Manila, Philippines Report of what it's like to live there - 10/08/20
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, I've lived in numerous cities abroad before.
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?
Home country is the United States, home base is the east coast. Normally, flights connect through either Tokyo, Japan, or Seoul, Korea. However, it is also possible to fly to Hawaii or the West Coast (LAX or SFO), and then connect from there.
3. What years did you live here?
From 2018 until 2020.
4. How long have you lived here?
Over two years.
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
For those assigned to the embassy, housing consists generally of one of three areas:
Bonifacio Global City: Leased apartments in luxury condos. Far from the embassy, which may take an hour or more to get to commute to the embassy, depending on the traffic. A newer area with lots of restaurants and shops, and lots of amenities. Closest to the international schools and best hospitals.
Makati: A combination of single-family homes in gated communities and apartments. Homes are generally reserved for senior-ranking officers and large families. A medium commute to the embassy, but there is some walkability, nightlife, and outdoor shopping plazas.
Seafront Compound: U.S. embassy housing, a combination of townhomes and large apartments. Generally for singles, couples, and families with small children, typically (but not exclusively) first-and-second tour officers. Very short commute to the embassy, between 10-15 minutes, which is one of the best selling points. Another selling point is that everything is on the compound: gym, tennis courts, pools, coffee shop, day care, basketball courts, western-style playground. Townhomes are spacious. Embassy security means it's very safe. Downside is that immediately outside the gate is lower-income housing, which is unpleasant to walk. However, you're close to the Mall of Asia complex, and numerous grocery stores.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
More than anywhere else I've ever lived in the world, they have everything you would buy in America, even peanut butter. Due to the colonial history of America, the Philippines has adopted most American dietary habits, for better and for worse. Fried chicken, pizza, fast food, and even Mexican-American cuisine like tacos and burritos can be found widely. Craving mango salsa or a Thanksgiving Turkey dinner with a side of pumpkin pie? You're in the right place. However, be aware that some local versions may have a slightly different flavor than what Americans might be used to. Also, some niche items may be difficult to find. If anyone finds good, fresh, Kalamata olives, I would love to know where it is.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
You only need to ship grocery items if there's a specific brand that you prefer, which you may not be able to find. Otherwise you can get it here if you're willing to pay. As an example, we ship Nutri-Grain bars, but you can find a knock-off version here very easily...it just doesn't taste QUITE right. If you have a picky eater child, you might want to set up an auto-buy on Amazon.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Takeout is widely available, food delivery is widely available. Almost all restaurants provide food delivery. It's inexpensive, but beware...it may come 90 minutes late and be cold by the time you get it. Then you open it to discover they messed up your order and substituted something because they were out of what you actually ordered, and wrote on your receipt "So sorry, po!"
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
It's the tropics, and this isn't Singapore. You're going to find some bugs and lizards and whatnot. I personally don't think it's a big deal, but everyone's level of bug tolerance is different.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We use the US Navy-provided post office service. It's relatively reliable, and during normal times (not during the COVID pandemic) it's pretty fast. You can get things you order from the U.S. in 10 days or fewer normally.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is fantastic and super expensive. Service culture is the Philippines comparative advantage in the global economy. We have had three different nannies and one housekeeper. The housekeeper is the most thorough housekeeper anyone has ever had in the history of housekeepers. She cleans the entire four-bedroom townhouse, tends the garden, mends clothes, and washes the car for roughly US $20 a day. The nannies have all been wonderful with our children and are all beloved by them. They work exceptionally hard and are almost always on time despite grueling traffic. Just keep in mind that there will be cultural issues, but they can be easily navigated through communication and mutual respect and you shouldn't have any problems if you do proper screening in your hiring process.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Gyms are plentiful, inexpensive (by American city standards especially). You can hire a personal trainer and pay for your monthly gym membership for next to nothing. The embassy has a nice gym, and there's a small gym on Seafront that has everything you need, including racquetball courts, pool, tennis courts, and a basketball court on the embassy grounds.
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?
Yes. With ATMs, use basic common sense. Use the ones in banks guarded by a security guard, or the ones in the embassy. I have also used the ones in malls without a problem. But there are problems with theft, just be smart and you won't have a problem. They even accept American Express widely here, which you will find in very few places.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Filipinos practice just about every religion on earth, and most of them offer an English service. Catholic Churches are absolutely ubiquitous. You will find them in every shopping mall, and even in government offices that provide services like the equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles, passport offices, and in hospitals. The country also has many protestant denominations. You can even find Mormon churches here and Hindu and Buddhist temples. Islam is the majority in some southern provinces, but Manila also has mosques that cater to Muslim Filipinos. If you are Jewish, your options will be limited however. I know of a synagogue in Makati (Beth Yacoov), but that's the only one I've heard of here. The Jewish community is very, very small, and mostly limited to expats and the Israeli embassy.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Very little. I speak some Tagalog, there are parts of the Philippines where English is not well-understood, but Metro Manila is not one of them. You can take local language classes, they are inexpensive. Even a tiny bit of Tagalog will go a long way.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Generally Filipinos are very tolerant of people with disabilities, but facilities are not designed to accommodate the disabled. This city is not walkable, much less wheelchair-accessible.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Local buses are not safe, and I would not recommend taking jeepneys, pedicabs, or other forms of local mass transit. The city's metro is pretty unreliable, and during my time here, several local friends told me of being pick-pocketed or having a bag grabbed on public transportation. Safety is not up to snuff, especially on motos and pedicabs.
