A survey run by a small travel website is currently claiming that Manila is the worst place to visit for backpackers in South East Asia. The poll, to which I won’t link here but that is being widely shared on social media right now, lists a number of cities and the reasons why backpackers apparently don’t like them. Atop the list, with a mighty 17 (!) votes sits Metro Manila. I, a foreigner who has made Manila home, call shenanigans on this survey and here is why.
The result of a survey by some backpacker site says Manila is bad. Very bad.
Manila isn’t immediately beautiful. It won’t dazzle you with fancy light shows like Hong Kong, or pretend to be a hyper clean utopia like Singapore, so I’m not even going to try and defend comments that accuse it of being overcrowded or suffering from deficient infrastructure. Everyone knows that and everyone hopes it will change one day, trust me.
No, this city isn’t simple enough to just throw some Petronas Towers or a Royal Palace at you, so that you’re busy taking selfies for Facebook and hopefully won’t notice the less than shiny areas that all SE Asian cities have. Manila is much more complex than that and requires some more effort to be understood and appreciated fully.
Manila is honest. It doesn’t try to hide its problems and punches you in the face with its hot, humid, and concrete filled reality the moment you leave the airport. Enjoy your first glimpse of one of the many informal settlements as you get stuck in traffic on the way into the city, or appreciate the rapidly growing skyline while your driver dodges speeding buses and smoke belching Jeepneys on EDSA, the perma-congested ring road that makes the M25 in London or the I10 in downtown LA look positively harmless. Rainy Payday Fridays evenings on EDSA are a sight you won’t forget in a hurry–and one that won’t be going anywhere in a hurry, either.
Don’t be scared by first impressions: Manila is actually quite pretty–in its own way.
Marvel at the fact that Metro Manila has no subway system (yet) and that everyone loves their cars so much, they use them to go everywhere–even if it means standing in traffic for hours. Heck, I’m literally writing this whole article while sitting in the back of a Grab car, trying to escape Makati after work. So far, traffic is against us and the word count of this piece will now entirely depend on how many cars decide to take Makati avenue tonight, as I live in Mandaluyong, one of the places a participant in the survey said he was grabbed while walking down the street. The only thing that is grabbing us right now is gridlock.
No, you don’t come here for the beauty of the place. Apart from Intramuros, the old Spanish area of Manila that is actually very picturesque, there really isn’t much to look at unless you enjoy marveling at ever more ridiculously named and often overpriced condominium towers. That’s not because Filipinos aren’t into building pretty churches or landmarks, but mainly due to the place having been leveled during the last world war. Not much was left standing in the city that was often referred to as the Paris of the East before the ravages of war turned it to dust. If you want true and proper beauty, you head outside of Manila, to one of the over 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines and that will take your breath away with their stunning tropical scenery.
Manila feels small once you get to know it.
What makes Manila so great and unique are the people who live here, all 12 to 20 million (depending on who you ask) of them. This city will probably scare you when you first arrive here. It sure frightened me. It’s loud, in your face, boiling hot, humid and dusty. But once you wipe the sweat out of your eyes and wait for the smoke to clear, you will notice an awful lot of smiles. People like to smile here, even if they very often seem to have little to smile about in the face of things. Once you get to look under the grey facade, you will notice that the people of Metro Manila, or indeed of the whole Philippines, are what makes this place so beautiful, so welcoming, so humbling, and so magical.
Don’t get me wrong: Manila is far away from being perfect, but to damage the reputation of the place even further, especially during times when it has already suffered plenty of negative publicity due to political and other actions in recent months, isn’t quite fair and will, as always, only affect the weakest inhabitants of this metropolis the most. I have learned to love this city and so have many other people I know here, locals and foreigners alike, many of whom could live anywhere in the world but always end up back here. I myself have just moved back to the Big M after some time in Europe. Manila draws you in with a unique mixture of things that is hard to put into words.
The only ways to escape traffic on EDSA: a bike or a helicopter
Be here one day and you will probably hate it. Be here a month or a year and you will most likely fall in love with it. It’s heaven for shopaholics with many of the biggest malls in the world being located here, a dream for foodies, a great place if you’re into live music and the arts, and paradise if you like going out to bars and clubs. It now rivals Macau and Las Vegas with its glitzy casinos in Entertainment City, and getting around has never been safer or more convenient thanks to the government officially allowing ride hailing apps such as Uber or Grab to operate here.
So why did some people report it as the worst city they have ever dragged their backpacks through? While the full and true reasons are probably hard to determine, a lot of it probably has to do with being prepared for the journey and places ahead. Manila is a place where it helps greatly to have good situational awareness, especially when things get crowded, and just like many other major cities, there is quite a bit of petty crime you can easily fall victim to if you’re not careful. Act stupid and stupid things will happen. This rule holds true here as much as it does anywhere else.
This article was written while stuck in traffic.
Maybe the travelers in question were millennial begpackers who these days seem to count any trip that leads them further than two miles away from the nearest Starbucks as having truly experienced local culture. Maybe they were experienced and responsible people who simply had bad luck. Any city can be good or bad. I have had more issues in London than in Manila, and I’ve never actually lived in the British capital.
The same goes for the local airport by the way, which has been called the worst in the world more than once in the past (again by some minor travel site that obviously appreciated the publicity). I’ve travelled through all terminals at NAIA repeatedly and have never encountered any issues. In fact, on one occasion the city was at the receiving end of a typhoon and the passenger areas of the airport suffered a major power cut, leaving everyone standing in the dark. What would no doubt have caused major panic stations at any European airport barely raised an eyebrow with ground handling staff here. Out came the flashlights, on went the passengers, and off we took almost on time.
You’ll often witness that here: the famous Filipino Resilience. The ability to make the best out of any situation, no matter how much the odds are stacked against you. In a country where a ruling elite constantly works to maintain their status quo, where most politicians are about as interested in actually helping the people that got them elected as a lion is in eating a vegan diet, and where progress is definitely visible but often feels fragile and vulnerable to whatever mood the political leaders are in right now, being able to cope with life’s adversities is not a nice-to-have attribute. It is an essential must-have skill.
So no, Manila is not the worst place in South East Asia. It sure isn’t the best, the most modern, or the cleanest, but what you see is what you get here. Embrace it, learn to read and understand it, and you will find it to be a fascinating city that needs you to play by its rules but in return rewards you with ever new experiences on every corner.
Manila is that friend your parents warned you about but you went on a date with anyway. How that date ends is entirely up to you.