Commuting Tips; What you must know to make commuting around Manila Easier
We came upon a blog post giving tips on how to commute safely in the Metro.
By Dan G.
Squeezed tightly into a brightly-painted passenger jeep that was blasting a techno version of Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting for You, ” it suddenly occurred to me that only a couple years ago, I would never have been able to imagine myself packed into this manically-driven commuter vehicle made for 16, but holding 20 (including two guys hanging on outside the back aperture). What follows is a brief summation of various means of transportation around Manila, Philippines, and some advice that will hopefully help prevent you from getting ripped off/taken advantage of/sold to a Southeast Asian slave trader in exchange for a roll of spearmint Mentos and half a pack of cigarettes.
The “Lay of the Land”
Manila traffic is notoriously horrendous. Driving in between the lines designated for your lane and obeying the few traffic lights in existence are, at best, considered gentle suggestions. Almost getting sideswiped by a charter bus goes from a traumatic experience to an almost routine occurrence. While, in most parts of the US at least, it is widely endorsed that one should be a “defensive driver, ” in Manila, survival necessitates that you do the opposite. Drivers in the Philippines are either the absolute worst drivers in the world, or the best of the best. On one hand, they break every single traffic rule known to man on a constant basis. On the other hand, despite this seemingly reckless behavior, I have seen surprisingly few wrecks, and even my Filipino friends that live here in Manila have agreed that automobile accidents are not as common as they should be.
Jeepneys are the iconic Filipino mode of transportation. The modern Jeepney stemmed from when some resourceful individuals modified WWII surplus army jeeps for public transport during the withdrawal of American troops from the Philippines. Most jeepneys are brightly colored, and many have elaborately painted designs on the side, in addition to chromed-out hood ornaments. In fact, just a couple days ago, I saw both sides of a parked jeepney painted with an ornately designed image of Jesus. I was impressed at the driver’s piety until I happened to see an even more detailed airbrush of Naruto (the anime cartoon ninja) on the hood of the same vehicle. I guess sometimes Jesus alone just isn’t enough to protect some people from Metro Manila’s traffic.
While jeepneys are a great deal (a 120 peso cab ride versus about 17 pesos on a jeep), this mode of transportation is not recommended for tourists new to the Philippines and traveling alone. However, commuting this way could be viable if you’re familiar with the jeep routes and have a basic command of Tagalog, you’re traveling with a local, or *ahem* you were forced to learn how to take the jeepneys when your girlfriend visited and you blew all of your money running around the country with her (love you, babe). In any case, there are a few key points to remember when taking jeeps. First, dress down. Jeepneys are generally the mode of transportation for the proletariat, so you do not want to draw attention, which could make you a target for would-be muggers and thieves. Second, do not carry large amounts of cash on jeepneys; only take what you need for that day. Third, try to avoid the “excited tourist face.” Don’t look too thrilled to be there. Business as usual, OK? Finally, remember to keep your cell phone in your pocket/purse/bag. It’s always best to minimize temptation. If you follow these guidelines and can speak the basic Tagalog needed for jeepney travel without butchering the accent too much, this could be a cheap alternative to taxis.
Always be VERY WARY of taxi drivers, they are notorious for ripping people off. This is especially true when you are coming from the airport, so keep your guard up. Remember, if one cab seems sketchy, just get out and wait for another one! It will not take long, I promise. You might even get amused watching for taxis. I have seen taxi names ranging from the reverent “Jesus Saves” to the slightly less idealistic “Make Me Rich!” There are three main ways that cabbies will try to get more from you than the correct fare owed.
The first way taxis will try to take your hard-earned pesos is by asking for a flat rate. Never, I repeat NEVER, settle for any unmetered fares. The offered rate is typically at least twice the normal rate. Once, I was traveling from Eastwood (a posh area with shops, condos, and restaurants) to a bar in Timog. The cabbie, obviously spurred on by the fact that his customer was a white boy, proceeded to offer me a rate that was more than three times the normal amount! I ended up arguing with him in Tagalog, which seemed to shock him a little. Finally, after I called the cabbie racist for charging me more because I’m a “puti” (white person), he turned on the meter and we had a rather peaceful ride. In retrospect, I should have followed my own advice and just gotten out right away; it wasn’t worth the trouble. No one’s perfect.
Taxi drivers will also separate you from your money by pretending they do not have change for your big bills. Or if they do, they will probably only be able to give you enough that would leave them an extremely generous tip. Nine times out of ten, they probably have the money, but “Oh shoot, no change. I guess you’ll just have to give me that whole 100 pesos” is much more appealing. Make sure to have an abundant supply of small bills so you don’t have to worry about being in that situation.
