All we’d heard was scare stories – “You should get out as soon as possible” and “It’s so dangerous, people are robbed all the time”
This is the sort of thing we read time and time again about the capital of the Philippines. It made us quite apprehensive and not even want to stay. However as we arrived at the start of holy week, and the city is apparently empty at that time, we decided to give it a go.
After landing we got in a taxi to Makati, the business district (it’s actually a separate city) where our hostel was located. During the short drive from the airport we got our first impressions of the Phillipines and it looked fascinating – in some ways it almost looked like America, with fast food chains everywhere you looked, but then at the same time you were unmistakably still in Asia.
Once at the hostel our first few hours in the country were not great – this is no-one’s fault but our own – we had flown overnight from Hanoi, got no sleep and then arrived at 5am, getting to our hostel at 7am. Check in time was at 2pm. So we had 7 hours of waiting and napping on the hostel sofas. I have never felt tiredness like it. Luckily we caught a few hours in the afternoon and felt a bit more human.
With that we were ready to explore the area, and to our surprise we weren’t shot or robbed as soon as we left the hostel, in fact it was all felt very nice and safe. We ate our first Filipino food – pork humba (stewed pork), beef tapa (cured dried beef, popular for breakfast) and pancit canton (Cantonese noodles, but they are a Filipino dish, they taste different to other noodles).
That night we ventured out for a few drinks with some people we met at the hostel. Despite Makati being the business area, the nightlife for the most part is on the seedy side and this is the one time where it did feel slightly dodgy. However we had a great night out, despite going to some bars which were obviously full of prostitutes and ladyboys, and didn’t get back until 4am.
The next day we tried to venture to some malls but it was Maundy Thursday and we soon found out what that means when you’re in the worlds 3rd largest Catholic country – NOTHING is open, aside from 7/11’s and fast food restaurants. So our first full day in Manila was spent walking the empty streets and enjoying the Ayala Triangle park in Makati.
Fast forward 3 weeks and we found ourselves back in Manila, this time without the eerie quiet of Holy Week, this time it was the real deal. Hideous traffic jams and people everywhere. But guess what? We still felt safe.
After 3 weeks in the Phillipines we were a lot more confident wandering about, in fact Manila didn’t feel much different to any other Filipino cities, aside from being bigger. The highlight this time was a free tour from our hostel where we took the subway, and more importantly, the jeepney.
What is a Jeepney? It is probably the most recognisable Filipino vehicle by a long stretch. There are different variations around the country but the Manila variety are by far the most crazy and attractive. They were originally old US army jeeps, extended with bench seating in the back, but are now obviously custom produced. They all have unique paint jobs, are very noisy, and great fun.
At first we were a bit scared to get one but after being shown by the tour guide from our hostel, we had nothing to worry about. Each jeepney has the major points of their route painted on the side, and they stop for you anywhere when you hold your hand out. They’re just as happy to stop for foreigners as they are for Filipinos. You pay your fare (a ridiculous 8 pesos – 11 pence) and just shout ‘para’ or tap a coin on the side to stop.
We got off at Rizal Park, named after Jose Rizal, a national hero of the Philippines. He was heavily involved in the revolution for which he was sentenced to death and executed in what is now Rizal Park. The execution spot is marked, along with a large monument which forms the focal point of the park.
The park is a welcome respite from the chaos and traffic of Manila, but is very open and exposed and wasn’t the most comfortable place to be in 40 degree blazing sun!
We next walked into Intramuros, the old walled city of Manila. Inside the walls the architecture changes significantly with lots of Spanish colonial buildings. Quite how much is original I’m not sure, as Manila was decimated at the end of WW2 to the same extent as Warsaw.
After a short walk we reached Fort Santiago, a beautiful Spanish fort. This is also dominated by Rizal, as it contains a fascinating shrine museum giving many details of his life. He was held here before being executed, and his final footsteps are marked out in bronze on the floor.
After catching a more modern version of a jeepney – a 4×4 which we all squeezed into, we reached Manila Bay where we all shared a Filipino feast as the sun set. By this point we were shattered and headed back to the hostel.
We rested for a few hours before heading out with one of the hostel staff to a reggae party – this was in a bar in some sort of courtyard that looked like it was just shops during the day. It’s easily the coolest place we’ve been so far and was a great place to chill with a few beers. And guess what? Still no trouble!
The next day was spent visiting some malls – SM Mall of Asia, and Greenbelt. We preferred the former as it was all indoors and air conditioned but Greenbelt is very different to most Filipino malls, spread out over some beautiful gardens and even containing an outdoor chapel!
The malls are somewhere where you initially think maybe things aren’t safe – armed guards are at every entrance, and bag searches are common. In fact armed guards are outside almost every store elsewhere in the city. But they’re so incredibly friendly and helpful and you forget they are there after a while.
Unfortunately this was where my Manila adventure ended as I contracted severe food poisoning from something I ate at Mall Of Asia, and so spent the evening and the next day in bed in intense pain. I missed out on one more day in Manila and that was something that saddened me – something I wouldn’t have expected when we arrived.Of course I’m being a bit flippant about safety – just because we didn’t experience crime doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Manila is a huge city and there are going to be areas where crime is more prevalent. So it pays to be careful just like anywhere else. All we found was that the excessive warnings about it being dangerous seemed way over the top for us in what is generally a friendly city.
Where We Stayed
Over our time in Manila we stayed at 2 hostels in Makati, 5 minutes walk from each other.
This was a superb hostel – an ultra modern building with a great social area, well thought out dorms (power socket, light and shelf for each bed) and loads of toilets and showers so you were never waiting. The hostel also organises social nights, though some advertised didn’t seem to materialise when we were there. They do encourage an al fresco drinking area on the street outside which is a great place to meet people and have some cheap drinks (a 7/11 is 20 metres away)
Our Melting Pot
After MNL initial impressions of OMP (as it’s called) weren’t great – it’s in an older building and you need to walk up 3 floors just to get there. However once inside it too has a decent seating area for socialising and some huge tables in the kitchen. The staff often bought food for guests to help themselves which was a nice touch. The dorms were a bit cramped and no as good as MNL but the curtains across the beds are something every dorm should have! What we liked so much about OMP though was the staff, they were so nice. There was the free city tour I described above and also regular nights out.
Either hostel is a great choice, they’re both near A-Venue mall with lots of restaurants, a supermarket and an awesome weekend street food market, so location isn’t an issue.