24 hours in Manila

Manila is for many just a stopover on the way to the many beach destinations or to the north of the Philippines. Here are some suggestions how to make the most of 24 hours in Manila.

Morning
Start with a breakfast of your choice, either at the hotel or one of the cafes or bakeries. If you are within walking distance to the LRT1 line, I recommend taking a stroll there while witnessing the daily life of the locals along the way. Kids on their way to school, workers in the shops and repairs, and even the younger kids doing their morning bath outside the house. They are all smiling and wishing you a good morning.

Once you get on the LRT1, take it to Abad Santos, the station closest to the south entrance for the Chinese Cemetery. I seem to have a thing for cemeteries these days. At least the more unusual ones, like the Merry Cemetery in Romania and now also the Chinese Cemetery in Manila.

By the entrance gate, there are several guides you can hire to take you to the best mausoleums, and even inside some of them. They started with 300PHP per person for a little more than an hour, but you can try to bargain.

We decided to just walk around by ourselves and ended up getting a small tour of our own by a local family that were visiting the grandparents and great grandparents, the latter being the ones immigrating to the Philippines from China. The mausoleums near the entrance are the same height, being the newest and most modern. Many of them are decorated almost as apartments, including hot and cold running water, bathrooms and air-condition!
Chinese Cemetery. Manila, Philippines
The older ones vary in height, and the richer the deceased were, the higher the houses and monuments were built. It felt like walking through a ghost town, quite literally. Like a deserted version of Wisteria Lane. The calm and quiet atmosphere felt like a very welcome break after walking around the busy streets of Manila.

The streets in the Chinese Cemetery can look like any other street. Manila, Philippines

The streets in the Chinese Cemetery can look like any other suburbia street.

Monument inside the Chinese Cemetery. Manila, Philippines Family mausoleum at the Chinese Cemetery. Manila, Philippines

The mausoleums are very expensive to maintain, so sadly many cannot afford to keep them. Instead, they remove the stone coffins with their loved ones, and cremate them instead.

A deserted grave at the Chinese Cemetery. Manila, Philippines

A deserted grave at the Chinese Cemetery.

Walking past some of the graves, I reacted that the names did not seem very Chinese. I heard several different explanations. The most obvious reason is that Chinese married Filipinos, but we were also told that many of the Chinese immigrants changed to Filipino names to blend in and get better social status. Another explanation is that by law 60 % of a business must be owned by a Filipino. However, the Filipino government made an exception for the Chinese entrepreneurs so they could start their own business, but in exchange they had to change their names to at least have the business registered in a Filipino name.

In the back there is a whole street with smaller chambered graves. Getting closer, I realized they were children’s graves. Some of them died in young age, others even the day they were born. Children were not allowed to be buried at the Chinese Cemetery, so they were cremated and their ashes were placed in this row.

The graves for children at the Chinese Cemetery. Manila, Philippines

The graves for children.

We could have walked around for hours, but our hunger told us to get going.

Afternoon
From the Chinese Cemetery we got on a tricycle to Chinatown for lunch. The spot where our driver let us off did not resemble Chinatown at all, but he pointed us in the direction of Ongpin street. Here it was definitely more bustling, with well-known Chinese symbols hanging all over.

Chinatown in Manila, Philippines

We located Mei Sum Tea House and asked the waiter to pick a few different dishes to share. She did well, and we left the restaurant full and satisfied.

Busy streets in Manila, Philippines

Walking down to Intramuros, a walled city area considered as the old town of Manila. The citadel was funded by the Spanish Colonials in 1571, and include Fort Santiago as the main tourist attraction. It is a beautiful area with lots of green space for recreation as well as the historical buildings. This is also where José Rizal imprisoned while awaiting execution in 1896. Don’t know who he is? You should absolutely look him up before you go, but you will also learn about his many achievement through his young age of 35 at the Razal Shrine. To give you a brief summary, he is considered a national hero in the Philippines fighting for freedom from Spain. He was sentenced to death for that reason, but it served as a catalyst for the struggle for Philippine independence and the birth of the Filipino nation. As if that in itself was not enough, he was also an author of novels, poems and comics, and while in exile in Dapitan, he discovered two species of frog and lizard. Among very many other things. I must admit, it felt a bit special to walk around and peak into his cell where he spent his last full day on earth, exactly 120 years ago.

