In spite of a modern transit system and huge shopping malls, Manila’s poverty is evident on the streets. Traffic – in a constant jam – includes honking jeepneys, neighing horses, and screaming men on tricycles. Street children line the sidewalks where vendors pitch cigarettes, fruits, and trinkets. Police guard the entry to nearly every restaurant and ATM to fend off the omnipresent threat of thieves, pickpockets, and hooligans. But despite the unmistakable poverty and pollution, Manila retains an energy that borders on exhausting. Visitors brave enough to battle the city’s heat and noise will admire the well-preserved 19th-century Spanish colonial architecture of intramuros and the beautifully landscaped parks. For all its vices, this city leaves its guests tired and frustrated, but eager to return.
“Metro Manila” is comprised of 12 cities and give municipalities, but there is little of interest outside the city center – only Ermita, Malate, and Intramuros warrant a visit. The clogged main artery, Epifanio de los Santos Ave. (EDSA), traces a wide loop (24km) around the metropolis, running through Caloocan City and Quezon City in the northeaster, Makati in the southeast, and Pasay City in the south. Manila proper sprawls along the bay, straddling the Pasig River, Rizal Park, also known as Luneta, is a widely-used landmark in the heart of the city; touristy Ermita and Malate lie south of the park between Taft Ave. and Manila Bay. The Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) sits south of Malate toward Pasay City. The walled city of Intramuros, packed with Spanish colonial architecture, sits north of Rizal Park, extending to the Pasig River. The Chinatown districts of Binondo and Santa Cruz form the other bank of the Pasig River. The LRT south to Monumento in the north; Taft is Manila’s main north-south artery. The Metro Rails Transit system (MRT) runs above EDSA. Affluent Makati City is 7km southeast. Manila maps often use the abbreviation “cor” for “at the corner of.”
Also known as “Luneta,” or Little Moon, Rizal Park is where all of Manila meets. The park is verdant and provides a nice respite from the city’s intolerable noise and bustle. The historically significant of Intramuros now contains the best examples of 16th-century Spanish architecture in Asia; even the McDonald’s resembles a hacienda. The crown jewel among these is the San Agustin Church and Museum, which UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site in 1993 for its exquisite baroque architecture and interior treasures, including Aztec frescoes and gilt altars.
There is no time to waste while in Manila so don’t use it trying to decide what to see next. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Manila overflows with fast-food joints and expensive sit-down restaurants, offering little selection in between. Intramuros is the exception – the area behind Clamshell I is packed with outdoor stalls serving freshly grilled meat and fish, and Filipino specialties. Most open at 7pm. Stalls and canteens line Santa MOnica Street, particularly between Adriatico and M. H. del Pilar St.
Experimenting with Philippines cuisine is hit-or-miss. Taking the phrase ”fusion cuisine” to a whole new level, food in the Philippines eschews the chili peppers used in other Southeast Asian cuisines for more salty and sour flavors.
Adobo: A derivative of Spanish dish made with chicken, pork, seafood, or vegetables stewed in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, peppercorns, and bay leaf.
Lumpia: Local spring rolls filled with vegetables and meat are served with vinegars, soy sauce, and sweet sauce.
Sinigang: A sour soup made with tamarind leaves or unripe guavas.
Kinilaw: An unusually versatile dish that uses any meat or vegetable as a base ingredient, which is then “cooked” in flavorful vinegar.
Lechon: A roast suckling pig served primarily on festive occasions in a sauce made of liver, vinegar, sugar, and seasonings
Bistek: A Filipinized beef steak
Halo-Halo: A fanciful creation with layers of preserved fruit, gelatin, custard, crushed ice, and ice cream
Tuba: A local wine made with the sap of the coconut tree
A vibrant bar and cafe scene thrives in Manila, especially on J. Nakpil Street and Remedios Circle in Malate and on P. Burgos Street in Makati. Live music in standard at most places, and bands often invite members of the audience to join them. As one local bar owner puts it, “half of all Filipinos can sing, and the other half like to think they can.” Famous names like Freddie Aguilar regularly perform in Manila nightspots; call ahead to check band schedules. Many bars have basic dress codes barring tank tops, shorts, and rubber sandals – but patrons are often found wearing one or all of the above.
Philippines artistic traditions are particularly dynamic, and have been influenced by those of several other cultures. Visitors will find elements of Spanish, Moorish, Chinese, and American traditions incorporated into into indigenous Filipino folk traditions. Recently, there had been a push to bring the artistic traditions of isolated ethnic groups to light.
Like most of its other cultural traditions, Philippine architecture has absorbed international elements while managing to retain a distinctively Filipino feel. Under Spanish Colonialism came European religious and military architecture; the Intromuros in Manila is a fantastic example of this unique blending. Bobby Manosa and the late Leandro V. Locsin are the major figures in the world of Philippine architecture, with designs that stress the somewhat unlikely melding of the folk and postmodern aesthetics. Manosa in particular has championed the use of Filipino materials like bamboo, and has even helped foment the use of “plyboo” – bamboo plywood with a distinctive look and feel.
The quintessential barrio dance is the mesmerizing tinikling, the national dance. Performers beat pairs of long bamboo sticks against the ground in steady rhythm, as couples skip and twirl in and out of the sticks. Another dance traditions comes from the Muslim areas of the Philippines, where dances are characterized by their theatricality. In the Langka-batuang, men act like angry monkey, scuttling princesses in the Sulu archipelago are required to learn the noble Singkil dance, which dramatizes a legend of the Maranao people of Mindanao.
Introduced to the Philippines in the early 20th century, film has become an important medium for artists to respond to social, political, educational, and economic conditions. The world’s third-largest film producer after India and China, up to Hollywood in the box office; most local film, however, are of the sentimental or violent variety. Yam Liaranas and Erik Matti are touted as the country’s most impressive filmmakers. Annual Filipino, French, and gay film festivals liven the scene in Malaysia.
Though artistically hindered under Spanish rule, the Filipino ilustrados continued to write about their discontent with revolutionary results. After being exiled from Spain, many of them began writing in Tagalog to increase their mass appeal. The period of American cultural infiltration was a low point for Philippine literature. Written in English, it merely imitated the American greats; written in Spanish, it echoed trite nationalism; written in Tagalog, it found refuge in self-pity. The Marcos era brought little relief for the floundering literary tradition – reading or writing “subversive” literature meant indefinite imprisonment. In recent years, however, Philippine literature seems to have begin a second renaissance. Writers Tess Uriza Holthe and F. Sionil Jose have set about to revive the Filipino voice in writing, setting high standards for contemporary Filipino fiction.
Refined over many centuries, Filipinos martial arts stress efficiency and pragmatism. Different techniques have evolved in the country’s disparate regions, including open and closed hand forms, stick fighting, and blade fighting. Although Spanish colonists banned the blade-fighting Arnis school (a.k.a. Kall or Eskrima), it has reappeared in the graceful steps of many folk dance routines. Today, Filipino martial arts schools dot the globe; many law enforcement officials the world over are trained in Filipino martial arts because of their flexibility and effectiveness.