Readers' Submissions

Bangkok vs. Manila

  • Written by Anonymous
  • August 11th, 2012
  • 18 min read



My brother-in-law, a Brit, led my attention to your fascinating site. It's interesting the things that I read comparing Bangkok & Manila. I would just like to contribute to enrich the parameters of the debate. Not to pit one against the other but to reframe some false impressions. Firstly, the impression that Bangkok is wealthier than Manila. As I write this, Manila is actually battling with Singapore as the richest city in Southeast Asia.

2011 RANKING:
1. Singapore–Singapore GDP $ 215 rank as 27 in the world.
2. Manila–Philippines GDP $ 149 rank as 40 in the world.
3. Bangkok–Thailand GDP $ 119 rank as 54 in the world.
4. Jakarta–Indonesia GDP $ 92 rank as 70 in the world.
5. Ho Chi Minh City–Vietnam GDP $ 58 rank as 95 in the world.

Yes, even now, it is wealthier than Bangkok & is expected to surpass Singapore by 2020. <These figures and your subsequent "wealth" comment are highly misleading as they show total GDP, not GDP per capita. I don't think anyone would predict Manila to become "wealthier" than Singapore which actually has the highest number of dollar millionaires per capita in the world!Stick>

Source: PriceWaterhouse
1. Metro Manila, Philippines $257 Billion, 5.90%
2. Jakarta, Indonesia $253 Billion, 6.50%
3. Singapore, Singapore $218 Billion, 3.60%
4. Bangkok, Thailand $180 Billion, 4.80%
5. Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam $98 Billion, 6.50%
6. Hanoi, Vietnam $73 Billion, 6.60%
7. Bandung, Indonesia $69 Billion, 6.70%

I often read about the poverty in the Philippines but it has stabilized its macroeconomic posture, and in 2050, HSBC predicted the Philippines will be the 16th richest in the world. According to HSBC, the Top 20 largest economies by 2050 will be China, United States, India, Japan, Germany, United Kingdom, Brazil, Mexico, France, Canada, Italy, Turkey, South Korea, Spain, Russia, Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, Argentina and Egypt.

The Philippines had had political problems but unknown to many, it has recovered its stride silently. It used to be the second biggest economy next to Japan well into the 1960's after all.

Manila is not your typical Asian city: I always read "downtown Manila" in your site but there is no downtown in Manila. It's a collection of central business districts (18 CBD's at last count)- meaning, large tracts of empty lands at the edge of the original American Manila were built upon ONLY with tall buildings so no ramshackle buildings in between, all modern skyscrapers inside the CBD's, unlike in other Third World cities where they built over the old central districts, mixing the modern & the dilapidated. The original colonial Manila was designed by the American architect who designed the Chicago & Washington DC redevelopments, Daniel Burnham, to make it look like parts of Chicago & Washington DC but after the devastation of the war, it aspired to be a runaway Third World LA instead, a vast flat city with a single jutting clump of CBD. LA has only one CBD but Manila has already developed 5 jutting clumps and 13 more are abuilding in one of the fastest growing real-estate markets in Asia outside China (in the first half of 2012, the Philippines has the highest growth rate after China in Asia). The Chicago part of Manila is the Manila Bay Area & the Washington DC part are the big wide boulevards of the northern part, Quezon City, but these were ravaged by the war (Manila was the most destroyed in Asia in WWII). In the 1950's, some rich Spanish-Filipino landowners had their own plans: they owned plantations at the edge of the American Manila outer ring road & turned them into the then fashionable skyscraper district developments in the States (LA downtown, Dallas, Houston, etc). Thus Makati (150 hectares) and the Ortigas Complex (100 hectares) were born. The former outer ring road of the colonial city is now the 24-kilometer 10-lane main metropolitan highway, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), which connects the two CBD's which are 3 kilometers from each other (the central section of that highway could be the "new" downtown, the 15-kilometer section connecting Makati-Ortigas-Cubao-North Triangle). So Manila did not only duplicate the single downtown skyscraper clump of downtown LA but with Makati & Ortigas CBD's, did it twice, not including smaller clumps elsewhere in the metropolis (mostly less than 20 hectares like Eastwood in Quezon City) and the old colonial downtown, the Chinatown Binondo area of classical Art-Deco buildings salvaged after the war (equivalent of the Bangkok Silom area but 10 kilometers away from the big skyscraper clumps of Makati & Ortigas). Other landowners followed so Manila is now a collection of First-World American-style skyscraper clumps (it was practically destroyed in the last war so they had to hastily rebuild, resulting in the current haphazard developments between the CBD's, but which are currently being built over now that the original CBD's are full). Up to 1960's, Manila was the richest city in Southeast Asia (most of the old Thai middle-class were educated in Manila) but it sank after the Marcos dictatorship (it had its overhead skytrains, the LRT, in the 1980's yet so you'll notice they're older than Bangkok's). But unknown to your readers, things are moving fast.