Nice and green areas inside Fort Santiago. The fort is a part of Intramuros, the old town of Manila, Philippines Fort Santiago inside the old town of Manila, Intramuros. Philippines Jose Rizal. Manila, Philippines

Walking in his footsteps while exiting the fortress, we were happy we could continue to Manila House instead of following the rest of his path…

The footsteps of José Rizal. Manila, Philippines

The footsteps of José Rizal.

Entering the impressive Manila House was like stepping back to the colonial time. Room by room you witness the grand wooden furniture and artifacts along with interesting small facts. The dining room had a large dark green velvet cloth hanging above the table. Convenient both as a manual fan and to keep the flies away.

The master bedroom inside the Manila House in Intramuros. Manila, Philippines

The master bedroom inside the Manila House.

The dining room inside the Manila House in Intramuros. Manila, PhilippinesA street in Intramuros, the old walled city in Manila, PhilippinesStreet in Intramuros, the old walled city in Manila, Philippines

Sunset time
Time flies, and it was time to decide whether to enjoy the sunset in the area we were and go home to change after, or to rush back to dress up before sunset drinks and dinner. We went for the latter option. Missing the sunset was not an option, even though it easily could have ended that way. The first obstacle was the traffic jam. Most people have heard about the terrible traffic conditions in Manila, but so far we had been really lucky. Until now. We had pinned 71 Gramercy as the place to be when day turned to night. Passing Greenbelt it should be an easy drive straight ahead on Makati Avenue. Problem was that as it is one of the main roads, everybody else wanted to be on it as well. Just when I was about to realize we would not make it, the traffic went smooth, and suddenly we were there. Just in time for the second obstacle; 71 Gramercy was closed for renovation! Luckily I had observed another potential rooftop right next door (to be honest I thought it was 71 Gramercy), so we hurried over to City Garden Grand Hotel. The sun was already setting, but we made it just in time to sit down with a cold drink as the sky was painted yellow, red and purple.

Dusk in in Manila, Philippines Sunset in Manila, Philippines

Evening
Heading back to Greenbelt for a little bit of shopping with a stop in a bar for a drink and some snacks to keep us going a bit longer. Shopping done, more drinks (and snacking dinner) awaited. I have a thing for secret bars when I travel, so we went to try out a few of them, starting with Exit Bar.

Exit bar. Speakeasy bar in Manila, Philippines

Exit Bar is a speakeasy bar located inside the Corinta Plaza. If you enter from the backside, the entrance is through the first exit door in the hall leading to Plaza Café. If you enter through the Plaza Café, the exit door is at the far end of the hall in the back. Walking through that exit door is like entering a time machine. The room is dimly lit, with a cohesive leather sofa along the dark brown paneled walls, accompanied with round tables of imitated marble. The only sources of light are the illuminations behind the bar shelves, and the yellow and black retro lamp, acknowledging both the purpose and time period of these secret bars.

Depending on how long you want to stretch the 24 hours in Manila, try the other secret bars I recommend in Manila.

Sleeping
The two areas Makati and Bonifical are considered the safest. We decided to stay in Makati as it also has a reputation of good nightlife. Gervasia Hotel Makati is a simple but ok budget hotel conveniently situated near the toll way, taking us less than 15 minutes both from and to the airport. At the same time it is within walking distance to the Greenbelt area, and also many of the speakeasy bars in Manila if you are heading for the nightlife. Personally I love just walking around to explore, so if you consider the 30 min walk to the LRT a part of that, it is perfect.

 

Secret bars in Manila

The concept of speakeasy bars comes from the years of prohibition when it was illegal to sell alcohol. Manila has many of these secret bars spread out in the city. They are obviously not that secret, you will find most of them on Google Maps, but it is still exciting to walk around looking for them, and then see whatever they have come up with as a cover.

