Philippines was still under the Spanish rule, the Kalesa is used by rich Filipinos (also known as “ilustrados”) for personal transport and to conduct business. As said above, it is generally those in the higher echelon of society that can afford riding a Kalesa. It is easy to imagine that during those times, riding a Kalesa is a privilege and is an experience reserved only for the elite few.
The Kalesa also called a “Karitela” is a cart with two large wheels on each side that can accommodate at least four persons. Through the years however the Kalesa’s design, length and passenger capacity has evolved and with more decorative features mainly to attract tourists.
For several centuries, the Kalesa is considered as the undisputed “king of the road” until the arrival of the jeepney during the American period. The jeepney - made from the discarded American jeeps – has taken over those routes previously served by the Kalesa. It soon dominated all major thoroughfares relegating the Kalesa into rarity.
The Kalesa however never lost its appeal. It has the enduring allure that cannot be matched by any present genre of transport. It even inspired a Filipino national artist to compose a song about the Kalesa. There is even a song that warns the “Cochero” or the Kalesa driver not to whip the horse so hard as it might result to a fatal accident. The Kalesa has been and will always be a ubiquitous symbol of Philippine culture.
While present day commuters have opted to take modern modes of transportation for personal travel, the Kalesa can still be seen plying the routes of Binondo and Intramuros. They mostly serve tourists and locals who would like to relive Manila’s illustrious past. For Php 350.00 for thirty minutes, tourists can travel and see the famous “walled city” of Intramuros aboard the Kalesa.
The Kalesa’s future has always been in survival mode. It has faced threats to its survival due to modern and faster modes of transportation in the Philippines. But with growing economic and environmental concerns, it may the right time for the Kalesa to make a comeback and regain its former stature as the Philippines’ King of the Road.
Philippine life and culture will never be the same without the Kalesa. It is part of Philippine history and its importance can never be ignored. Despite the challenges of modernization, the Kalesa will always provide a unique mode of transport that is environmentally friendly.
More importantly, with the rising cost of imported oil, it is time that the Kalesa is given serious consideration as the Philippines' primary means of transportation.