Manila, Philippines Report of what it's like to live there - 02/25/17

Personal Experiences from Manila, Philippines

Manila, Philippines 02/25/17


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

First overseas work experience, but previous study abroad in both Europe and Latin America.

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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?

Boston, which is literally on the other side of the globe from Manila. If you’re flying on USG orders, the official routes are usually via Tokyo or Hong Kong. If you are flying on your own dime, though, you can also take (slightly) faster routes via LA/SFO on Philippine Airlines, or via one of the hubs in the Middle East. No matter what route you take, any trip to the eastern half of the U.S. will take 24-26 hours.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Almost two years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, 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 personnel are housed in one of four areas. Embassy/Seafront compound: primarily families with very young kids; it’s a tight-knit community with a short commute, but there’s very little to do in the immediate area other than what’s going on at the compound itself.

Makati: good mix of singles, childless couples, and family with kids; it’s a longer commute, but there are tons of restaurants and shopping in the area; however, it’s also much more spread out than the other neighborhoods, so it’s hard to have a strong sense of your community.

BGC/Fort Bonifacio: primarily families with school-age kids, given the proximity to ISM and BSM; most of whom are clustered in a few large high-rise buildings, making for great satellite communities; however, this is the farthest neighborhood from the Embassy, so the commute ranges from long to brutal, depending on traffic.

Makati Villages: usually older and larger families; single-family homes, surrounded by roads where you can walk your dog, and each with reasonable green space; but the houses are spread out from one another and make it very hard to build ties with other families in the area. Housing is fairly nice across the board, but things can be tough for families who end up assigned to a neighborhood that doesn’t fit their family size/structure.

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

Nearly everything is available here, as long as you’re willing to look for it, although cost can vary considerably. Local fruit and rice are dirt cheap and good quality. Local vegetables and eggs/meat/fish are also cheap, but quality varies wildly depending on when and where you shop. Dairy can be expensive, as Filipino food doesn’t use a lot of milk, and Filipinos (like other Asians) are often lactose intolerant. Food that’s imported from the US or Europe – berries, cheese, beef, turkey, salmon - can be prohibitively expensive, although S&R (the local big-box grocery) or one of the boutique shops will occasionally have a deal. Embassy personnel also have access to the DPO, so in the outside chance you can’t find something, you can order it from Amazon or Walmart.

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

Diapers, if you’re in that phase of life, because they can be difficult to find in bulk. Most toiletries are available, although if you really want a specific brand or type (especially feminine products), you’ll want to ship those in advance.

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

Most American fast-food chains are represented here, and most deliver, and the larger local chains (Jollibee, Max’s, Pancake House) are on par or better, quality-wise, with their American competitors. The fine dining scene is definitely a notch below the other big Asian capitals, but Makati and the Fort compensate for that with a wide range of good-quality options. We’ve also had a lot of fun eating out as a family, since all but the very nicest restaurants are casual attire, kid-friendly, and cheaper than their equivalent in the US. Filipino food is definitely an acquired taste, and if you never come around, there are plenty of other things to choose from.

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

Nothing more than what we expected for a tropical city.

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Daily Life:

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

Local postal facilities are not reliable, although the local private couriers (e.g., Air21) seem to do a decent job. Embassy personnel also have access to the DPO, which is reasonably fast (8-10 business days from the US on average, although that can depend on the vendor). Some of the international couriers (e.g., DHL) operate here too, but they often have trouble delivering to places outside the larger cities.

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

Household help is widely available. The cost ranges a bit, depending on hours, experience, and English fluency, but $300-400/month is the usual ballpark for salary and benefits.

Drivers are very common here, because they reduce the stress of driving in local traffic, and are also indispensable for simple errands that (if you did them on your own) could take hours in that traffic– getting gas, oil changes, pickups and drop-offs, etc.

Many families also have a housekeeper/nanny of some type, ranging from full-time yayas (exclusively nannies), to part-time cooks/maids, to “all around” helpers that cook, clean and babysit as needed. Employers seem to be evenly divided among those with live-in and live-out help; it’s simply a matter of your (and the employee’s) preference.

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

There is a small gym on the main Embassy compound, and another on the Seafront compound, both free for employees. Many of the high-rise residential buildings also have small/medium gyms for residents. If you need something more, Makati and the Fort both also have private gyms available for varying membership fees.