Exit Bar
This speakeasy bar is located inside the Corinta Plaza. If you enter from the backside, the entrance is through the first exit door in the hall leading to Plaza Café. If you enter through the Plaza Café, the exit door is at the far end of the hall in the back. Walking through that exit door is like entering a time machine. The room is dimly lit, with a cohesive leather sofa along the dark brown paneled walls, accompanied with round tables of imitated marble. The only sources of light are the illuminations behind the bar shelves, and the yellow and black retro lamp, acknowledging both the purpose and time period of these secret bars.
Exit bar. Speakeasy bar in Manila, Philippines

Blind Pig
Located in the quiet side street Salcedo, nothing gives away the location before you are right outside the door. I am not going to tell you how you know, but you will absolutely get the point once you are there. Knocking on the black door, one of the bar keepers let you in and guide you to one of the booths. The lighting was of course dimmed here as well, and the large chandelier hanging from the ceiling was off. The walls were lighter here though, with metallic tiles covering parts of it. The atmosphere was peaceful with calm music from the 20’s in the background. We could almost hear the crackle from the gramophone even though it obviously was played from more modern equipment.
Oh, by the way. The location on Google Maps is slightly wrong, just to let you know.
The Blind Pig. Speakeasy bar in Manila, Philippines

Bank Bar
Your clue is the 7/11 in the RCBC Bank building on 26th street. Enter the white door on the left by the counter. It leads to a small storeroom with articles like cups of noodles, tin cans and bottles of sauces. Walk through the dark curtain, and the bar will be revealed.
Bank bar has a bit different vibe then the two previous. It is a bit lighter and has a more modern feel with the open industrial style ceiling and a DJ. The marble floor tiles and the seating areas with plush chairs in soft colors soak you right back to the earlier decades again, though. The name comes from being inside a bank building, and the barkeepers wear bulletproof vests as a part of the uniform.
Do not leave without checking out the bathroom.
Bank Bar. Speakeasy bar in Manila, Philippines Drinks at Bank Bar. Speakeasy bar in Manila, Philippines

ABV
Lazy Bastard burgers at the corner of Jupiter st. and Galaxy host the secret bar ABV. Once you get down the stairs, turn right through the large wooded door. You will then find yourself inside a replica of an old elevator. Follow the chess tiles to the other end. This bar was more lively than the others were (could also be the fact that it was getting later), and the chatting almost drowned the contemporary music from the prohibition period.
The entrance to ABV through an elevator. Speakeasy bar in Manila, Philippines ABV. Speakeasy bar in Manila, Philippines

Mandalay
Do not let the hordes and loud noise at The Belle&Dragon scare you away. Embrace yourself and swift your way past them, heading for the bathrooms. In the hall just outside stands a large wardrobe like the one known from The Chronicles of Narnia. And the resemblance continues; ones you open the wardrobe and enter, you pass through hanging clothes and enter at the other side. It is in fact quite cold in there, but instead of snow and winter, you find exotic interior, including a large world globe and two giant stone lions guarding the bar!
While the guests relax in the Chesterfield inspired furniture, the barkeepers serve whiskey from all corners of the world. A nice and quiet oasis!
Mandalay. Speakeasy bar in Manila, Philippines

Have you been to any of these or other speakeasy bars in Manila?

 

Gili Meno – a relaxing paradise

Gili Meno instantly gave a completely different impression than the neighboring island Gili Trawangan. Even though I found Gili T less chaotic than expected, Gili Meno was a whole different story. Jumping onto the horse-and-carriage at the pier, slowly trotting our way on the narrow dusty paths towards the northwestern side, I swear I could feel inner peace.

Horse transport at Gili Meno island, Indonesia

Alternative accommodation
As it is more convenient to have a place booked before arrival, we found Balenta Bungalow Gili Meno online. It looked nice on the photos, but what met us did unfortunately not live up to the expectations. The bungalow was nice, but the restaurant and beach area had a dark feel to it, and the staff were a bit unprofessional, making inappropriate comments. Luckily, we had only booked one night, so I went to have a look at Sunset Beach Bungalows right next door. It was a totally different vibe, both with the people and the look of the area. The restaurant at the beach was cozy with bamboo tables and chairs painted white, with a small picket fence and a few lush green bushes towards the beachfront.  For relaxing in the shade, there were “cottages” in the back, half a meter above the ground, providing the little extra breeze.

