Manila for the Gonzo Traveler
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is one adventure you may not have considered yet.
By Sean Williams
In Manila, vice comes soaked in color and emerges the moment the sun sets. The chances for indulgence in this sprawling metropolis are newly enormous; neon hoardings offer the willing traveler gambling, girls and drink. Tousled old men tramp the streets in search of beer and women, who catcall from pool clubs and bunched-up brothels. This is the Manila of old, a quick stop on the East Asian sex tourism trail, or a backpack layover before heading to the beaches. There are American fast-food chains, cabaret acts. From high-rise, middle-class Makati to the tangled alleys of Malate, Manila’s seedier side is often its most visible. It can be unnerving.
But there is another side to Manila. The city, beyond the grit, is home to some 25 million people. The Philippines’ economy is surging after a century of war, colonialism and dictatorship. You can find pleasingly hidden spots to take in a drink, or to soak up the city’s growing music scene. Like 1951, a small bar in the middle of Malate’s red light district. Its lights are low and the sofas bright red, but it’s a gentler stop than its sex-flaunting surroundings. Each night a few dozen can sit, drink from a well-stocked bar and watch an array of local performers.
It’s the same across town in Makati, at B-Side at the Collective, a lively, minimalist venue where the city’s young, monied urbanites go to see homespun music and art in action. Nearby is saGuijo, a more sanguine nod to bands that are beginning to export a uniquely local Pinoy sound. Especially in the blues: The boom in Filipino music is even booming internationally, says Ciaran Carruthers, who, incidentally, owns another recommended space, The Roadhouse Manila Bay, where casinos and hotels cater to the city’s elite. But Manila itself is the heart of the blues scene, in “bars and hotels all over the metropolis,” not to mention local radio, says Carruthers.
“Manila has always had plenty of places that offered varied nightlife, not just girly bars,” says Ted Lerner, a broadcaster and writer who spent many years in the country. But new money brings with it new developments, and “if you have bucks to spend,” he says, there are restaurants, bars and more luxury than ever before.
Of course, while Manila’s middle class swells, there are millions left out in the cold. You can’t walk the streets without noticing families camping beneath apartment blocks; walls quite literally keep the poor from Makati’s edge. Should you wish, you can actually see up close the lives of Manila’s other 98 percent, on a tour. A group called SmokeyTours, founded in 2011, offers tourists a rare chance to walk the city’s massive slums, home to an estimated 12 million people. The options are surprising — cockfighting and bicycle trips, for example. For those who live along the banks of black, syrupy rivers, money, you’ll learn, comes from riding push-bikes with outboard motors strapped to them, or in repurposing discarded fast food into new dishes known as “pagpag.” If you’ve enjoyed a heavy night set to Pinoy music, Smokey Tours will surely sober you. And show you another dimension of the city’s snaking streets.
This OZY encore was originally published Dec. 13, 2014.