Notes on Manila

I’m actually headed back to Manila in two weeks for a conference (a consequently crazy work schedule is the main reason my posting frequency has declined), but here are some of my first experiences in the city.


Transportation in Manila was characterized by a lack of information.  The bus from the airport into Manila made several stops, but never announced the names of the stops.  Guided by some tourbook maps of the city (my contribution) and a good sense of direction (not my contribution), we managed to pick the correct one.

Later, we attempted to ride the subway/light-rail system.  The first thing we noticed was a huge line to get into the station – security was checking everyone’s bags.  (This turned out to be fairly common in Manila, as it also happened in shopping malls.)  Once inside, I was again surprised by the lack of information.  You get fairly used to subway stations having maps, so that you can figure out which train you need.  (All we had was the name of the stop we wanted.)  There was only one line, but we still didn’t know which direction we were supposed to head.  There might as well have been a scarecrow pointing in both directions.  We found a security desk and the guard helpfully pointed in only one direction.

We headed for the platform, which was pretty crowded. However, it was nowhere near as crowded as the train that arrived a minute later.  Manila doesn’t hire train pushers like Tokyo to squeeze as many people in as possible, but they might want to consider it.  I did notice that there was a separate boarding area for the elderly and women; when I got in the normal car, I appeared to be the only woman in a car packed with men, all of whom appeared to be staring at me.  At the next stop (again, no announcement – we had to peer out the window to try to catch the sign on the platform), the crowd shifted a bit and I was slightly relieved to discover I was not actually the only female in the car, although I was still getting stared at.

At the second stop, we couldn’t see the station sign.  But since everyone else seemed to be getting off the train, we decided we should too.  We had reached the end of the line, but the station was not the one we wanted.  After a few minutes of feeling confused and disoriented (why aren’t there any maps?), we discovered the next station we wanted was connected via a short walk.   Thankfully the next train was less crowded and we arrived at out destination unscathed, but ultimately decided to take a taxi back to the hotel.  (Cost of the train: 50 Pesos ($1US); Cost of the taxi: 150 Pesos ($3US); Getting home directly and not having to deal with the insanity: priceless.)  I’m glad we tried the trains, but we stuck with taxis for the rest of the trip – they were more convenient, quicker, and cheap.  I think our most expensive ride was $3US, and it was at least 15-20 minutes long.

Sadly, we did not attempt the most popular form of transportation in Manila – the jeepney.  Jeepneys (jeep+jitney) appear to operate like a cross between a bus and a taxi.  They look like elongated aluminum jeeps decorated by someone who just discovered color after living in a black-and-white world. (And who has a fondness for random Americana – ie Micky Mouse and the NY Giants – or religious depictions/quotes.)  They have signs with certain destinations and I think you can flag one down and travel to a destination along its route.  But since our geography of Manila was not all that great, we weren’t sure where we’d wind up if we took one.  I’m hoping some local Fulbrighters at the conference can show me how it’s done.


Filipino cuisine is notable for some items that are pretty exotic to Westerners.  You may have heard of balut – a fertilized duck or chicken egg, with a mostly developed embryo, that is boiled and eaten.  Or if you’d prefer not to see something’s eyes, you can move to the inside of an animal and eat isaw – barbequed chicken or pig intestines on a stick.  (Everything tastes better on a stick!)  Despite being an adventurous eater, I wasn’t sure how I felt about either of these dishes.  But I never actually saw them for sale, so my willingness to try new things was not properly tested.  I’m still not sure I could handle balut, but if I see some isaw in a few weeks, I might be able to try a bite.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of balut and isaw, we had a tasty time in Manila.  The main dishes we tried were: fresh lumpia (a type of spring roll made with hearts of palm and other veggies); a few types of pancit (stir-fried noodles);kare kare (oxtail, tripe, and vegetables in a peanut stew); adobo (chicken and/or pork cooked in a mixture of garlic, soy sauce and vinegar, although there’s supposedly 100 ways to cook it in the Philippines – it was salty, but delicious); and, possibly my favorite – bibingka.

Bibingka is apparently a dessert, but I didn’t realize that at the time and ate it as dinner.  (If only I could unlearn that  ice-cream, cookies, and brownies are desserts…) I read about bibingka on the in-flight magazine on the way to Manila, which I just googled – the description I read was of  a “wood fire-cooked rice cake in banana leaves and covered with butter, cheese and grated coconut.”  I guess I remembered “rice cake” and “cheese”, which brought to mind something savory, given that Quaker rice cakes aren’t sweet (unless you get the kind coated in chocolate).  Now, if I focus on “cake”, “cheese”, and “coconut,” I can see how it would be a dessert.  Oh well, it was a delicious misunderstanding.  To me, it tasted like an arepa (only fluffier, thicker, and sweeter) that had been inverted (given the cheese on top). I’m not sure where the corn taste came from.  I suppose I’ll have to figure that out in a few weeks.


We only had about a day and a half in Manila, but we managed to fit in a lot.  Our first stop was Intramuros – the oldest district of Manila, built by the Spanish in the 16th century.  Within its walls, we visited the Manila Cathedaral, Casa Manila (a recreation of a colonial-period house); and Fort Santiago.

Despite my love for colonial history, my favorite sight in Manila was the Coconut Palace.  The palace was built in the late 1970s by former First Lady Imelda Marcos in honor of an upcoming visit by Pope John Paul II.  However, when the Pope arrived in Manila, he was appalled and suggested the US$37 million spent on the palace could have been spent instead on clean drinking water for the Filipino people.  He refused to stay and somehow the palace was officially “opened” at a later date by Brooke Shields and George Hamilton.

We had our own tour guide who enlightened us with trivia about the palace (the dining room table has 40,000 pieces of inlaid coconut shell) and encouraged us to sit and take pictures at the dining room table and in former President Marcos’ office chair.  He even removed a “please do not sit” sign from Imelda’s mother of pearl chair and invited me to sit down.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if he told us we could take a nap in the Marcos’ bed.

After the Coconut Palace, we headed to the nearby SM Mall of Asia, the fourth largest mall in the world.  It has four buildings and I think we were only in two of them, so I’m not sure I properly grasped its size, although I got a sense through the interactive maps.  All of the directories were electronic; you picked a store (or in our case, a restaurant) and it would give you walking directions.  I was somewhat surprised the mall was on Manila Bay, but it was nice to end our visit by watching the sunset over dinner and drinks.


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