We left at 1 in the afternoon. Being the budgeting backpackers that we are, we chose public over private transportation to reach Intramuros, the most historic Spanish section of Manila. There, a mere 7.7 kilometers away, we would be able to see the remnants of an ancient wall, an iconic citadel, a church, and a cathedral from the era of Spanish colonization before WWII.
According to the app Moovit, we would need to take three consecutive jeepney rides to reach Intramuros. We headed to the parking lot near us that served as a jeepney hub.
What is a Jeepney?
When US troops came to liberate the Philippines from the Japanese during WWII, they brought some solid, well-made army trucks over with them.
Despite their impressive age, the Filipinos have managed to keep these large trucks running for continued use today. Now, thankfully, they no longer serve soldiers in war, but the regular crowd of transiting Filipinos. The less prominent, but coolest change is the decor. Modern jeepneys sport all kinds of artwork, themes, and messages (and horse statues) on their exteriors.
I had heard about these crowded jeepneys that squish people in until there isn’t an inch of bench left, even when half of everyone is sitting on the laps of their neighbors. Even before we landed in Manila, I was dying to experience them for myself.
In the parking lot of Market Market (or Market x2 🙂 ), we saw a few long lines queuing up behind signs. After asking which line would bring us to Intramuros, we jumped in the queue for Guadalupe.
The lines were quite long, but everyone was impressively patient and orderly. It also helped that about 20 people were able to smush into each jeepney that arrived, so the lines disappeared quickly.
One of the men who collected the fare money and directed the lines tried to have one very petite, young girl fit as the last person inside an already bursting jeepney. She peered into the crowded seats, turned around and walked away, preferring to wait. The man persisted in telling her to jump on and seemed irked that such a small person still required space.
Soon our turn came. We were near the front of the line, and since we knew we would be taking the last stop, stop #16, we slid to the very end of the bench. Thankfully none of us are claustrophobic as the jeepney was flooded to the brim with people.
We wished we could have seen more of the city while driving around and stuck in traffic. But the roof was built like a metal dome, creating the feeling of traveling in a cave. While the top blocked good views, we still had “windows” or open air with bars across the middle of the jeepney and plastic that could roll down to keep out rain. The front windshield itself didn’t seem to provide too much visibility either, but the driver seemed to know the city like the back of his hand.
If someone wanted to get off they would say, “para,” the Tagalog word for stop. To pay for their ride, anyone who couldn’t reach the driver would pass his cash to another passenger and tell them where they wanted to go. It was simply jeepney etiquette to help pass cash around and to always move over more whenever someone new stepped on, even if there was visibly no space left.
First Stop: Merkati
Our first driver dropped us off in a dungy, poverty stricken street without a foreigner to be seen. Yes! We’ve reached the real Manila. I’m finally seeing the place I’ve read about, I thought. I saw the name Merkati written on the back of a tricycle and felt a little relieved, as happy as I was to be out of the Fort. The Fort, otherwise known as Bonifacio Global City, was the financial center, a modern bubble, in Manila where we were staying. Merkati was an area of town that a friend of mine had told me was safe.
“We are in Merkati, Mom. This is a safe neighborhood.”
“This is a safe neighborhood?” she repeated. Her tone conveyed just a bit of disbelief.
As we learned later from our host, Mandy, in the Fort, there are two sides to Merkati. There’s the glistening mega malls and fancy dining, and then the area we were dropped in, the area where people didn’t own cars and rode 7 peso ($0.15) jeepneys.
As my mom noted later, such areas of poverty could be quite frightening to be in if the people were unfriendly. But that was not the case in Merkati. The kindness we encountered eased our apprehensions.
We left the Fort with the idea of eating somewhere once we got to Intramuros. We hadn’t had breakfast. Looking around, our tummys already growling after a long, hot ride breathing jeepney fums, I noticed that the cleanliness level did not match well with the thought of food. Just a few steps up the road, however, was an open market in full swing. Our best option was clear before us.
The Ultimate Travel Food
Bananas. Bananas are a hungry traveler’s best friend. They are the ultimate travel food. You don’t have to worry about cleanliness as you must peel them, in Southeast Asia they are abundant and cheap, and the potassium makes you feel full and of course keeps you healthy.