However, Grab (similar to Uber or Lyft) is a great option, reasonably safe (despite some articles you may see in the press), and inexpensive. You may not have a seat belt, and forget about your car seat. However, it gets you from point A to point B for six bucks and you don't have to drive yourself, which is stressful on the best day.
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 an SUV, and it's great, but bigger cars will have a tougher time on the smaller streets and with parking places. Smaller cars are better, but U.S. dealers and parts are accessible. Japanese and Korean cars do seem to be more common though.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is fine. You can stream, but during high periods, you may have some freezing. PLDT is the national carrier. You will need to be persistent and keep following up to get set up or a problem fixed.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We have both local providers, and kept our Google Fi plan. Mobile phone plans are cheap here, you just have to buy data and load it.
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?
We don't have pets, so I'm not sure about this. Lots of friends have dogs and cats. If you live in anything other than an apartment (Makati homes or Seafront), there are stray cats, so just be aware of that. There are stray dogs on the streets, so get your rabies shots.
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?
Manila is a large diplomatic mission, so many spouses can work there. Many of the diplomats are "tandem" in that they are diplomats that married each other. There are some telecommuting options, we know at least two spouses who retained their US job and work from home. It is easy to find work on the local economy, but the pay scale will likely not be what you are used to in the States. However, I also know several spouses who work for NGOs or international organizations and have meaningful, rewarding, and relatively well-compensated work.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
A ton. You can volunteer in tons of areas, including with schools, religious groups, and charities. There are sports clubs, Boy Scouts, and other active opportunities.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
More casual than the rest of Asia. I started out wearing a suit and tie to meet high-level government officials, but the epitome of class is a "barong tagalog" shirt made from pineapple fiber. As a result, I began ditching the tie and wearing a suit with an open collar. After a while, I ditched the jacket in most cases too. There are events for formal dress (weddings, balls, ceremonies), but I have used a local tailor.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
The Philippines, comparatively speaking, is a violent place, but it doesn't much impact foreigners who stay out of places they shouldn't be going in the first place. In Metro Manila, you need to be careful about petty street crime, but you are unlikely to be a target of anything more serious. Once someone tried to steal a backpack from me in a crowded store, I walked up to him and yanked it back and he ran away. You will hear about politically-motivated assassinations, and personally-motivated kidnappings, and these conflicts may occur not far from your neighborhood. However, if you're reading this, you probably don't need to worry too much about it, as you are likely not a political activist or are deeply involved in the international narcotics trade. Oh, if you are reading this and you are involved in trafficking illegal narcotics, I would definitely say you would encounter some major personal security concerns here.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The air and water are polluted. In most embassy housing, they provide water for you, but unless you live on the embassy compound, I wouldn't drink it from the tap. Be careful in restaurants with ice.
Upper class medical care in the Philippines is actually quite good. You may be initially surprised at how good it is, but think about how many doctors, nurses, dentists, and other health care professionals work in the United States and Europe. St. Luke's Medical Center, Makati Medical Center, and a few others in the Manila area are quite good. Specialized care may require evacuation, but they can take care of most problems locally. For major procedures, I would seek a second opinion from a doctor from your home country before moving forward.
On the other hand, if you are a regular citizen, you face an entirely different health care landscape, and it's important to be aware of that. Also, traffic. If you need to rush to the hospital, it might be a long time. And you can't count on an ambulance.
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?
Poor air quality, as noted above, but better than in some parts of Asia (notably China or India). I would say air quality has a moderate impact on health. It's something to be concerned about if you have pre-existing conditions, but I don't, and I run outside regularly, and I've rarely had any issue.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
I have a food allergy, and it hasn't been a problem for me. If you're adventurous, I would learn how to say that you have a food allergy in Tagalog, that's been helpful to me. In the service industry, Filipinos won't always follow up with a question if they don't understand your English. So whenever I order food, I do it in Tagalog and I explain the allergy. They've been great (except delivery, as noted above).
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
I don't think Winter Blues are an issue here. There is no winter. There is hot and rainy, and hot and less rainy.