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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 usually fine at large hotels, restaurants and high-end shopping malls, particularly in the larger expat neighborhoods. ATMs at the high-end malls and large bank branches are also generally safe. Once you get outside Manila and the major beach-resort areas, however, the Philippines is a cash economy.

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

85-90% of the country is Catholic, and because English is widely spoken, you can attend mass in thousands of churches/chapels around the city (even in the bigger malls have chapels). Most of the major Protestant denominations are represented as well, if you look hard enough, and there are several good-sized mosques.

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

None. Many locals speak English fluently, and most understand enough for day-to-day interactions.

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

Aside from the Embassy compound, and the nicer parts of Makati/BGC, this would be a hard place for someone with physical disabilities. Sidewalks, ramps, and elevators are rare, and the roads aren’t very kind to pedestrians.

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

All are affordable, but safety can be a question mark. Taking a taxi from a stand at the airport or a large mall/hotel is general safe (assuming good situational awareness); whereas flagging down a taxi can lead to scams or worse; in all cases, be sure to insist that the driver use the meter.

Uber and Lyft are widely available in Manila, and usually reliable, all they are barred from picking up customers at the airport.

Local bus service, to the extent it exists, is provided by the legendary jeepneys – which are known for their chaotic driving, and are periodically targeted by pickpockets and armed robbers. The light-rail system, which is limited to Makati and the university districts, can be dangerously overcrowded, and is also a frequent target for pickpockets. Embassy personnel are prohibited from taking the light-rail and jeepneys in Manila.

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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?

Almost any car would work in Manila, although a car with low clearance would be hard to drive on certain side roads and/or during heavy rains. Expect a few dings and dents during your time here, given the traffic. It can be easier to find parts for Asian-made models, but you can get most major brands serviced here without much hassle.

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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 access varies wildly depending on your specific residence. The Filipino telecommunications infrastructure lags behind some of the other countries in the region, so speed and cost can vary wildly. Some buildings offer fiber-optic connections, with comparable speed to the US, for $100-125/month. Other buildings are DSL only, however, with much lower speed (although at lower cost). Installation times vary from a few days to a few weeks, depending on what your residence already has in place.

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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?

As with internet access, cell phone coverage varies wildly across Manila (and the country as a whole). Globe and Smart dominate the market, and locals usually settle for whichever offers less poor coverage in their home neighborhood – or just buy a phone with two SIM slots, and get a number for each carrier. That said, prepaid service is very popular in the Philippines, and, once you learn how the pricing plans work, it’s possible to pay 75-80% less for service here than in the US. As a rule, texting is significantly cheaper than voice or data, so texting is the dominant form of communication across all levels of society.

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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 direct experience, although we’re not aware of any quarantine restrictions. This isn’t the greatest place for a dog, because of the heat/humidity/lack of green space, but we know many families (both local and expat) who have happy dogs. Many apartment buildings also have strict rules about dogs (e.g., must wear muzzles on the elevators), and many household employees are terrified of dogs, so keep that in mind when looking for housing and/or staff.

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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?

Traditionally, there have been dozens of EFM jobs at the Embassy, although the January 2017 hiring freeze will undoubtedly have an impact on this. In theory, given the prevalence of English, and the bilateral work agreement, spouses can work on the local economy – but it can take a long time to get your foot in the door. That said, the State Department’s Global Employment Advisor is currently based in Manila, so there’s been a recent uptick in opportunities for Embassy spouses on the local economy. Telecommuting is also a possibility, assuming you have good internet in your home, and can overcome the significant time difference with the US.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Endless opportunities, although scam artists have taken an interest in the volunteer community. If you do choose to volunteer with an organization, particularly a lesser known one, make sure you’ve done appropriate due diligence (and, for Embassy personnel, consulted with CLO and/or RSO about any concerns).

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

Embassy dress code ranges from business casual to suits, depending on your agency and section. The local business community is somewhat less formal than the US, largely due to the hot weather, although it’s not uncommon to see businessmen in a suit and tie. Filipino men also frequently wear a "barong tagalog" for business dress, and it’s perfectly acceptable for expats to do the same (even for Embassy employees).