The nice restaurant and beach area at Sunset Beach Bungalows. Gili Meno island, Indonesia

The nice restaurant and beach area at Sunset Beach Bungalows.

Relaxing beach life. Sunset Beach Bungalows. Gili Meno island, Indonesia

Blackout with a thousand stars
The Gili islands quite frequently experience power outages. One of the advantages when the power goes out, is that the thousands of stars pop out on the sky above. There is something special about sitting down at the beach, looking up at the stars, listening to the waves roll against the shore. A really calming sensation.

Exploring in the mornings
Waking up with the roosters, we decided to go for a walk around the island before it got too hot. In oppose to Gili T, where the accommodations were tightly packed along the beach, they were more scattered here. They come in all shapes and comforts, from fancy boutique hotels to dodgy rundown bungalows (some could barely even be called that). And all in between, of course!

One morning walking around the island, the next exploring the inner parts. Being awake even before the wind, we were rewarded by a mirroring surface at the island lake. And the early-bird mosquitoes found their reward in me, unfortunately resulting in a shorter stay by the peaceful lake than wanted.

Moving on through the silence, I caught myself being surprised how lush green the island is, even though the rainy season just ended. The grazing kettle looked happy, fishermen were repairing their boats, and a cat sleeping in the sun after washing the dishes.

Nice walking paths at Gili Meno island, Indonesia

Boat life at Gili Meno island, Indonesia

Boat repair. Gili Meno island, IndonesiaLush green at Gili Meno island, Indonesia Reflecting lake at Gili Meno island, Indonesia Happy cow at Gili Meno island, Indonesia

Goats who stare at men (or woman in this case). Gili Meno island, Indonesia

Goats who stare at men (or woman in this case).

Nice door. Gili Meno island, Indonesia
Lazy cat in the sun. Gili Meno island, Indonesia

Local fishermen. Gili Meno island, Indonesia
Under the surface
When in Gili, you simply just have to go snorkeling. You can either go on one of the tours, or go by yourself. We went for the latter option, and later also found out that the tours go to three spots that we could easily swim to our self from where we were staying. Sadly, there is a rather thick belt of dead corals just off the beachfront, obviously with not much to see. Time for a little serious talk; do not stand up on the corals, they will break under your weight, leaving even larger areas broken…

Continuing a bit further out, the underwater landscape change, the corals stand out with different shapes, and fishes of all sizes and colours swimming between them. It feels like laying in the surface of a giant aquarium, just observing the life. Which was more or less what we actually were doing, if you skip the aquarium part. After wading in the surface for a while, I was eager to go for the big fish (read: the giant sea turtles)! Several people had pointed out the north of the island to be a good place to spot them, so we got our legs kicking, slowly drifting through the tempered water. We were almost about to give up when my friend got all winded up, frenetic pointing at something. She had done the same with some colorful fishes in the start as well, but the enthusiasm was slightly different this time. There it was; silently sliding along the bottom. A small kick with its feet sent it graciously forward. What a beautiful peacefulness! Heading back, sliding over the large belt of dead corals was yet another reminder of people’s recklessness (and maybe even unawareness) of the consequences, so please be careful.

Gili Meno is the perfect place for total relaxation. Slow walks in the mornings, beach life and water cooling during the day, and beautiful sunsets at the beach in the evening. A true relaxing paradise!

Bali volcano view. Gili Meno island, Indonesia

The perfect ending of the day. Sunset and beer at the beach. Gili Meno island, Indonesia

Gili Trawangan – a complex island

Dozing off to the sound of the waves gently rolling against the beach, occasionally waking up to the sound of the horses with carriage passing by. Even though it sounds like the intro to “Jingle bells”, that is the only resemblance to Christmas. No cold snow here. The only white is the burning sand.

The only way to cool down is either by jumping (or more softly sliding) in the sea, or have a cold drink. I know, it sounds horrible…. 😉

Nice and relaxing view from the sunbed. Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

Nice and relaxing view from the sunbed.

