Manila Revealed: Testimonials on Why the World’s Most Misunderstood City Rocks

Manila is a misunderstood city. Often neglected and rejected by many, even by locals, it is in need of a second chance. Years and layers of poverty and pollution has made it look derelict. But if you go beyond the surface you will find a city with a soul.

This is exactly what these adventurers and discerning travelers below have discovered. Read on as they share five different testimonials with one common message: Manila Rocks!

For Mark, it’s the passion of the people, the enthusiasm and the virus of happiness that spreads through Filipinos and carries over to those who choose to visit which makes it so special.

I can still remember the smiles on their faces, the joy and delight that beamed through their glistening eyes. I was in Payatas staying with a family while assisting with a Gawad Kalinga project. The genuine joy was derived from a yellow block of something I didn’t even recognize – I soon realized it was processed cheese. “We only get to eat this on Christmas day, once per year,” said Tita Silver as she gleefully handed me the first chunk. Though it was a scorching hot day in July, as the esteemed guest, the family had scraped together their money and purchased the cheese in my honor. It was the authentic generosity and the willing attitude of sharing that truly gripped my attention.

Manila is a complex city that is often misunderstood because it is not given the chance it deserves. Judgements are posed from the outward appearance while many neglect the opportunity to dig a little deeper and discover the friendly melting pot from the positive side of the city. Manila is a cultural converging point where a mix of traditions and ways of life collide into a treasure of diversities and create a series of compelling sights, sounds and smells.

For Manila it’s the passion of the people, the enthusiasm and the virus of happiness that spreads through Filipinos and carries over to those who choose to visit which makes it so special. Filipinos have an incredible way of getting you excited about things and including you in and amongst their inner circle of friends, even if you just met! Mention your appreciation for Sinigang, Bicol express (my favorite), Balut or Sisig and you will forever be accepted into the warm hospitality that shines so freely throughout Manila.

Mark Wiens is a freelance travel blogger and a street food connoisseur. Originally from the United States, Mark was raised in Central Africa where he became fascinated in observing and learning from other cultures. He started Migrationology  to showcase the less discovered side of travel. At the moment, Mark’s home base is in Bangkok where he shares lip-licking discoveries about Thai street food.

Raymond agrees that the thing that sets Manila apart from the rest is the people. He then adds that folks in Manila love to show you their city, open their doors, and welcome you as one of their own with that kind, hospitable nature that just comes so naturally to them.

Manila is a steaming hot mess of a city.  Grid-locked traffic snails through unbridled chaos in a backdrop of devastating poverty.  At least that’s what most guidebooks would have you believe.

Yes, there is traffic.  And yes there is chaos and poverty.  But what Asian city doesn’t have these elements on some scale (Bangkok anyone?).  If you are able to look past the obvious visual and auditory assault, you will see there is so much more to this misunderstood city.

Some of the best food I’ve had on the planet has been in Manila.  Try the Australian steak at Red in the Makati Shangri-La, or if they’re full, give your taste buds their due at any of the dozens of restaurants at Greenbelt just a short walk away.

If budget shopping strikes a chord, the deals to be had on “authentic” brand name goods at Greenhills Shopping Center or in the world’s oldest Chinatown are just too good to pass up.

I know what you’re thinking – “I can get good food and good shopping in just about any city in Asia.”  While that might be true, the thing that sets Manila apart from the rest, at least for me, is the people.  Folks in Manila love to show you their city, open their doors, and welcome you as one of their own with that kind, hospitable nature that just comes so naturally to them.

I’m willing to put up with some chaos and traffic to get me some of that.

Raymond Walsh is the man behind Man On The Lam – a site dedicated to shaking the shackles of the typical 9 to 5, and escaping through travel.  You can follow him on Facebook or on Twitter.

Rafe, on the other hand, advises you to venture a little more boldly into Manila’s wild- in jeepneys and tricycles, alleys and palengkes, videokehans and kambingans- where you can experience something new or sublime.

Visitors to Manila spend too much time in cars. They do so for legitimate reasons. If they are foreign, then certainly they’ve been warned on more than one occasion never to ride buses, jeepneys, FXs, tricycles or commuter trains. My three years in Manila, during which I traveled everywhere on public transportation at all hours of the day and night, might go a long way in disproving those warnings, but you can’t blame tourists for being cautious, especially after they’ve been warned. But so much of what seems chaotic about Manila when viewed from the window of a passing taxi or hired van slows down and starts to make sense when you’re in the middle of it. Admittedly, it takes time — perhaps time that tourists don’t necessarily have — for the rhythms of Manila life to click inside foreigners’ heads. But speaking as a non-Filipino who learned to love Manila as much as and probably more than “world capitals” like Paris or my native New York, I think visitors would do well to venture a little more boldly into Manila’s wild.

Walk down a few streets without knowing precisely what you’re going to find, and before long you might get dragooned into a basketball game, offered “one shot!” by a streetside tanggero (which, if you accept, will be followed by a bite of isaw or kalderetang kambing or otherwise appropriate pulutan), or pass a videoke parlor and be forced to sing a ballad. You’ll see some disturbing things – the poverty and income inequality that plague the Philippines are perhaps more obviously on display in Manila than anywhere else in the country. But you’ll also see that people in Manila, no matter how difficult their day-to-day existence is, lead lives that are more vibrant and fulfilling than foreign minds often imagine. Traveling, for me at least, is about experiencing something new, hopefully expected, and — if I’m really lucky — sublime. I’ve rarely found those things in a Manila taxi, a Makati nightclub or the Starbucks on Katipunan Avenue. I find them all the time in jeepneys and tricycles, alleys and palengkes, videokehans and kambingans.

