Text by David Trauts
First impressions don’t mean a lot.
It was the night before New Year’s Eve 2014 when I arrived at Manila airport from Jakarta, and discovering my ATM card wasn’t working properly when I got off the plane, I was a little worried. I didn’t have any local currency, and paying the taxi driver to get me to the hotel was going to be the first hurdle.
Mandarin Oriental Hotel [MO] had told me when I booked the room that they could provide a driver to pick me up, at a price, but I thought it would be more fun, and a little more adventurous, to do it on my own.
Both ATM machines in the airport terminal were beaten up and kept spitting out my card, saying my account didn’t exist. The Manila airport terminal is not what one would call state-of-the-art and the ATM machines fitted well. I walked towards the road outside and a taxi pulled up. The driver gestured me in. I jumped in the back and we began to cruise looking for ATM machines on the way to the centre of town. He mentioned something about the meter but I wasn’t listening. I was trying to sort out the internet roaming package on my phone to get in contact with my friend Ed who had arrived a few hours earlier, but that too was sending me around in circles. It was approximately 8pm on a Friday evening and the road was packed with cars. It’s not a pretty drive into the city from the airport. The road is lined with dusty old buildings, homes to some dodgy karaoke bars, used car lots and other assorted half-way houses. There was a definite south-of-the-border feeling to the place. There were also banks and we tried more ATM machines, but the same thing was happening and couldn’t get any cash. I gave up and we went directly to the hotel. I had a visa card on me anyway and Edward was waiting with cash in hand when we pulled up at MO. I asked the taxi driver how much and he replied 1500 Pesos. I did a quick calculation in my head and thought, that sounds like a rip-off. A discussion set forth and we wound up agreeing on 500 Pesos. My first impressions of Manila were not fancy.
Manila is the sprawling capital of the Philippines with approximately 12 million inhabitants. It is made up of 16 different cities that make up what they call Metro Manila. It has had a checkered and romantic past with colonization from the Spanish, English and Americans and the scene of some very nasty battles over the years. Manila was coined the Pearl of the Orient for its strategic location for Pacific traders and was mostly destroyed during World War Two. Most of it has been rebuilt since into either a modern metropolis or squalid ghetto. One of the modern parts, and one of the 16 cities that make up Metro Manila, is Makati.Mandarin Oriental Hotel sits on Makati Avenue which is a main thoroughfare through the middle of Makati. Makati is the central business and shopping hub of Manila with wide avenues, garden parks, malls and most of the finer hotels in town, and it was my base over the next four nights. Edsa Road is another main thoroughfare of Makati and was the place where millions of Filipinos protested and overthrew the Marcos regime in 1986. I had never thought of going to Manila. For some reason it had never crossed my mind. But since my friend Ed was going to visit over New Year’s Eve and I had nothing else in particular to do, the idea had become more intriguing. I was surprised after deciding to go at how many people I knew had been there before and had different stories to tell, and mostly positive.Click to view slideshow.
New Year’s Eve arrived and at last I had fixed my ATM card. We were in the company of a friend of a friend from Jakarta; Antonio, a nightlife lord of the highest order; Manila born, of French/Italian decent and basically a Californian man of forty plus years. We met in the MO lounge bar and headed to Fort Bonifacio, or as it’s better known, The Fort Strip in Global City, which is just a short trip along a new flyover road, just out of Makati. This is a new residential and business district rezoned from Filipino army land in 1995 and is now one of the more trendy and hipper parts of town. We met in a small club called Imperial for the countdown, and then moved onto Prive next door for most of the rest of the night. The clientele was a cool set of urbanites and the house music mixed sometimes with banging EDM kept the night moving along nicely. We wound up in a club back in Makati called Time, which was for the more hardcore night people. It was a fun NYE of smashing bottles and anything else that came to hand. Not too much different to Jakarta, but by no means the same. Other clubs to try in Manila are Republic and Palladium. Jakarta and Manila have their similarities, but the main difference I noticed, is that there is more street life in Manila than the Indonesian capital. People walk. The climate is a little more agreeable this time of year with average midday temperatures around 30 degrees. It can get up to 35 degrees during the hotter months. A similarity between the two cities is that people are very friendly and ready to help out a lost tourist, which I was most of the time. English is spoken well by just about everyone in Manila stemming from American influences over the past century. Even the beggars on the street speak perfect English.
A lot of people write off Filipino cuisine as bland, but I found it interesting, just like the culture itself, with the Asian, Spanish, and North American influences. One particular restaurant in Serendra in Global City called Abe was doing local cuisine as well as anyone and was packed every time we passed. The concierge at MO had recommended it and he wasn’t mistaken. With indoor and outdoor dining it is the kind of place you may have to wait for a table as the mostly local clientele get their fix of the local cuisine. Everything we tried was fresh and delicious, but don’t expect to find any chili, it appears Filipinos don’t use it in anything. The locals appear to love large serves of meat, which maybe comes from their South American heritage. Pork, beef, chicken, and especially the famed Crispy Pata, deep-fried leg of pork, or the Lechón, roasted pork or the pork belly. These dishes are available just about everywhere and the strip of restaurants on Serendra offers a number of quality restaurants to try. Something else that really impressed me in Manila was the choice of quality wines at reasonable prices at every restaurant. Something that one doesn’t take for granted in a place like Bali. There are many high-end restaurants serving creative international cuisine around Makati too. Mesetto, Sala, Stockton Place came very well recommended, and also back in Global City, Aubergine, Wildflour and Vask were heading the list.
Intramuros is a must visit tourist location in Manila. It’s the original Spanish settlement surrounded by the old town walls from early colonial days. ‘Intramuros’ comes from old Spanish meaning ‘between walls’. Full of history, but still alive and bustling today with government offices, restaurants and historical sites, it’s a fascinating day trip and make sure you stop for lunch around the San Agustine church area. Another interesting visit is the Ayala Museum at the Greenbelt Mall in Makati. If there are any questions in your mind of the history of the Philippines this is the place to put them to rest. The history of the Philippines comes to life in an exhibition depicting each and every poignant moment in the republic’s history.
And in the End
Manila was a surprise package. I must admit I do like big, sprawling cities and this one had a lot to offer. The shopping was good at the Greenbelt area of Makati. The wild side entertainment of the Burgos Street bars, also in Makati, can be fun. The dining and clubbing of The Fort Strip in Global City offers the most up-market nightlife scene, there are casinos, and generally the people of Manila are fun, straight forward and basically out for a good time. Indeed, just like we were. While my first impressions weren’t great, Manila turned out to be an interesting destination, well worth a look around and a longer stay. As the American General Douglas MacArthur said, I shall return.