Oct 172012

Note: this post contains an odd collection of pictures, from my phone camera and Flickr – there were some excellent street vendor and other tourist-y shots from two visits that I carefully edited and compiled into one place (the now defunct hard disk of my Toshiba laptop, a model apparently renowned for issues of this nature). Lesson learned – there will be no more Toshibas and there will be more regular backups from this point on. Anyhow – after a month of soul searching I have decided to go ahead with the article anyway with the available images. It is not the article I set out to produce, but it is something I can still take a little pride in.

Manila is great. It is a wonderful city with much to see and do. And parts of it are scary. I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but I would only be giving you half the story otherwise. It is a big, sprawling, gritty, real, alive place. That is part of the charm for me. And it has history.

The obligatory tourist-y shot – Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila

Personal safety is a concern for some Singaporeans when they think about going to Manila. Yes, there are armed guards at Starbucks – and they are nice people, who smile when they open the door for you. The number of firearms on the streets can take a little getting used to. And in all seriousness, there are times and places where personal safety can be an issue – awareness is the best defense.

Mid afternoon break with San Miguel Light, Manila

Cuisine at street level is pretty varied – you can get burgers, hotdogs, and grilled fish balls from the pushcart guys on most city streets – the cleaner more open modern areas like the CBD of Makati and around Mall of Asia seem to discourage them, but get into the real Manila of narrow streets and honking jeepneys and there they are. The brave can try balut – duck eggs with a more or less developed embryo, hard boiled – I’ve tried it, and let us just say that it’s an acquired taste I haven’t quite acquired yet :) The adventurous can try various preparations of offal and bone marrow – some of these are surprisingly good. I haven’t sampled the grilled chicken intestines yet, and perhaps I never will.

Western- style fast food, and a distinctly Filipino equivalent, are very popular. I may have left hipster foodieland forever in saying this, but I had to try the unlimited gravy at KFC for the sheer novelty value. This is apparently not unusual in the US, but a first for me.

Gravy Station, KFC, Pasay City, Manila

If you are a first time visitor to Manila and a little worried about crime at street level, there are a number of air-conditioned malls that are fairly similar to those you might find here in Singapore (but be prepared for a weapons check at the door – segregated by gender – and the aforementioned armed guard at Starbucks). The biggest and brightest of these is Mall of Asia, and it has an amazing array of food choices – for real Filipino food, I can heartily recommend Gerry’s Grill and the unfortunately named KKK. Must try dishes for the carnivores are Crispy Pata (roast pork knuckle), Adobo (usually pork and/or chicken cooked with soy sauce – there are many regional variations) and Sisig (finely chopped pig face – yes face – from what I understand, mostly snout/cheeks/ears).

Sisig, Gerry’s Grill

This was one lunch at KKK – Seafood Rice with salted egg, Squid Adobo, and Mangosteen Coffee – delicious! The squid was one of the nicest I’ve had ever – salty, richly flavoured, and cooked until slightly crunchy not chewy.

If you go across the road from Mall of Asia to the seafood places on Manila Bay, you will be annoyed by an amazing array of ladyboy touts, several at a time, wanting to drag the passerby into this place or that. In my experience, any place using touts is overcharging the customer to pay for said touts, so I avoid them like the plague.

Traffic. Oh, the traffic. It is nuts. You have to try it at least once to believe it. Luckily, taxis are cheap – but there are a few scoundrels out there. A metered cab (who is prepared to actually turn his meter on) seems to be the best bet – provided the guy is prepared to turn the meter off while he gets petrol and chats with his friends for 10 minutes :) The difference between metered cabs and unmetered minibuses is that the latter can cost five times as much (and still pull the “are you sure you paid for this fare at the desk?” scam, seriously).

And it can be very noisy – the jeepneys honk their horns continuously to let customers within a two block radius know that they are there – this runs for most of the day or night, and if you are lucky enough to have a hotel with good acoustics, you may find it hard to sleep (even 19 floors up).

Could I live in Manila? I’ve thought about this. Sticking to the whitebread air conditioned malls is not really me – and getting anywhere around town is a real hassle. That said, the wider Philippines has so much going for it. And I think that it is fair to say that the Filipino people love their food – perhaps not always with the intense and obvious passion shown here in Singapore, but it is very obvious nevertheless. It is my kind of place.

Will I go back? Most assuredly. Apart from personal ties, it is a three hour flight from Singapore, and like other weekend getaway destinations, those flights are cheap if you plan ahead.