Manila is a diverse city rich with Spanish, Japanese, and American influence it is a melting pot of cultures - and the most densely populated city in the world. With 14.8 million people, the streets are littered with taxis, jeepneys, motor bikes, habal-habals, pedestrians and.... poverty. Traveling without a plan is like... riding a bike. Truthfully, I haven’t been on a nitty gritty trip since 2013 when Zach and I wandered up and down Quintana Roo, the Caribbean coast of Mexico, flagging down street buses, hiking from town to town and beach to beach all the way from Tulum to Cancun. The majority of our recent travels have been to Western, first world meccas where water is filtered, air-con abundant, wifi accessible at 14,000’ mountain peaks, and streets kept clean. Generally. So back to my point – stepping foot into the largest city of such a foreign and densely populated country halfway across the world – is like remembering how to ride a bike.
You get a feel for the Manila lifestyle here very quickly. Filipinos walk with backpacks strapped to the front of their chests to avoid pick pockets. Families with babies and toddlers sleep naked on street corners. Homelessness is abundant – and these children make begging their profession. Street lights sit, blacked out, and purposeless. Traffic lanes do not exist. Motorbikes, jeepneys, taxis, and pedestrians flow effortlessly in sync through the chaotic disorganization of their traffic systems – without accidents. I watched as a Filipino woman instructed her toddler and infant to walk up to me and beg for money.
Our first stop in Manila was brief, only providing as an introduction to this vast city for when we return at the tail end of our trip. For now, we’ve only got 18 hours in the city before we depart on a sixteen hour ferry ride in route to Coron Island, Palawan. The hostel we stayed at is Z Hostel, located in Makati. Makati is supposed to be a more urban, fancy district of Manila. However, our first taste of Makati had been the red light district - it wouldn't be until three weeks later we discovered the urban areas of Manila - and gained a different outlook of the city.
Our hostel was tucked in a back alley way sprinkled with hole in the wall Filipino rooftop bars. We crossed over to another neighborhood and found ourselves a little backstreet food truck district.
La Chucacabra is a fusion Mexican food establishment tucked into a tiny 12 by 12 first level apartment building. The street tacos are just that – made outside on the street. Zach got the carne asada for $110 Php, and I got the spicy goat meat. It was delicious. We had four beers, each of which cost $50 Php, which is about a buck ten. Our entire tab was less than $12 USD.
Next, we strolled across the street to a neighborhood bar and had the local Filipino light beer, San Miguel, on tap. We waited here until Tambai opened. Tambai is a street food joint located in this back alley way. It immediately caught our attention with its chalkboard menu, sidewalk street bar feel. It reminded me of Austin. So of course we took seats at the outside side walk bar for happy hour.
The bartender, Alan, was beyond courteous to our curiosities. He began offering us tastings of their local craft beers, whiskey (Nikka Whiskey), and locally made moonshine shots – all on the house. Once the kitchen opened, I ordered locally caught and fried soft shell crab. It was prepared similarly to Japanese sushi dishes, having hints of eel sauce and spicy mayo. It. Was. Incredible. Zach ordered the fried chicken skin. Now, the fried chicken skin is just that – FRIED CHICKEN SKIN. It came with a side of their house hot sauce. This dish was savory, salty, and crunchy. It was like a Mexican fusion chicharon dish.
Our taste of manila was just an appetizer, but we will be back in three weeks to really dive into the culture – before we venture on to Hong Kong.