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Health & Safety:

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

Makati and the Fort are very safe, relative to the rest of Manila, such that the major concerns are pickpocketing and other urban crimes of opportunity. Other neighborhoods can be more dangerous, in some cases exacerbated by the recent escalation in anti-drug enforcement, and it’s inadvisable to wander too far from the major expat neighborhoods after dark and/or by yourself.

Both the US and UK governments have also issued security advisories relating to terrorist activity in the Philippines, although terror incidents have historically been concentrated in Mindanao and a few other regions well away from Manila. As with most big cities, situational awareness goes a long way – and we feel no less safe here than we do in Washington or Boston.

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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?

Watch what you eat, particularly off the expat/tourist track, as hygiene and food storage practices can vary wildly from place to place. Manila (and much of the Philippines) is at low-risk for malaria, so we don’t need prophylactics. Dengue is a problem in much of the country. We got rabies shots on top of the usual tropical vaccines, as there are lots of stray dogs running around.

Dental care is high-quality and much less expensive than in the US. Private medical facilities – particularly in Makati and the Fort – are of reasonably good quality, and many women choose to give birth here; however, Embassy personnel are usually medivaced to Singapore for more complicated medical issues.

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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?

The biggest source of air pollution here is car exhaust, and on a day-to-day basis, the air quality doesn’t feel much different than a big, humid city in US (think Houston or Atlanta in July). However, unlike in the US, the wind and rain never seem to clear the crud out of the air – it just lingers and lingers without a break. It will take a toll on you the longer you’re here, and it’s good to escape Manila every few months.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

See above. You can survive here with moderate asthma or seasonal allergies, but two years of cruddy air will take its toll on you. Food allergies are a mixed bag. Restaurants do a poor job of listing ingredients, so don’t assume anything from the menu alone. However, if you speak up before ordering, most restaurants/hotels are happy to accommodate well-known food allergies (e.g., nuts and shellfish) – as long as you’re crystal clear about exactly what you can and can’t eat. One extra cautionary note: many hospitals do not have EpiPens readily available, so be sure to bring a few with you.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

None, aside from what you’d expect from living in the overcrowded capital of a developing country.

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

There are three seasons here. The hot-dry season (or “summer” to the locals) runs from mid-March to mid-June, and can be brutal. The rainy season follows, from mid-June to early November, and features heavy afternoon thunderstorms rather than constant rain.

The cool-dry season, from mid-November to mid-March, is quite pleasant, particularly when compared to the other two seasons – with temperatures even dropping to the upper 70s (low 20s Celsius) at night, to the point that it’s nice enough to eat dinner at an outdoor table. Typhoons can arrive at any time, although they are most common during the rainy season.

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Schools & Children:

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

Schools are a strength here. The International School of Manila (ISM) is the most popular choice for Embassy families, but there are plenty of other international schools to choose from: Brent School, British School Manila, Kings School, etc. We have had a great experience with ISM, but most of the families we know are happy with their school of choice. That said, nearly all kids face a long ride to school because of traffic, so your housing choice may influence your school choice (or vice versa).

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

No direct experience. ISM can accommodate some types of special needs, and they continue to invest in their capabilities. Colleagues dealing with more significant learning disabilities have also had good experiences with One World School (which focuses exclusively on special needs students).

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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?

ISM (and, as far as we know, the other schools) all have great after-school activity programs – see question below. For those with younger kids, there are many options for preschool. The Embassy has a well-organized preschool for the three- and four-year old Diplokid contingent, and there are a number of other preschools scattered around the expat neighborhoods. ISM and some of the other international schools also offer preschool programs, although these are very expensive. Tuition costs range wildly, depending on which program you choose. Day care programs don’t really exist, at least in the same way as the US, because yayas are so common.

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

ISM offers a ton of after-school activities - ranging from soccer, to table tennis, to wall climbing, to tap dance, to Mandarin – and also has active Boy and Girl Scout programs. Private swimming and music lessons are readily available in many buildings/neighborhoods, although you might need to ask around. Our kids have had plenty to do here.

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Expat Life:

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

The overall expat community is massive. The US embassy is large, by itself, and several other countries have a good-sized presence here. The Asian Development Bank is also headquartered here, and there are many multinational offices in Makati/BGC. Morale is generally good among expats, although frustrations over traffic/infrastructure can wear on anyone over time.

