The Philippines – It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad Manila

The Philippines – It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad Manila

Ask your average visitor to the Philippines – heck, ask your average Filipino native – what their favourite place in the Philippines is and Manila sure wouldn’t feature very high on the list. The capital of the Philippines has a reputation for being a huge, traffic-choked, baking hot metropolis that is a place to arrive in and depart from as quickly as possible.

It’s true that, at first glance, it just seems to be a huge city with soaring gleaming skyscrapers and glitzy shopping malls filling some of the neighbourhoods (such as Makati and Fort Banifacio) and grinding shanty-town poverty lining the streets of others, with no real standout sights or genuine cultural fascination to speak of.

OK so there’s no rice terraces or tarsiers here, but if you do persevere there are a few things worth checking out. The Intramunos region has the biggest concentration of sights, such as the old Spanish Fort and Manila Cathedral. The real gem is arguably the American Military Cemetery in the Fort Banifacio area, which is a military cemetery reminiscent of those found in Ypres and the Somme in Europe, and a calming place for quiet reflection amid the urban hubbub of this buzzing metropolis.


So there is stuff to see in Manila for those who make a point of seeking it out. But ultimately, Manila is more about how it operates than what there is to see. And it’s a batsh*t crazy sort of place. To give you some idea of Manila’s sense of discombobulated wackiness, here’s a story to illustrate my point.

A power outage at Manila Airport’s Terminal 3 happened one night I happened to be in the city, meaning that the terminal went in to complete shutdown. Yes, that’s right, a major international airport in what isn’t a ‘third world country’ by any stretch of the imagination doesn’t have a backup power generator.

Chaos subsequently ensued, and it had an impact on the group I was spending a pleasant evening with in at a place called Strumms, as one girl (Maria) was flying out of Manila just as another (Merlina…I just noticed how similar her name is to that of the Philippine capital) was due to land on the night the power was cut.


Maria’s travel plans were in genuine jeopardy: her 4:40am flight to Palawan was in very real danger of being cancelled. So those of us who piled in to Nolan’s – the main man who coordinated the get together – vehicle tried to offer her moral support enroute to the airport…

Another member of our group, Brian, had skipped the Strumms entertainment in order to meet Merlina at the airport, and we collected him near his hotel where he explained that the situation at the airport was so chaotic that there were queues of people stretching out of the building and he couldn’t find Merlina anywhere. He decided that calling on man with the local knowledge Nolan was the best option.

When we arrived at the airport it was getting on for 2am. The roads were full to bursting and the front of the building was exactly as Brian had described.

We dropped Maria off so that was stage one accomplished (and we learnt later that she made it to Palawan), but what of the stranded Merlina? Brian went out on the hunt again, but he disappeared in to the throng. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and Nolan stepped in to the fray…assisted by some ingenuity from Merlina.


Among the crazy busy crowds, she managed to find a policeman and borrowed his phone to call Nolan. He was able to track her down; he asked the policeman if he had seen a guy with ‘short shorts, who is balding and wears glasses’. Apparently, this description was sufficient for the policeman to spot the distinctive Brian straight away who was, in the words of Nolan, ‘running around like a headless chicken’.

So all was well that ended well, in the end, but in many ways this felt like a not altogether atypical Manila experience. There was infuriating traffic, crazy shenanigans that had to be resolved via unorthodox methods, and a general sense of things just being all over the place and disorganised…yet we all pulled through and, deep down, you just wouldn’t have it any other way!


  • shayan Naveed

    May 18, 2016 at 5:47 am Reply

    Sounds like an adventure on its own. It’s stories like this that makes a city. True every major city is crazy and mad like this with not much to see or do, but take Bangkok for example. It’s a hub as is Manila and one must experience it at least once when traveling to a new country, I say.

    You can’t avoid it.

    • Joe

      May 18, 2016 at 10:02 am Reply

      Completely agree that, try as you might, you just can’t avoid it. And yes, the essence of a capital city is going to be, at least partially, the essence of the country as a whole. Not been to Bangkok so can’t say much about that, but I will say that there are some crazy busy major cities around the world that do actually have much to see and do in them 🙂

  • Patricia - Ze Wandering Frogs

    May 18, 2016 at 7:35 pm Reply

    What a story! That’s the thing with any city, adventure can come from anywhere!

