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

manila philippines rizal park museum

Have you ever had a lackluster 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 Manila, Philippines, after staying there at the tail end of a spectacular few weeks exploring the islands of Boracay and Bohol.

I guess the trouble 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 pleasure ended.

manila philippines jeepney

Jeepneys in Manila.

Fresh off the heels of several weeks around Asia, we felt well-travelled enough to wander around 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.

Rizal Park. manila philippines

Rizal Park.

We continued on to Rizal Park, which is a beautiful area dedicated to Filipino hero Jose Rizal. 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.

manila philippines orchid trellis of waves vines

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 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.

Have you been to Manila? If so, what was your experience like? Share in the comments below. 

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29 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.

  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

      • 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.

  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.

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