Jun 11, 2011

We Survived SEA's Most Populated City, Manila

To say that we were wary about visiting Manila is a huge understatement—we avoided it when we first arrived, then hummed and haa-ad about it the entire time we’ve been in the Philippines.  To make matters worse, no matter who we spoke to about the place, be it other backpackers or locals, no one had a good thing to say about it.  Nevertheless everyone’s conclusion, including our own, was that we just had to experience it first-hand.  We braced ourselves for the worst and it was probably the best thing we could have done as when you do, then whatever does happen usually will pale in comparison.  

San Miguel by the Bay, Pasay, looking towards Manila

For a city with a population of 11.5+ million (according to Lonely Planet, ‘SEA on a Shoestring’, 2010), which by our accounts makes it the largest city in SEA, it wasn’t that bad. We didn’t really feel the size.  Other cities that we’ve been in, including Mexico City, Rome, Hanoi, Bangkok, and even Phnom Penh felt busier, more hectic and more dodgy.  Certainly there were ‘questionable’ people around, but although we were mostly just in the ‘tourist belt’, it wasn’t as congested with people or traffic as we’d expected or experienced in other big cities.  It was certainly nothing like the streets of Vietnam where you had to risk your life crossing the street each and every time.  Here they were mostly clogged with taxis, jeepneys and tricycles, although here the tricycles tended to be really attached to pushbikes rather than motorbikes.  There were few private cars or motorbikes during the day, although at night it was a different story.  The exception was on the commuter trains, whick everyone seemed to use.  The few times we rode the MRT, it was packed regardless of the time of day—and we mean packed, like sardines, with train after train often leaving waiting passengers on the platform because the doors won’t close if any more passengers got on.  Although they had ‘females only’ carriages, these were also packed, but we discovered that the front carriage was reserved especially for people travelling with children, pregnant women, the elderly and the disabled—this was wonderful as it was not nearly as crowded in there as the others.

The view from our 'special' section of the crowded train--notice the rope?

Skating Rink at SM Mall of Asia: P300/$7 USD pp
But that’s the thing about Manila—what you see on the surface belies what the city is really about.  On the surface, you see the thriving middle class, with their love of big American-like shopping malls, filled with shops like the Gap, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Mister Donut, and Body Shop.  Manila is also home to the third largest mall in Asia, the SM Mall of Asia, which also has an ice skating rink and IMAX theatre inside.  They are smartly dressed, polite, and love their fast food, especially the shopping mall food court.  They also seem to be able to afford ‘things’—things that we ourselves find expensive here in the Philippines.  A play in the playcentre that is charging P100/$2.30USD for 30 minutes of play, the science museum that was charging P350/$8.15 USD per person, a box of 6 donuts from Krispy Creme for P295/$6.85 USD—we found this all to be high especially considering we’re told that the average wage in the Philippine’s is only P300/$7 USD per day.  We’re finding that accommodation is quite high too particularly here in Manila where we couldn’t find anything for under P1,500/$35.00 USD/night for a room that could accommodate all of us with AirCon.  But again, the Filipinos seem to be able to afford this, and more.  We’re also told that ‘gated communities’ that have their own shops and even Starbucks within, and are the new places to live.
But in the city, the homelessness is growing, more so in the last 3 yrs we’ve heard.  Although we spent a bit of time strolling the corridors of the shopping malls, we did spend a large amount of our time in Manila just walking the streets from where we were staying in Malate, as well as into the neighbouring Ermita, Rizal Park (60 hectares!), Intramuros (the old walled city), and even into Quiapo. (We probably covered close to 6km on our second day.) The number of street children that we came across was heartbreaking with children playing in the streets often with older children taking charge of their younger siblings a common sight.  Everyone says that it’s because of the rising cost of living.  Unleaded petrol is the most expensive that we’ve seen in SEA in the past 4 months at P54/$1.27 USD per litre, and of course high petrol prices on-flows to other areas such as food and goods.  Corruption is another major problem.  And armed security guards, some with sniffer dogs, were everywhere, including at the terrific children’s playground in Rizal Park and at the shopping malls.  
On the streets of Malate...

More armed guards in Malate
Street children play among the middle class in Malate
Intramuros--the historic and not so


Children's Playground, Rizal Park, Manila

Children's Playground, Rizal Park

Roxas Blvd, Malate
Most of Manila is a big sprawl, with suburbs upon suburbs stretching outwards from its old parts of Intramuros and Quiapo. Certainly we’ve visited the most ‘tame’ parts of the city and the Manila that we initially feared is definitely out there still. While the city itself isn’t particularly attractive, with most of the buildings from its Spanish colonial era being either bombed during WWII or destroyed by the many natural disasters that have struck this city, there are new areas being re-developed, such as the promenade along Roxas Boulevard in Malate, and ‘San Miguel by the Bay’ in Pasay next to the Mall of Asia that are very trendy with its outdoor dining and palm-tree lined walk that make for a pleasant visit.  In spite of its size, Manila is definitely worth a visit, if only to get your fast food and shopping fix.  It wasn’t as bad as we’d feared, but then again, when we are prepared for it, we find that places rarely are. 


  1. I just showed my five year old son pictures of the playground and he thinks it's so cool!

  2. Yes, it definitely is one of the better ones in SEA!

  3. we plan a visit in the Philippines with our kids next week. I read your trip report from Manila; & its very detailed & helpfull.
    As a mother I have some fears before I take my kids to a big new city; & the details the I read from your story give me thecourage to this trip.
    How did your kids deal with the homeless kids? Did your kids ask many questions about them?

  4. Thanks for your comment. Like I said, we too were very wary about visiting Manilia, but it wasn't all that bad, at least in the 'tourist' areas. Throughout our travels our kids have constantly asked questions about what we encounter culturally--they are very observant and curious. But that gives us the opportunity to turn it into a basis for a 'learning' discussion. We deal with the questions honestly and as openly as we can, but simply too. So for homelessness, we talk about what it must be like for those kids and adults to have to sleep on the streets, about what poverty is, about not having money and a job and a roof over your head, and then of course, about how lucky we are. In SEA, we've seen homelessness and poverty quite a bit (we were in Cambodia before going to the Philippines) so we've had this discussion before Manilla.

    Ditto too we have conversations about various religious practices that we've seen (buddhist, hindu, catholic)--see our post on Theology 101 for Preschoolers (filed under 'India').

    Hope this helps--thanks again for your interest and have a good time in the Philippines!

  5. Thank you very much for your detailed answer. I really feel great after reading your trip stories; about the Philippines & other interesting countries which I wish to visit at the next time (maybe Cambodia; maybe Sri lanka..). I see that we can realize our dreams to taste from the world - together with our kids.
    I hope that you enjoy yout trip in Canada; & the next trips after :)