Gili Trawangan is known to be the party island of the three Gili islands. Walking along the beach road, I can absolutely see why, but at the same time, it does not rule out the aspect of total relaxation. Yes, there are many places where you can party all night if that is what you are after, but many of the beach bars have a more chill ambiance.

To be honest, I was actually a little surprised that it did not feel more busy. But hey, I don’t complain, that was just perfect!

Staying at Casus Dream Hotel only a (strong) stone throw away from the beach, but yet in a quiet back street, was pleasant. They have a pool as well, but we never used it, so quite frankly, we might as well have stayed at Gili Breeze that was our other alternative. Or one of the many other places around.

Taking a swing while exploring Gili Trawangan. Indonesia

Taking a swing while exploring Gili Trawangan.

All along the beach there are sun beds. Some are for the accommodation guests only, while others allow outside guests. Some charge a daily rent for the sunbed (typically 100′), others let you stay for free as long as you eat and drink there. We found the latter option to be the absolute best, and found our place at Villa Unggul.

You might as well drink nice ice cold beers for the price of the sunbed. Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

You might as well drink nice ice cold beers for the price of the sunbed.

Beach front at Gili Trawangan. Indonesia

Biking for sunset
To get the feel of the island, we rented bikes to explore. Our first goal was the “ring road” around the island, but there is also a network of roads crisscrossing the inner part. Plenty of places offer bikes for rent, and we went for the first (but not the best….), paid 50′ each for 24 hour rental, and got going. Most of the way along the sea is bikeable, except for a part of the north tip where you have to get off. The sun was still strong, so we figured it would be nice to have a beer break, cooling down in the shade at Coral Beach.

Gili Trawangan, Indonesia Easy life at Gili Trawangan. Indonesia

Time to get going again, pedalling onward, passing both fancy resorts and more down-to-earth relaxed places. Horses were passing, and goats were relaxing under the shade of the trees.

Arriving at Gili Sunset Bar, we decided to settle down on one of the platforms overlooking the ocean. They got me already by combining sunset and bar…

The water was calming down, nicely reflecting the still burning hot sun. My eyes found rest on the peaky volcanoes in the dimmed horizon.

Sunset view towards Bali. Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

Sunset view towards Bali.

Sunset view towards Bali. Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

As we found our peace there until the sun had set, we did the shortcut across the island on one of the smaller roads to get back before it was completely dark.

Social local dinner
“Central” is the local food market, and a perfect place for dinner. A few stalls were spread out, and made different types of food. After a look around, we decided on the BBQ place, and ordered different skewers to share. Along with that, we got to choose some side dishes. After ordering, we were told to come back after 15 minutes, so we sat down by one of the tables with a cooling beer, and started chatting with some locals. An experience of my taste!

Food stall at Central. Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

Food stall at Central. Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

After dinner there are several options, whether you prefer a relaxing massage, hanging around at the beach, time-out with a movie at the outdoor cinema, or step it up with a party. The choice is yours.

 

The world’s largest Gingerbread Town

The Gingerbread Town is the worlds largest, with approximately 2000 houses. The first Gingerbread Town in Bergen was made in 1991. Every year since, kindergartens, schools, private persons, offices, organizations are all contributing with their gingerbread houses.

The Gingerbread Town is built as a miniature of the city of Bergen, and you can easily recognize the well-known landmarks, such as Mount Fløyen with the Fløibanen FunicularBryggen, St. Mary’s church and the Rosenkrantz tower. In addition there are some internationally known landmarks, the Eiffel Tower being one that usually is present every year.

Start by visiting the Gingerbread Town to get the Christmas spirit, and plan the rest of your stay in Bergen from there.

Opening hours 19 November-31 December: 
Weekdays: 9-21
Saturday: 9-20
Sunday: 10-19
24 December: 9-13
25 December: Closed
26 December: 13-18
New Year’s Eve: 11-15

The worlds largest Gingerbread Town in Bergen. Norway The worlds largest Gingerbread Town in Bergen, Norway Rosenkrantz Tower and St. Mary's Church. The worlds largest Gingerbread Town in Bergen, Norway Vågen in Bergen in the worlds largest Gingerbread Town in Bergen, Norway Fløibanen Funicular. The worlds largest Gingerbread Town in Bergen, Norway Nordnes in Bergen in the worlds largest Gingerbread Town in Bergen, Norway Sandviken and Norwegian Fisheries Museum. The worlds largest Gingerbread Town in Bergen, Norway

Hostel behaving rules

When traveling solo, I mainly stay in hostels. It is a great way to meet new people either for short conversations or ending up hanging out for a while exploring, and even continue the travel together.

