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?
Now I really want to go to Manila. Great introduction, Alex. Love the pics.
Thanks! When I tell you about the hostel I stayed in your might want to go even more. Hint: there was a pool! 🙂
WDHOF has a dive trip planned to Atlantis Resort in Dumaguete in June, and we arrive in Manila and will have a day to explore… looking forward to it! Thanks for your insight and photos. Sorry about your “misadventures” and having to return home so quickly…
Oh, that sounds like it will be an amazing trip! Actually, it was a tough decision but I did not return home when my grandmother died. I was very lucky to see her in December right before I left on this trip and that meant more. This is definitely one of the hardest things about traveling, I’m afraid.
Pretty!! SO not what I had pictured in my head when “Manila” came to mind!
Believe me… there is a lot of what you pictured 🙂 But there is also this beautiful side! It’s very nice!
We had heard so many horror stories about Manila that when we booked our leg of our trip to the Philippines, we immediately booked an onward flight to another island so we wouldn’t have to stay there! We ended up only having 24 hours there on our final day in the country, and spent the bulk of it at the Mall of Asia… by that point we were well used to Filipino cities, and despite all the word of caution that we received from literally every person we met (Filipinos included) we quite liked what we saw of the city. We didn’t get to see any of the historic sites while there, so the next time we head back to the Philippines, we’ll definitely have to plan on more than 1 day to check some of them out.
I am actually looking forward to returning to Manila as well. Not just to stay at one of my favorite hostels (see review in my latest post!) but also to take the Carlos Cedran tour that I linked to in this post. Check it out…. it is supposedly fantastic!
Not how I pictured Manila at all! Looks pretty chill. I’m looking forward to hearing about the hostel! I laughed so hard at “unsupervised chickens”. I had those at home in Vancouver’s Chinatown, and now a backyard full of them here on Roatan 🙂
I have this favorite memory of my sister coming to visit me in the Cayman Islands and us walking down the street and her just shrieking, “WHO DO ALL THESE CHICKENS BELONG TO?!” 🙂
BEAUTIFUL shots, as always! Makes me want to go, like, tomorrow.
Aw, thanks Laryssa! I was a bit overwhelmed by Manila, as I think I conveyed here… so just focusing on seeing it through a camera lens was actually quite nice 🙂
I love hearing about places which aren’t on the traditional backpacking list so am looking forward to reading more about the Philippines, loved the photos!
Thanks Sally! I knew the Philippines was off the backpacker trail but I was still surprised by how few fellow vagabonds I encountered! I’m definitely looking forward to sharing what I learned… some were hard-earned lessons!
No way! When I arrived in Manila and went to pay my taxi driver I did the exact same thing. I feel for you so badly! I pretty much booked a flight out of Manila the day I arrived due to my experience, but I’m glad you were able to venture out 🙂
I was SO gutted by the situation, but I was shocked by how many people recounted the exact same experience in different locations around the world! While I felt a tad guilty about finding pleasure in others’ pain…. it did make me feel a bit better 🙂
I always thought that Manila was just a massive, densily populated and dirty city, but looking at your photos it does actually look really charming! I love it when I read about destinations on your blog that I never really considered traveling to before, and then badly wanting to go. Thanks! 🙂
Well honestly, Manila is a massive, densely populated and dirty city 🙂 But there are also charming bits, and I really enjoyed exploring them!
You did a great job with this post. I enjoyed reading it and I’m really glad I stumbled upon it. I was once in Manila too but it was for a short stay due to a business trip. Reading this makes me wish I had stay longer to savour it. I also wrote a post about Manila. Here it is: https://tripandtravelblog.com/what-to-see-in-manila-philippines/ I know it’s not nearly as good but I tried. I’m just so fascinated by Manila!
Greetings from Athens!
Hi Endri, welcome to Alex in Wanderland! Glad you stumbled upon me here… hope you’ll stick around!
Manila can be super intense! I absolutely think Manila has the worst airport in the world and I believe it was voted as the worst for the longest time. Manila is nice, but very touristy which a large city, the food is great there with tons of different cultures. Manila is a pretty dirty city, but areas like Cebu, Borocay, Palawan and Camiguin Island makes up for it with their gorgeous beaches. The Philippines was a real eye opener the first time I arrived, much different than what I pictured but there are their upsides and downsides to traveling there.
Agreed, it’s a really interesting and diverse country with so much to offer travelers. I can’t wait to go back someday!