Just a Vanilla in Manila

image “Why go to Manila?”, is what everyone asked me. With all the beautiful islands of the Philippines why did I choose to go there? Well the answer was simple: I had a death wish – no I’m just kidding! The truth was that I only had a handful of days and I figured that getting to the islands would burn too much time and end up being rushed. Going to Manila meant I could have a home base, I could day trip when I wanted and I knew someone there. Cities are about who you know and who you meet anyway.

If you’re ever visiting the Philippines I think it’s safe to say that you should be able to find hosts or friends on Couchsurfing (CS). The people here seem crazy about it and are the most forward people I’ve come across so far.

I posted my trip publicly on CS and I received no fewer than a dozen couch offers and about thirty to forty messages. I felt like an overwhelmed Filipino call centre (sorry – bad joke?) and eventually just stopped responding to calls because it had gotten ridiculous. I’m sure there were some creepers in there so I’d definitely suggest screening people, but most just seemed friendly. Did I mention I was short on time though.

I could have just stayed safe in Hanoi or Malacca, but I don’t regret giving Manila a shot. Surprisingly I covered more of Manila’s city districts than I would have expected.


The business centre of Manila full of high rises, modern buildings and consequently it’s pretty pricey too. Here I stayed with my quietly cool CS host, Tama. We hung out most mornings because he started work at 11am most days.

The first stop most days was breakfast at Wild Flour just across the road. Really delicious brunch food in a bright modern atmosphere, but I’m sure the richness of the food would eventually kill you. You can get your cholesterol overload here with some great coffee at Australian prices.


A Croque Madame and good coffee at Wild Flour

Sadly we had planned a hike for Sunday, but the smaller Saturday Market still didn’t disappoint. Loads of Filipino BBQ and homely food to try there.

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Pancakes and Filo BBQ

Filipinos seem to love jogging and whilst green space is a bit of a commodity in big cities, Makati does have the Ayala Triangle Park along with some cafes and eateries down the side. Just make sure the triangle doesn’t mess with your bearings. I for one walked the wrong direction on the way home.


Me with my Starschmucks style coffee and rubbish (includes the coffee)


At one point the city of Manila fit inside the walls of Intramuros. Inside the walls lies Fort Santiago which was built by the Spanish in the 16th Century. Actually most of what stands within the walls looks like it was built by the Spanish during their colonisation that lasted over three centuries.


Interesting architecture in Intramuros. Maybe a little bit more modern than the rest

Imo, who I met through CS drove me to and around Intramuros. Thankfully she hadn’t actually been to Fort Santiago either so it was new to both of us as we walked around and read about their national hero, José Rizal.


I'm going to build my house out of these bricks someday

I also learned that Filipinos take their OH&S very seriously and I love it!


Don't be that guy!

In Intramuros you can also get around by horse drawn calesas. The carts are decorated with the insides of shells and seemed surprisingly authentic.

And of course what European quarter wouldn’t be complete without a church or two.


There was a wedding inside the Cathedral of Manila

Binondo (Chinatown)

So it seems as though Charlee was being her typical racist self (kidding) and wanted me to feel at home because she took me to Chinatown one night.

I was still feeling a bit sick so Chinese food sounded like it would solve the problem. We were even able to get some decent har gow and siu mai! Both of us more than fed for less than 500 pesos.


Nothing brings you back from the dead like Chinese congee

Afterwards we went to Rizal Park and whilst that technically isn’t in Chinatown I’m including it for continuity. Until we saw another guy on the way out, it seemed that I was the only vanilla non-local. At one point my accent actually caught the attention of some dodgy looking blokes. They followed us for a little while but seemed to peel off once they realised I was inherently aware of them.

Kids and families filled the park with kids running around blissfully. Ice cream was just 30 pesos! No wonder they were excited. No, actually the coolest part was the fountain in the centre. Filipino songs played and the fountain with its lighting imitated the sounds.

The fountain reminds me of Las Vegas

Quezon City

If there was a place that was my kind of place in Manila it would be whatever area of Quezon City that we were in. Lots of little bars and cafes along the street and more of a fresh vibe.

