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MANILA, Philippines – Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia are my three favorite countries after my own.
Two weeks ago, I was in a busy, festive mall in Manila and I thought, why not create a guide to an easy lunar new year holiday in Manila for friends in these countries, with a heavy emphasis on food, shopping, and culture? Food is a priority of course lah.
I brought some Singaporeans to Cebu years ago and we had a blast.
The Manila agenda below should be good for a four-night stay including a weekend.
I saw that the Conrad Hotel near Manila Bay is plugged directly into the Mall of Asia (MOA) and the world’s largest IKEA store. So I recommend the Conrad.
Arrange for the hotel to have their car pick you up at the airport upon arrival.
At IKEA, the restaurant is crazy huge. You can have the usual Swedish meatballs as well as Filipino dishes like sisig.
It’s nice to walk around the world’s largest IKEA store because of its wide corridors and friendly staff. Compare prices with those in your country.
It has a direct link to MOA, one of the largest malls in Asia, where you have all the major international brands like Nike, Uniqlo, Under Armour, Crocs, Muji, etc. but also a lot of local Filipino clothing, leather goods, and other shops.
Bench is the local fast-fashion brand. It’s like Uniqlo. I like their socks, handkerchiefs, underwear, and casual clothing. There’s something for everyone at Bench – short for the founder’s name Ben Chan.
Philippine souvenirs are sold in MOA at a shop called Kultura. You don’t have to go anywhere else.
The Manila Bay sunset
Manila has one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. Walk from the Conrad or MOA at 4 pm to the seaside. The sun sets early in Manila, around 5:30 pm, so you have to be at the seaside promenade during the magic hour before sunset.
Very Instagrammable. You will be surrounded by happy Filipino families. There are a lot of food and beverage options along the shore. Very child-friendly ambience.
Yes, the favorite topic of Singaporeans, Malaysians, and Indonesians. MOA has a staggering array of food options. They have a large food hall as well as individual restaurants.
Filipino cuisine is a blend of Spanish, Chinese, American, Malay/Indo, and regional Filipino cooking.
Korean food is huge in Manila because of the large Korean community (students, businessmen etc).
My food suggestions in the MOA area:
Din Tai Fung (we call it DTF)
Mary Grace – Great breads and desserts, try ensaymada and cheese rolls with coffee
Locavore in Conrad
Halal – Of course I won’t forget my Muslim friends
There’s one point I should point out for Malaysians, the weird Filipino habit of bringing dogs to the mall. Tiny ones are pushed in prams like babies but there are big ones too, fully leashed but still annoying to me.
Dampa (take a hotel car) – Dampa is a fresh seafood market near Conrad where you pick what you want to eat and tell the staff how you want it cooked. They will give you options and suggestions. You will dine in a clean aircon restaurant next to the market. But make sure they tell you what the cooking charges are up front before closing the deal. Like Newton Hawker Centre lah, you might get overcharged.
For pork eaters, go to Rico’s lechon in MOA. Whole roast pig with crispy skin and tender meat sliced for you. It’s the national dish.
Tissue paper in packets
Philippine pesos in 50, 100, and 200 bills
Men should experience a haircut with a mustache-beard trim at Bruno’s Barbers in MOA. Costs P700 (SGD 17), and it’s of course cheaper for a haircut alone. Show the barber a picture of yourself with the haircut you want him to create. Leave a P100 (SGD 2.40, $1.80) tip. This tip is okay for most occasions except luxury dining.
Manila has a 12% Value Added Tax, like GST, and service charges at restaurants. Be kind and tip well if service is good, as it usually is.
The Manila Hotel – Book the buffet lunch on a weekday. I did a lot of feasting here under the guise of business meetings. Filipino, Italian, Japanese, and Arabic options are what I recall. After lunch, sit in the massive lobby and just watch people. It is 111 years old and dwarfs the Raffles Hotel.
Binondo – Ask your hotel to book you a car and guided tour of Binondo, the world’s oldest Chinatown. You will have a blast.
Sofitel buffet dinner – The Spiral dinner buffet is regarded by many as the best in Manila. Close to Conrad. A cool breeze from Manila Bay will keep you comfortable as you dine.
Grab works well in Manila. If you are adventurous, try motorcycle taxis like Joyride or Angkas (founded by a Singaporean woman married to a Pinoy). They supply helmets.
Finally, leave for the airport four hours before your flight just in case there’s heavy traffic, rain, or long queues in immigration, etc. You will probably arrive early but T3 is great, T2 is not good due to few F&B options, and T1 is the oldest and underwent a makeover in recent years.
Buy the local Don Papa rum at Duty Free. It’s great with Coke on the rocks (Cuba Libre)
I hope you enjoy my wonderful hometown. – Rappler.com
Roberto Coloma, better known as Bobby, retired in 2022 after 40 years as a foreign correspondent. He started his career as editor-in-chief of the Philippine Collegian, the student newspaper of the University of the Philippines.
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