December 10, 2011

The OUTSIDER’s guide to Manila…or at least how we see it

We have now been here in the Manila for a while and we thought it would be fun to share some hints and tips that we have learned about traveling in the Philippines. Some of these lessons were learned the hard way, so hopefully this post will save you from some of the same experiences.

·         General
o   Always have toilet paper, wipes, and hand sanitizer with you. Bathrooms are not usually clean. Sometimes they are so if you see a clean bathroom, use it! You never know when you will see the next one. Having soap, toilet paper and paper towels are a luxury not the norm.
o   There are plenty of things to see within a day trip from Manila. It is always nice to get out of the city and see the beautiful countryside of the Philippines. (See our link: Day Trips)
o   The best place to get your car cleaned is in the Mall parking lot while you shop. Almost all major malls have a group that will do that for you.
o   If you are flying out of Manila. Make sure you know which terminal you are going to. They are in different parts of the airport and you CANNOT walk between them. Be specific with the driver dropping you off because otherwise you will end up at the wrong place and have to take another taxi (Very FRUSTRATING experience)

·         Getting around Manila:
o   There are several ways to get around Manila itself. Jeepneys, tricycles, buses, the train, or taxis. Many of these are overcrowded and generally not recommended for foreigners that are not familiar with the area and people. If you do take them, be alert; know where your valuables are.
o   When crossing the street, just hold your hand up and start walking. There are no crosswalks and people will normally stop for you. Very scary experience at first, but it works
o   Taking a taxi is the easiest, especially if you cannot speak the language. You can see the price. Make sure they start the meter when you get in. If they don’t, then get out. There are plenty more taxi’s behind you. Often they will try things like stopping at a petrol station to fuel up on your way. The first time this happened we were confused. Then we realized the time runs while there. You can either get out then, or just figure the ten pesos and time is not worth the hassle of finding another taxi.
o   It helps to have a general idea where you are going maps are a good thing to have handy, even if it is a just a printed copy of a MapQuest. That way you can object if they start taking the “short cut” that usually costs more in the end. Keep in mind that times and street names are relative so stop and ask if you think you are lost.
o   Have your address written down in English and Tagalog. Include major landmarks the driver will know. The first time we went to the mall in a taxi was great, then when we wanted to return home, I had no idea how to get there! YIKES! They don’t do addresses like we do in the States, they use landmarks. For example: “We live between the __________ and ______. Next to ______________”
o   Knowing some simple Tagalog phrases can help:
      •   Pupunta ako sa _____________ =“I am going to __________________”
      •   Salamat po_________________= “Thank you____________________”
·         Driving yourself
o   Several foreign families have their own driver. It is easier and hassle free.
o   We chose not to have a driver and generally have no problems. That being said, there is an art to driving here, especially in Manila—there are people everywhere! Most days it is complete chaos!
o   Don’t worry about figuring out the rules—there are none. Just worry about the cars around you and work with them, it is much like a jig saw puzzle. Go with the flow.
o   ALWAYS expect the car to cut in front of you. Busses and motorcycles are the worst. They do not look, slow down, or use signals before they come over so it is best to just expect it. They will also drive against traffic and turn right from the fourth lane over.
o   Use your horn. It can be a handy tool to let people know you are there, you want to turn, that you are coming, etc.
o   Be alert. Either on foot or vehicle, they will pull out into the road and THEN LOOK. Not the other way around. Make sure you always know what is around you in case you have to dodge hitting someone.
o   Policeman will pull you over and want you to bribe them not to give you a ticket. Do not give your license to them because they will not give it back until you do pay them. So be careful there.
o   Street beggars will come knock on your windows and doors for money or to sell something. Make sure your doors are locked and windows up. It is hard to see, completely sad how they exploit children and elderly, but realize most of the money they collect does not go to those they exploit. There are plenty of charities around the country that are doing wholesome help for the poor, your money is better used if donated to them.


