Insider’s city: Manila is only fun if you know people to take you where it’s fun

Published August 5, 2021, 12:00 PM

by AA Patawaran

SIMPLY NO PLACE LIKE MANILA An aerial perspective of the Manila City Hall

Note: In this feature, when the author cites Manila, he refers to the entire megalopolis, Metro Manila or the National Capital Region.

While with Filipinos in Paris, I ventured to define Manila as an insider’s city. 

Unlike most other cities, like Paris or Athens or Rome or New York or Hong Kong even only as a shopping Mecca, Manila is a trove of secrets to which the random tourist cannot simply help himself.

Outside of Manila, it’s a different story. Of course, the Chocolate Hills are out there in the open and so are the beaches in Boracay or Nasugbu or Morong, though even the best of them—the best patch of sand on the La Union coast, the best view of the rice terraces in Banawe, the inside of the most historic house in Vigan, the paradisiacal coves of El Nido, the best guinamos in Cagayan de Oro—are off limits to the clueless tourist who has to depend on commercial, or even con, tours and tour guides to get a glimpse of what the Philippines is all about.

But in those cities we see a lot of, not only in travel magazines but also in literature, in film, in song lyrics, and in pop culture, the gems are public domain—and the gems give the traveler a reason to commune with the city they represent, often free of charge.

MONUMENT OF RIZAL One of the most famous tourist spots in Manila is the Luneta Park

Just walk around Rome, for instance, as I did without a map, turning left or right at whim, and it’s not unlikely you will find yourself going down or up the Spanish Steps, beside which, at the very bottom of it, to its left, is the Keats-Shelley House, a surprise find for me, who wasn’t looking for it, but you will have to shell out €5 to enter and see for yourself the very deathbed of the great British poet John Keats. Just a few meters from the Spanish Steps, you can take refuge in a cup of cappuccino at Caffe Greco on via Condotti, quite expensive but that’s because this café dates back to the 18th century, and in it you can enjoy your cup with the ghosts of Keats and Shelley, Goethe, Lizst, Wagner, Mendelsson, Berlioz, Gogol, and even Casanova.

In Venice, you need not rent a gondola for €80 to see the gondoliers at work to earn their black-and-white stripes. If you are lucky, as I was during a stay in 2016, while having breakfast at your AirBnB balcony, from which, as if from an opera box, you could watch a gondolier performing Verdi or Puccini free of charge.

You can say the same of the Statue of Liberty, though you need a little money to see through her eyes, or the Eiffel Tower, though you need a lot of money to eat at Le Jules Verne. It’s the same with Charles Bridge in Prague, the Trevi Fountain in Rome, the World Heritage Site Andrássy Avenue in Budapest, the Great Wall of China, the Golden Gate Bridge, the temples of Siem Reap, or the Hong Kong skyline, as seen from Victoria Harbour. 

NATURAL HARBOR The rehabilitated Manila Bay

But in Manila…

I’m taking a risk here: There is the Rizal Monument at Luneta or Rizal Park, but you have to know Jose Rizal at a level deep enough to appreciate it. To have read his novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, really just one epic story in two parts, is not enough, though I would say, even to my fellow Filipinos, that these stories are way more precious than the literary gems that have gained world following from sheer marketing and because they originate from countries that, unlike ours, give such a high premium on literature. Rizal’s lifestory was one for the books, and not only because he is Filipino. In the late ‘90s, he was adopted by Malaysia as a heroic figure, “Asia’s Renaissance Man,” he was called, but that was because he lived his life around the globe, between Europe and Asia, speaking so many languages, in search for answers that should benefit anyone curious about nationalism, imperialism, the youth, travel, philosophy, even ophthalmology, and more. It is for this reason Rizal is commemorated through monuments or plaques not only in his country, but other places in the world, such as in Wilhemsfeld, Germany, in Chicago, in Hong Kong, in Jersey City, New Jersey, in Montreal, in Madrid, in Tokyo, in Jinjiang, China, in Limoterice, Czech Republic, in Lima, Peru, in Honolulu, in Los Angeles, in Chicago, in West London, in Toronto.

But that’s nothing to the average tourist, even if he or she claims to be interested in history. Manila is not like Istanbul, in which the remains of the rise and fall of empires, from the Roman Empire to the Ottomans, are still embedded in the culture, preserved in slabs of stone or the ruins of millennia-old buildings that have kept their place of pride on the streets or in the skyline. Manila is not like Berlin, leveled to the ground during WWII, but the rumble of its violent history remains in the vibe of the city, in its underground culture, in its Beherrschung der Vergangenheit or its mastery of the past.

Manila is the cradle, the graveyard, the memory. The Mecca, the Cathedral, the bordello. The shopping mall, the urinal, the discotheque. I’m hardly speaking in metaphor. It’s the most impermeable of cities. How does one convey all that? —Ilustrado, Miguel Syjuco

So let’s just stick to entertainment. Sure, we have great beaches lining our 7,641 islands, but they’re way out of Manila and you have to take the boat or the plane or drive long hours, through traffic and roads that are less than ideal in some places, to get there. Although it is a coastal city, with two major bodies of water, Manila Bay and Laguna de Bay, surrounding it, Manila is not like Cannes, where, right in the city, the Mediterranean beckons and people answer the call, walking down to the waterfront in their bikinis and their swim shorts and into the water, the Croisette looming above them in steel and glass and concrete as much as the Mediterranean sky does. For the same reason, Manila is not like Rio de Janeiro or Miami or Honolulu or Santa Monica or Long Beach on Long Island in New York, although even Long Beach is a little out of the way, unlike the beach in Cannes, where you can shop ‘til you drop at Gucci or Moncler on Boulevard de la Croisette, then cross the street, and take a dip into the Mediterranean.

This is not to say that Manila has nothing to offer tourists, but Manila is an insider’s city. You need to know enough people to take you where it’s fun, whether it’s a hotel or a bar or club or restaurant or some hole-in-the-wall bookstore-cum-watering hole.

Because what’s best about Manila is its people, you have to know some Filipinos well enough to take you on the town with their guards down. Only then can you say it’s more fun in Manila.