Manila, Philippines Report of what it's like to live there - 07/16/11

Personal Experiences from Manila, Philippines

Manila, Philippines 07/16/11

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Yes

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

From DC to Manila, the flight time is about 36 hours. Currently the Embassy flies most people on Delta from Detroit to Manila via Japan.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Two years

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Government - associated with US Embassy

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

There are a few different housing types in Manila for government personnel - Seafront, Makati/Fort Bonifacio and the villages. Seafront is a US government property located about 15 minutes from the Chancery (proper Embassy). SF contains several office building including the new VA hospital. It also contains warehouses. The residences are small out-dated townhouses or apartments from the 60s with little renovations or updates to current US standards. Residents complained there was nothing within walking distance and the compound was surrounded by less desirable elements of city-living. However, there is a large pool, several tennis courts, and a small gym on the compound. The proximity to the Chancery is also a positive. Residents also enjoyed (or not) the feeling of small community living with neighbors that were also co-workers. Makati and Fort Bonifacio are cities/areas within the Manila metro area. They are further from the embassy and commutes can take 45 minutes or twice that depending on traffic, weather, etc. The housing is large, spacious apartments built from the late 90s to yesterday. All are within walking distance to Manila's Western-style malls, restaurants and grocery stores. Expats you meet will tend to live in one of these areas if they are not in a village. Villages are small communities of houses around the metro region. Commutes can range from 30 minutes to an hour or more depending on location, traffic, weather, etc. The houses are large and often include are a good-sized yard. They are usually well-placed near the commercial areas of Makati and Fort Bonifacio.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Fruits, vegetables, and meats are a lot cheaper than in the US. Any packaged item that was not made in the Philippines, is more expensive. US food items and products can be purchased from S&R, a Sam's Club equivalent, and Rustans, a grocery store chain catering to Makati and Fort Bonifacio residents. These two are significantly costlier than the normal supermarkets.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Paper products - everything from toilet paper to paper towels. Brown sugar - light and dark. Canned pumpkin for the holidays.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

All major fast-food options are available from McDonald's to Burger King to Pizza Hut to Taco Bell and a lot more. There are also a lot of Filipino-branded fast food restaurants like Jollibee. Costs of all of the above is less than in the US.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

The chain of Healthy Options stores stocks many organic, vegetarian, and allergy-friendly foods. Meats are not widely available in the stores though. Costs are twice that than if you bought the same thing a Whole Foods.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Big, large flying cockroaches. Ravenous mosquitoes. And all sorts of ants from harmless brown ones to the biting kind. It's a tropical climate, so expect a lot of insects around the place. The mosquitoes can carry dengue - even in Manila. Most sprays, candles and other defenses don't really work. The roaches are just gross but I didn't hear of people having them in their house. But the brown ants can be a kitchen nuisance.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

DPO and Pouch is available at the Embassy.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Cheap. Drivers, nannys, housekeepers, and cooks are about $400 - 500/month. You are also required to give a bit more for Social Security and a bit of a food allowance.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes. Fitness First and Gold's Gym are located throughout the city. Membership rates are equivalent to the US but so are the facilities.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Credit Cards are widely accepted throughout Manila and major cities though sometimes compromised. Likewise ATMs are found throughout the city. Check your statements thoroughly to identify additional or incorrect charges. If you go outside of Manila or any other large city, you should bring enough cash. Most resorts charge a 3% usage fee if they accept the card.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Yes. Mostly Catholic but other Christian denominations available. Not sure about other religions.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Just about every cable channel is a mix-and-match of shows from the US. Cable is about $50-60/month. Most local newspapers are in English.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

None though helpful outside of Manila.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

A lot. The sidewalks are crumbling. Ramps to buildings are non-existent in most areas outside of Makati and Fort Bonifacio. A helper would need be needed to assist with movement.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Taxis are safe though drivers don't like turning on their meter and sometimes don't want to take you to your destination if it's out of their way. Buses are not safe. They are frequently in deadly accidents. A surprisingly efficient rail system is available in Manila. It's only two lines but in a pinch, you can take it. But watch your purses and pockets. Jeepneys, specific to Manila, are not recommended since they also get into deadly accidents and are improperly maintained. Additionally, your probability of being robbed is significantly increased.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Four-wheel drive vehicles are good if you plan to drive outside of Manila and also when it rains. However, a sedan or coupe would work fine around the city.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Internet is available through DSL or Cable. Both are slower than the US but streaming video and phone calls work. It's about $50 for DSL, $100 for Cable/month.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Pre-paid plans are available but most people go with a pay-as-you-go plan. Talking and texting in the country is cheap. Get Skype or another internet-based service for calling back home.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Yes, there are a few in Makati.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Few. There is high unemployment and few challenging jobs available. Most opportunities are volunteering at local charitable organizations.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business casual at work unless you meet with a government official. Ties are unheard of outside of Manila. Weekend wear is shorts, jeans, or khakis. Whatever you feel comfortable wearing in a hot and humid climate.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

The Philippines has three regions. Government personnel are not allowed to travel to the region of Mindanao. Current information should be obtained from the State Department's website. In the city of Manila there are a few concerns like purse snatchings and pickpocketing. But violent crime for money - like carjackings, gun/knife holdups, et cetera - are rare. When traveling around the country, the crime is even less. I never had an issue with it, but heard about money being taken from accommodations so I'd suggest leaving valuables at the front desk of the resort.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Dengue. Respiratory issues. The quality of care varies from not good to acceptable. The embassy works with the premier hospitals in the country - Makati Med and St. Luke's. They would be acceptable in the US.Acceptable dentists and primary care physicians are also available. Cost is significantly cheaper than the US.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Horribly unhealthy. It hasn't gotten to Beijing horrible but certainly surpassed LA in the 80s/90s. If you have a respiratory problem, you will have issues. If you don't, you may develop one. This is a good reason in itself to get out of Manila as much as possible. Get the yuck out of your lungs!

