Manila – The Emotional Rollercoaster That Is..

Manila travel - Manila skyline
From a distance it almost looks peaceful..

I would compare the first impressions of Manila to being physically assaulted by a really friendly homeless person. Once you get to know him he’s great but the first time you bask in his glory you might be in for a spot of culture shock (especially if this is your first Asian city – and no Tokyo doesn’t count!). He’s a bit smelly, more than a bit dirty, sweats a lot, and behind the wheel of a car he’s occasionally terrifying (also everywhere you look there seems to be a stray dog) but he’s also kind of lovable, the more time you spend with him the more he grows on you and then when you finally part ways you somehow overlook all his problems and are just left with a silly grin on your face and too many shoes.

Earlier this year I spent about 5 weeks travelling around the Philippines which included some time in it’s crowded capital, Manila. With a population of almost 12 million people Metro Manila holds it’s own against any other major city on earth and with a population density of 700 people per Square km, you’d better get used to rubbing shoulders with a few locals. It’s such a sprawling metropolis that the greater city is split up into 4 districts and 17 separate ‘cities’ (areas) which can be a little confusing the first time you’re there.

How I got around Manila

Manila - Traffic
Traffic in Manila on a good day..

After a 14 hour bus ride we’d finally almost made our way into Manila from the open country roads of Luzon. The journey was made all the more memorable by the guy in front of us who spent literally an hour singing Abba songs at a volume that was just a little too loud to be funny. After 14 hours of just awful Dolph Lundgren B grade Action movies (the only thing they played on the bus.. the entire time!!) and an air conditioning system that would make an Eskimo shiver we arrived in Quezon City, Manila.

Getting around this mad city is actually relatively easy due to the number of Taxi’s floating around which is generally how we travelled about that place since they were pretty inexpensive, and I had about 0% chance of working out the Jeepney system. A few times we braved the humidity and tried to walk to various sites in attempts to bypass the inevitable traffic jams and for a more ‘hands on’ experience, but soon realised that the money we saved on Taxi’s was spent on drinking water instead… I thought Australia was hot! Well the Philippines is proper hot, so be prepared to sweat more than a fat man on a stair-master.

Manila - Jeepney
The flamboyant local mode of transport: The Jeepney

To all the men out there, suck up that bravado and gung-ho attitude and do NOT hire a suicide machine.. i mean scooter, the roads are about as chaotic as a good game of GTA  and literally hundreds of tourists are killed each year riding scooters in Asia, also generally travel insurers don’t cover motorbike accidents. Manila is no exception and the roads are far from safe so by default jeepneys, taxi’s or trikes are the best options to get around the city while buses, are the best way to get in and out of Manila and to access the wider Island of Luzon.

Every time I visit an Asian city i’m amazed that somehow out of the chaos, things seem to work, Ho-chi Minh, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Denpasar; all varying levels of chaos, but Manila leaves these poor imitations of disorder absolutely dead in their tracks (probably after being hit by one of the many speeding buses . Yet somehow the city seems to inch along and hums with the day to day lives of the people. Every type of vehicle you can imagine seems to have made it’s way onto the road in front of you, and on the rare occasion there’s enough road to actually move forward they howl through smaller gaps in the traffic than you ever thought possible. Cars, buses  trikes and bikes, all miss pedestrians by inches, slam on their brakes for the third dog in 5 minutes to wander across the road then accelerating away fast enough to leave Mark Webber wishing he’d brought a second pair of pants!

Cool Stuff to do in Manila

Lets start with what seems to be the primary occupation of Manilans.. shopping. Filipino’s love to shop, actually so much so that it’s kind of ridiculous. Manila has one of the highest MPM ratings in the world (Malls Per Mile – an amazing new statistic I just invented), but seriously there are literally malls everywhere, and not just normal sized malls but super malls like the fabled ‘Mall of Asia’ which is so large they named a continent after it… The irony of the Philippines is that even though so many of it’s people are scraping by day to day many of them still shop like they had a mad band of capitalists waving swords behind them. I’d highly recommend venturing into some of the larger Malls as they need to be seen to be believed and if you’re in the mood to shop you can pick up some fantastic bargains. Oh yeah, and if shoes are your thing ladies, welcome to heaven, Filipino’s love their shoes like fat kids love cake.

Manila - Baclaran Market
Baclaran Market is loads of fun!

Another great way to spend a day is by exploring the many markets around the city. A favorite of mine “Baclaran’ is a hub for anything textiles and makes for hours of fun wandering through the lanes and stalls. Just a note on security here, be sure to keep your valuables well secured as tiny hands will inevitably find their way into your pockets if you’re not careful and if you’re a giant white man like me, it’s a little hard to blend in so just be aware that this may happen. Also good luck getting anything at a local price since the starting point of any bartering you do will be around 10 times what it would be if you were a local, but let’s be honest, it’s still pretty cheap and lots of fun.

