Manila: Transport – More Fun in the Philippines?

Posted by in Transport, Travel

Steps to a storm

This piece was originally written in 2013 at a time when the Philippines was being battered by a storm from the Pacific. Fortunately this did not affect the capital where I was, but Manila also needed a lot of work. Let’s start at the beginning and a big thanks to my friend and journalist in the Philippines George Buid for the updates.

ARRIVAL

The Philippines are in the midst of a tourist drive. With their colourful and quirky ‘more fun in the Philippines’ campaign and slogan attracting a lot of media attention.

However, while the people are incredibly friendly considering some of what they have had to endure in the past (WW2) and continue to courtesy of nature throwing its own horrendous forces against it (as we have seen in the recent typhoon). Sadly, they are not natural planners.

The nightmare begins at the airport, a hotchpotch of terminals scattered over a patch of land between the central business district Makati and the cities southern reaches. I’ve travelled with the flag carrier, a full service airline and although we pass empty air bridges at their Terminal 2 base, we are parked at an isolated stand with steps up to the plane. 

They do not open the rear door so everyone is standing waiting to alight from the front. Adding to this is the lack of an airport bus to take us the terminal and immigration; only a series of airline vans much like the hotel shuttle variety. Nice but hardly practical. At immigration the first noticeable thing is all the signage is in plain English, no Tagalog. 

The next is that they have few windows operational and the man that stands between me and Manila is lethargic to say the least. Then there is customs, behind them is the glass frontage to the terminal itself, not the familiar walk through to information and shops. I know from my research that there is no metro train – but also know it isn’t far away. 

NEAR YET SO FAR

My plan is to get a bus then metro from Baclaran. Sadly, it isn’t just airline buses the airport is lax about and this is easier said then done. The taxis – all the airport will accommodate – attempt to gain my interest but my distrust of them means I insist on doing things my way. Although it is not far (on the map at least) it will take five hours to get to Makati. 

Quite why the Filipinos can’t supply an airport coach from their capital city’s airport to the main business district is truly staggering! I find one quite easily outside the terminal area, however it is far from being an air conditioned luxury as is common in Taipei and other Asian cities. 

It is more how I imagine a bus in Tonga, or a remote Pacific isle to be, a rustic affair with no baggage compartment beneath. Though it does feature a flat screen attached above the windscreen and a Jesus figurine in the window. There is some sort of game show on – which is in the local language; some find it amusing while some ignore it. 

*2021 update according to George there is a bus from the airport to Makati but transport is still chronic overall. For the bus try here 

Go easy, take the jeepney

Part way through the journey the bus conductor who must be about 17 takes my bag off and tells me to get on another bus. This is perplexing to say the least as the bus is already taking me where I want yet despite my puzzled protest, the rainy street welcomes me with my now former mode of transport taking off before my eyes! 

I spin round to see other buses and another local favourite, Jeepney’s (converted low lying army vehicles) careening toward me! I attempt to get another bus but they stop for a matter of seconds before speeding away in a similar fashion with laughing jack asses as conductors. I end up in a Jeepney with my bags which is far from ideal. 

Finally, we alight at what I think is Baclaran station; it turns out to be Taft Avenue. It’s lunch time and chaotic. If Beijing and Bangkok metro systems had been testing this was something else again. There are steps up to the station but nothing else. A kind soul helps with my luggage.

GETTING A METRO IN MANILA

The open air bridges interlinking the two different lines are a seething mass of people and like the roads are wet from recent rain. While being searched is not new, this is again much more rustic with planks of thin wood on spindly legs that can barely stand and wobble with each bag placed on them. 

They are like old school desks and these are being used as search tables with little room for manoeuvre between them. My next mistake was to buy a 100peso ticket for the network to find it is only good for one of the three lines instead of the whole network. And the stations are so inadequate it will be of little use anyway. On top of that it’s the wrong line. 

I have to go back the way I came through an unending asteroid chain of people probably all wondering who this white fool was. The wheels of my bag are caught on feet, shins, poles and a lot of stairs. There are two hugely accommodating ladies who not only guide me but wait for me to go through security to which I can only haphazardly thank them. 

Searched twice; I’m fumbling around with padlock keys with a mass of waiting yet remarkably patient locals behind me which is both uncomfortable and inconvenient. Then it’s a march to the platform. The first carriage is for women only. All others are bedlam.

Again the locals are friendly and try and help. They send me to a station which is closer to my intended hostel but the station staff send me back to Ayala as there is no bus from my initial hop off point at Buendia. Another bedlam train arrives. 

Get me a train out of here!

BRUTALIST STATION ARCHITECTURE

The stations themselves are horrible barren concrete affairs much like the Barbican centre in London. A series of huge faceless concrete bunkers painted vanilla with narrow stairwells and sometimes an escalator (which if you’re lucky is operational). No wonder women get their own carriage. The stations are terrifying even in daylight. 

I alight and am again sent completely the wrong way by station staff. This is draining in the overcast heat and takes another half hour walking to the end of the wrong side of the street and then back to the station to find there was an overpass already there; if only the instructions had not been lost in translation or they had taken the time to show me what it was they were trying to convey. 

BUSES AND CABS

Having found the Shell petrol garage they mentioned, which is further than expected, I now have to figure out which bus which leaves from the ramshackle station behind it.

Another eight pesos paid and I’m listening to a few officials trying to decipher the information I’ve presented them with and in addition how they can get me to my destination. Eventually it falls to a passenger who tells me there is no bus stop on the road I’ve requested and it will stop only as a drop off point; right by the hostel which is on the top floor of a six storey building. 

