Why I don’t plan to go back to Manila, Philippines

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Harbour square in Manila Bay.

Harbour square in Manila Bay

This post was originally published in August 2015 and updated in February 2020

Have you ever had a lacklustre time in a destination, and felt like you needed to go back to try and figure out why people think it’s so great? Unfortunately that was my experience with my trip to Manila Philippines, after staying there at the tail end of a spectacular few weeks exploring the islands of Boracay and Bohol.

Malate Church in Manila

Malate Church

I guess the trouble with our Manila trip started when our cab driver from the airport had a ridiculously hard time finding our hotel, and drove in circles before we finally spoke up over fears he was simply trying to run up the meter. After a few phone calls he finally ‘found it,’ and it turned out we had been about a block away nearly the whole time. While there were no complaints at all about our hotel which was located in a ‘good’ area near the popular shopping centre Robinsons Place Manila, that’s about where the enjoyment ended.

Fresh off the heels of several weeks backpacking southeast Asia, we felt well-travelled enough to explore Manila on our own, but began seriously doubting that decision as we kept stumbling into suspect alleys that were rather unnerving. While we were just a couple of blocks away from the main thoroughfare, the unwelcoming looks we got from those holed up in the ramshackle buildings we passed made our spidey-senses tingle, and we couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

In an effort to calm our nerves and build up my mom’s souvenir mug collection, we headed to a nearby Starbucks. That’s when we were accosted by begging children, who were relentless in following us down the street with their hands stretched out while their parents silently watched just steps away. It broke my heart that the beautiful little children spent their days harassing foreigners for change alongside a busy roadway, instead of playing games or doing schoolwork.

We continued on to Rizal Park, which is a beautiful area dedicated to Filipino hero Jose Rizal that’s considered one of the top places to go in Manila. Monuments dot the sprawling lush green lawn, and you can often find men in the middle of a chess game or people strolling through the park.

Men play chess in Rizal Park, Manila. philippines

Men play chess in Rizal Park.

But as I took photos, the extent of the city’s poverty became even clearer. Some smiling boys happened to be in front of a monument I was taking pictures of, and when I put my camera down and began to walk away they followed us demanding money. It seemed that no matter where we went, we were purely seen as a payday.

manila philippines rizal park

We found some relief when we stumbled into the Orchidarium and Butterfly Pavilion, which is full of fragrant flowers including—you guessed it, orchids—as well as little ponds and a ‘Trellis of Waves’ made of hanging vines. The quiet space was a peaceful respite from the chaos of the city, as well as the soaring heat, and made for a nice stop on our Manila itinerary.

After enjoying the gardens then passing the grand National Museum of the Philippines, we decided to forgo the walk back in lieu of a typical Filipino experience: hopping on a tuk-tuk. The brightly-coloured electric trikes grabbed my attention, and I thought it would be a fun way to get back to the hotel. Well, I’ll say this: it was memorable. My heart pounded as our driver made quick maneuvers through the clogged traffic, having countless near-misses with huge trucks and Jeepneys before it inevitably happened: he actually hit someone! Fortunately we weren’t going too quickly and the poor pedestrian was only bruised, but that was enough to convince me that Manila was officially not my favourite place in the world.

manila philippines jeepney

Jeepneys in Manila.

manila philippines taxi tuk tuk

It’s all fun and games until a pedestrian gets hit…

It pains me to share that I had such a negative experience in Manila, as many of the Filipinos I met during my time in the Philippines were incredibly sweet, and who am I to judge their country?

There is no question that for every story like mine, you’ll find someone else who thinks the city is fascinating and enjoys the fast-paced environment and culture. That being said, I can only speak to my experience, and as much as I fell in love with the Philippines’ stunning islands, I’ll likely skip the stopover in Manila next time.

Manila American Cemetery and Memorial

Manila day trips

The good news is there are some awesome Manila day trips you can book to enjoy an incredible experience away from the city. Here are a few to consider:

 

 

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49 Responses

  1. Sally says:

    That’s a shame to hear that, I would love to take the kids to the Philippines but wouldn’t like them to experience something like that. If we do go I will make the stop in Manila an overnight one at most. If only they realised what good the tourism market could do for them. Seeing how kids are treated is the hardest thing about travelling in some Asian countries.