Bangkok's skyscrapers which are concentrated in its old downtown area have an immediate impact to a tourist especially if viewed from an elevated expressway. But if you get down ground level, you can see the wide-gapped teeth which are no better than those seen in the older parts outside Manila's CBD's. But you'll never get a large contiguous area of Bangkok where you can experience the illusion you're in a First-World area because of the scattered Third-World vestiges all around even in Silom, Sukhumvit or Rama. If you live outside the perimeters of the former colonial Manila (in the newer sections of southern Quezon City-Pasig-Mandaluyong-Makati area, east of EDSA, an area thrice as large as urban Auckland), you would get the LA experience of gated communities and sleek CBD's, complete with wide highways so you won't see interspersed ramshackles like in Sukhumvit or Rama (with the same traffic though).

The difference in the perception of the two cities, therefore, is the marketing.

The original Manila was left to seed, especially the Malate-Ermita area which it continued to brand as "tourist belt" and where it dumbly adviced budget-conscious tourists to lodge in (that's where most of your readers stayed). Instead of gentrifying, the tourists had to contend with the riffraffs which invaded the area, especially under the lackluster administration of Mayor Alfredo Lim. Reading the articles on your site made this clear. Anybody lodging in Malate-Ermita hated the city but those who lodged in the eastern side loved it (add the fact that the part of adjacent Pasay City contiguous to Malate-Ermita is also ramshackle & you have to negotiate Pasay City before you can get to the Makati-Ortigas-Eastern EDSA area from Malate). One reader who lodged in a motel in the eastern Pasig City mentioned no mall in Bangkok could compare to the Robinson's Galleria but that mall was actually the smallest mall in that area, which was the Ortigas CBD- the 7th largest mall in the world, the Megamall, & the Shangrila Plaza were just around the corner (btw, that was not "downtown Manila" as he put it, and not to confuse Robinson Galleria with the Robinson Mall in Malate frequented by tourists). Manila has 3 of the ten largest malls in the world- the 3rd largest, Mall of Asia, the 8th largest, SM North EDSA & the 7th largest, Megamall- but there are 50 other malls in the metropolis bigger than the biggest in LA. One of your contributors said Thais don't enter much the malls so he criticized the malls in Manila which are packed by locals & concluded most were just walking. Lol. You don't produce the biggest malls in the world if nobody is buying especially if their owner just added $4 billion to his net-worth in the last Fortune 500 richest list (The SM group is owned by Henry Sy with a net worth of $9.6 billion). There are 10 million Filipinos overseas & most presume that all have lowly jobs. Most of the middle-managers and supporting staff of Western companies in the Middle East & Southeast Asia are Filipinos because of their American education (Filipino & American students read the same textbooks and study the same curriculum). And the tall buildings that are filling up the Manila CBD's are being snapped up NOT by foreigners but by Filipinos – that's why the speculative bubble bust experienced by Thailand in 1999 which resulted in the many empty while-elephant buildings is not expected in the Philippines because these are actually being lived in & not just used for speculation (Hint: good to invest while there is still no bubble). $20 billion every year are infused into the Philippine economy from the remittances. These are soaked up by the many malls and real estate projects throughout the country (I read one wrote there Cebu City supposedly can't compare with Chiangmai but I have Thai friends comparing Cebu's skyline even better than Ho Chi Minh City's; Cebu followed Manila's example, it built its skyscraper clump outside the old city so if a budget-tourist goes to Cebu, he won't be the wiser if he lodged in the wrong district. Cebu is actually the top-rated BPO center in the world, overtaking Bangalore in India, & you don't get that distinction if you didn't have the infrastructure. One was obviously just in the wrong part of the town).

Now, we get to the best part: Manila's face is changing fast. Makati & Ortigas CBD's, only 3 kilometers from each other, are both filled up and now approaching each other, so that when you see them from afar, you get the Bangkok effect- buildings that are far apart looking like belonging to the same clump. The difference is no ramshackle gap tooths at the ground level, only middle-upper class subdivisions. The better news is that a third CBD, the Fort, a 500 hectare former army base just a kilometer from Makati and two kilometer from Ortigas, is fast filling up and we are talking here of buildings mostly 40-66 storeys right beside each other. When the three CBD's meet, expected in the next decade, we have a flat-land Asian Midtown Manhattan, a 4 km x 3 km x 6 km triangular CBD filled up ONLY with skyscrapers, with the green of the gated mansion communities of the rich as the Central Park in between.