Rafe Bartholomew is the author of a book on Philippine Basketball titled Pacific Rims. He lived in Manila from 2005 till the end of 2008 and has so far managed to return at least once a year. He has also worked at Harper’s Magazine and is now an editor for the ESPN website Grantland.com

Then there are the restaurants, shopping and overall buzz in Manila which combine for a hugely dynamic experience. According to Bjorn, just because Manila isn’t the typical tourist destination doesn’t make it unworthy of a solid visit. Just when you think you may be flirting with overwhelm, the sunsets and Manila Bay lights up in a way that you can’t help but love.

I am Swedish and I grew up on academic campuses where my parents taught just outside Manila.  I have great memories of the excitement I associated with weekends in the city.  Trips back to Manila years after my childhood experiences have only strengthened my fascination for the city.  The restaurants, shopping and overall buzz in Manila combine for a hugely dynamic experience. Just because Manila isn’t the typical tourist destination doesn’t make it unworthy of a solid visit.

Unlike most Asian cities, Manila makes life easy for English speakers.  Just about everyone speaks English and, in keeping with Filipino culture in general, most people are friendly and warm.  Manila is a city of huge contrasts.  The food is amazing whether it is served from street vendors or high-end Makati eateries.  The empire of SM malls (SM City North EDSA is the largest mall in the Philippines, and the world’s third biggest) competes with shopping anywhere and the open air “wet” markets and flea markets of Baclaran and elsewhere are forever dynamic and bustling. The frenzied pace of Manila will definitely appeal to anyone that loves the big city and thrives on urban energy.  Obviously, traffic, crime and pollution come as part of the package but this is to be expected with any major city.  Common sense and basic street smarts will allow you to navigate the hustle and bustle. And just when you think you may be flirting with overwhelm, the sunsets and Manila Bay lights up in a way that you can’t help but love.

And Manila is not just shopping and eating.  For some colonial history, check out Intramuros – the Walled City of Manila or the National Museum of the Philippines.  Rizal Park and Manila Zoological and Botanical Gardens allow for some natural beauty in the midst of the urban jungle.

Bjorn Karlman about is a 29-year-old writer, public speaker and fundraising specialist with 10 years of experience in International Public Relations and Communication.  You can find him blogging posts which facilitate and support service-minded global adventures at Culturemutt.


Finally, Janet shares that she has come to love Manila for it’s hub of networks and the people that she meets. As well as Manila being a great portal for other excellent destinations in the Philippines.

Manila has had a lot of bad PR! Most notably the time when Claire Danes was filming here for her role in Brokedown Palace, and publicly dissed Manila, calling it a “ghastly and weird city”. Filipinos are such proud people that they decided to ban her movie completely, and don’t take kindly to foreigners who complain about their surroundings when it was their choice to come here.

With that tarnished image, plus being one of the most crowded cities in the world, Manila is easily glanced over and unappreciated. I’ll have to admit that even I felt this way when first experiencing the jarring horns and cacophonous sounds. The culture and ambiance literally pissed me off and put me into a mood swing for days.

After living four months here, I’m starting to see the beauty of Manila. Not all districts are filled with smog and each district has it’s own uniqueness. Intramuros and China town are the most interesting parts of Manila, with probably the most history! Intramuros, meaning “within the walls” in Spanish, is literally a city behind walls with a lot of cultural history of Spanish colonization and rule. The Manila bay has what some say are the most beautiful sunsets in the world, and Makati is bustling with expats, entrepreneurs, and big business. I’ve come to love Manila for it’s hub of networks and the people that I meet, as well as the great portal that it is for other excellent destinations like Taal Lake Volcano in the south, and the Cordilleras mountain region in the north, with beautiful Sagada and its hanging coffins, and Banaue and its 2,000 year old rice terraces.

Janet is a Filipino-American born in Cebu, raised in the states and back in the motherland for over a year. Currently, she lives in South Manila where she experiments in lifestyle design and building her own design business while living frugally like a local. She blogs at Purple Panda and tweets @JanetBrent.

This is my entry to PTB’s (Pinoy Travel Bloggers) blog carnival hosted by Angel Juarez of Lakwatsero with the topic: “Manila In Focus”

29 Comments Manila Revealed: Testimonials on Why the World’s Most Misunderstood City Rocks

  1. lifeisacelebration

    love it. Manila truly rocks! And we dare them to live it AND love it! This is good. Enjoyed reading this, Graciel.

    Reply
  2. Bjorn Karlman

    Great work Grace!! You certainly pulled together a passionate bunch of Manila enthusiasts. Thank you for including me! I thrive on the kind of chaotic beauty that Manila offers in spades. It is hands down, one of my top 5 cities worldwide. Janet, Mark, Raymond and Rafe – excellent reflections. It was nostalgic to read your thoughts…

    Reply
  3. Traveling Ted

    I spent quite a bit of time in Manila, and it is funny because most of the time was in between trips to elsewhere as Manila is the travel hub of the Philippines. Looking back on my experience in the Philippines, some of my best times were in Manila in between trips to the Rice Terraces and Cebu City.

    Reply
    1. Grace

      I think it is important that we get the side of the story from people who have actually been to Manila or lived there. Some time people listen to other people with no credibility at all.

      Reply

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