    • Hi Sally, yes it’s definitely an interesting place to see, but there are so many incredibly beautiful spots throughout the Philippines that it would be much better to spend time on the islands instead of the congested city.

    • Nancy says:

      I’m really sorry for saying this, but going in the Philippines with some kids would not be very responsible. I would never encourage someone to do this. There are many things there that western kids don’t need to see. Trust me about this. There are many great spots in the Phils but these places are hard to access and we must to pass by bad places to get there. Things can go very well as they can go terribly bad. Being white in the Philippines is a big deal. Families of white people are often perceived as targets to make money. Scams are unlimited, and cops are corrupt. Any easy and simple process can escalade into a conflict with the natives. Many Filipinos are great for manipulating tourists. I have been followed and harassmed by strangers many times.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Similar experience for us in Morocco. I will never go back there. Shitty people in general (although there some bright exceptions) and shitty culture.

    • Oh no, Morocco has been on my list for a while! Funny, I just read a tweet from a VERY experience traveller who was extremely unnerved by the markets in Fez…yikes.

      • To calm your nerves about Morocco I just spent an amazing 10 days there. If you are concerned about traffic and getting ripped off, head to the coast somewhere like Essaouira where you will have a fantastic time!

        • Awesome, great to hear Amy! I know a couple heading over so I’ll be sure to pass along your tips 🙂

        • Terry says:

          My daughter travelled around the world alone for 12 months started and finished in Manila and thought Morroco was the highlight of her trip
          I’ve lived in the Philippines and agree it has it’s child
          beggars that are forced to beg by a kind of mafia outfit,
          Boracay Palawan islands and parts of Cebu are all safe and beautiful
          Manila traffic is very congested it’s hot noisy and dirty but it does have it’s safe spots for tourists Makati with its up market hotels shopping and. restaurants for one
          Do your homework before visiting any country

          • A r oked says:

            Filipinos can never live without throwing garbage all over, pissing in the streets,,, korokes, screwing up the traffic, changing lanes 30 times a block, smoke belching cancer causing vehiscles,,, stray dogs all over

      • Jennifer says:

        Yeah I have travelled a hella lot- will hit 40 countries in 2 weeks and plan to do 10 new ones a year- and it was my worst experience. Particularly as a woman. You are basically dirt in their culture. Ughhhh

        That said, GO to Chefchaouen in the north. I wish we had started there first, rather than our last stop, because it was lovely. I might have had a different view of Morocco then.

  3. I think your experience in Manila is spot on. Even a Filippino friend of mine avoids Manila when she visits her homeland, saying it is dirty and crowded. Unfortunate about all the begging.

  4. Lin says:

    Manila is definitely not a great place to walk around in. It’s Philippines’ capital city, yet it’s where you see poverty at its worst. I live in Baguio City, north of Manila, and everytime I go there I always have an awful experience. But that’s just Manila. When you look around the archipelago, the stunning views and nature will blow your mind.

  5. ag00 says:

    I love your unabashed feeling about your experience in Manila. So many people are afraid for to recount their negative experiences in a foreign country in fears of backlash. This article definitely gave me an insight into Manila culture and I’ll be sure to not give money away in guilt when I’m there.

    • Thank you! I definitely took my time publishing it and even debated whether or not I should, but as you said I think it’s important to share the bad experiences along with the good, and I hope I was fair in my judgements.

  6. Hana says:

    Hi I’m Hana. I’m a Filipino and it saddens me to say that everything you said about Manila is true. I live in Laguna, and it’s quite far and very different from Manila. Even I try to avoid going to Manila. Im just really happy that you liked our islands. It’s true that people should who plan to visit our country should just head straight to our beautiful islands instead of staying for a few days in Manila.

  7. Sitara says:

    Welcome to a developing country. If you go to a country knowing full well its developing, none of this stuff should be a surprise.

    • I have nothing at all against developing countries- in fact, I prefer getting off the beaten path (see my post on Uyuni, Bolivia which doesn’t even have roads)! I can only speak to my experience, and there was just something about the energy of the city that I wasn’t drawn to.