    • Joe

      May 18, 2016 at 9:49 pm Reply

      Indeed, many it’s fair to say that Manila is a place where you can get more of this sort of thing than most places!

  • Michelle Gumangan

    May 23, 2016 at 8:38 am Reply

    Believe it or not, I am a Filipino and was raised most of my life in the city. While I don’t live in Manila area as I am from Quezon City, I kinda dread going to areas like Manila mainly because of the noise and the crowd and my feeling is like chaos all over. But, that is Manila and it is unique in its own way, positive or negative depending on what parts of the city you are going to. Well, Makati and BGC are obviously the areas and the hang-out nowadays of the elite and those “trying to be” elite. And, going there that frequent doesn’t appeal to my pocket that much. Nevertheless, I do enjoy taking an occasional stroll to enjoy its urban landscape, checking out new stores, or even trying some new watering holes. The other side of the reality of Manila is what you saw, the presence of urban poor and shanties in the conspicuous parts of the city, and they’re all over. Urban and rural poverty is a reality here in the Philippines and one would wonder despite the images of cosmopolitan metropolis, the fringes of the archipelago is still mired in scarcity and that the fruits of “development” hasn’t really trickled yet among my fellowmen in the countryside.

    And I completely agree with you word-for-word that “the essence of a capital city is going to be, at least partially, the essence of the country as a whole”. I can see and feel that here in some weird exact way I don’t know how to describe. But yeah, now I am thinking of my experience in Bangkok and in Saigon way back if I could somehow relate that with what “foreigners” feel in a city in Southeast Asia. But meantime, I can’t exactly compare it with us since Thailand is under constitutional monarchy, Vietnam is socialist and us is a republic. Now, that makes me further wonder… :-S

    Funny how Nolan described Brian as “running around like a headless chicken”. I never imagined conducting himself in that manner. Lol!…and the irony of it all was, despite all the “way ahead planning,” there were things that transpired beyond everybody’s control…but, kudos to Nolan and the rest of you who emerged organized despite the disorganized circumstances.

    • Joe

      May 23, 2016 at 6:39 pm Reply

      Hi Michelle! Thanks for stopping by 🙂 Yeah Manila is certainly a city of contrasts, with a dichotomy between the haves and have nots among the widest I have ever seen. The point you make about how development hasn’t spread to the countryside is certainly a valid one, and is certainly something I’ve noticed in a few countries across Asia and Africa. Heck, it even extends to the UK, with London increasingly seen as the place where all the best opportunities are.

      Brian might seem laid back and placid, but everyone has their pressure points I suppose. Nolan certainly likes things to be in order, so when we had moments they weren’t, you could tell he wasn’t happy 😉

  • Taylor

    May 25, 2016 at 12:32 pm Reply

    Let’s hope that this doesn’t happen when I’m in Manila later this year! I’ll be there for TBEX so hopefully they are some fun things planned at cool spots in the city!

    • Joe

      May 25, 2016 at 2:00 pm Reply

      Hahaha, I’d like to think the chances are remote! The locals I was with said that it was the first time it had happened as far back as they can remember. Have fun at TBEX, I’ve heard great things about it! I’m sure you’ll be taken to some of the more exciting spots in the city, most of which are in Makati 🙂

  • Kevin Wagar

    May 26, 2016 at 4:16 pm Reply

    Thanks for showing the brighter side of Manila! My wife is from there and we are working on arranging a visit, so it’s great to see something other than the traffic and crowds 🙂

    • Joe

      May 26, 2016 at 6:57 pm Reply

      If you wife hails from there I’m sure she will be able to show you some of the positive things it has to offer that the average visitor never sees 🙂 Because, yeah, traffic and crowds are certainly the overwhelming first impression!

  • Ashley

    June 15, 2016 at 2:55 am Reply

    Great photos! I have always wanted to go to the Philippines. Hopefully one day.
    Ashley recently posted…Sister CitiesMy Profile

    • Joe

      June 15, 2016 at 5:49 am Reply

      Thank you, and I can definitely recommend it 🙂

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