Everybody but everybody I meet tells me the same thing: don’t go to Manila. I have many friends who have visited the Philippines, and have met quite a few travelers on my little journey so far and I am yet to hear a single kind word for the capital of this island nation. So, at the time of writing I am in the airport waiting for my impromptu flight to Manila. I have always had a personal problem with people telling me not to do things – it makes me want to do them more. It’s a terrible personality flaw, a mix of stubbornness and stupidity, essentially; a rebel distinctly lacking a cause.
Even the Lonely Planet book I am carting around with me advises only one or two days in the capital and from what I hear it’s hot, dirty, smelly, dangerous, crime-ridden, full of beggars, children high as kites and all of the other things you want to experience whilst on vacation. I have something better than an outdated travel book though, I have a friend who lives there. Unfortunately he happenes to be away right now, but he has given me some pointers on where to go and what to do. So, it is now my mission to find some redeeming points for terrible, terrible Manila and its disastrous international reputation. I have a day, a night and 30 quid in my pocket. Let’s see.
I’m happy to announce that I survived Manila with no incidents. More than that; I actually enjoyed my day in the capital. As a disclaimer I am fully aware that you cannot really see a place in one day. Maybe my view is also slightly skewed as I was so heavily warned before hand. (Like being told a movie is great, only to go and see it and be disappointed, but in reverse.) Manila is all of the a fore mentioned, oppressively hot, dirty, etc, but I enjoyed it all the same. Do beware of pick-pockets though, especially on public transport. Wear your bag on your front, a lot of Filipinos do this too, so it’s quite normal.
I stayed at the MNL Boutique Hostel in Makati, a bit pricier than other hostels I was lured in by the word ‘boutique.’ The hostel itself was fine, clean and had a community vibe. I immediately got chatting to Vince an English guy who has been traveling for the past 16 months, using Manila as his base. In his words ‘you either love it or you hate it’. Vince gave me advice on where to go, and I took it.
The entrance arch to this China Town is less than impressive, even the one in Liverpool is far superior but the atmosphere inside is great, street food, herbalists, teahouses, trinkets, dirty alleys, a great place to meander and explore. At the other side of China Town there is Binondo Church, which is the oldest church in the city dating back to 1596. Although it has been modernised both inside and out (due to war damage), there are still a few outer walls that display its actual age. We witnessed part of a Filipino wedding, which was beautiful, but the interior of the church was too modern and therefore too bland for my taste. There are a lot of children who are begging in this area, they are not too persistent, my method was to gently tell them no. It is horrible, but it’s impossible to give to everyone. There are different charities that you can donate to in the city, which is probably better than handing out cash on the street.
A short walk away is Intramuros, the location of the fort walls from the Spanish colonial period. Founded in 1571 the walls have seen their fair share of battles since that time, and now stand as Manila’s primary tourist attraction. Walking the walls is free, and is a pleasurable way to spend a few hours. After wandering through busy Chinatown, they came as a welcome haven. The walls house the old prison, the Rizal Shrine and an open-air theatre. I was struck by the aging Spanish-style architecture of the streets within the walls (also worth an explore).
We arrived at the Chinese cemetery at about 6.55pm (it officially closes at 7). So I thought there would be no way of being allowed in. I was wrong, the guards didn’t seem to care about keeping time. It was just getting dark as we started to wander around, and I did get a little freaked out. Not because I was scared of ghouls and spirits; but because it was eerily quiet compared to the hustle and bustle of the city below. There were not only graves and tombs, but actual fully-fitted homes constructed to house the deceased. In effect it is a city for the dead, and we were the only people there. I would totally recommend visiting – but in the daylight so you can actually see, but it would also be a great place to watch the sunset over the city, that was my romantic quest, but we narrowly missed that window.