    • Jack Jone says:

      Sitara – Philipines is not at all a developing country. You should see what they have achieved in building BGC in 5 years and nearby Makita. It is just that the people and most of Manila is a letdown

  8. Amanda says:

    I am an expat living in Manila, and I live in an upscale area. In more recent months, there have been children around our neighbourhood asking for money or food. While there have been many times I’ve found this annoying, I continue to remind myself to keep perspective. What is annoying to us – with our travel luxuries, lifestyle advantages, fortunate circumstances – is a livelihood to many that live here, and not one that happens to be chosen. It is truly heartbreaking, as you mentioned, that children are not in school or playing games, that the poverty is endemic. Take everything with a grain of salt, thank your lucky stars, and consider that people merely do what they feel they must. While you have the opportunity to build a Starbucks mug collection, many Filipinos are struggling to fulfil the basic human necessities, such as eating every day. And perhaps consider that the “unwelcoming looks” you got came from a place of despair, from recognizing that you have so much, and that they, simply, do not.

  9. David L. Hyde says:

    When traveling to the Philippines we avoid Manila it is dirty and crowed and does not represent the rest of the Philippines. It would be like trying to the judge the USA by visiting New York City. In stead of flying in to The old dirty airport in Manila we fly into the newer International airport on Cebu much better experience . Cebu and the next island Bohol are both nice to visit lots to see and do from there you can fly or travel by speed boat to many great places and see the real Philippines.

  10. Nelson says:

    Im a Filipino but it’s been 20 years since I left the country for Boston. I went back there last month to attend a wedding then I stayed few days to enjoy the city I grew up with but it’s no longer enjoyable for me cause I feel unwelcomed, total stranger and very polluted. I got sick from the food I ate for two days. When I was withdrawing money from Banco De Oro ATM i didnt realize 6 children were standing behing me and start begging when I got my cash. I couldn’t help to scream and my friend came to the rescue.

  11. Ray says:

    It’s easy to understand the plight of Manila, considering the history of the last century. one day after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Imperial Japanese (NOT the Japan of today…in 1940’s Japan was still coming out of their feudal structure, and somehow installed some outrageously cruel and dictatorial leaders) attacked the Philippines and bombed Manila into oblivion, before invading and occupying the city previously known as the “Jewel of the Pacific”, and abandoned the city at the close of the war, effectively leaving it in shambles, which it has never recovered. The horrific occupation of the P.I. is well-known, and is evident even now, in places like Manila. The U.S. threw enormous economic and rebuilding support to Japan, under MacArthur’s lead, but very little reconstruction was supplied by US.
    In a country of 7000 islands, I am amazed that the Philippines have progressed as far as they have. Best to look at Manila with a perspective that takes it’s history into account.
    2 hours to the north of Manila, the province of Pampanga is the “food capital of the Philippines”, where chefs from all over the world come to invent, using the foods grown locally, the best fare in the Pacific. Hard to imagine that was the end of the “trail of tears”, the Bataan death march, where 10000 filipinos died in that disgusting piece of history. Across Manila Bay from the city is Cavite, which has grown with more of a plan, and is a great place to mix with the locals.
    I would imagine that the tourists who love the Philippines have approached this tropical paradise with some idea of the history, and an appreciation of what the people have endured and become a most determined people in the face of adversity.
    South of Manila are the reknown beaches and small towns, where filipinos and the rest of the world mix.

    • reyes says:

      What I don’t understand is why the US came rushing to Japan’s aid after WWII (after they dropped those bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and in 1946 came out with Congress’ Rescission Act that nullified aid to the Philippines which was an important ally in WWII…and the result is history..promises, promises…so don’t be too surprised of the result…and how about this: “I would rather see the Philippines run like hell by (crooked) politicians than by Americans…” so in other words, the Philippines was already doomed from the start.

  12. C'est Moi says:

    Yes, Manila is a cesspool of beggars, hustlers, and criminals, not to mention the horrendous traffic, and vehicles parked across sidewalks. It is much better in the provinces, like Cebu or Davao City.

    I lived in the Philippines for seven years on the Island of Mindanao, first in Butuan City for a year then in Davao City for six years. Davao City was a great place to live — far better than Manila, mostly due to the then Mayor (now President) Rody Duterte’s insistence that criminals either reform themselves, or die.

  13. Caloy says:

    I live up north and I used to travel to Manila everyday to work. The reason I gave up is not because of the stress from work itself, but the hellish traffic I go through everyday. I worked as a call center agent so my schedule was usually a night shift and I had to leave during rush hour. The supposedly 45 minutes to 1 hour travel time becomes 2 to 3 hours just because of the heavy traffic and you almost have no energy left for work when you haven’t even started yet.