Mercifully there is at least a lift. Like my abode in Taipei the hostel has a further floor which the lift does not reach, only in this case, that is where reception lies. To my utter astonishment, the place is fully booked on a Tuesday. The sun has begun its descent for the day and I have to find something else fast in a city where transport is flawed to put it mildly. 

For a moment I consider going back to the airport but this would have made the last few hours pointless. The nearest option on my list is MNL – a much fancied boutique hostel. Fortunately they have a room available, even if it is more than I planned on paying.

There is the addition of a ‘free’ breakfast but it still works out more expensive than Taipei. To get to it however, I cave in and get a cab, the hostel assures me it’ll be safe, but I am nonetheless apprehensive. There is no way out of a cab, until it stops! Eventually I make it to the hostel unscathed.

At last, the sun came out

MAKATI CITY: FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Walking around – which for me is the best measure of sizing up a place – tells me two things. Even in the local vicinity of Makati, part of the greater Manila, the city is a work in progress with many roads without pavement and much construction going on.

And second, it is dirty with the Jeepney’s the biggest culprits. All it would take is some compulsory maintenance, and they would be far nicer for those of us that like to walk and quite possibly halve the pollution levels. 

I kind of felt sorry for Manila. On the one hand, if it was half as pretty as is so often scribed then its mauling by the American and Japanese forces in WW2 seem even more pointless as the Philippines were of no concern to either party. 

On the other, I admired the Filipino spirit; once again most I came across were very warm and the men like the Maori in NZ politely raise an eyebrow and nod with a semi smile which is somewhat surreal in that a lot of these guys are security personnel who are cradling any variety of firearm! Some wear it behind them like it’s a new breed of Fender Stratocaster. 

Rich man, poor man, riches and rags

For now and for a considerable time into the future Manila has a lot of work to do. There are some signs of hope in small pockets of greenery, modern malls such as the Powerplant and serviced apartments but most remains a dilapidated mess of corrugated steel, shanty town shacks, refuge, and debris.

In other words a colossal industrial zone. In Manila you see the importance of transport infrastructure and how vital architecture is to its environment. 

It used to be Spanish you know.

INTERLUDE IN INTRAMUROS

During a break in my travel woes I visit Intramuros, a walled city though I can’t remember any, nor can I remember how I got there – on foot I guess. It’s the most hispanic part of Manila. There are five existing gates and three that are no more.

Like a lot of cities (Warsaw for example) Intramuros was completely destroyed during WW2 and rebuilt. Plans are afoot to restore the wall and for it to be walkable (a bit like Chester in England).

On my walkabout it was all about the buildings and I shot quite a few shots, two of which feature above. Looking back I realise how much of Manila I missed but this was just before I got onto blogging. Now I would approach the city in a very different way.

Colour my world

I never got round to any of the museums but a couple of examples are the National Museum located near Rizal park which is now open but you have to book online.

The Ayala museum (as of 2021 undergoing renovation) covers art collections owned by Ayala-Zobel family and also provides exhibitions for local artists. I should also mention the array of coloured houses which adorn the otherwise forlorn streets – many with religious iconography, and as always the churches are free.

DISCORD AND RHYME

Back on the train, lots of corrugated tin sheets and ravaged windowless buildings that by now should have been long demolished smother the view. But that’s only half the problem. The network itself is disjointed and nowhere near user friendly.

The track between two of the lines at the northern end of the network is there but not in commercial use (as the two lines are managed by two different companies). This can mean lengthy walks in 30+ temperatures. 

Further still, the stations are some of the worst designed I’ve ever come across. To get to the opposite platform you must exit the station and quite often cross the road to re-enter the other side. This is discovered by trial and error – there is little in the way of signage.

Trains that are half the length of the platform arrive and full to the rims which in a city with such a chronic shortage of network and rolling stock is akin to lifeboats leaving the Titanic half empty! 

At Abad Santos (the stop for the Chinese Cemetery) a notice informs that by 2017, they hope to be running a network up to global standards. Sorry Manila, but I don’t like your chances. There is simply too much to do with a system that wasn’t sufficiently thought out and ‘planned’ in the first place. 

The buses are not much better, there is no Manila Transport. There are hundreds of stations with as many operators and all are subject to the legendary road traffic gridlock. There is only one saving grace about Manila’s metro stations; they are at least wide, but not enough to sate the bodies using them. 

DEPARTURE

Things go from bad to worse. I decide on a 4.30pm taxi to the airport – this time T3 – but my aforementioned distrust is with good reason as my oil slick driver attempts to grab an additional 50pesos for traffic before I even get in. He keeps uttering that we take the skyway but I’m paying and I know we are close to the airport. 

On delivery he tries to take off by short changing me and sulkily hands over a 10peso piece – still a deviation from the meter reading. What the taxi driver fails in the terminal gains by charging passengers 550pesos just to ‘use’ the terminal! 

A Filipino friend says that no-one knows what the so called ‘Terminal Tax’ is for so one can assume the type of corruption seen in the days of the Marcos regime is alive and thriving here. And another thing, don’t think you’ll miss the throng of people by avoiding peak times. It’s rush hour all day in Manila.

PLAYLIST AND CREDITS

Thanks for reading here, should you be interested in my work; principally writing, photography, and teaching, check out the MEDIA page, and/or the UNIVERSITY page for my teaching ethos. 

Meanwhile, stay tuned with things here at Kulture Kiosk via THE ATLAS or on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram where you can see some of my photos from around the world. For info on George visit his website or here.  Blog originally posted December 2013. Playlist and Photo Credits to follow…

PLAYLIST
A Giant Raft in the Philippines – It’s Immaterial
Shouldn’t Have to Be Like That – Fra Lippo Lippi
Waiting for a Train – Flash and the Pan

Photos: KH