So what happens with the old Manila? The 1000 hectare reclamation by the bay is awash with construction of the Manila equivalent of the Macau gambling casinos. And in the nearby much-maligned tourist belt, Malate-Ermita, just south along the seaside Roxas Boulevard, gentrification may finally arrive. If you noticed, some 50-storey constructions are ongoing in the area.

I think, all those complaints about the dilapidated physical state in Malate-Ermita will see changes in the next five years. Next year, the first casino will open in the reclamation area & 3 others will follow shortly afterwards (all are under construction). Expect the gravity of investments to trickle to the Bay Area (including adjacent Malate-Ermita and when that comes, it may become out of range of the budget traveller's purse).

Meanwhile, in the Northern part, in Quezon City, the original plan of Burnham is finally being dusted off. The Ayala Corp., the developer of Makati, is building Manila's CBD of the future there, along the wide boulevards designed by Burnham. In 18 years, Manila will deserve its new title: it will be the richest city in Southeast Asia, looking like the progressive cross of an Asian-American-Spanish city which it really is, parts of Chicago's North Shore Drive by the bay, no longer LA but parts of New York's Midtown Manhattan in the center & a lot like Washington DC in the north, with a Spanish fort at its heart, all that in Asia (It's a reflection of the stupidity of the Philippine tourism bigwigs: Singapore markets well its paltry colonial assets like the Fullerton, but look what you see neglected in the old center of Manila: an old Spanish fort sorrounded by gardens ringed by the Greco-Roman buildings built by the Americans producing a slice of Washington DC embracing a section of old Madrid. Just cross a bridge designed by Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame (Ayala Bridge) & you'll enter the old colonial section & the oldest & biggest Chinatown in the world. Apparently, probably because of the traffic, they don't bother with it anymore & allowed it to go to seed instead of revving up the hype, but that area is the single most interesting site in the city if they really only knew what publicity & tourism was all about (You should laugh, the bridge at Porto in Portugal was built by only a "pupil of Eiffel" but they used that for hype & they succeeded, the Ponte San Luis is the prime attraction of Porto; Manila has a bridge built by Eiffel, the only one in Asia, but nobody, not even the locals, knew it).

Culture. Filipinos may not admit it but their basic culture is primarily Hispanic, that was how thorough the colonization was. It was a Muslim community before the Spaniards so when independence came, they couldn't return to being Muslims, and they just adopted the Hispanic, with an overlay of American and Asian.

This is reflected in the food. Southeast Asia was colonized by Indian empires at some point so spices & herbs were introduced everywhere. The thoroughness of the Spanish conquistadores & the American imperialists changed Filipino eating habits. You can still see the basic spicy Southeast Asian diet in some provincial areas (Bicol & Muslim Mindanao areas) but Filipinos learned the feudal "class" culture of the Spaniards: your worth was measured by the price of what you're eating, and eating the more expensive meat gave you status. They eat vegetables at home among themselves to scrimp but only meat when they have guests or if they eat publicly, and you will notice, all home dinners are mostly Spanish recipes because of the status. Expectedly, they also adopted the practical fast food of the Americans for the routinary, and this is where they differ from the other Asians: while fastfood franchises is a treat event in other areas, in the Philippines, fast food franchises are cheap everyday fare, so you will note that there is more reliance on fast food franchises that are very common even in small towns, so that the Philippines is the only country with a billionaire in Southeast Asia who solely earned his billions establishing fast food empire. Middle class Filipinos rely on fast food outlets for their routinary lunches outside the home while the small food stall equivalents of those patronized by budget travellers in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur are mainly patronized by the very lower classes like drivers, laborers, etc. (it's a class conscious society, where quality could be scrimped for those who couldn't afford). Expectedly, vegetable dishes are not popular because you can't be seen eating the cheap vegetables publicly, unless it's a glorified salad in an expensive outlet, at least people would know it's expensive. But Manila has as much eateries as anywhere. In Manila, you get every cuisine, even the exotic from African, Arabic, Indian, etc. because Filipinos are found everywhere & they invest when they return home because they know Filipinos love to eat outside (you notice all the food outlets are full & thriving) & they always want to try something new. This is a reflection of the available disposable income (despite the beggars). Manila has more mall per capita anywhere in the world, they are everywhere in the metropolis (they surpassed the Americans when it comes to mall culture) and you only have to look for the food courts if you want cheap food. All the food franchises are there, or in the major intersections & other prime & not so prime locations. Remember, this was the only American colony, speaking its language and imbibing its culture so it is inevitably Americanized down to even in its food culture, to the point it overdid it (if you noticed, in the P. Burgos red-light district, there are 24-hour 19 air-conditioned fast food outlets in the 1-km Makati Avenue running at its edge- laughable but true, and that is a common occurrence in the metropolis). Though if you like Spanish or American food, it's impossible you won't like Filipino food, just don't go to a food stall (There are Asian food franchise chains-Chinese, Japanese, Korean, even Vietnamese (Pho Bac) but no Thai food franchise chain but there are standalone Thai restaurants). One thing to remember: the exoticness of the Philippines is not how it is very Asian, but how it blended the European with Asian & American. A matter of expectations. So it's foolhardy to compare it with a completely Asian culture like Thailand. Consider the Philippines as the future: as the West declines & Asia rises, you'll find the Philippines as the best rest stop. Meaning, when one looks at the Philippines, it's not advisable to look just for Asia. Look where three continents meet. Just a matter of using the right prisms. And that makes it exotic. Just forget food stalls when you're in Manila and you'll be ok..