    It’s such a shame that a lot of people have to waste 5 to 6 hours of their lives everyday sitting in a van or a bus just to make a living. Manila is just too overcrowded. I now have an online job and I swore to never work there again unless things get better, which I highly doubt. Maybe not today.

  14. david l Hyde says:

    Easy to avoid Manila all together now and see the real Philippines there are International airports on Cebu & Bohol where you can enter the country . They are clean and modern both islands offer lots to see and do , friendly people and not any thing like Manila . Hate for people to judge all the Philippines for what they see in Manila . The new international airport on Bohol just opened a few months ago , hope to use it this summer. There are also speed ferry boats that travel from island to island. Been going for years but try to skip Manila it is large , over crowded , over run with poverty and crime.

  15. Emmanuel Ikan Astillero says:

    What can I say? I live in Metro Manila, and the observations of the pretty tourist are correct, true. But since I’m Filipino, I make it my day, everyday, to live through it, with the minimum of stress and disturbance. I’m quite successful!

  16. Jing says:

    I’m sorry to hear that/read about this, I can’t blame you for what you’re going through. I’m a Filipino (from another province) who had been staying/working in Manila for years & longing to move back to Cebu. Back then I was so naive to believe that all the opportunities existed in Manila, since my folks won’t allow me to work abroad. Going back to those child beggars; I think maybe because most especially those who were not educated has this tendency/mentality to believe that any foreigner who visits are considered as “loaded”, but don’t take my word for it, I could be wrong or outdated. Thanks for taking the time to experience at least some other parts of our country that we’re known of. Cheers!

  17. ren says:

    Sorry to hear about your bad experience in Manila. I am a traveller myself but if I end up in a bad area, I normally attribute it to my lack of research. Either you got a wrong advise or you became a victim of the confusion between Manila and Metro Manila. It is easy for someone to say Manila when they actually refer to the nicer areas in Metro Manila, like Makati CBD and now BGC. If I have business to do in “Manila”, I make sure I am staying in those two areas.

  18. Michael says:

    I found Manila the most disturbing horrible place I’ve ever experienced. It was dirty and begging everywhere. I was with a Native. It was begging or someone was trying to steal from you. Going out felt like hell. If it wasn’t begged then it was someone trying to steal from you or the traffic was really bad. My girl friend lives there and the family where wonderful. Yes you can stay in a couple of areas that are nice. I found it very hard to find anything nice or beautiful in Manila. I don’t think I would have coped by myself. Once I went out by myself to change money. People stopped my begging for money, I guy tried to steal from me and I became so lost and confused. If you try to catch a taxi they will ask for tripple the fare. I asked a security guard how to get back to the hotel and he pointed to the wrong direction. I went by gut instinct and found my way back. All the guards and security have guns fir a good reason. The only reason I would go back is to see my girlfriend and even then it’s for two days only. The rest of the Philippines is beautiful. Manila is hell and again the worst place ever ever visited.

  19. John says:

    Been to Manila 3ice, even got married there. I hate it, it broke me the last time I went in 2016 and would want to avoid that city at all costs when I return to Philippines. Much better to avoid that city and go straight to another city’s airport then on to the beautiful islands

  20. Nancy says:

    Hi there. I did not spend much time in Manila but mostly in a remote area in Leyte. They call it ‘provinces’. Provinces and barangays are even more primitive than Manila. It’s obvious that people who grew up in the Philippines had a very poor parental image. There are no strong landmarks nor references to show them good examples of how to be smart and civilized. They end up lost and often take bad directions. Many enter in cults like iglisia ni cristo, cockfights, alcoholism, drugs and many shenanigans. On a big scale the results are disastrous.

    Being nice and generous spontaneously is not a good idea in the Philippines because some people will try to take advantage of this. Not all of course but scams, solicitation and harassment are very common. When we observe Filipinos dealing with each other they are generally very cold and only communicate with short sentences. Long sentences are perceived as confusing so we need to keep everything simple. They tend to pretend they understand but then they do the complete opposite of what we agreed. It’s imperative to speak slowly, stay calm and patient all the time. Never point out their mistakes or they will losetthe face. Just rub them the right way. If it’s for important deals, forget about it and ask to a local Filipino you trust to deal it for you or you will find yourself in a nightmare. It’s always better to be a bit racist and staying away from “complicated things” than imagining that we can make miracles in their country. None of us can change their mentalities.

