Olli Thomson

Shoot Manila – Get Around and Stay Safe

Welcome to the Fourth and final post in my urban photographer’s guide to Manila. In the first post I identified four neighbourhoods with great shooting opportunities for the urban photographer and noted three more in the second post. The third post offered some suggestions for what to shoot and this final post will deal with getting around and staying safe.

Mobile refreshment. An ice cream vendor on Arnaiz Avenue, Makati

Getting Around

There is no shortage of ways to get around in Metro Manila: pedicabs, trikes, taxis, jeepneys, buses, trains and, in some areas, kalesas — a type of horse drawn carriage. Pedicabs and trikes can be useful when you want to move around a particular neighbourhood, just make sure to negotiate a price first. You could consider hiring one for a set period of time and use that to cruise the streets looking for shooting opportunities. Personally, I prefer to walk.

Taxis and jeepneys will take you between neighbourhoods and across Metro Manila. Jeepneys are ubiquitous and run set routes, picking up and setting down on demand. The problem for the visitor is that it’s very difficult to work out what route any individual jeepney is running. The jeepneys normally have a summary of the route painted on the side but it’s of limited help. Taxis are also plentiful. All are metered and drivers are legally required to use the meters, which is not to say that they always will without some prompting. Also, at busy times of the day or for longer journeys some taxi drivers may be reluctant to take you. Your options in this case are to forget the meter and negotiate a price, or take a ‘taxi relay’, riding each one as far as you can then picking up another.

Buses are less useful since the jeepneys effectively function like a local bus service leaving the buses for longer runs. While the kalesa can be a fun way to see parts of the city, particularly around Intramuros, they are really there for tourists. If you want to travel within a neighbourhood pedicabs and trikes are a better option.

Metro Manila’s light rail system consists of three lines which, more or less, interconnect. Up until last year multiple tickets were required to travel on the network since there was no integrated ticketing system. Thankfully, since October 2015 only one ticket, the Beep Card, is required. This stored value card is available at all stations at the ticket booths or at ticket vending machines. The trains are frequent and generally reliable. The biggest challenge in using the trains is overcrowding. The system, particularly Line 3 (MRT-3), runs well over designed capacity, and during rush hour queues stretch through the station onto the street and along the pavement. If you like your personal space, this is not for you.

My advice is to use a combination of train and taxi — trains to get you as close to your destination as possible and taxis to get you the rest of the way. The greatest advantage of using the train is that you avoid Manila’s horrendous traffic. A twenty minute train ride might save you a two hour car journey. (Manila usually competes with Jakarta and Mexico City for the dubious honour of having the worst traffic in the world.) The other reason to take the train is that the they are air-conditioned, not an insignificant factor in temperatures of 35C with high humidity. In taxis you won’t be able to escape the traffic but generally they are air conditioned — up to a point — though you may have to encourage your driver to turn it on or turn it up.

Waiting on a jeepney on Harrison Street, Pasay

Staying Safe

The greatest hazards you face in Manila are traffic, climate and pollution. Of course there is crime and Manila has its share of opportunistic thieves and muggers, but, generally, Manila is remarkably safe for such a big city.

In the absence of pavements, or with pavements routinely blocked by parked vehicles, you will be spending a lot of time walking on busy roads. As a photographer, stepping back to get a better angle might just land you in front of a jeepney. You do have to be constantly aware of your surroundings when you are out on the streets. Thankfully, Filipino drivers, if not the best in the world, are not generally hostile or aggressive, so with a little give and take you should be able to negotiate your way around without serious risk.

If you are not used to the type of climate that prevails in Manila you will need to prepare yourself, given that, as a photographer, you will be spending a lot of time outside in the heat and humidity. My advice: dress appropriately, travel light, use lots of sunscreen, drink lots of water. There are 7-Eleven stores all over the city as well as two pharmacy chains — Watsons and Mercury — where you can pick up water and more when you need it.

Pollution is an inevitable consequence of that much traffic and if you do have any kind of respiratory issues Manila might not be for you. As for crime, no special advice is required. Just follow the usual guidelines for visiting any big city — be aware of your surroundings and don’t flash your money, or your expensive cameras. I’ve walked through many neighbourhoods in differnet areas of Metro Manila and never felt myself under threat and never had anything stolen.

So that’s my photographers’ guide to Manila. I hope these posts will be helpful if you ever find your way to the city.

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