As the Philippines’ capital city, Manila is a complex place that offers a diverse experience for both newcomers and experienced travelers. While travel guides highlight attractions of Manila and how to get there and smile from locals is abundant, it is of equal importance to be aware of certain things to avoid being among the unfortunate tourists who had rather forgettable experiences.
Is Manila safe for tourists or even returning Filipinos working or living abroad? It can be, but only if adequate measures are taken to minimize instances of criminal activity. Safety from crime in Manila is often associated with poverty and apparent lack of security, but robbers, swindlers and other bad elements are also encouraged by negligent behavior among certain people. Safety from illnesses often stems from lack of common sense — not hydrating enough to counter hot and humid day or consuming exotic food your stomach isn’t used to.
1. Avoid wearing expensive jewelry in public places
Conspicuous places could mean bars, shopping malls and public transport. Manila is notorious for snatchers, who may grab valuables and run away even at broad daylight and near police outposts. Or pickpockets who are personified by people you’d never expect to be involved in this type of crime. Even prominent people can also become victims of street crimes.
When visiting fast food, never take your belongings away from your sight. There are videos shared on social media about how unsuspecting restaurant customers lost their bags, phones or wallets as bold thieves display their deceiving and distracting tricks that could earn them a gig at a magic show.
2. Avoid placing valuables at backpacks
It is easy to blend in the crowd of Manila — buses, trains, queuing before entering shopping malls — so the risk of losing your wallet or passport is high if you place them at your back packs or bags beyond your attention. In short, do not carry back packs whose zippers can easily be opened without your knowledge.
Wearing backpacks on your belly instead of your back is not uncommon in Manila, where pedestrians are aware of pickpockets opening zippers or even cutting through bags especially on crowded areas.
Be careful not to leave these items because there are places that require you to part from your bag. For example, shopping malls require shoppers to leave their belongings at bag counters. Attendants will allow you to bring your bag with you if you tell them you have valuables inside (laptop, camera, etc).
3. Avoid getting into long conversations with strangers
Obviously, this varies from case to case. If you were waiting for your tour guide and happen to chat with a random stranger in the same bench or as a photography subject, there may be no harm with that. Or with a bell boy in a hotel lounge while waiting for your tour van. But there are cases when conversations lead to loss of properties. You may be chatting with someone used as decoy to distract your attention while someone else pries your laptop away from your bag.
Some of them may invite you for cold drinks and — bragging the effort as a genuine Filipino hospitality — your beer could be laced with sedatives before you realize you lost your cash, laptop or phone.
Filipinos are generally shy folks though they’ll engage when you initiate a conversation. When you encounter unsolicited conversation — taxi touts, beggars asking for coins, or restaurant waiters inviting you to try their food shop, it’s easy to ignore them. But when some of them make another attempt to strike a conversation, be wary as gangs like Ativan Gang might just be looking for another victim; in some cases foreigners, like this Italian man, become victims.
4. Avoid places associated with bad neighborhood
Filipino films often portray certain areas of Manila as haven of drug dealers, organized crime leaders and their underlings. That may not necessarily be limited on movies as crime actually happens on these areas. But avoiding certain places isn’t limited to presence of crime but also risks such as flooding during rainy season.
- Dim areas of Malate and Ermita in the center of Manila, where presence of muggers — and even women — who dupe tourists and foreigners.
- Navotas. Not really known as a tourist area, but can appear on news headlines after heavy rains as among worst hit by floods.
- Tondo. Slum areas and sadly, the bad reputation as a haven of criminals.
- Baclaran. Although this is where Baclaran church, a popular place of worship is located, it also hosts snatchers, pickpockets and those who offer nothing but deception.
- Other Places. Areas in Manila that are not well-lit, with presence of slums and beggars.
5. Avoid riding taxis with no meters
Due to demand for taxi rides in Manila during peak hours, or seasons like Christmas or rainy days, drivers can easily demand for fixed amount in favor of a ride. Avoid such situation by all means. If unscrupulous drivers can charge locals a steep ride for a reasonable distance, let alone to tourists or foreigners who are perceived as clueless and awash with money. Even when taxi meters are present, drivers may not use it once you are already inside the cab so insist on one — unless you are in a hurry and prepared to pay more than you deserve to.