The following suggested hostel behaving rules, were written after being woken up in the middle of the night in a hostel dorm.

1. Great the people you meet in your room (and the hostel in general).
2. Use the bed you are designated, not the one you might like better.
3. It might be smart to leave some personal belongings on your bed. In case someone in your room does not follow point nr. 2.
4. Unpack the things you need to get ready for bed before leaving the room. You never know what time your room mates will go to sleep, and when you suddenly end up getting back much later than planned.
5. Never snooze the alarm clock!
6. Do not switch on the main light in the middle of the night when others are sleeping.
7. Turn your phone on silent.
8. In case you need to repack at odd times (at night and early morning), bring your bag outside the room.
9. Do not bring guest to your room. Especially new friends… (Yes, the others can hear you…) (And walls are often thin if you have a private room…).

Do you have anything else to add on the list?

Street food tour in Hanoi

Hanoi is full of street food stalls, so we decided to learn where and what to eat from the local professionals. We booked a guide from Hanoi Street Food Tours, and Tu got us started from the moment we met. He is the writer of the food blog Vietnamese God and certainly knows what he is talking about.

Our first stop was for fish soup, or Bun Ca, with noodles and vegetables. It comes with a bit of different salad leaves on the side to put in it. As the last finish, ad some chopped chilli and squeezed lime. It was seriously the best fish soup I have ever tasted! It was both sweet and sour, with a little spicy kick. We really wanted to slurp every drop, but Tu was strict and told us we could only eat half of it, as we had much more food coming up. We did not dare to disobey him.
Bun Ca
Moving on, taking shortcuts between residential houses, Tu also filled us with stories about how Hanoi has developed. Our next stop was for Vietnamese coffee, at Cafe Duy Tri. The café has been run by the family for generations, though in different locations. The current location was in 43 Yen Phu, not far from Sofitel Plaza. There were small tables on both sides of the narrow room, and more tables in the charming room one floor up.
Cafe Duy Tri
I do not usually even drink coffee, but I of course had to try, so I got the iced coffee with condensed milk. Really nice and a bit sweet, and for a non-coffee drinker as myself, that was just the trick. My coffee drinking friends were also very happy with theirs, and even bought some coffee beans on their way out, freshly grained on the spot. In addition to the coffee, we had to taste the frozen yogurt, as this is the only café in Hanoi that have that. The fact that they had one with avocado flavor made it a done deal! Oh, did I mention that I am an avocado addict?

It was time to get some more solid food, so we took a taxi to the old quarter for what was, according to Tu, the best crab spring rolls in town. They were actually more like squares than roll, but what does that matter? They were cut in several pieces and served with rice noodles, assorted leaves and sauce for dipping. My taste buds were at least satisfied.
Crab spring rolls
We did not need to move far for dessert. The stall right next door served Che Chuoi; a rather sweet condensed milk with banana and pearl tapioca. We also got iced lemon tea, quite sweet as well, but also nice and refreshing.
Che Chuoi
On our way to the last stop, we walked passed market stalls, and of course, many more food stalls. One of them sold chả rươi, a Vietnamese omelette with worms. When I travel, I think it is important to try as much local food as possible. So when Tu asked if we wanted to taste, I just had to. It does not exactly sound tempting (I agree with that), but to be honest the taste was quite good. It was seasoned with different spices, so you could not really taste the worm. Not that I have ever tasted worm before, so I would not have any idea what it would taste like anyway…
Vietnamese omelette with worms
Last taste – Pho Tiu; noodle soup with pork, bean shoots, nuts and herbs. Accompanied with a nice, cold beer. A great way to end this fantastic journey through the street food of Hanoi!
Pho Tiu
To try this fabulous experience yourself, contact Tu on
Hanoi Street Food Tours.

Experienced in January 2014