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Arrival in the Philippines

Wade arrives in the Philippines, this is his initial impression.

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I’d never been to the Philippines before, which is odd as I’ve been knocking about the world for over 15 years, with over a third of that time in Asia. The Philippines is also a country that’s firmly on the path of tourists and travelers — it’s somewhere people go. Though I’ve always skipped the place over and I’m not sure why.

I suppose it was the “end of the road” quality of the Philippines that always had me saving it for later. If you travel from west to east across the body of Europe and Asia the last stop on the line is the Philippines. This is kind of place where travelers just end up after long journeys wondering where to go next, it is a place that seems to trap itinerants for the long term.

The Philippines is a vast array of islands that are incredibly diverse which don’t give the impression that you can step right in and hope to know what’s going on. To travel the Philippines takes time. This means a big investment.

The currency of travel is time — the time you spend here or the time you spend there. You can only be in one place at any given time, and all places of the earth are mutually exclusive to all others. I always figured that I would give the Philippines the proper six months to a year, and, knowing this, I was always reluctant to give the place a lick and a promise to return. A quick visit to the Philippines seemed ineffectual.

Though as I’ve been based in China — a country that is impossible to fully travel — for some years now it has become apparent that licks and promises to return are what some of the other countries in the region are invariably going to receive. I found a cheap flight from Xiamen to Manila and took it.

Arrival in Manila

I looked down from the airplane as it prepared for its nighttime descent into Manila. The place was a mess. The streetlights below revealed a city that was devoid of a grid and, apparently, any manner of urban planning. The streets wove twisty paths, each one seemingly intent on doing its own thing in complete disregard for any of the others. Some twisted snake-like, some arched like an oval, while others overlapped each other like a braid. The layout was completely manic. As the plane descended I saw one street that was lined with what appeared to be Christmas lights.

Was I really going into this place? I got excited, I started squirming in my seat. To see and experience something new, something unexpected, is the fruit of this traveling profession — the more f’cked up the better.

Anticipation soon gave way to experience. I’d cleared immigration and was spat out into the fray of the city.

Manila is the kind of place that may momentarily make you want to question your traveling ambitions. The place is crowded, congested, dirty, and fast — real fast. Even the bums and urchins seem to have engagements they’re late for. People are moving everywhere. It’s impossible to see everything and know what’s coming, and this isn’t just because the air is a thick cloud of diesel exhaust. You turn one way and there’s an urchin in your ear, you turn the other way and there’s another urchin popping up out of nowhere. You look down and see a helpless street dog unable to wrest its wang free from the innards of a bitch. You look to your left and see a guy suck a baby duck right out of an egg and swallow it whole. You look to your right and little kids caked in black filth have their hands stretching out towards you. You cross an overpass and see a herd of goats grazing on garbage in an abandon lot in the heart of the city.

My observation from the air was confirmed on the ground: Manila is a mess — an incredible, interesting mess. There is so much visual and auditory stimulation that the streets of this city are an attraction in and of themselves, the kind of place that a certain type of traveler lusts for. You can walk around and see the little stories of life unfold — you can see the love, the bad shit, the beauty, and the frailty. There is something hellish here that’s easy to see — this is a place where things come to heave their last breathes, degrade, die, and decompose. There is a black resinous gunk that covers the streets, the vehicles, and the people. The traffic is bumper to bumper and doesn’t move. It is often faster to walk places than ride in an automobile — a fact that I confirmed with a cab driver as it took us over a half hour to inch across a single block.

Though the only thing that really made Manila unbearable was the exhaust. The vehicles here are mostly diesel trucks and buses along with two stroke motorcycles, and there doesn’t seem to be any emissions standards to speak of. Each vehicle belches black smoke, and when this is multiplied by tens of thousands the entire city becomes a polluted inferno. There is no escaping the the thick blue smoke, even indoors you can still smell the noxious miasma. It made me dizzy and inflamed my throat. It was bad, real bad.

Many places in this world are dysfunctional, but Manila just didn’t seem to work at all. The place was broken. Though, like most dysfunctional places, there was good action everywhere. I walked slow, took in the scene. I found myself smiling. So this is the Philippines.


Filed under: Philippines, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

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