Manila is known as the Pearl of the Orient but ask a Filipino and almost all will tell you to not to waste time there and to get out of the city at the first opportunity. It has a reputation for being a sprawling metropolis where modern clashes with poverty, and city traffic that is so congested it crawls if it moves at all.
The Lonely Planet is kinder saying the name is apt because ‘its unappealing shell reveals its jewel only to those resolute enough to pry’.
We’d decided instead of bouncing straight through we’d give it a day and a half. We’ve come to experience something of the country and see what life is like, not just see the highlights.
On arrival we didn’t feel too bad, despite flight delays on our first 2 flights, a lack of sleep on the long haul overnighter and being generally over airports, flights and queuing even by the time we reached Hong Kong (where we connected to Manila).
Christmas is a BIG deal in the Philippines. Catholicism was introduced in 1521 when a Portuguese explorer landed and claimed its many islands for Spain.
Many families come together for the celebration and we’d been warned everywhere would be incredibly busy. When we finally got through the immigration queue we tipped out into one of the busiest arrivals halls we’ve been in. We’d mentally prepared for the heat and the madness and decided our approach to dealing with it was to just be super chilled and not rush or get frustrated.
It didn’t take long for this to be tested when on spotting a SIM card seller and getting to the front of the queue and getting it in, something in the phone settings refused to connect the call to load on credit. Only after patience was well tested did we finally managed to suss what it was. Then we had another long queue at a help booth to discover the network we’d bought a SIM card for wont connect to the Grab app (the local Uber) and then we had a long wait for our Grab to arrive. However we successfully managed to get to our hotel without any of the rip off hassles which transport from the airport is infamous for.
The area of the hotel we’d booked turned out to be much better than expected. We’d read it was a bit rougher than the nicer areas, especially at night when it could be a bit dodgy, but it was closer to the main tourist sights so we’d picked it to maximise our time. We had no plans to party anyhow.
It had character, we loved it. We were also chuffed to see some shops and a few places to eat nearby. Including a 7Eleven and a tea shop in the building entrance. Everyone was really friendly and the streets were much less chaotic than we’d expected, but we figured our chaos barometers are set pretty high.
We checked into the hotel, spread ourselves around our tidy clean but small room and after looking up sunset and discovering it was at around 5:30pm, we headed out given it was late afternoon.
As we always do we decided to start our stay by exploring the streets around our hotel. We turned right, then right, then right again then went straight and turned left. We clocked a place for dinner on the way, a typical cheap South East Asian affair with the open front, plastic tables and with a good number of diners, both locals and guests from the hostel opposite. It had noodles on the menu.
We’d found a stone church we’d passed in the car to the hotel, it turned out to be Malate church built in 1588.
Opposite was a plaza. The periphery has street hawkers and street families and some kind of small vehicles which must be a form of local transport parked up. We walked through to the other side past the statue and a big fountain and sat on the steps. Across the multi-laned road in front was the sea. We sat and chilled for a minute soaking in the street scene. A rickshaw driver pulled up on the corner not far away. Rickshaws in the Philippines are motorbikes with sidecars. Not the most stable of transport most sidecars are small and the seat is only big enough for one westerner or 2 Filipinos, but some (like this one) have a small backward facing seat too. We decided it would be fun to have a ride round and did a deal with him to take us down the esplanade rode and back.
Emma got the small backward seat, not entirely the bum deal it was less comfy but had better visibility. We of course loved it.
When we got back we crossed the road and sat on the esplanade sea wall and watched sunset, before heading back to the restaurant we’d picked for dinner. Noodles, chow mein, rice and mango juice hit the spot.
Aware that we were pretty dehydrated from the flights and from being plunged into 32C (though the humidity wasn’t too bad) we stocked up on drinks from the 7Eleven when we got back to our digs. After a bit of bag sorting and showers we were tucked up in bed asleep by 9pm.
A breakfast of rice and spring onion omelette at the tea shop next to the hotel started our first full day. We’d already picked a list of places we wanted to go and over breakfast we plotted them on a map and came up with a plan. We also popped over to the 7Eleven and got a SIM card on a different network so we could register for Grab and use it to get around (Uber have exited the market in Manila presumably in a deal with Grab as their app directs you there).
We’d decided to get a ride down to Fort Santiago. Built in 1571 it is one of the oldest fortifications in Manila, and is located inside the far end of Intramuros, a walled city founded in 1571, enclosing an area of 64 hectares.