  • ·         Take bottled water with you or order bottled water when you drink. If it is a higher end restaurant the water is usually ok, but if you are unsure it is better to be safe
  • ·         Street food is usually not a good idea. Unless of course you have an iron stomach.
  • ·         Most Filipino dishes are fried, have mayonnaise, some kind of fish sauce, or lots of sugar. If you do not like any of those things make sure to ask before you order it. We were shocked the first time we had pasta here because there was so much sugar in it. Fresh fruit smoothies and shakes will also have straight sugar water added.
  • ·         When eating a Halo-Halo (a popular desert here) make sure to mix it. The first time we tried it, we did not like it because we ate it layer by layer. To get the full effect you have to mix it all together.
·         Eating out
o   Manila is a diverse city so you can usually find a good restaurant or two. Here are some of our favorites
§  Indian Food: Kashmir on Padre Faura street, Ermita. The outside does not look like much but inside it is a fun ethnically decorated place with delicious dishes!
§  Thai Food: Peoples Palace has somewhat westernized Thai food. Located in Greenbelt Malls, Makati. We love this place! Make sure to try the sticky mango coconut rice.
§  Pizza: Yellow Cab Pizza and Shakeys Pizza seem to have the best “American styled pizza. There are located all over the city
§   Cheesesteak shop: Makati, Authentic Philly cheesesteaks with imported bread and meat.
§  Italian food: Italianis  in most major malls. The pasta does not have sugar in it and tastes most like we would expect.
§  Greek food: There is good restaurant on the second level of Robinsons Mall Ermita. Really great for fresh vegetable salads.
§  Lunch/breakfast: Apt 1B Great burgers, smoothies, salads and sandwiches Salcedo Village, Makati
§  Japanese food: There are a few really great Japanese restaurants in the Ermita area
§  Chelseas: Serendra, Fort Bonafacio. Upscale home-style food. Great burgers, sandwiches and salads. Make sure to try their Cantaloupe coconut smoothy
§  Korean BBQ: ask around, some of the best are ‘hole-in-the-wall places’
§  They also have TGI Fridays, Chilis, Tony Romas, Wendys, McDonalds, KFC and other American brands at all major malls.
You can find just about anything you need in Manila. (Or a substitute version of it) You just have to be willing to go look. The game becomes convenience over necessity. (Click on the Shopping link to see all of our stories about shopping). 

·         General
o   There are sometimes MORE employees in a store than shoppers. They want to be helpful, especially if you look foreign so they will all come talk to you or wave you over to their stores. It can be exhausting and a bit claustrophobic at times.
o   Don’t pick up, point or ask a price unless you are prepared to either bargain or fight off the vendor who will clamor to sell it to you.
o   Be prepared to be patted down when you enter any mall by the guard.

·                      Malls
o   Mall of Asia
§  It is big and has quite a bit to see. The theaters are clean (although you can read one of our experiences with a  mouse on a previous post)
§  Several stores to choose from
§  An ice skating rink
§  They do fireworks on the bay every Friday and Saturday 7pm unless it rains
§  A few restaurants we like. Most are local favorites
§  Always big crowds
o   Robinsons Mall Ermita
§  Big and clean, more stores that are not high end. Less crowds and we have found it has a better variety of restaurants than Mall of Asia.
o   Makati Malls
§  Greenbelt and Glorietta malls are right next to each other
§  Both malls are high end and mid-level shopping and always clean and beautiful
§  Rustans and Landmark mall are across the street and are both basically a large department stores like Macys or Nordstrom.
§  Makati malls are most similar to what we see in the States
§  Plenty of great restaurants, bars and movie theaters to choose from in this area
§  The drawback is traffic getting to and from
o   Fort Bonifacio
§  Market-Market, High Street, and Serendra, much like in Makati, are all strung together.
§  Stores are mostly catering to the wealthy. Plenty of sit down restaurants. A great place to get away from the chaos of Manila and feel like you are in the States for a few minutes
oRestort World, across the road from the Airport. A big spacious mall/casino. Very clean, not many people. There are several restaurants to choose from. The theater is more expensive but the cleanest of all the other malls. (And the bathrooms have soap, toilet paper AND paper towels)
o  Greenhills
§  Completely chaotic. It is much like an indoor flee market attached to a mall; A great place to buy bags, pearls, handicrafts, clothes, etc. Just be prepared though it is an intense experience. Bargain. They will raise the price because they think you are rich. If they will not lower the price, leave. They will lower then or you will find another booth that will.
§  Again know a few Tagalog phrases are good here
·         Magkano? = how much is this?
·         Sobrang Mahal = too expensive
·         Tingnan lang = just looking 

