Philippines: Nothing Vanilla about Manila

The day was finally here! The last week hadn’t been fun. After finishing my final essay over the weekend, I was literally counting down the minutes until I jetted off to the Philippines for my Christmas holiday. The flight from Hong Kong was ludicrously quick – around 1 hour 50 minutes to Manila. It’s crazy that a part of the world that’s always been so far away is suddenly right on my doorstep. Ninoy Airport in Manila doesn’t have the best reputation – in fact it’s known as one of the worst airports in Asia. I soon saw why.

Passing through immigration was fine and I didn’t even have to wait very long, but once I reached the baggage claim area, so began the most unnecessarily long trip from an airport to my hostel I have ever had. And I’ve had some long ones. The wait for baggage was almost the length of the flight itself. Hordes of people gathered round the carousel and all these bags came past that belonged to nobody. A good hour or so later, people finally began collecting bags though, as per usual, mine was one of the last to come through. What struck me was the good spirited nature of the people. In England, there’d be huffing and swearing and Tory-bashing. Here, everyone was in good spirits, chatting and joking as they waited. I loved the Filipino people already. Almost 2 hours after our plane had landed, I finally had my bag. Now it was time for Ninoy Airport to redeem itself by giving me a smooth and easy taxi ride to my hostel.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. The airport’s public transport system is horrendous. They have a couple of buses but not many and it’s not always clear where they go. There will supposedly be a train station coming but it’s not here yet. So the only real option is a taxi. There are two choices – the yellow metered taxis or the white coupon taxis where you fix a price up-front. As it was close to Christmas, I opted for the white taxi as the traffic was notoriously bad in Manila. Plus I’d been quoted 1200php (over £15) for a yellow taxi. The coupon taxi stand (to the right of arrivals – there’s a big red and yellow sign) has a massive list of destinations in Manila and their price. To Makati, the fare was 440php which wasn’t bad. You tell them where you’re going (they prefer it if you have an exact address) and you have to wait in line until they call your name. Seems simple enough.

I landed at 1.30pm. By 5.30, I still hadn’t left the airport. Never in the history of airports were there so few taxis for so many. There were gaps of 20 minutes to half an hour and a white taxi wouldn’t be in sight. The guys who were supposed to flag them were as good as useless (though were very cheery, it has to be said) and the only reason the queue went down was because a lot of people gave up. I persevered and was glad I did. Around 6pm, I finally left the airport. The driver had some idea of where my hostel was (Our Awesome Hostel) though did try to talk me out of going as the traffic would be bad. Figuring a price had already been set, I asked to go there anyway.

Saying the traffic bad was an understatement. It was rammed. The main road, EDSA, was just gridlocked in every lane and on both sides. Still, we crawled through and finally made it – nearly 6 hours after I had arrived in Manila, I was at my hostel. I gave the driver a tip for his troubles and collapsed on my bed, wondering whether I’d have been better off going back to Warrington for pigs in blankets and endless repeats of Slade. But that evening proved to me exactly why I was right to come here. Wandering over to Global City in the heart of Makati, I planted myself outside a nice Italian restaurant, devoured a pizza and listened to the Christmas carols blaring out through speakers on the street. Combined with a couple of ludicrously cheap San Miguels, I decided that first impressions weren’t everything.

DSC_0308The next day I lay in before heading over to a couple of Manila’s top attractions. I had a night bus to Banaue that evening so decided to go over to Rizal Park and Roxas Boulevard. Whilst waiting half my life for the taxi the day before, I’d noticed the Manila sunset was something special so I wanted to see it over the Bay at Roxas Boulevard. I got the MRT/LRT from Makati over to UN Avenue. Sorry Manila but Hong Kong beats you hands down for the MTR. The beginning of the promenade was horrible – there was tonnes of building work going on and a funny smell in the air. I decided I’d just come back for the sunset and spent the day chilling in Rizal Park across the road which was lovely.

Again, festive hits were blasted out all over the Park. I’m getting the feeling they’re a tad excited for Christmas in the Philippines. I returned to the promenade for sunset. If you walk further down it gets much nicer with a few makeshift bars along the waterfront. I, of course, opted for the cheap version and bought a 32php (around £0.40) bottle of Red Horse beer to drink whilst savouring the sunset. It was definitely worth the wait.

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The contrast between the relaxing sunset and my subsequent commute across the city couldn’t have been bigger. If I’d thought the train was packed before, it was nothing compared to this. We were like sardines in a can, except the can was moving and sardines kept getting on and off. You literally had to crowd surf to get to the train doors. The queues at the stations were absolutely huge. I finally got back to my hostel, collected my bag and arranged a taxi with a lot of difficulty.

It took some time but I finally managed to get one using the Grab Taxi app and, despite some traffic, managed to make it to the Ohayami Bus Terminal in Quezon City with some time to spare. The guy at the hostel clearly didn’t think I’d make it, giving me a worried look and saying, ‘Nobody orders a taxi at this time.’ I paid 450php for the 9 hour overnight journey from Manila to Banaue. Finally I was leaving the congested city. I’d loved the sightseeing parts to Manila but as a city it just makes no sense. I’m dreading going back and having to try and find taxis to get me to various places. If it sorted out its transport network, it could be a half decent city. For now, it’s bye bye to city life and up to the lush green Northern countryside…

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