The grounds were pleasant and there weren’t too many tourists, nearly all were local. Included in the modest entry fee was entry to the onsite museum dedicated to the memory of national hero Jose
We had barely started round the gallery exhibits when a student attached himself to us to give us a free tour. He wasn’t pushy so we so we let him stay. He seemed pleased to get a tip at the end.
After the Fort we headed to the Manila Cathedral a short distance away. There was a service on and the pews were packed, as tourists we were gently directed by a man at the door to watch from the back. The service was led by a woman priest and it was a pretty Cathedral. We watched for a while but scarpered when the alms bags started to make their way towards the back before we ended up paying for the privilege.
We wandered the streets. We really enjoyed the back streets off the main drags they were scruffy and we enjoy seeing Filipino life just happening. They were a real mix of quiet and busy. We made our way via the back streets to San Augustin Church, built between 1587 and 1606 it is the oldest church in the Philippines and the only building left in tact after the destruction of Intramuros during World War 2.
We continued wandering the back streets, and Intramuros’ wall perimeter until we had enough. Our stomachs were starting to rumble, so we attempted to loop back to a cafe we’d seen but managed to overshoot and ended up back at the Cathedral. The weather had been varied, 30+C mostly it was cloudy, sometimes sunny, mainly humid but in places there was a nice breeze. We’d enjoyed it but by now we were a bit warm and sweaty and decided it was easier to get a Grab back to our hotel and lunch at the tea shop, freshen up and replan our afternoon.
The Manila American Cemetry was about 12km away so not the cheapest Grab fare, but we’ve not seen an American war cemetery before so we bit the bullet. The guy at our hotel that helps guests with luggage clearly wasn’t convinced we’d return when a slightly battered 4WD showed up (our other Grab’s had all been very tidy cars) he asked us our room number and wrote it on his hand with the registration plate.
Traffic had been good earlier in the day but it didn’t take long for us to get clustered to an almost standstill. The road we were on passed by a slum area with some residents having a view straight into the concrete walls of the flyover only inches from their windows. The brooding shadow from the monolith structure added to the dark, damp oppressive feeling of the place and no doubt a heap of health problems. Having sat in the traffic cluster watching life in the shantytown we finally found a stretch of moving highway and it didn’t take long until we were in into modern paved clean boulevards with modern high rises, trees and pavements. It could not have been more of a contrast, it was like a different Manila.
The cemetery honours American soldiers who fought during the various battles in the Pacific and who would eventually claim the Philippines. The rings of crosses surrounding the monolithic memorial in the centre number 17,097. The memorial holds the names on its walls of the missing which includes a further 36,286 soldiers. The sun broke through the grey skies and it was a very beautiful and tranquil place.
Traffic back was equally bad. We had been hoping to get back in time to visit the Museum of Filipino people but we’d spent so much time at the cemetery we realised that with the traffic we wouldn’t make it before closing. Instead we got dropped at Rizal Park. It was dusk and heaving with people, it must be the place to go in Manila on a Sunday night. It had something of an outdoor festival atmosphere. We wandered round and soaked it up, before stumbling on an amphitheater with a free dance show. We joined the crowd and watched long enough for Emma to get bitten by insects. Each performance seemed to be a different ethnic Filipino dance. Nice concept but it was a bit average so we weren’t disappointed to leave.
Now completely dark we justified our laziness on not walking the 1.8km back to our hotel that taking a Grab was faster and safer. Marie has got talking to an Australian guy who knew the area at the hotel and he recommended a BBQ down a nearby street as having great food. We got the Grab to drop us at the nearest landmark we could find and made our way there.
An open roofed BBQ it had all its kebab skewers placed out. It looked fresh and the meat was still chilled. We skipped on the liver and kidney offerings and the things we couldn’t recognise and picked out some chicken and beef that we did. Seating was on plastic table and chairs on the street and it was doing a busy trade of locals. The street was buzzing with life, there were a couple of beggars doing the rounds of tables, though no one gave them anything, except to the group of kids who sang Christmas carols. Even we were impressed they were doing something for money. The food was really great, so good we ordered seconds.
Time was getting on and we had a ridiculously early start. The streets on the way back to our hotel were teeming with more life than in the day. While we’d clocked there was a number of girly bars in the day it was only now we realised that it is probably a red light area. It didn’t feel dodgy though, it felt the same as in the day except now there were tarted up women hanging on the street and some smaller ‘businesses’ had opened.