Manila, Philippines Report of what it's like to live there - 03/17/12

Personal Experiences from Manila, Philippines

Manila, Philippines 03/17/12

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?

Washington, DC, about 24 hour trip, connecting in Tokyo and the west coast.

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3. How long have you lived here?

1 year.

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

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?

Embassy folks either live at the Seafront compound in old housing with lots of mosquito problems, close to the Embassy, but not close to ANYTHING else. If you have a large family, you might be lucky to live in one of the villages:You get a big house in a quiet gated community your kids can even bike on the roads!For everyone else, housing is split in between Makati (a great metropolitan area with everything you can imagine right at your doorstep) or Fort Bonifacio (looks very much like any planned community in the US).Housing in the Fort is great, all new buildings, a few things walking distance but very very "sterile" -- quiet and not as much to do.

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

Groceries are the only part where you'll be spending some money -- luckily eating out is cheap, so it evens out at the end. If you buy Filipino products you can save some money, but for imported goods you'll be paying a pretty penny. Most expats have a membership at S&R when you can find lots of American products (for a price). As for produce, you can find pretty much anything, and the fruits are also amazing. We prefer to buy them at the Saturday Market in Makati for better quality than the grocery stores.

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

Bread flour (cannot find it ANYWHERE), canned pumpkin (ditto), black beans and other type of beans (sometimes you see it for sale, but you never know if it'll be there when you need it). If you like tanning, you cannot find tanning lotion anywhere. As for cosmetics, you can find pretty much anything, but you may pay a price for it. Also, lots of people have difficulty in finding shoes and clothing their size (Filipinos are petite), but that's what online shopping is for!

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

Filipinos love America, and anything American, so you can find your Starbucks, McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, Shakey's Pizza, Burger King...Seriously it won't be hard to find fast food (we have about 6 Starbucks, 4 Coffee Bean, and I think 5 McDonalds within a quarter mile radius from us). The cost of Starbucks & Coffee Bean is similar to the US, McDonald's is even cheaper.

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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?

Organic produce you can buy at the Saturday Market, as well as a couple of places in the Fort. There's even a CSA some people use. There's such a variety here of foods, that those with restrictions should not have issues, but those allergic should make it very clear when ordering at restaurants, as they're not really used to customizing a meal, or taking allergy seriously.

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

Lots of BIG cockroaches outside (like any tropical country), but we have had no issues with it inside our apartment. Loads of mosquitoes, but if you live in an apartment in Makati or the Fort you won't be bothered by them.

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Daily Life:

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

We use DPO, which usually takes about 2-6 weeks to get here. We haven't had issues yet.

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

Widely available, and it's great. We spend about $250/month for our full-time helper and $300/month for our driver. That's on the high-end, which is what embassy folks pay. We love our helper and she's 100% worth it. As for drivers, you can totally drive in Manila, even if it looks scarey at first, but we only have one car, so having the driver helps.

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

If you live in Makati or the Fort, there are a ton of gym options, either full gyms or more specialized places (yoga studios, bikram, martial arts, dance, crossfit...).

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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?

They can be used everywhere, except at times at other provinces. In Manila, there are no issues.

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

Yes, many. Anything you can imagine, though the majority is Catholic.

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

With cable (about $50/month) you can get pretty much all US TV programming (though in odd times/frequencies).Lots of English-language newspapers as well.

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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. Most people speak English, and though sometimes you have to repeat slowly and rephrase things, you get used to it.

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

Hard. Sidewalks don't have ramps, and not every place even has sidewalks, and when they do, is not unusual to have a pole or a tree in the middle of it (a wheelchair would not fit).Makati is full of underpasses with stairs, no ramps, and no other way to cross the street. It is not a disability-friendly town.