It’s a good thing we bought a bunch as they were the only fuel we would have almost all day.
Our second mission was to find a pair of plastic flipflops. I loved my current flipflops, but with the rain, wet roads, and slick soles, I was playing with chance every time I slipped.
God knows I hate to shop. But this was necessary. Thankfully the Lord sent us to the perfect street in the ideal country to do my one item shopping.
We starting walking down the market and found a woman selling nothing but flipflops. She had fake havaianas in my size. Two minutes later I was walking down the slippery street in safe, blue, brand new $2 flipflops. Done.
Both the bananas and shoes were picked up on our short walk to where a line of jeepneys were picking up passengers. But as we scanned all the passing jeepneys available, we failed to find one going where we wanted to go. So we asked someone. The young filipina we asked pointed and spoke a bit unclearly, but seemed to have the answer to our question.
We were able to understand that we could find one down the hill. Sensing our uncertainty, she walked walked us down and waited with us, every now and then jumping up to run to a passing jeepney. When the right jeepney started making its way toward our intersection, she again ran over to it, explained where we wanted to go to the driver and helped us in. Then she was gone. So much of our travels only work out because of wonderful people like her.
Our second jeepney driver was a complete lunatic, but he did achieve a speed over 20 km for the first time so far in our journey. A creepy black statue of Mary occupied a place on his dash and a plastic red cross hung above it. “The Lord is our shepherd” my mom said. I thought she was starting to pray in response to the perilous driving. “They do this every day…” I began in a not-so-comforting response. “Oh and that one says “God provides!” She had only been referring to the names displayed on passing jeepneys.
Once again having reached the last stop of a jeepney route, our driver thoughtfully made sure to ask where we were headed and gave the name of the street where we would find the last jeepney to Intramuros. At his direction, we walked up Remedios to the street’s intersection with a highway. We tried to figure out which direction and side of the road we needed to be on to get the correct jeepney. On the other side of Remedios we noticed a jeepney go by and slow long enough to pick up a passenger. When the next one came, I jumped into the street and ran up to the window.
“Are you going to Intramuros?”
Despite the traffic, it wasn’t long until I spotted the historic church I had seen online. It was on the far side of the double-sided highway. Somehow we’d have to get over there.
This was the first thing to greet us where we were dropped off. We tried to think of what it was. Turns out it was a memorial commemorating the Masonic secret society that formed with the purpose of gaining independence from the Spanish. They called themselves the Katipunan, (the Tagalog word for association), abbreviated to KKK.
We saw the City Hall then entered the tunnel that went beneath the highway to the other side. As usual, the transit tunnel also served as a market for clothes, toys, and random things.
Popping out the other side, we came across a line of men with maps of Intramuros and bikes attached to side carriages. I had read about these tour guides and took it as a sign that we were in the right place. The wall of Intramuros also became visible and was only a short walk away. But a huge, dark cloud hung closer. It loomed over the entire area and didn’t hold back long on its ominous threat to burst open.
As the tour guides repeatedly asked us where we wanted to go and if we would take a tour with them, we watched the sky as a drizzle came down. Then it poured. Manila doesn’t take the term rainy season lightly. The rain storms they receive there are closer to monsoons! We dashed for cover, but the wind made sure to hunt us out. Sorry Intramuros, but we couldn’t see you that day.
A man asked us where we were going, so we answered Market Market, the stop where we began our journey. He pointed to the jeepneys idling close by that we were already walking towards. He stuck out his hand and asked for compensation for his “help.” The guy didn’t get any.
Once at the jeepneys, we were directed to one on the highway, ready to take off. We sloshed through humongous puddles and dashed for it. In two seconds, we were drenched. We squeezed our way through to take up the last spaces, happy to be out of the rain and successfully on our way back, although still hungry.
A Free Rider
As we braked in a jammed wave of traffic and people ran across the street to reach cover from the rain, a young boy jumped on the back of our fully squished jeepney. By forgoing a seat and hanging onto the bars on the outside, he earned himself a free ride. He was able to perch himself under cover to keep out of the rain. He may not have had a seat, but hey, he was kept dry and why not save those pesos?