Girls. Filipinos are a melange of cultures intermixing through the centuries. Consider: a great grandmother who was Irish American married to a Chinese-Spanish, with a mother Spanish-Malay and an Italian-American-Chinese-Malay father. There is that Filipino middle-upper class look: Asian but a new, improved special kind of Asian. More multi-carat, forged through centuries.Lately, there has been intermixing between Western tourists & other Asians in other parts of Asia. They lack the depth of the Filipino mestizo (Eurasian/Amerasian) culture.

And if you really want beautiful girls, go to Quezon Avenue in Quezon City, go to the big clubs frequented by moneyed Filipinos (just a little more expensive than the Burgos Makati girls but they have the highest quality in East Asia). Moneyed Filipinos pay a high premium for "mestiza" girls.

Below is a film clip of the Wall Street of Makati, Ayala Avenue. Just a measure of what a Manila CBD looks like at ground level, no vestige of Third World ramshackle anywhere. It was initially based on the European Hausmannian model where the buildings were of the same height (all 12 storeys, circa 1960). But later, as the real estate boom exploded, they let on & discarded with the height restrictions. However, there are taller buildings in other areas of the metropolis where speculation is more Wild West.


Makati

Makati from the air


This was taken in 2008 yet so the rapid developments in the last 4 years are not yet visible: not seen in the area near the river left of the Makati CBD are a 73-storey, 76-storey and the 60-storey Trump Tower Manila side by side, among other new towers mostly 50-64 storeys within the CBD.

On the lower left of the picture beside the bay, you can see the upper 400 meter of the 3 kilometer long Malate-Ermita area, the dilapidated tourist belt where budget tourists usually stay. Before they get to Makati, they have to negotiate the rundown area, Pasay City, between Malate-Ermita & Makati. You can imagine why their impression of the city is poisoned. East & North of old Manila is the modern Manila.


Ortigas

Ortigas

This was taken from the hills on the northeast of the metropolis about 15 kilometers from old Manila. Left is the Ortigas CBD, the lower one are parts of Eastwood CBD & Greenhills.

I suggest, if one ever visits Manila & is on a budget, one should stay at the midpoint of the main metropolitan highway, at the Ortigas CBD (cheaper than Makati but more expensive than the budget area, Malate). The overhead mass transit is readily available if you want to access the bars of Makati, the bars of Quezon City & the bargain malls of Greenbelt. Or like locals on a budget do: within the Quezon Ave-Timog Ave-EDSA cluster in Quezon City so you can be near to the nightlife (music & bars) along Tomas Morato area, the middle-class entertainment center. Or one can still stay in the Malate-Ermita, just see the place with a new perspective: the place is rundown & neglected but cheap, but that is not the whole Manila, the rest is just a train ride away (two rides: Pedro Gil-Pasay Rotonda at Padre Faura-Taft Station in Malate, then Pasay Rotonda-Makati-Ortigas-Quezon City from Pasay Rotonda-EDSA Station. Just buy a PHP100 plastic ticket so you don't have to queue each time you ride).


Stickman's thoughts:

I admire your enthusiasm for a city you're obviously a big fan of. I am very reluctant to talk ill of a place I have never even been, but pretty much every person I know who has been to Manila – and we're talking heaps of Bangkok-based expats – has little positive to say. These guys have no agenda and I'd say that all really want to like the place as most are looking for new places to explore away from Bangkok. The reports I hear never fail to mention shocking traffic jams that make Bangkok look like a small town, grime that makes Bangkok look like Singapore, slums that run cover huge areas….and then there's the danger factor. As a big city boy, I'd love nothing more than to be able to roam around the streets of Manila with the carefree abandon that I can ANYWHERE in Bangkok, to explore, to engage the locals and to take photos. The word from people I know who have been to Manila has been consistent – if that is what you want to do, make sure your affairs are in order and your will is up to date first.