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Pollution - the brown horizon - Early morning view from the EDSA Shangrila Hotel - looking out towards Quezon City.

There are lots of beautiful places in the Philippines, but Manila is not one of them. The humidity and scorching summer heat can be unbearable, especially given the pollution and the choking exhaust fumes. It's filthy, ugly and grossly overpopulated. Getting around can be frustrating and traffic often slows down to a snail's pace. Ask any Filipino what they hate most about Manila and it would be the traffic, the pollution and the crime. The greater metro Manila area has a population of over 22 million, and many, if not most of them, are desperately poor.

All that said, Manila can also be an exciting city and you may just have a great time here, if you know how. I lived and worked in Manila for 9 years so I know this city well. Family and friends who visited me have always enjoyed their time here. As my guests, they were sheltered from most of the difficulties and frustrations that tourists would normally experience.

If you you are staying in hi-end hotels like the Shangri-La Hotel, New World Renaissance Hotel, Intercontinental Hotel or Dusit Thani Hotel, you would probably be shielded from most of the dangers and frustrations of Manila..

Live music here is great and affordable and I think one of the best things that Manila has going for it. I particularly like the Jazz but also enjoy Blues, Reggae and indigenous music. You will also find plenty of live music around the major hotels.


"Baywalk" is a long, well-lit footpath that follows Manila Bay for about 4 kilometers. It would be a nice place except that Manila Bay stinks something awful. An article about it in the local paper recently said that it was now illegal to swim in the bay because it was too dangerous to one's health.

Don't ride on the calesa. This is a two wheeled horse drawn cab. The drivers of these calesas are notorious for changing agreed prices and often they become very aggressive to get their money. A friend of mine agreed on a fee of 100 for a short tour but when it was time to pay, the driver said dollars, not pesos, and he became angry and threatening and my friend ended up paying over P1000 if I recall correctly.

Changing Foreign Currencies

Expect that the money changer in a tourist area is going to try to rip you off. The best place to change money is in a bank. Banco de Oro gives very good rates as does the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI)

Getting around Manila

Avoid traveling around Manila between 8:00 and 9:30AM and between 5:00 and 8:00PM during week days. Not only is it hard to get a cab, but you will discover the very worst side of Philippines traffic and pollution. The traffic can slow to a snail's pace if  there is heavy rain as the traffic cops will go for shelter and the whole system can grid-lock.

Don't even think about hiring a car to drive around Manila without hiring a driver also. Car rental with driver for a day can be surprisingly cheap. You can also rent a van with driver for very little more. There is a lot of local knowledge required to drive around Manila and it is difficult, if not almost impossible, to not commit some traffic violation. "No right turn" or "no left turn" signs may be so small or badly placed that it is impossible to spot them.

VAT, Service Charge and Local Taxes

Watch those bills in hotels and restaurants. Check if there are service charges and taxes. Take your magnifying glass so you can see the fine print on the menu that says "prices are exclusive of taxes and service charges". Almost all hotels and large restaurants will stack these onto the bill and it will typically add another 25%. I always ask if the prices are inclusive of the charges and then I will want to see it written somewhere. Some family members came to visit and decided to book their own hotel because they were able to book cheaper than what I could get it for. I warned them that there will be extra charges so they checked to make sure that the prices included all charges. They were really irate to find that the original price did not include the charges and they were forced to pay them.

VAT                     12%
Service charge      10%
Local tax              2.5% (sometimes)

Surcharges for Foreigners

Hotel rates for tourists are often higher than for local residents. If you have an expat or Filipino friend, it will be cheaper if the room is booked in their name.

Taxis and Getting from the Airport

The notice on the left was at the new Manila airport terminal 3. I read this as a clear warning that taxis are not normally safe.

If you are staying in a high end hotel you would probably have arranged for a hotel taxi to pick you up from the airport. Most business people do that and that is what I did the first time I came to Manila. This is by far the best way first time and you would be very unlikely to encounter any problems this way.

Hotel Taxis are the safest way to get around Manila but they are not cheap by Filipino standards, but not expensive compared to European rates. If you are on a budget, taxis are still the best way to get around for the tourist. They are cheap and all are air-conditioned. Flag fall is 40 pesos (about $1s US), and a 15 minute journey will cost about 120 pesos ($3). The taxis will almost without exception try to rip you off if they know you are a tourist. Try not to put luggage in the trunk because the driver may speed off once you get out. I have a rule that I only put luggage in the trunk if I am with someone else and then one of us stays in the car until the contents of the trunk have been removed.

Here is a short account of my taxi experience on June 17, 2009. I flew into Manila from Palawan and for the first time in all of my years in Manila, I came as a tourist and looked like one too. My camera bag was over my shoulder and I was wearing T-shirt, shorts and sandals. My ride from the airport to the hotel was the long way round and the taxi driver decided not to charge me for the trip (out of his own choice but I guessed he knew I was going to report him). The second taxi of the day was to take me to Shangri-La Plaza from Makati. This driver tried to drop me off at Robinson's Galleria telling me it was Shangri-La Plaza. I made him take me to the correct destination and then paid only two thirds of the amount on the meter. The third taxi on the same day was to take me from Megamall to Makati. As we approached Shaw Boulevard he told me that I would need to pay extra because his meter had a problem and was running too slow. I laughed and told him that this was my first slow meter and all others had run too fast. Anyway, while trying to convince me that I should pay more, he was not concentrating on the road and left a large gap between himself and the taxi in front. So as not to miss the green light on EDSA, he accelerated at full throttle but the taxi in front decided at the last instant not to proceed through the changing traffic light and then, BANG!!!, my taxi slammed into the car in front. The damage was considerable and our windscreen was shattered. I was unhurt but did not stay around for the inevitable drama and I disappeared amongst the pedestrians crossing the Shaw/EDSA intersection. The following days I did not dress as a tourist and my camera was concealed in my laptop backpack. I had no more taxi problems after that.

Click the following link for more information about taxi scams.

Airport Taxi Summary

  • The safest way to get from the airport is with a pre-organized hotel taxi but this is only available if booked through the hotel that you will be staying in.

  • The second best way to get from the airport is by an airport taxi, the ones marked as airport taxis. You pay a little more but it is worth it because you will get to your destination safely.

  • A less safe way is a standard taxi within the airport, although the risk is not very great. There is more chance of being taken the long way round.

  • Taxis waiting just outside of the airport are not safe at all !

  • The most dangerous taxi is the from the guy who approaches you as you are coming out of the terminal building and offers a cheap taxi that he claims is around the back somewhere.