If Bangkok and Los Angeles had a drunken tryst, the result would be a child named Manila. Loud, crowded, and never dull, Manila is a shrine to the god of karaoke and cigarettes, where one street can separate a five star restaurant in a global city from a back-alley midget-wrestling bar. Each neighborhood has a unique flair, yet with a humid and lighthearted atmosphere that keeps the district on the other side of town feeling as interwoven and accessible as the one you’re in. And if there’s one sound more ubiquitous than the coughing of jeepney exhausts, it’s hammering: this is a city under construction. New offerings and infrastructure are constantly going up, and the Manila of today may not be the Manila of tomorrow, in all the best of ways.

Photo Credits: Fotorus.

You could spend a lifetime in a city as big as Manila, let alone a gap year. It’s the largest city in the Philippines by far and thus the hub for everything a foreigner could need, be it a steady job or a place to put down the pack for a while. Some of the most popular ways to spend time in the city are social enterprise, artistic entrepreneurship, and plain ol’ adventure backpacking

As large and modern as Manila is, the areas immediately surrounding it are extremely basic – many don’t even have electricity. This makes social enterprise a great way to spend a gap year. Many foundations offer fellowships and bring in plenty of foreigners to assist in elevating the outliers.

Within the city limits, there’s a huge artistic movement teetering on a renaissance. Because Manila, and Makati in particular, is growing so fast, there is a huge niche to be filled. Cooking, blogging, painting, modeling, every artistic endeavor can lead to the next big thing. All it takes is the right drive and talent. The audience is provided.

If the call of the wild is too strong, Manila is still the best place for a backpacker to call home base. As the largest city, it has the most options for transportation out, and its location makes it the key to both the northern Cordillera (and the world-famous rice terraces thereof) and the southern islands’ pristine white beaches. Add in the Philippines’ relatively small amount of tourists and Manila becomes one of the best cities in all of Southeast Asia to call home.


Manila is an easy city to love, but it takes some thought to get there. The most important bit is this: know when you’re leaving. There are a lot of visa options that allow stays of anywhere up to a year, but even with the longest option the customs desk will turn away anybody that doesn’t have an exit flight. Buy your flight home, buy a $50 to Ho Chi Minh City that you’ll never get on, but have a ticket ready to show.

Cost of Living

While orders of magnitude cheaper than the Western world, Manila is still one of the most expensive cities in Southeast Asia. The dollar is strong against the peso (at a conversion rate of roughly 1:40) but the prices adjust accordingly. Getting across town can be anywhere between 20 pesos on the train (which doesn’t have the most convenient stations) up to 250 pesos for a taxi.

Likewise, a good meal can cost 30 pesos from a street cart (more than safe to eat!) up to 1000 pesos at an upscale restaurant. The most shoestring of backpackers can get by on just 200-400 pesos a day (roughly $5-$10), but don’t expect to live an exciting life. For a more realistic and enjoyable experience, budget roughly 800-1000 pesos ($20-$25) a day.

Despite the rural nature of most of the country, Manila is a developed and safe city. Diseases like Malaria are virtually nonexistent. The water is mostly safe to drink, though you should ask if it’s been filtered or purified (a common practice) just in case to avoid a case of the Traveler’s Tummy.

Outside of the city, it’s a different story, and some of the more boondock areas of the country do warrant anti-malarials, and the water could contain potentially fatal amoeba if it’s not filtered or purified.

Like any big city, avoid walking around in dark alleys alone after dark. Manila has its share of crime, but it’s avoidable with a bit of common sense. Pickpockets make regular targets on the train.

The locals wear their bags on their front and watch their pockets when on the train, and as the saying goes, do as the Romans do. Cabs will occasionally run up the meter or keep it off – politely ask they turn it on or reset it if this is the case.

There are two scams to watch out for in Manila. In one, a person approaches pretending to recognize you from the hotel. Maybe they’ll be the head of room service. These people will usually want money or try to lead you places; just ignore them.

In another, a group will approach and befriend you, eventually inviting you to a private residence for dinner. There, the victim is drugged and robbed. It’s a scary but avoidable crime. For social interactions, just be aware: how natural was the meeting?

Contributed by Colin Heinrich


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