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Transportation:

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

Embassy staff are not allowed to take train, buses or jeepneys. Taxis are VERY affordable (think $2-$3 for a ride most times).Taxis are also safe. The only precaution is that they're not familiar with other neighborhoods but they'll rarely admit that. If you have directions it will help. Also, they're known for stopping to get gas or going to the bathroom, WHILE YOU'RE IN THE CAR WITH THE METER RUNNING. If I knew the area better before our car arrived, I would have gotten out and taken a different cab in the many times this has happened.

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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?

We have a Corolla and it fits us fine -- it blends in with the local cars, which are mostly Honda and Toyota (so finding parts here is not an issue). An SUV will treat you better during a flood and when competing with road space with jeepneys, but we like that our car blends in.

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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?

We spend about $30/month for high speed internet. It's not the fastest, but also not the slowest by far.

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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?

Most embassy people get a prepaid SIM (for P40 -- about $1) from either Globe or Smart, and use that for their time here. Postpaid you need to be tied to a 2-year contract that cannot be broken without costing a lot. With prepaid there are even internet plans you can sign up for using your minutes for P300 (about $7) for 300MB/month of usage. We spend about P500 (about $12) for a phone card a month. Most people here use texting, instead of calls (think doctors appointments, salons, friends, vets, etc), so one card goes a long way.

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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?

No. Just current rabies shots. Also need an import certificate, that must be arranged before flying here.(Our embassy sponsor took care of that for us.)

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

The quality is good, but some things are not comparable to the US.Said that, the vet does home visits for the equivalent of a $12 charge. He is always available by text, at no charge. The cost of vet care is also very affordable, specially compared to the over-inflated prices in the US! Though there are kennels, most people just get their helpers to sleep in when they travel instead of bothering with kennels. Grooming is not the cheapest, at P700 ($18).

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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?

If you're a teacher, there are plenty of opportunities for a somewhat competitive price. The Embassy also posts new jobs weekly. The ADB is also headquartered here. For other jobs, however, if you're coming from the US or Europe, the salary is just not competitive enough to bother (think $500/month) -- so why steal a job from a local that can actually benefit from that money?

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

Barongs (the Filipino national dress -- short sleeve shirt) is accepted anywhere and considered proper office-wear. People at the Embassy choose to wear that instead of a suit/tie, since it's a lot more comfortable. You can get them made to your measurements, and even pants, for about $20/piece. Women wear western clothes to the office, like you would expect in the US.As for socializing, anything goes, shorts and flipflops is fine, unless you're off to something fancy.

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Health & Safety:

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

We are not allowed to take jeepneys or the MRT here, based on embassy restrictions. No big security concern, unless you decide to be in the wrong part of town at 2 in the morning (in Makati and the Fort things are fairly safe).Always aware of your belongings so you don't get pick-pocketed, but robberies are very very rare.

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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?

If you go to Makati Med or St Luke's, you'll likely get treated by a US trained doctor. The quality is very good, but people have had issues with a few things, but as third world countries go, you can come here without worrying that they won't know how to treat you. The medical staff at the embassy is also very competent, and have a lengthy list of doctors/specialist. Cost of medical care is cheap -- about P1000 ($23) for an office consultation (not including what your insurance may cover).I had a mole removed and the surgery + biopsy was my most expensive bill yet:P5,000 ($120)

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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?

Air quality is bad, but comparable to any other major over-populated big city. There is no such thing as emission control, so the pollution from cars is pretty bad. I haven't had any issues, but some people have their breathing troubles exacerbated while living here.

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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?

I think you can divide the weather here in two seasons:hot and sunny, and hot and rainy. People warned us of raining season, but I didn't know that meant a couple of weeks without even seeing the sun peeking out. During the rainy season it rains a LOT.Things here flood quite quickly once the rain starts (but drains fairly fast once it stops).If you're coming here, don't forget your rain boots!The black dirty flooding water is disgusting.

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Schools & Children:

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

There are a couple of international schools and people with kids seems pretty satisfied with them. Haven't heard any complaints.

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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?

There's a day care at Seafront compound for those embassy folks, but there are also day cares in every other block in Makati and the Fort.