·         Outdoor shopping (again, see blog links to the side for our experiences at these places)
o   Taft street and Baclaran
§  For a fun walk and to see all the street vendors that sell everything from shoes to clothes to household items, take a walk around Baclaran. Be aware of your valuables (don’t take any more than necessary). Things are cheap, feel free to bargain, they will raise the price, up to 100% over what they charge a local.
o   Cartimar Market
§  Located in the Pasay/Ermita area, Cartimar sells shoes, clothes, animals (of all kinds), and plants. Another place to just go explore
o   There are two farmer’s markets in Makati on the weekends. One on Saturday morning
in Salcedo Village, and one on Sunday morning. They are really similar to markets in the States.
o   Divisoria
§  North of Chinatown in Manila. Divisoria is a collection of malls and outdoor shopping. Completely crazy, but cheap. You can find anything here that you need, from furniture and cloth to flowers, jewelry and food. Truly a great experience, even if you only go once.
§  Take a taxi in and out just to make sure your car is safe
§  Again, be prepared to bargain. They will raise the price. Or buy things that have prices listed
§  BE Aware of your surroundings. Most people are friendly are wonderful, but make sure you are aware of your surroundings.
§  Most people take a local with them; we went by ourselves and were fine. 

·         Grocery Shopping
o   S&R
§  A membership club, much like Costco or Sam’s in the States. You can get American soap, detergent, candy, milk, foods, Melona bars, Breyers ice cream, salsa, ranch,  oreos, real orange juice (that is not LOADED with sugar), and we have found they have the best meat selection. It is expensive but some things are worth it.
o   Hypermarket
§  A big supermarket brand name here. Kind of like a small Wal-mart or Target. This is where we do most of our shopping. They have a large international section and we can find either what we need or a close substitute. Their fruits vegetables are usually good.
o   Rustan’s
§  A higher end grocery store. More expensive, but they have specialty things other stores do not have. Like Mochi ice cream, rice milk, refried beans etc.
o   Santi’s deli
§  A chain of deli’s that sell fresh deli meats. Something that is hard to find anywhere else
o   Robinson’s Supermarket
§  Located in the Mall in Ermita. A less hectic and cleaner version of Hypermarket but not as expensive as Rustan’s. Vegetable and fruit section quite a bit larger here.


  1. Oddly enough, I was thinking of writing one of these too (not much advise-like, more like my Manila favorites, so not exactly the same).

    Isn't it funny how we think we're experts after a few months?

    (By the way, you might want to fix the "Bonifacio" above -- I think each time you spelled it differently?)

    There's also a market at the Fort Bonifacio on weekends, including a food market at night (starting at 10pm, I believe?)

  2. Thank you! We're moving to Manila in February and this was a very helpful post. I'll have to read it again once we're there.

  3. Send this list into CLO! Its a great 1st hand survival guide to Manila!


  4. What a fun post. It is indeed chaotic specially for first timers but you do stop minding it after a while. The pastas are not loaded with sugar though. We usually put "banana ketchup" on it that causes it to be sweet. If you haven't tried the banana ketchup, try it. You'll notice that it is sweeter than the normal tomato ketchup. ^_^

  5. I grew up in the Philippines for 18 years but left for BYU Hawaii in 2000, came back just for 2 weeks in 2002 and stayed here in US the rest of my adult life. But our working visa here in US is done and will be coming home in March 2013 with 3 kids. reading this made me scared and excited at the same time. things that you wrote are normal that I grew up with but its been a while and I may adapt back easily but just scared for my kids. Im glad that you guys are having a good time inspire of some not so good things. Oh by the way, saw your blog from Carl and JV Canlas, we're friends of theirs here in Utah.