Makarti has a booming nightlife with some of the best bars in the city. Here’s a great guide It also has to be mentioned that there’s a bar called ‘The Hobbit House’’ which has made it’s name by hiring only little people for it’s staff and holding regular ‘Dwarf Throwing Contests’. Initially I wasn’t too sure about how I felt in regards to taking advantage of vertically challenged people’s ‘virtues’ but on the other hand how many more opportunities in life would I get to throw a dwarf? Sold.

One of the most amazing things about the Philippines are the historic Latin style buildings still left over from the Spanish period of colonisation, in particular the many beautiful old churches that are scattered across the islands. Manila has some fantastic examples of these old style churches with the San Augustin and San Sebastian Churches being my two favorite examples in Manila (both are now world heritage sites). The San Augustin Church is actually the oldest standing structure in the Philippines having been constructed in 1607, as sadly most of the amazing old architecture was destroyed by bombs and shells during world war 2.

Manila - San Sebastian church
San Sebastian church Interior
Manila - Agustin church
Agustin Church

My final thoughts on Manila

For a country that has so many social problems the people of the Philippines are some of the friendliest in the world. The local people I met on my tour of the country were happy and welcoming, especially outside of the cities in the smaller towns and villages. It was hard to walk down the street without a small entourage tagging behind and if I accepted every offer of a meal I would still be on a treadmill trying to run it off. Even though the majority of the locals live below the poverty line they’re more than happy to share what little they have with you, which is as wonderful as it is sad to see and a lesson I will take with me always. Given how poor the population are, there are some issues that foreigners do need to watch, just be careful with money as theft is a real problem especially in some areas of the city and also take the normal precautions you would at home when out at night or when you’re wandering about alone.

Manila - Slums
Millions still live in slums..

Unfortunately the grinding poverty that afflicts the country is all too common and apparent in Manila, with slums and shanty towns quite visible from the major roads and highways across the city. The corruption is also quite staggering and stretches all the way from top politicians to the local police (during the time I was in Manila the Chief Justice was on trial for corruption! Not even joking..)

The crowded capital of the Philippines, a country Internationally known for it’s flamboyant approach to life, holds it’s own against any other major Asian city. Crowds, markets, shopping, people, but also poverty and slums, Manila has them all in droves. You will be delighted, amazed, frustrated, excited, annoyed, perplexed and ultimately I was left smiling about the chaotic experience of Manila, but also slightly saddened by some of the things I saw during my time there. At the end of the day I have no doubt that I’ll be back, there is so much more of this amazing country to see and it’s hard to come to the Philippines without visiting the capital. My parting advice is to experience the chaotic ride that is Manila for yourself and make up your own mind, it’s more than worth it.

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10 Comment

  1. Carrie says: Reply

    Your observations on Manila are spot on. Despite the grime and pollution though, I rather like Manila. Once you get past all that shocking stuff, it’s easy to see its attraction. Have you been out to the islands yet? I haven’t delved that far into your site yet, but I promise I will be back.

    1. Pete says: Reply

      Hey Carrie! Yeh There’s so much to love in the Philippines. I have been out and explored around the country a bit, always room for more though! We did Bohol, a big chunk of Luzon, Panay and Guimaras while there.

  2. Frances says: Reply

    Hi, I’m a friend of your mum’s from Hong Kong days & (known you since you were born!!). My husband, Peter & I lived in Manila for nearly two years in the late 90’s and can so relate to all you say in this blog. – Also brought back a few memories!! We enjoyed our time there and met some lovely people.

    1. Pete says: Reply

      Frances! Of course, I remember you both!! Wow small world right? 🙂 Thanks for the comment, actually I’ll be in the UK next year, around April or May, would be fantastic to see you guys!?

  3. Leigh says: Reply

    Great post about the city. I’m more of a nature girl but a few days in a city like Manila can still be fun – just because of the sensory stimulation. My husband has been and sings its praises for the friendliness of the locals.

    1. Pete says: Reply

      Yes the Filipino people are fantastic. They love a good time and Manila really does reflect that, but you’re right it can be a bit of a sensory overload too! haha

  4. Jeremy says: Reply

    Great and funny take on Manila my friend! I too was just in the Philippines and Manila a couple of months ago and I couldn’t say it better myself. A gridlocked, sweltering shit hole that some how has an endearing grime and pace. Filipinos love for malls can only be second to the Latinos(with whom they share similar roots). I found out that another big reason Filipinos love the mall is that it’s a respite from the extreme heat and humidity, for which the majority of people have no Aircon to escape.

    1. Pete says: Reply

      That’s very true about the air-con.. I found myself gravitating towards just hanging out in the malls to get out of the heat for a time!

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  6. Jay says: Reply

    Been in Manila several times (coming from/to the province). The first impression is that it is a giant village with poverty, huge crowds, hustle and bustle and is completely eclectic. It’s busier and meaner than the province too. My last day I almost got caught up in an airport shooting that happened there and left casualties! I felt better in the province.

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