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

Since we don't have kids, I'm not sure, but I will be surprised if there isn't anything.

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Expat Life:

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

Large, but depends where you live (lots in Makati/Fort, not so much in other areas).

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2. Morale among expats:

It varies. People here seem to either love it or hate it -- some even get bothered by security guards saying "good morning, mam" when you walk on the street -- that's just the Filipino niceness. People forget that the Philippines is still a third world country!For a third world country you have MANY comforts of a first world one, and some days you even forget you're outside the US (places like Makati or the Fort feel like you're in an American city with lots of Asian immigrants, and not actually thousands of miles away).

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

Lots of bars, but local bars close at midnight. Lots and lots of different restaurants. A few clubs as well, sports bars, etc. You won't get bored, unless you chose to!

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

Yes, for couples and families. Since you get household help for a very affordable price, and a driver as well, you can really relax and enjoy Manila. As for singles, men love it, as Filipinas love western men (which they associate with being "rich"), women are not as lucky. The expats here are interested in the Filipinas, and most single women are not interested in the local men (and I believe the local men also prefer the local women). The girls I know that are single are not too excited about their time here.

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

Asians are surprisingly open about homosexuality, and though you don't see male/female couples out in the open as much, lady boys are everywhere, and it's part of the culture. There are definitely gay bars and clubs, but just as the issue with single women: if you're gay in the Philippines, make sure you find Asian men/women attractive. If you don't, you'll be miserable here too.

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

Most of the country is Catholic, but those who are not, do not suffer prejudice. You can find pretty much a church of any denomination to attend services as well.

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

Filipinos are incredibly nice people, and we have traveled a LOT.We are averaging about 1 trip a month, if not more. It's a great way to explore Asia, and the Philippines has gorgeous islands to visit. If you like the water, you can learn how to dive here, as it has some of the best diving in the world.

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

Go diving! You can go to Batangas on a 3-hour road trip, fly to any of the islands for beach, diving and snorkeling, fly to other Asian countries (yes, we love travel the most!). There are lots of dining options here, and though Filipino cuisine is not very interesting, you can find anything else here, so foodies will not be disappointed!

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

Lots of Filipino handicrafts, from furniture to home decor (gorgeous vases made of coconut shells and lots of capiz and wood carved goodies), and don't forget the pearls at greenhills, you can find every type you want!

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

Manila is a great place to live, you can eat out for relatively cheap, you can save money, or do what we did and blow it all on travel to the other amazing Asian countries nearby!Pampering is also SUPER affordable here!Less than $10 for a 1 hour foot massage, about $25 for a 1.5 hour massage at a fancy spa, facials for less than $12, laser hair removal for $20/treatment!Etc, etc, etc!If you're stressed out while in the Philippines, you're not traveling and pampering enough.

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11. Can you save money?

If you don't travel, yes, but we choose to spend our money on travel, since it's so affordable and we're taking full advantage of Asia. If both spouses work, then you can save a bundle, even with travel.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

ABSOLUTELY!We love it here, live in an amazing apartment, have traveled to so many amazing places in Asia and the Philippines, eat delicious food every time, have a helper that takes amazing care of our place and our pets... We love this place!

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

Winter clothes!The seasons here are hot and hottest!Think flipflops, shorts and sundresses year-round.

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3. But don't forget your:

Patience. Filipinos are very-nice, but lack the efficiency other Asian cultures are known for. When you go out to eat, expect each person to get their meals at a different time (sometimes 15-20 minutes apart), expect to hear a lot of "wait a while" and you'll always be stuck behind people on escalators -- no walking up them here!Long lines for everything, lack of organization for most things. Even local flights are most often delayed (have plenty of reading material with you before heading to the airport!).

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

I would search for the BBC "Toughest Place to be a Bus Driver" episode. It gives you a good realistic look into the other side of those living in Manila. It makes you really appreciate what you have.

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

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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