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Hot, humid and rainy or hot, less humid, and less rainy. It's a tropical climate but there are seasons:Winter - November to February - is the best season. Warm/hot and not so humid during the day and warm with no humidity in the evening. Summer - March to June - is hot/hot and humid during the day and night with very little rain. Rainy season - June to October - is rainy but not rain all day long. It's mostly heavy rain for a few hours every day with the very good chance of typhoons and tropical storms throughout.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Very large. Due to the former military bases, there are lots of retired military personnel. The Philippines also has a large immigrant population in the US, so there are also lots of Filipino-Americans who moved back to the Phil.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

During the day, you can go to Seafront for tennis or squash lessons or meeting up with a personal fitness training. It's also possible to find golf, badminton, soccer, and other facilities around the city. In the evening, you can head to a movie theater, coffee shop, or a mall to meet friends. There are also several decent restaurants. There are numerous clubs and bars. They range in quality from seedy to posh and the prices reflect it. Also, some expats will host house parties.

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3. Morale among expats:

Varies to who you speak with. Some love it and some are on their 2nd or 3rd tour. Some want to leave now. But I think many are content. Whether they want to return or not is unknown.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Families especially enjoy the cheap access to helpers - drivers, nannies, cooks, and more. Most families hire at least two helpers - a driver and nanny. Filipinos love children and are very accommodating. Around the city there are several children's activities. Families seemed generally happy. Couples find easy access to Western-style dining for nights out, romantic travel around the country in nice resorts and easy international escapes. Couples are just as likely to fall into a large group of friends made-up of other couples and singles. Straight single men seem to be in heaven. Most have a Filipino girlfriend and many more are waiting to take her place. (Many employees at the embassy have a Filipino wife from previous Manila tours.) The expat community is welcoming. It's not uncommon to walk into a bar by yourself, meet a few other expats and have plans to meet up again by the end of the night. Straight single women have a more difficult time. Most women have a difficult time dating but have lots of girlfriends to do things with. The female expat community is welcoming and there isn't a real feeling of cliques.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Gay men and lesbians will find Manila to be open and closed at the same time. There are many trans-persons around the city but they have a specific place in society - such as clothing retail, salons, outdoor markets, entertainment, and nightclubs. Don't expect to see a trans-person in an office or government setting. Additionally, many gay men and lesbians are not out at work if they don't work in one of the areas welcoming to trans-persons. There are a handful of bars and clubs that cater to gay men and lesbians but the scene is not comparatively as big as DC. For a long time the epicenter of the community was in Malate. However, Quezon City is growing and has a handful of gay bars and clubs. It was the site of Manila's Gay Pride, co-sponsored by the mayor's office. (The mayor of Malate refused to co-sponsor it.) Gay men and lesbians who are out or 'noticeably gay' should not have a problem with violence. However they may endure stereotypes or strange questions from inquisitive Filipinos. Also, it may not be wise for a same-sex couple to kiss in public, but same-sex couples holding hands in malls is not uncommon. Bars come and go fast but www. Utopia-Asia.com offers current information on Manila and other cities in the country and region.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Filipinos can be racist. There are many billboards around Manila advertising whitening creams. Darker skinned persons that visit spas routinely are asked if they want a whitening creme. The thought that lighter skinned persons are superior is prevalent. However I never heard of a violent hate-crime based on skin color. Filipinos are pre-dominantly Catholic but in the south, there is a large population of Muslims with a small group of Islamist extremists. I'm not sure if there are prejudices in Manila based on religion.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Travel. Get out of Manila as much as you can. See the country; see the region. In the city, there are a few decent Western-style restaurants, clothing stores, and food supplies. For golfing, there are a couple of nice courses with Intramuros being very popular with the expat community. Massages and spas are certainly a highlight. Most are cheap but the quality is not equal to Thailand or China. Still, they were nice and you can easily communicate areas that need extra pressure. Shopping at the pearl market in Greenhills is great - but you should get there when they set up to avoid the crowds. There is also a good opportunity to meet some nice expats in the community. I also made some good Filipino friends but sometimes there are underlying reasons that Filipinos befriend expats - visa, money, status, et cetera.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Take a spa day to release the frustrations of the week. Drive 45 minutes south to check out Taal volcano and escape the heat of Manila. Take a day to check out the American Cemetery and Memorial in Fort Bonifacio. Go the movies - IMAX or Director's Club with La-Z-Boy recliners. Check out the Saturday farmer's market in Salcedo, Makati.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Pearls. Hand-made furniture.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

The country offers lots to persons who want to get out of Manila. There are endless diving opportunities. Even with a two or three year tour, you may feel you won't get to all of the spots you want to dive. In addition to diving, beaches are abound on the islands though accommodations are not to US standards - i.e. expect a Motel 8 room as luxury and less for the more remote places. The mountains in the north - Baguio and Banaue - offer a nice break from the heat and dirt of the rest of the country. If you need a break from the islands, you're an easy hop to South East Asia with daily direct flights to Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, and more.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes. Even if you travel and buy American products. It's about being sensible with your money.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes. But one tour is enough.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Winter supplies.

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3. But don't forget your:

Summer clothes. Sunglasses. Umbrella. Patience.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Culture Shock! Philippines: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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