I came to the Philippines having already travelled all over mainland Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia). I hadn’t actually planned to go to the Philippines, but having heard other travellers speak of it in such hushed tones on the backpacker trail made me spontaneously book a flight to Manila. Pretty much every place I had been to in Southeast Asia so far had been incredible, and so it was with some degree of disappointment that I was introduced to Manila.
Manila is a busy, gridlocked and chaotic city. But it’s not busy and chaotic in an interesting otherworldly way, like Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam where seeing seemingly infinite shoals of honking scooters flowing through the streets can be a thrill. In Manila, you just end up stuck in traffic a lot, and most of the neighbourhoods struck me as generically modern developments in a way that’s unlikely to excite a foreign visitor.
The number of cockroaches in the street around my hostel also exceeded anything I had seen in South East Asia previously; while I had become accustomed to seeing the occasional one, my street seemed more like a scene from Starship Troopers.
One thing I particularly noticed coming into the city were the guards armed with shotguns or rifles everywhere. This is a fairly common sight in many parts of the world (like Central America) but it’s not something you’ll see often in Southeast Asia. This made me feel a little uncomfortable initially.
As I got out of my cab outside of my hostel, I was also greeted by a security guard with a large shotgun. At first I was weirded out by seeing a big man with a big gun guarding a backpacker hostel. Though I later learned that it was a fake and that the security guard is a great guy who loves to have his picture taken with it.
Manila is a little bit rougher around the edges security-wise than some other South Aast Asia capitals, though I also feel it’s not anything to worry about too much. Initial impressions aside, I did get pretty comfortable there, especially after familiarizing myself with the city during daylight.
Intramuros was not so much to write home about, though it did have these giant puppets posed in front of a gallery…
It’s actually the lack of good sightseeing that made me not care much for Manila. I went to see Intramuros, a fortress area from colonial times, but these were just a bunch of crumbling walls. You probably need to be a Filipino with a strong appreciation of their historical significance to find them interesting.
I also went to the “Mall of Asia” which was somehow recommended by many travel guide, but this was truly just an Americans style 2-level mall with modern shops. Yes, it’s along the bay, but I don’t see why it came so highly recommended – perhaps it is a good illustration of the overall lack of sights in Manila that this mall would even make it into a guidebook.
The bay near Mall of Asia was sort of cool just because so many people hang out there
Fortunately, I did come to love the Philippines in general. In fact, I think it might well be my favourite country of South East Asia.
Sadly, its capital is not much to write home about. I met people from Manila all over the Philippines who were on weekend breaks or holidays to escape the city for a while, and I could see why.
When I came back to Manila a second time (while on transit to northern Luzon), I did end up enjoying it much more, mostly because of my circumstances. An expat I met offered to take me and a few other travellers out to a different area of the city. We had some nice Arabian food and sheesha, and then went to the Red Light District to a local bar where you can play pool and other games. It was a bit odd to see a lot of freelance girls trying to get the attention of Western guys, but if you ignored this it was a great place to have a few beers and play some games.
I came back to Manila a third and final time, this time to catch my flight to Indonesia, and again I had a better time there as I met two Dutch girls in Angeles in northern Luzon who were living in Manila as part of an exchange program. They offered me a place to crash in the city and so I ended up hanging out with them in one of the nicer outer neighborhoods where it was quieter and much more pleasant.
It seems that Manila is the kind of city you could learn to love if you knew local places or if you know people who live there. But on a cursory visit, it didn’t make me that excited, unlike all of the rural and island destinations around the country. If you are going to the Philippines, I recommend Manila only for a layover: then get out of the city to enjoy the much better parts of the country.