Leave the air-conditioned coaches and taxis and hit the streets, travelling like a local. This is the best way to get a sense of a destination. It was no different for us on a recent visit to Manila, metropolis and capital city of the Philippines.

Having watched the colourful Jeepneys from the safe comfort of our coach for a number of days (as delegates of the ASEAN Tourism Forum 2016), we decided we couldn’t possible leave Manila without experiencing them. The hotel staff thought we were mad and offered to call us a taxi, but no, it had to be a Jeepney. Seeing our determination, we were helpfully sent in the right direction and advised which Jeepney to take.

A paltry 21 pesos later and the three of us were heading for the city, or at least one of them. Manila as we know it, is comprised of some 17 cities – we were staying in Makati City (the financial region) and were heading to Manila City home to the historic Manila Hotel, Rizal Park and the walled city of Intramuros.

The Jeepneys are specific to the Philippines having started out as the Willy Jeeps the Americans used when they ‘occupied’ the country (as the locals say) during World War II (WWII).

The locals, needing transport, converted them into long-wheel based vehicles, added bench seats and an exit door, adorned them with vibrant colours and chrome ornamentation… and the Jeepney was born.

 Its name, some say, originates from the words ‘jeep’ and ‘knee’ – as in its passengers sit knee-to-knee. 

Modern Jeepneys are produced in factories using ‘surplus’ (second-hand) Japanese trucks, but have certainly not lost any of the charm of their predecessors.

There is much debate about their future with regards to the pollution they spew, their general lack of maintenance and road safety concerns. There may come a time when these iconic vehicles are relegated to museum status at best or even the trash heap.

We can attest to the air pollution, the close proximity of fellow passengers and the welcome breeze from the windowless vehicles. Passengers hop on, we pass the allotted fee to the driver, and then hop off at their desired destination. There is much activity on the streets on a Saturday morning, a celebration with brass band passes by, food vendors sell their wares and shoppers carry bags laden with supplies.

Two Jeepneys, a total of 60 pesos (for the three of us) and an hour and a half later find us across the street from the Manila Hotel.

This grand ol’ dame located along Manila Bay was built in 1909 by the Americans and has seen its fair share of presidents, celebrities, occupations and dictatorships.  The hotel was the residence of General Douglas MacArthur; during the WWII it was occupied by Japanese troops and was placed under government ownership during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. It was the illustrious Imelda, wife of the President, who brought international fame and recognition to the hotel.

We have the opportunity to tour the archives, a room housing memorabilia and old photographs – our guide Claine tells that authors Ernest Hemingway and James A. Mitchner once visited, as did U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Rod Stewart, Michael Jackson and the Beatles, to name just a few.

We walk the few minutes it takes along Roxas Boulevard to get to Rizal Park – and yes, it is safe to walk the streets of Manila, just don’t leave your common sense behind.

A focal point of Rizal Park is the Rizal Monument – a place of historical significance and national pride.

The place where national hero, José Rizal’s remains are enshrined, a place to remember the significant impact that his execution had during the Philippine revolution against Spanish occupation in 1896. It is also the place where the Declaration of Philippine Independence from the United States was held in 1946, and the place of political gatherings and national celebrations.

We take the obligatory selfies then stroll along the wide paved walk way, we watch the locals as they chill under the trees, cuddle on a park bench or take the kids for an outing.

An ice cream stall beckons, armed with delicious ube (purple yam) ice cream we continue.  We’re intrigued with what appears to be a theatrical group practising, old men sleep, young girls pose for pictures, and monuments, statues and the National Museum tell of the nation’s past.

Adjacent to Rizal Park is the old walled city of Imtramuros. Spanish for ‘within the walls’, Intramuros is the oldest district and historic core of Manila.

Its defensive walls were constructed in the late 16th century by the Spanish colonial government to protect the city from foreign invasions.  And in later years to keep the ‘not so Spanish’ residents out – there was a nightly curfew that saw the local workers leaving and the city gates closed.

The old city was guarded by Fort Santiago, an important historical site and home of the Rizal Shrine Museum. Another place of interest is the Church of San Augustin, the only building left standing after virtually all the structures and 40 percent of the walls were destroyed by bombings during WWII.

Intramuros is a ‘student town’ and is home to one of the oldest educational institutions in the Philippines, the Colegio de San Juan de Letran founded in 1620 – the campus was rebuilt in its same location after the war. Other educational facilities include the Manila High School, the Mapua University of Technology and the Lyceum of Philippines University Culinary Institute.

We stroll through the streets of Intramuros, past fast food outlets and local eateries, ramshackle buildings heaving under the weight of power cables and crimson bouganvillia, political posters and peeling paint.

A rooster crows – the ‘last post’ perhaps? He is certainly not announcing the dawn…

We exit down Calle Victoria, one of the streets bisecting the Intramuros Golf Club. It is here that the disparity of means was most evident, and the poverty most heart breaking. The greens in sharp contrast to the grubby grey street, as are the appropriately attired golfers to those eking out a living as best they can.

A child sleeps on a bench while her mother prepares and sells food, a man makes repairs to his bicycle on the pavement whilst another sells golf balls, neatly packaged.  Yet in all of this there is order and the people seem happy.

A subway takes us beneath busy Taft Avenue – the traffic is a nightmare, always – hence our decision to take the Metro back to Makati. The subway is lined with stalls selling everything from ‘designer’ jeans and sequined tops, to handbags, sunglasses, electronics and books. We pass food stalls with ube cakes on a hot griddle, fried bananas on sticks and mounds of peanuts on trays.

A monument to freedom rises from the square and students laughingly pose for a group photo. 

The University of Manila looms large, as does the parking lot filled with motorcycles.  A family at a street stall are friendly and we strike up conversation, they happily pose for pictures, enjoying the results. In these days of digital photography it is wonderful to be able to share the pics we have taken with them.

The Metro is up ahead, it’s hot and the train is crowded – giving new meaning to being packed like a sardine! Each stop sees locals pressing to get out, and even more pressing to get in. 

We change trains to a thankfully, less busy route enabling us to appreciate the views of the city from our raised advantage.  Arriving in Makati we feel hot, sweaty and… accomplished. We have seen and experienced a different Manila to the one our air-conditioned coach trips had eluded us to – we had travelled like locals and totally loved it.

(Travellers – Tessa Buhrmann, Claudia de Sousa, Dimitri Lespas) 

Words – Tessa Buhrmann

Pics – Tessa Buhrmann / Dimitri Lespas