My Winter Blues are the fact that in the Philippines, Christmas season starts on Labor Day. So every time you go to the grocery store between September and January, expect to hear "Winter Wonderland" when it's burning 98 degrees outside.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's 80-95 year-round. There are places you can find extremes. I was in the far south in May 2019 and it was over 100. Likewise, in the mountain city of Baguio during the winter it can almost get down to the 40s. But expect 80-95 day or night, spring, summer, fall, winter.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
I've heard that the International Schools here are very good. In fact, many people said they came to Manila for the schools, but I don't have firsthand experience.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
We have friends with special needs kids, and we know that there are programs available, but I don't have personal experience with this.
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 are numerous preschools available, including English, French, and German options even. Nannies are great and very inexpensive. The U.S. embassy has its own daycare for younger children, which is very inexpensive and has relatively small class sizes. The daycare providers are wonderful.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
There are a ton. My kids take swimming lessons, I've taken tennis lessons. This has been heavily constrained due to COVID-19, but during normal times there are tons of activities for kids.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It's large. I'd say morale before COVID-19 was pretty good. Morale plummeted with COVID-19, as Manila endured the world's longest lockdown and people were trapped in their high-rise apartments for months on end. But by the time anyone is reading this, restrictions will likely have been lifted.
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 a ton of international organizations and activities. While we have local friends and other international friends, we haven't developed friends with many American expats.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's phenomenal for single guys of any sexual orientation, but some our single women friends have complained about the social environment. I can't speak to that, but it's understandable. It's great for families with children. For couples with children, it can be good if you travel in-country to resorts, take part in cultural activities, and travel in the rest of the region.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
It is incredibly easy to make friends with locals. They are warm, funny, welcoming, and generally like foreigners of all kinds, especially Americans. However, due to some recent political issues and the growing number of Chinese workers, that has created some frictions, even with the large and longstanding Filipino-Chinese community here. I have seen it personally, especially in stores that cater to expats. The mainland Chinese who work here often do not learn sufficient English or Tagalog, and it has created some frustration with locals, combined with high-profile political issues like the South China Sea.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Despite being a devoutly religious country, the Philippines has a very high level of tolerance and respect for the LGBT community, generally speaking. I would say that it is considerably better than the United States in this area. The country has transgender members of Congress, and even more conservative Mindanao hosts gay pride parades. However, the bureaucratic influence of the Catholic Church is powerful force to contend with. Previously the foreign ministry wouldn't recognize same-sex couples formally, so some people had to declare their spouse as "domestic help" for visa purposes. Also, just because the overwhelming majority of people are tolerant does not mean that's true everywhere, it's a diverse country.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Aside from some brewing prejudice against Chinese, I have not encountered much. Filipinos are omnivorous consumers of all culture, which I think has built up some natural antibodies to bigotry. I've seen a Filipino guy with a Russian first name, an English nickname, and Spanish last name wearing a LeBron jersey while karaoke singing a K-Pop song.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The best trip I ever took in this country was to Malapascua Island in the Visayas. The diving was fantastic, the food was amazing, it was paradise. The in-country travel is the best, but you can exhaust Manila's tourism opportunities in a long weekend, most of which are World War II-era or Spanish colonial historical in nature.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
This country is full of hidden gems, but most of those hidden gems are the incredibly funny, kind, generous, and colorful people that live here.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
There are a ton of great handicraft options, but I would recommend travelling throughout the country to buy them. There's great fabric in Mindanao, amazing woodwork in the Visayas, there's great and varied regional cuisine (from spicy Thai-like food in Bicol, to ceviche-inspired raw tuna salads in Mindanao, to sweet beef stews in the mountains of Luzon). However, if you just hang out in Manila you're going to see tons of H&M, Uniqlo, Banana Republic, and Lacoste stores in shopping malls, and buy your Starbucks mug that says "Philippines."
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Great regional travel and it's inexpensive.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
You can never really imagine how bad the traffic is until you plan a 15-minute trip that turns into three hours in which you accidentally find yourself having to wait another hour until you can turn around. I knew the traffic would be bad, but don't try to meet it head on, it will crush you. Avoid it. Anticipate it. Prepare for it. Outsmart it.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely. I might come back again.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter clothes. Wool suits.
4. But don't forget your:
SCUBA gear, swimsuit, sunscreen, and sense of adventure.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
If you're interested in politics and history, especially the relationship with the United States, I'd read Stanley Karnow's "In Our Image."
For a fun dive into Filipino culture, I'd check out standup comedy by Filipino-American Jo Koy, who also performs in the Philippines.
There are also a number of great books about World War II in the Philippines.
6. Do you have any other comments?
Take advantage of the frequent holidays to go to Cebu, Boracay, Baguio, Vigan, La Union, Palawan, and elsewhere. I really hope we are able to travel soon to see other places we haven't had the opportunity to visit before coronavirus moved in.