54. Thrilla in Manila

Finding Some Thrilla in Manila: Two words – tricked out. There’s a saying in the Philippines that if 350 years of Spanish rule was like living in a convent, 50 years of American rule was like living in Hollywood. If that’s true, then Manila is the epicenter of the culture clash and the result is weird and familiar. It’s something like the Asian barrio – if you squint your eyes at the kids playing futbol, the Virgin Mary imagery, the Spanish street names, the old men playing chess under giant banyan trees, the countless mango and banana vendors, you could be in Barcelona, Havana or Buenos Aires. When you round the stucco-clad corner of Adriatico and Pedro Gil Streets, you expect to see Latin dancing, hear Latin music and smell Latin food. Instead, there’s a cluster of Asian rice and BBQ shops, a dozen American fast food joints and endless avenues of local cover bands belting out pop music from the 1980s. Colonialism has thoroughly confused the experience of the Filipino metropolis.

It’s an attraction though, especially the national love affair with cover bands and karaoke bars. Even on a Tuesday night, the crowded promenade along Manila Bay is jammed with small concert stages, a discount buffet of Journey, George Michael and Queen medleys. And the masses that gather every night to dance and sing along, they love it. They love it so much, they don’t notice the legendary smell of the bay behind them, which on a really hot day is something like oysters in a bedpan.

Sloan: Did you see what that fisherman just caught?
Amy: That’s disgusting.
Sloan: If I caught some dirty underpants, I’d probably call it a day.

And yet, we’re charmed. When you’re riding in a tricycle rickshaw* that’s belting Whitesnake ballads from an impossibly old boom box rigged to an impossibly older car battery, you stop noticing that every security guard posted at every shop door is armed with a real gun, a wild eye and a badge for a company called “Shooters.” Manila is big, it’s dirty, it has a reputation as a lousy tourist destination, but it’s very much alive and teeming with an underlying Filipino sweetness that we’re hoping to find even more of once we leave this city’s smoggy embrace.

*Even the cycle rickshaws have a certain throwback grace to them. They’re BMX bikes with a sidecar welded on one side, somehow capable of carrying a family of five. Never mind the Playboy bunnies stitched into the vinyl upholstery, let’s go clubbing.


  1. rja72 says:

    are you sure you’re not in ft. lauderdale?

  2. Elmer says:

    the bmx with a sidecar is called a pedicab, the motorbike with a sidecar is a tricycle ;)

  3. S says:

    I love the fact checking. By the way, we rode in our first tricycle today on Bantayan, five other people inside, pouring rain outside, we loved every second of it. Maybe we’ll extend our visa another month.

  4. Daimos says:

    My tummy hurts and my jaws are aching from the well-crafted first impression of this city. That's what I call WIT.

    Below her surface, her grit and dirt, she welcomes you with open arms, like a long lost friend.