Manila, Philippines Report of what it's like to live there - 07/30/16
Personal Experiences from Manila, Philippines
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. We have lived in several cities, mainly in eastern Europe and Asia.
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 Washington DC, the standard State Department route takes about 30 hours. There are a few direct flights from Manila to the U.S. (Guam, CA, NYC) but most flights pass through Japan or Singapore.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Foreign Service Employee assigned to the U.S. Embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
There are three housing options: high rise apartments in the uptown neighborhoods of Makati and Fort Bonafacio, and government owned apartments and townhouses on the Embassy "Seafront" Compound located downtown. A few high ranking officers or those with very large families live in houses within uptown gated communities. We lived at Seafront in an apartment.
The houses and high rises are posh. Generally three or more bedrooms and spacious living and dining rooms which are great for entertaining. Kitchens are large, and some buildings have separate entrances and elevators for domestic staff. Fort Bonafacio is a little ritzier than Makati, but both have a wealth of dining and shopping options. Most high rises feature the same sort of facilities you'd expect in DC corporate housing (basic gym, pool, lounge, etc.) Both are also about the same distance from the Embassy. Without traffic the commute could be as little as 15 minutes, however rush-hour commutes generally average about an hour, much more if its raining.
Seafront is a walled compound about half the size of the Foreign Service Institute located two miles south of the embassy. Embassy housing takes up about 1/3 of the compound. GSO offices and warehouses take up the rest. There is a large pool (and kiddie pool), playground, well equipped gym, tennis, squash, racquetball, and basketball courts. There is also a dog run and small grassy field. The compound is guarded by local hire security. Entering the compound requires going through the same security procedures as entering the embassy.
The embassy-run daycare is located on Seafront, and that combined with the other kid friendly amenities makes it popular with folks who have young children. Singles and socialites tend not to like living on the compound. Housing is some of the smallest and oldest we've come across in the Foreign Service but is well maintained.
The biggest selling point for Seafront is its proximity to the embassy. Our two-mile commute is generally around 15 minutes and only once or twice has been more than 30. There is a small computer lab with Open Net computers which is open 24/7.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Prices are generally comparable to what you would pay in the States. There are a number of high-end grocery stores in Makati and Fort Bonofacio but unless you live in the Fort most grocery options will require a short drive. Seafront is close to a Sam's Club and Super Wal-mart type groceries. Substantial savings on fruits, vegetables, and local seafood are possible if you (or a domestic) shop at local markets. Good beef and dairy are tough to find and cost accordingly. The same goes for non-local seafood. Good bread is almost impossible to find outside of the Fort.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Good flour and other grains. Electronics are very expensive on the local market.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Makati and the Fort have an abundance of nice restaurants. Almost anything can be delivered by third-party delivery services and the same sort of fast food take-out that is popular in the U.S. is popular here. Seafront is located in a much poorer part of town and walkable options are few, however a major mall, some all you can eat buffets, and a few high end hotel restaurants are all within a 10 minute taxi ride.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
You will have bugs. They aren't that bad.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
The embassy has a DPO and the diplomatic pouch. Postal facilities are the best we've come across in the Foreign Service.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very inexpensive. Nearly everyone with kids employs a "yaya" (nanny), who often double as housekeepers while the kids are at school or camp. Most people employ drivers.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Gyms are expensive. A lot of people use the gyms at the Embassy and at Seafront (open to non-Seafront residents as long as they are a member of the American Recreation Club, which almost everyone is).
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 accepted throughout Manila. In principle they are also accepted in most hotels outside Manila but our experience was that the card readers often did not work. We'd recommend you always have large cash reserves while traveling.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
A large variety of Catholic, Protestant, and LDS services. Manila has several Mosques and at least one Synagogue.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can get by with just English, but if you want to have a meaningful conversation with anyone outside the top 15% you need Tagalog. That being said, the top 15% all live in Makati or the Fort. Most Filipinos speak some English.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Someone with disabilities would have a tough time here. Accomodation is limited, and rare outside Manila. Post has done a lot of research on this topic. Consider reaching out if you have questions.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Embassy employees are not allowed to take mass transit within Manila and are discouraged from taking it outside Manila. In reality bus or "jeepney" is the only way of getting around in the more remote areas. Our experience is that they were fine. Taxis are inexpensive and plentiful in Manila, as are motorcycle tricycles for short distances.
Do be careful with ferries. Unless you limit yourself to the most popular tourist destinations you're going to have to take them at some point. There are a number of well-regarded carriers and some dodgy ones. Wherever there is a ferry service there is generally also a fisherman with a small "banka" or pumpboat offering to take you for half the rate or twice the speed. We'd advise against it. Ferry disasters are not infrequent. Consult with RSO before you take a trip involving a ferry, but take what they say with a grain of salt.