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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?

If you look hard enough, virtually all types of social groups are here, and dozens of ways to get together. The Embassy community is huge, so there are always new people to meet, and there are thousands of other expats (both US and non-US) if you want to break out of the Embassy circle.

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

Singles (particularly men) would be fine here, as there are thousands of expats, a well-established club scene, and plenty of available dance partners. This is also a great city for families with younger kids, as so many things are kid-friendly, and there’s a fair amount for the 6-12 set to do. This can be a good city for couples and families with older kids, too, but location is important: if you live in a more isolated area, it can be hard for the non-working spouse and/or older kids to socialize.

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

No direct experience, but it seems like it would be. Aside from the ban on gay marriage, which seems to be a nod to their Catholic heritage, the majority of Filipinos support (or at least happily tolerate) LGBT rights. Openly gay relationships are common, and reports of significant LGBT discrimination are rare.

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

Outside of Mindanao and the far southern parts of the country, there don’t seem to be many problems with religious/ethnic tensions, or gender discrimination. The Philippines has seen two female presidents in the past 30 years, the current VP (and several other prominent politicians) are female, and women are generally well represented along the economic ladder.

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

We’ve had a great tour here. Bohol and Palawan were as beautiful as advertised. And, although Manila isn’t always the easiest place to live, we’ve enjoyed watching our kids learn to ride on a trapeze, go ice skating in July, experience the wacky festivals on BGC High Street (Shih Tzu Parade, anyone?), sample Korean barbecue and Japanese ramen, etc. It’s fairly easy to have fun here, despite the traffic, dirt and other frustrations.

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

The beaches are amazing, and offer something for everyone. Boracay has the best party scene; Bohol is paradise for families; Palawan is wild and rustic; and there are dozens of others. Corregidor is an easy day trip, and a must do for Americans and WWII buffs. Mount Pinatubo is a challenging trek, but also a fun (albeit long) day trip if you’re physically fit. Baguio and Tagaytay are nice mountain getaways a few hours away from the smog and heat of Manila. And there are plenty of other unique attractions like Sagada (hanging coffins), Banue (rice terraces), and Donsol (whale sharks).

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

It depends on your definition of “shopping.” The large malls are fantastic, and if you’re into mall walking or window shopping, you’ll really love it here. Handicrafts are a bit harder to find, although you can get great deals on pearls at Greenhills and some of the other budget malls, and some of our friends have found decent wood products in the provinces. (Be forewarned: this is a tropical country, so make sure any wood products are kiln-dried before you buy them.

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

Makati and BGC, in particular, have a lot of afternoon-length activities for families, if you know where to look in the malls. Ice skating, trapeze, trampoline park, bowling, several top-flight movie theaters (including 4DX and 3D iMax), go karts, quirky museums, KidZania, romper-room gyms – you name it, and often at half the cost of in the U.S.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

The importance of geography. Traffic ranges from “a drag” to “soul-crushing,” and it makes it really difficult to get anywhere. We’ve made a lot of good friends here, but most of them live within walking distance of our apartment. BGC and Makati are only a mile or two apart, yet traveling from one to the other can take 1-2 hours in bad traffic. For the same reason, there aren’t a lot of easy day trips around Manila (other than Corregidor), because a 10-15 mile trip up the road could turn into an hours-long odyssey.

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

Yes. This has been a great two-year tour, and Manila has largely been a great fit for our family. We've been really happy with ISM and our housing, and our kids are very happy here.

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

Winter clothes, unless you’re planning a trip well outside of SE Asia. Leather clothing/bags, because they can go moldy fast in the humidity.

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4. But don't forget your:


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

In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines, book by Stanley Karnow

Jose Rizal, a 1998 Filipino biopic about one of the founding fathers of the modern Philippines

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6. Do you have any other comments?

If you’re traveling with a large family, this can get expensive if you do it too often (since you need to fly everywhere), but Manila is a great hub for touring the rest of SE Asia. Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Bali, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand are all just a few hours away, and are generally great locations for short family vacations. Japan, Korea and eastern China are also easily accessible from here, and there are even discounted flights to Australia and New Zealand.

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