I had big plans for Manila. I wanted to take the infamous Carlos Celdran tour of the historic Intramuros area, enjoy the nightlife of glittering downtown Makati, and take a trek out to the shoe museum featuring footwear of the fascinating Imelda Marcos.
Unfortunately, I arrived in the country to heartbreaking news, followed immediately by the stupidest travel mistake. Basically, in my flustered state — I had landed to a text message from my Dad telling me to call home immediately, and I knew what that meant — I confused the new currency in my hands, misplaced a decimal place, and paid a taxi driver ten times what I owed. So between the financial blow and the much more significant emotional one, I admit that I spent much of my short three days in Manila nursing my bruised psyche in the comfort of my hostel.
That said, on my final day I forced myself to get out and go for a walk through the most densely populated city in the world.
I was staying in the area of Vito Cruz, which aside from being home to a most fantastic hostel (review coming this week!) didn’t have too much going on. Still, it was a nice authentic taste of the real Manila and was easily connected to the city’s more attraction filled areas by metro.
My first stop off that metro was to the area of Intramuros. This neighborhood serves as an elaborate nod to Manila’s European-influenced past — a former playground of the Spanish elite. Today, it’s arguably the city’s most popular area with tourists. Can you believe that the following photos were taken in Southeast Asia, and not Europe?
There aren’t many traditional sights in Intramuros — at least, not ones that piqued my interest — but I truly enjoyed strolling around the cobblestone streets and looking for charming vignettes to photograph. There was a rather relentless stream of offers for tours, rides, cold water, etc., but myself and my new friend from the hostel held strong and just strolled meandered around on our own.
We did plan to go inside the grand Manila Cathedral, but sadly the interior was closed for renovations. So our final stop in Intramuros was Fort Santiago, which Lonely Planet assured me was Manila’s “premiere tourist attractions.”
While I think the guidebook may have been somewhat misleading in this case, Fort Santiago did give some interesting insight into an important chapter in Manila’s history. It was here that Dr. Jose Rizal, a national hero largely responsible for inspiring the Filipino revolt against the Spanish colonials, was executed in 1896. His final steps, which carried him from the open-air theatre-turned-prison-cell to the fatal firing squad, are memorialized with golden footprints.
Winding out of Intramuros, my walking buddy and I ran into two more familiar faces from our hostel, and we decided to join forces and walk to Chinatown. Though small, this historic enclave has the distinction of being the oldest established Chinatown in the world. The walk brought us along a strange route that passed skyscrapers and slums alike.
Chinatown was, well, Chinatown — similar to the ones I’ve visited in New York, San Fransisco, and Bangkok. There were teahouses, shrines with burning incense, shops crammed with red and gold lanterns, and chaotic traffic jams involved fruit carts, motorbikes, and unsupervised chickens.
At this point we’d been on our feet walking for hours and were covered in alternating layers of sweat and dirt. After stopping for my third ice cream for the day (did I mention it was hot?) we decided to make one last stop on the way back to the hostel, and hopped off the metro at Rizal Park.
This iconic stretch of green is filled with monuments, ice cream vendors, and groups of all ages gathering to gossip, exercise, and enjoy the wide open spaces. My favorite feature was the massive three-dimensional relief map of the Philippines, dotted with signs boasting strange facts about the country. It was here that I learned the world’s largest pearl was found in Palawan, and Luzon is home to the world’s smallest volcano.
One day is certainly not enough to explore a major Southeast Asian metropolis, but I did feel that in my exhaustive walking tour I got a decent feel for the place. Manila is a dichotomy, combining the poverty and shock value of rural Cambodia — half naked children running at you with hands upturned begging, adults bathing and urinating in the streets, etc — with the skyscrapers and traffic of Kuala Lumpur.
I didn’t exactly feel swept away with love for Manila, but I’m sure that it’s a city that I’ll return to again in the future. When I do, I look forward to returning to the hostel I enjoyed so much and also to seeing sides of the city that I missed this time around.
Have you been to Manila? What did you think?