Finally, taxis will extract more pesos from you than they should by using fast meters. There is nothing you can really do about this, save choosing your cab wisely. Two cab companies I have always had great experiences with are MGE (white and green, black lettering) and Reno (white, red lettering). The drivers from these cab companies have always treated me honestly, and their meters are accurate. You can even call their dispatchers, and they will send a cab to pick you up.
MGE – 3648260 or 3636096 or 3666214 or 3666287
Reno – 029312681
I know its common sense, but DO NOT get into a taxi that already has someone else in it. Doing this is like wearing a big sign on your forehead that says “Mug me/Kidnap me/Rape me, I’m totally oblivious!”
As a final note, an acceptable tip is around 10 pesos. Usually, however, I give a bit more if know for sure that the cabbie gave an honest fare.
The quality of buses ranges from brand new, air-conditioned charter buses with recliners to decrepit old open-air buses with seats made from wooden slats. How much you pay depends on your desired comfort level. Personally, I prefer to spend an extra couple hundred pesos for a nice bus if I’m taking a long journey to the province areas, such as Bicol or Pangasinan. For shorter rides within Manila, the less illustrious buses aren’t half bad.
As with the Jeepneys, make sure not to flash money, jewelry, or other valuables. Generally, the cheaper buses are the ones that you should be the most careful on, but it is important to practice awareness with any type of public transportation.
One fringe benefit to taking a bus is a slightly increased peace of mind when it comes to flying through traffic. Usually, when in a taxi, jeepney, or privately owned car, the devil-may-care attitude of the drivers as they bore down on you is enough to scare the crap out of anyone, especially visitors new to the Philippines. Being on that hulking mass instead of under it is slightly liberating.
The MRT (Metro Rail Transport) and LRT (Light Railway Transport) are the two main light railway systems in Manila. Traveling on the MRT and LRT will only run you from about 12 to 15 pesos, depending on your destination. While this mode of transportation is very affordable, it is important to keep in mind that if you are traveling during a weekday, especially during rush hour, chances are you will need a running jump to squeeze into the crowded train cars. The standing arrangements are literally body-against-body. If you are looking for a comparable mental image, imagine being livestock in a cattle-car. The only difference is that in cattle cars, there are government restrictions on how many animals you can cram into a little space.
Pickpockets are not rare on this mode of transportation, so make sure to be aware of your valuables. I recommend a small neck pouch worn under your shirt to store cash. Also, if you are carrying a backpack, wear it backwards so that you can see the zippers. I have heard stories from friends here of travelers losing various belongings, including passports, when they do not follow that piece of advice. Remember, if someone is touching your butt, chances are it isn’t just some pervert hoping to cop a feel.
For those adventurous (the best euphemism I can come up with) enough to rent a car in Manila, congratulations. First, you probably have a lot more money than me. Second, you are definitely much, much braver than I am. If you believe you have what it takes to navigate the twisting roads and hazard-strewn highways of Manila, then I salute you. Just remember to wear your seatbelt.
It is important to take into consideration that privately-owned cars are often targets for the corrupt police officers in the city. When you pull off an aggressive driving maneuver that you needed to save your life, don’t be surprised if you see sirens flashing behind your car or an unscrupulous traffic cop flags you down. I have *heard* that standard bribes to avoid tickets hover around 100 pesos, maybe more, depending on the violation. (Disclaimer: I am not in any way advocating the bribery of civil servants. This is for informative purposes only.)
For those a little more safety conscious, many rental car companies also offer to supply drivers in certain rental packages. This may be a little more expensive, but the peace of mind is probably worth it.
Tricycle and Pedicab
In Manila, these modes of transport are generally for short distances. A tricycle consists of a small motorcycle attached to a sidecar. While it first appears that this vehicle could only accommodate one passenger, I have seen up to seven people piled onto one tricycle. If you are not on a main road, this is a good choice. If in heavy traffic, however, the open-air seating allows exposure to all manner of noxious exhaust fumes.
Pedicabs are the human-powered counterparts of tricycles. For obvious reasons, you want to be even more cautious about what roadways you take on a pedicab than you would with a tricycle. With pedicabs, as with tricycles, it is important to negotiate prices, especially if you are not sure what the normal fare is for your trip. There is nothing worse than finding out a couple hours later that you just bought a tricycle driver a couple free beers.
A Parting Note
I am sure some of these pointers are applicable to certain other countries as well, but I am most familiar with the Philippines, so I am writing from that perspective. Good luck on all of your travels, and milk any trip you take for all its worth!