  21. educated says:

    Have you ever thought a smart thought in your life? What kind of messed up mind do you have to have to consider asking for alms harassment? How could you say that these children should be in school while doing absolutely nothing about it do you realize what it means for you to say that? Privileged whites like you all should honestly, sincerely truly THINK about how you americans live in THE highest ranking country in terms of economy and there are countries like ours who you have to visit to realise “the extent of poverty” and STILL do nothing about it do you think you have a right to talk about my country like this???

  22. Michael Figueiredo says:

    I went to Manilla, last year. It was absolutely beautiful! In my experience, everything he said is bullshit. I’m a Caucasian Canadian. I never felt that the locals looked at me as a, “payday.” It was exactly the opposite. People were so friendly and warm. Don’t take cabs, use the Grab Car app. (It’s just like Uber) This article is really unfortunate because it could turn people away from what would otherwise be an incredible vacation. Yes, Manilla has poor areas and beggars. So does every American city. I feel like this, “journalist” had a bad experience and now he’s trying to make the place look bad. This is really embarrassing, as a North American to read. Such an arrogant and ignorant person. Stay in America, asshole.

    • First off, I’m a female, and secondly I’m not American. Also, you spelled Manila wrong multiple times. But thanks for your super constructive feedback!

    • Amore Ivanova says:

      It is not only her experience. They don’t see only White people as their “Pay Day” but all of the foreigners for them is “Money” no matter if those foreigners are international students studying with government scholerships, a tourists or regular mid-wage workers sent by few multinational companies (they barely make 15000 PHP/month). It is not mentality of just poor and uneducated Filipinos who are less fortunate. I lived there for 5 years staying in 3 different cities of Metro Manila during that time. Which has given me extended view of how I was being treated as a foreigner that includes charging 2x times more rent for apartments which were owned or operated by so called EDUCATED owners/ property managers just because I was an Alien to them. And one of them stole my passport to make me pay about 60000 PHP on a made up damage bills in the apartment. I wasn’t an expat there who was living on a fortune of making about $100000/year. I was a student whose tuitions were paid by student loans and living expenses were sent by parents by making a large cut on monthly/yearly budget. So, it doesn’t justify that I should be thanking for having fortune, while I rant for their poor people. I never let those kids go empty handed. But, I always used to buy them few sandwiches from nearby 7/11 stores as there are almost one at each end of a street. Their parents don’t say them anything because, if you handover them money, they’ll end up using that on smoking and drinking by the end of the day. So, give those kids some food instead.

      100 Islands, Tagaytay, Bicol, Ternate, Palawan, Ifugao Rice terraces etc. are few of the great places to visit.

      Rizal Park was my usual hangout site. I never had experience like she described in this article.

      I’m not ranting country’s good tourist places, but poeple who would be your medium to visit there for example tuk-tuk, vans, cabs, jeepneys or even Grab/Uber are disghusting money hungry hynas. Grab drivers were used to ask us on the face for tips not less than PHP 100 or they’ll cancel the trip. And if few trips gets cancelled, Grab suspends your accounts; which makes you rely on metered Taxi which will be horrible. I have few friends and few other elders who are still like family. But, over all educated or uneducated – people disghust you over there in Metro Manila.

  23. Gerard says:

    I spent 2 months in Manila and I didn’t find it too bad. I’m tall and I’m white so i definitely stick out! Granted, my wife is Filipina so i might have been spared some harassment. Yeah, there’s traffic, there’s poverty, beggars, prostitutes, shady looking folks, and scammers. but definitely not the worst place I’ve been too! Manila airport seemed fine to me!

  24. Christopher says:

    Their are a few nice parts of Manila, but 90℅ of the city stinks of raw sewage and shit. On one side of the sidewall u have a shopping malls, and across the street their are gaping hole 🕳️in the sidewalk. Most of the time it smelt like I was walk in side a public toilet.

    You can literally see the raw sewage through the hole 🕳️in the sidewalk, that shit just get up your nose, and not good for my digestive system after a meal. But aside from the people of the Philippines are extremely welcome and warm-hearted, with the exception of a few bad apples.

  25. Lyle Pandone says:

    When you care barely feed yourself or put a roof over your head, the very last thing you should be doing is having children. Why world leaders never want to say this is beyond my comprehension.

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