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?
Any car is fine. Traffic in Manila is horrendous, but the roads are pretty good. The nature of the countryside means most people don't do much driving outside of Manila except for the occasional trip north to Baguio or Ilocos. All residences have garages.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
It is available, but a headache. There is only one service provider, its a little bit on the steep side, and customer service is negligible. Fortunately the embassy Customer Care Center does a good job of helping employees navigate the process.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We used a local, pre-paid plan. Most people seem to do the same.
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?
Yes, and they come to your home. A house call costs about $20. No quarantine.
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?
EFM employment is tough everywhere. The situation in Manila is probably better than most places outside of EUR or WHA. The embassy is huge (approx. 1300 employees) and has one of the biggest consular sections in the world. As a result a lot of EFMs get jobs on post as rovers, fingerprinters, consular adjudicators, and the like. Several spouses (including in our family) have managed to find full or part-time employment in the private or education sector. There is a State Department Global Employment Advisor resident to post.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There are a lot of volunteer opportunities. Interestingly, due to the shared history of our two countries there are several well established charitable organizations that draw largely from the American expat community (the largest in the world after Canada and Mexico) and work closely with the embassy.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Most Consular, PAS, and USAID officers wear business casual. The local dress shirt, or "barong," is popular with male employees. Most other sections tend to wear business attire. The good news is that a normal barong is viewed locally as the same as business attire, while a nice pineapple cloth barong (about $100) is equivalent to black-tie. Formal attire events are frequent. When held inside most Filipinos and about 1/3 of the expats will wear a dress barong. When held outside a barong is the rule.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Only official travel to Mindanao is authorized. Most officers can wheedle their way into traveling to Mindanao at least once during a tour but for EFMs that means about 1/3 of the country is off-limits. Al Queda and ISIS type outfits exist in the far south of the country and kidnap foreigners. There is a superannuated communist insurgency that theoretically has a presence in all provinces outside Metro Manila. There is the potential for things to go south quickly, but all in all we've felt very safe here. We've traveled frequently (including to Mindanao) and have not experienced any problems. We have not found crime to be a problem, but have not frequented the dodgier parts of town.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Mosquito born diseased like dengue or chicken ganya get an officer or two every year. Medical care is excellent, but unless you live in the Fort, traffic means a heart attack is likely to kill you long before you get to a hospital. There is a well-equipped medical unit on Seafront that is able to take care of most regular needs. Our family had one hospitalization at the recommended hospital. The care was excellent and inexpensive.
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?
The air quality is bad. Not as bad as China or India, but worse than most other places. Expect a lot of sniffles and allergies.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Not that we know of. It may seem counterintuitive but isolation can be a problem. Traffic is bad enough that you will generally only socialize with those in your neighborhood. Singles and socialites should lobby hard for Makati or the Fort.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Very hot and humid in the summer, generally pleasant during the winters. Monsoon rains in the summer are like snow storms in NYC. They happen regularly, occasionally close work and school for a day, but everything gets back to normal the day after.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are several excellent international schools in Manila. Most are in the Fort.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
We can't speak to this personally, but we have a number of colleagues with special needs children and they seem to like the post.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, especially in the Fort of Makati. At Seafront the American Recreation Club does an OK job of providing some activities.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Huge, particularly Americans. Morale is high.
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?
There are as many options are you are likely to find anywhere outside of Western Europe. Fraternal organizations are still popular here, as are charitable and other groups. A number of clubs have club houses with nice facilities available to members.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
This city is great for everyone. As mentioned before singles and socialites probably want to avoid Seafront.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Probably as good as you're going to get in SE Asia. The country is devoutly Catholic but has a large LGBT population. There are a lot of gay couples at post and they seem to like it.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Not really. White people are a treat outside of Manila, black people especially so. Expect to have rustics yell "Hey Joe" when they see a non-Asian walking around. It's well intentioned and harkens back to the WWII era. Filipinos are possibly the friendliest people on earth, and during our time here we have observed very little overt prejudice. There is some tension between Catholics and Muslims but it is not overt.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Snorkeling/Scuba at Apo Island. The rice terraces in Ifugao. Being marooned on sleep Bantayan Island. The Philippines is a great post. Manila can be a grind, but the provinces are fantastic. Regional travel is cheap and easy.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Great snorkeling and scuba is only 3 hours from Manila via car and ferry in Puerta Galera. Take the CLO whale shark tour. If you're not scuba certified become certified, or at least try it once to see if you like it.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Not really. There is some interesting fabric.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
For a Asian megalopolis you can do much worse.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
The traffic is truly appalling, and gets worse by the month.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
4. But don't forget your:
Sunblock and bugs spray.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
"In Our Image" by Stanley Karnow.