6. Avoid using your credit card on less reputable establishments
Cash, while can be faked, is a better option as opposed to using credit card when paying bills at certain places. Some businesses could be in cahoots with outlawed elements responsible for copying credit card details and sending your card unusable after reaching its credit limit.
In case you have no other choice but to pay by card, be on attention if it takes more than 10 minutes before you get it back. Someone may have reproduced it shortly after it settled your bill. Check your card statement right away and report fraudulent transaction to authorities at once.
7. Avoid drinking tap water
Don’t drink water unless you know for sure it is boiled/filtered or bottled water that you buy from supermarkets and convenient. Tap water in Manila is not known to be a safe potable option. Bottled water is cheap and can be bought in convenience stores, supermarkets or small sari-sari stores.
8. Avoid using ATMs that appear defective
Some automated teller machines do not work properly, or even if they do, criminals may have attached devices to capture data or duplicate your card. Also avoid ATMs located at dimly lit or places with less security presence. (Security can mean either police presence or the ubiquitous security guards who are also armed with handguns.) So a safe bet is to use ATMs located inside shopping malls or places that make it more difficult to tamper with these devices. But even inside ATMs, be aware of people around you as pickpockets may be lurking within the area.
9. Avoid getting hit by stray golf ball at Intramuros
While paying a visit at Intramuros, a historic area of Manila, be aware of signs that say ‘Beware of Flying Golf Balls’. Since there is a golf course nearby that offer no barrier around its grounds, be aware that this may spoil your trip. This also applies to construction sites with no adequate signs or accessibility and safety options for pedestrians.
10. Avoid arriving late at the airport for your departure from Manila
Traffic in Manila is among the worst worldwide so if you are scheduled to fly at a certain time, allow several hours to get to the airport and process necessary travel documents. Sometimes even if you reach the airport, procedures such as baggage scanning, check in process and immigration formalities may take longer than your initial estimates — and flight delay can sometimes be a blessing in disguise. A safe bet is to be in the airport at least three hours prior to flight.
11. Avoid airport toilet attendants who ask for tips
It seems embarrassing for travelers to refuse giving tips to underpaid cleaners who offer clean towel after using the toilet but giving them any amount only encourages them to continue their unethical work and promote corruption in an airport whose reputation is already tarnished with rampant corruption and poor facilities. The practice is less obvious lately but it’s not surprising to observe them once in a while.
Such practice is less observed lately, and doesn’t seem to pose threat to personal safety when such solicitation from airport workers is ignored.
12. Avoid being told by storekeeper “we have no change”
When making purchase on shops like 7-Eleven or any convenience outlet, ensure that you have enough bills or coins or even better, pay the exact amount if you can. Occasionally, Manila shopkeepers most notably in smaller shops and convenience stores tell you they have no change for a large currency bill (P500 or P1000) — it’s too early and we don’t have sales yet — and offer you to buy other goods just to get an appropriate change.
13. Avoid traffic accidents
In a city where drivers — not traffic enforcers — are often kings of the road and traffic rules are often bent as much as possible (no seatbelts, U-turns and illegal crosses), it helps to be safe and extra careful while on the road. Never jaywalk on Manila’s busy thoroughfares, cross only when told to do so, alight at appropriate locations and wear helmet when riding the motorcycle.
Some scams also appear in road “accidents” where a motorcycle rider may gesture to you or your driver that your car hit him or got flat tire. This is to prompt someone from the care to get off, where robbery or some form of deception may be planned. If you are not sure this is true, don’t get off the car. You can ask the person to call the police to settle matters.
All these reminders do not only apply to Manila; they can be practiced everywhere. A safe travel is also a successful travel. So even if you missed going to a place just because you have a bad feeling about it, don’t fret. Always err on the side of caution. Keeping your wallets and valuables in sight, becoming wary against very friendly people, and staying away from places identified as ill repute — red light districts or dark alleys — helps you enjoy what Manila has to offer.