Hanging Out on the Highway
EDSA, whatever that stands for, was some kind of central stop, the busiest spot, an intersection between two major highways. We were dropped off in the very middle of one highway. EDSA reminded me why I love traveling the local way. Upon alighting, we found ourselves in the midst of a swarm of Filipinos holding umbrellas, waiting. Everyone was standing in the middle of the highway just… waiting. I had certainly never done that before.
When the direction of traffic changed and cars began turning into the lane we all stood in, we did a small shuffle to another spot in the road. Every now and then a jeepney would swing by and pick up soaked, patient passengers.
While we were watching for a jeepney that went to Market Market, we noticed two boys playing. They were having the best time, but I couldn’t believe at first what they were doing. A huge puddle had formed on the corner of the highway intersection and the boys decided to jump in it. They wore nothing but huge grins and seemed unconcerned about the abundance of vehicles passing around them, during rush hour no less. You can see a video of them below.
A Ride on the Notoriously Dangerous MRT
It eventually became clear that none of the jeepneys went to Market Market, so we formed a plan B. Jeepney ride #5 dropped us off at the MRT. While standing in line to get tickets (a stranger had helped us know which stop to take), my mom spoke up, “We aren’t going to get on this MRT, are we? I read that it is super dangerous and you shouldn’t take it at any cost.” I pointed to the skytrain that blazed past right behind us. “Yes, I’m assuming we are taking that.” Her eyes went wide as she swallowed the fact that we had to go ahead and do it. We approached the window and got our tickets.
A swarm of people were also headed in the direction we were told to go, so we followed the flow. We all squeezed down a set of stairs to a subway platform. As I looked for a sign to tell us which train to wait for, on the right or the left, I found only one that read “No turning back allowed.”
Going Back in Time: Male or Female Only Train Cars
A train approach and everyone rushed on. Unsure if it was the correct train, I asked a police officer. He nodded, so I turned to step in, but he stopped me and pointed to the train car to the right. I hadn’t noticed, but only men were in the train car I almost entered. Good thing the police man got us in the female only train. No doubt it was much cleaner! 😛
Some sweet women near us in the train got my attention, motioned to a recently cleared seat and looked at Grace. Grace sat down as we thanked them. Standing in the crowded train, I was able to see all the way to the very end, as every other standing woman was more or less two inches shorter than my 5 foot 7 inch stature. It was the first time I really felt the difference in my height from the petite Filippinas.
There were buses that ran the last 2 miles from our MRT stop to Market Market. But the bus terminal proved to be a mob scene that time of night, causing buses to fill until they were spilling out.
A good old fashioned walk, we decided, would be best to reach our final destination.
As we walked along the road, I kept my eye on a white van. The driver would speed forward a few meters then sit a good while stuck in traffic. Every time the van got ahead of us, although walking at Grace’s slow pace, we were able to catch back up as he sat idle in traffic. The cars moved so slowly that we eventually passed the van so far ahead that I never saw it again.
Soon the buildings on our right-hand side were replaced with tall, cement walls and fancy locked gates. Small glimpses of the houses gave us impressive ideas about the obviously wealthy owners. A plaque declared one of the homes as the “Residence of the Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
“Yes, that’s the most wealthy street in Manila,” Mandy, our host, told us later.
During our walk, our shoes got stuck in the mud as it continued to pour and the heavens stayed open. I accidentally splashed a guy when stepping down from the sidewalk. He replied to my “sorry!” with a good-natured laughed and said, “It’s ok! It’s raining!” We walked and talked until parting ways, another kind stranger met in Manila’s soggy streets.
We arrived back at Mandy’s apartment at 10pm. That’s nine hours of transit, five jeepneys, an MRT, and a 2 mile walk, all without exploring Intramuros. While I wouldn’t recommend this route to check out Manila’s Spanish history, I sure hope you get in on the local fun. There’s not a much more authentic way to explore the Filippino capital than by a funky, quirky, sweaty jeepney ride.
Tell me how it goes!
*Note: for persons sensitive or unaccustomed to heat, crammed conditions, or pollution, long jeepney rides can cause sickness. Enjoy, but just be cautious!