A guide to surviving Manila


A young, mobile Southeast Asian worker can reasonably expect to become familiar with the region’s capitals.

One city that we at KRA have come to know very well is Manila – the capital of the Philippines. Or rather, (strictly speaking) Metro Manila, a conurbation of more than 16 cities and 13 million people.

A lively buzzing metropolis, Manila’s slums nevertheless are a stark reminder that income inequality is still very much alive and well in the country where a handful of families control most of the economy.

Ranked as the 3rd worst city in Southeast Asia in terms of traffic, taxi services in Manila are (un)surprisingly infrequent and unreliable, with touts still rampant in the city. The government’s restrictions on transportation network vehicle services (TNVS) or commonly known as ride-hailing services also mean that a request for a Grab car can take up to 30 minutes to be fulfilled.

The newly launched MRT service on the other hand, is often delayed with an insufficient number of trains to cater to the needs of Manila’s 12.88 million-strong population. My advice? Save the hassle, hire a driver.

Separately, Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) has for years been dubbed one of the world’s worst airports and it’s not hard to see why with its frequently delayed flights and hour-long immigration lines.

The government is certainly working to improve things with a “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program but change of course takes time.

Being a frequent business traveller to the Philippines hence makes you respect the patience and resilience of the locals even more.

Indeed, what helps to ease the pain of a long commute is the warm, friendly and sanguine nature of Filipinos, who never fail to put on earnest smiles even in the most adverse situations. The fact that almost everyone speaks English is also an added bonus – no need for Google Translate or desperate attempts at sign language here.

With a GDP per capita of USD2,988.95, Manila is shockingly expensive to eat out in. A meal at a café or restaurant will easily set you back at least USD15.

That said, the variety and quality of food is commendable and dependable with an outstanding pastry offering. Wildflour Cafe + Bakery is a firm company favourite and hey, if you’re on a budget, there’s always Jollibee.

Better yet, the city’s nightlife never ceases to amaze. From members-only exclusive clubs to speakeasys hidden behind 7-11 stores, you will never run out of new places to hang out in Manila.

Poblacion for one, is hipster central with its neon signs and abundance of Instagram-worthy cafes. Check out the jellyfish bar in Antidote which also comes with a stunning overview of the city’s skyline.

There may be a lot to complain about Manila, but its charm and character is undeniable – a fascinating mix of 300 years of Spanish influence and 50 years of globalization which has birthed a generation of edgy, daring and exquisite artists like no other in Southeast Asia.

Chao Lee is a Research and Advisory Executive at the KRA Group.