We spent one afternoon at Antiteasis while Charlee finished her work and I dreamt about Patagonian snow. It was a fun little place with boardgames too, but apparently I’m the most annoyingly competitive Scrabble player in the world. I think I’ll take that as a compliment.


Cool vibes and boardgames in Antiteasis

After a rubbish milkshake in Makati that morning (made with ice? seriously) redemption was found at Crepe Man nearby. Less than 100 pesos and given the smells I’m pretty sure their crêpes are good too.

Just down the road at Grill Queen I had my first experience with cat meat. Well not really, but that’s what Charlee tried to tell me! We actually just had some delicious BBQ skewers and liempo (pork not cat) with rice for 150 pesos.


The Grill Queen herself

After eating we took a jeepney to the University of the Philippines for a tour around the grounds. Students were out of town for the holidays, but we managed to get some lemonade made with one lemon between two (yep!).

At that point all the jeepneys were heading home for the day so we enjoyed a creepy walk in pitch black darkness about a kilometre down the road to Philcoa Jeepney Station. Not one of Manila’s finest moments, but not so scary after all.

I quite like the idea of the jeepneys, though apparently for most, they form part of the daily hell of Manila’s commuting. I like that they are recycled and that they pimp them out pretty well. It’s the little personalisations that are nice and in this case the driver’s photos on his dashboard. He must be very proud, a humble jeepney driver with his three daughters graduating university.


Riding shotgun in a jeepney


Why it was necessary to build the biggest Mall of Asia I have no idea, but it certainly is huge. What does one do with so many shops? Well one thing is for sure, if one of your electronics breaks I’m pretty sure every manufacturer is represented here to fix it for you.

Imo and I just grabbed some food here though at one of the thousand eateries on offer. There is a lot of American style food here. Just don’t get lost!


Pepper rice with salmon and a hidden cheesy centre


Another business district kinda like Makati. We pretty much just went here for the dessert at Cafe Seol Hwa. For some reason there were four other Korean restaurants in the same building, but the dessert was pretty unique. I’d never tried “white snow” before and with the added textures it was delicious.

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Delicious dessert with condensed milk "white snow"

Day trip to Laguna

Never before have I gotten up at 2am for a day trip. It was insane, but I figured I owed it to Tama as it was his only day off. We took a bus towards Santa Cruz in Laguna to meet a bunch of his friends and climb Mt Kalisungan.

To be honest the mountain itself wasn’t all that exciting and I was just looking forward to Bukal Falls in the afternoon. We started the hike some time around 7am and finished about 1pm.

The mountain top was covered in two metre high grass which was pretty crazy. I don’t even think Tama could see over the top. No snakes fortunately.

The descent was ridiculously overgrown. I have never hiked through such dense forest before and the fun was trying to navigate and identify the path. Thankfully we had a guide to help confirm we were on the right track.

Finally, sweating our own waterfalls due to the tropical heat, we reached the village at the bottom where we road rode tricycles again to transfer to the next place.


Curious kids in the village

I wasn’t joking when I said rode because I was literally on the roof at one point. During other rides we stuffed five guys on one tricycle and so hilariously there were some hills where we had to get off and walk because the bike couldn’t make it and stalled.


Would you believe three of us fit in here with one on the side behind the driver?

Riding topgun

Sadly, plans were changed and we never walked to Bukal Falls. Disappointingly we drove another 45 minutes to go to another one accessible by the hoards. It wasn’t exactly dirty, it wasn’t exactly clear blue, but Tay Tay Falls was refreshing after a long day. And by refreshing I mean freezing cold! What the hell? I thought this was the Philippines?!


The not so blue, not so warm water

The day wasn’t a complete loss though. We had some good times and some adventure Filipino style. Really that’s how I’d describe my trip to Manila in general. The destination wasn’t so important, but good times were shared with good characters.

After this I boarded my USD$15 flight from Manila to Sao Paulo, Brazil with Singapore Airlines. Yes, you read that right, across the world in style for USD$15.


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