On wheels, Louise Southerden explores a city with a taste for trifle sundaes and a passion for shopping.
The capital of the Philippines doesn't have "tourists welcome" written all over it, thanks to persistent bad publicity about corruption, the gaudy excesses of former presidents (and their wives), occasional coups and crippling poverty.
Scratch the surface, however, and there's a lot to like about the city: colourful jeepneys, peaceful parks, a convoluted history, cheeky cab-drivers and, above all, an outward-looking populace. It's just as well the locals are friendly: there are 11.5 million in one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
It's not uncommon for strangers to ask how you like their country or urge you to visit again. And despite a dearth of tourism infrastructure, there are more transport options than you can wave a 100-peso note at, which makes it easy to get around this surprising and warm-hearted city.
One of the best ways to get your bearings in the Manila is by riding the Hop On Hop Off minivan. It takes two hours to travel in a loop around the city, taking in Ayala Museum, Manila Film Centre, malls (shopping is a national obsession), Rizal Park (dedicated to the national hero and freedom fighter, Dr Jose Rizal, executed by the Spanish in 1898), the big US embassy and numerous churches and cathedrals - more than 80 per cent of Filipinos are Catholic. There's no formal commentary, just chatty drivers. It's like sightseeing with a local.
Hop On Hop Off, 9am-6pm daily, all-day pass costs 700 pesos ($18) Most hotels have a map of pick-up points. See manilahoponhopoff.com.
Hop off at Manila Cathedral in Intramuros, the 16th-century walled city between Rizal Park and Pasig River, which flows into Manila Bay. After Ferdinand Magellan claimed the Philippines for Spain in 1521 - the island nation was named after Philip, heir to the Spanish throne at the time - this was the seat of the Spanish government for almost 400 years. Within its high stone walls were once government offices, hospitals, schools, monasteries and mansions, with access by drawbridges over moats. If Manila has a tourist epicentre, this is it. Its cobbled streets, small museums and landmarks such as Fort Santiago and the World Heritage-listed San Agustin Church, the oldest in the Philippines, are interesting and charming. Beat the heat by taking a guided tour by kalesa, or horse-drawn cart.
Intramuros entry costs 75 pesos. Kalesa tours cost 500 pesos. Intramuros Visitors Centre, Fort Santiago; see intramurosadministration.com.
Getting anywhere is half the fun of Manila, especially in a jeepney. These long-wheel-base jeeps, inspired by American GI vehicles and gaudily decorated with religious images, are the cheapest way to get around: a single journey costs just 7 pesos. And with 20 passengers crammed into the back you're sure to literally rub shoulders with local people. Other transport options are pedicabs (bicycle-powered rickshaws) and tricycles (motorbikes with canopied sidecars) but because they're low and open-sided, exhaust fumes from surrounding vehicles can leave you gasping for breathable air.
Wherever your chosen ride takes you, you're sure to find a Jollibee restaurant. Just look for its distinctive logo - a smiling face of a cartoon bee in a chef's hat. What started as a two-branch icecream parlour in 1975 is now an iconic Filipino brand and the nation's number-one fast-food chain (beating McDonald's at its own game).
There are more than 600 stores nationally and Jollibees in the US, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. Try a double yum with cheese (a beef burger), chicken joy (fried chicken and rice) or palabok fiesta (Filipino-style noodles with pork, prawns and smoked fish flakes, topped with sliced boiled egg), with jolly crispy fries, for less than 100 pesos.
For peace amid the chaos, visit the Coconut Palace, commissioned by the former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos in 1978. Built at a cost of $US37 million, this two-storey, seven-bedroom mansion was intended for Pope John Paul II's 1981 visit but he refused to stay, saying it was too ostentatious. Plenty haven't been bothered by that, however, among them Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and Brooke Shields. The palace was ahead of its time: most of it is made from natural materials, from the coconut-shell chandeliers to the banana-fibre bedspreads. Its design is based on the coconut palm, the "tree of life" in Filipino culture, because of its multiple uses. In one of the living rooms, there's a small sculpture made from melted 7Up bottles - who would have guessed the woman rumoured to have owned 3000 pairs of shoes was into recycling? The grounds include a pool, butterfly house and orchidarium.
Coconut Palace, Cultural Centre of the Philippines (CCP) Complex, Roxas Blvd, Pasay City, phone +630 832 0223. Open 8am-5pm. Tours are run on demand and cost 100 pesos.
Escape the late-afternoon heat in the same place as the locals: SM Mall of Asia, the fourth-largest mall in the world, which extends for almost a kilometre on reclaimed land beside Manila Bay. Beyond the Universal Studios-inspired bronze globe at the entrance, there are 750 retail stores (mostly international brands such as Gap and Marks & Spencer), 220 cafes and other food outlets, a department store, a "hypermarket" and parking for 8000 cars. There are six cinemas, too, including an IMAX; an Olympic-sized ice rink; an interactive science museum; a bowling alley; and plenty of artificial trees to relax under. It's much like any mall, except for the armed guards at every entrance, a feature of most establishments in Manila. SM Mall of Asia is a 30-minute taxi ride from Makati (ask your taxi driver to take you to "MOA").
For dinner and a sunset, head for one of the Sis Seafood restaurants on the waterfront. After you're shown to your table, choose the raw ingredients for your meal from the "wet market" (outdoor fish market) outside. Your waiterwaitress (many are transvestites in this part of town) will ask how you'd like your fish or seafood cooked: baked with cheese, perhaps, grilled with lemon butter sauce, sweet and sour, teriyaki ... Back in the restaurant, sip a mango shake while you wait for your meal, and sing along with the trio of musicians serenading diners.
For a sweet after-dinner treat, catch a cab to The Peninsula. The hotel's spectacular lobby, with its four-storey-high ceiling, palm trees and sweeping staircases, is one of the places to be seen in Manila. But the real drawcard is the hotel's version of the classic Filipino dessert called halo-halo (literally "mix-mix" in Tagalog). This trifle-cumsundae usually consists of shaved ice, stewed fruit, condensed milk, ice-cream and whatever else is at hand, served in a tall glass and eaten with a spoon. The Peninsula's Halo-Halo Harana comes in an enormous balloon glass (big enough to share) and includes purple yam ice-cream, eggyolk custard, gelatine, chickpeas, jackfruit, coconut cream and sweetened kidney beans - with sugar on top. It's tastier than it sounds.
The Peninsula Manila, corner of Ayala and Makati avenues, 1226 Makati City, Metro Manila. Halo-Halo Haranas cost 400 pesos. See peninsula.com/Manila.
Walk off the halo-halo along Makati Avenue to Greenbelt 3 mall - not to shop (most shops close at 10pm) but to sing. At Red Box "videoke" venue, private rooms keep embarrassment to a minimum and more than 100,000 of the latest karaoke and music videos, updated weekly, are sure to loosen your vocal chords. That, and the "beers of the world" tastings. There's also free use of musical instruments for DIY jam sessions.
Late-night movies are another option. At Greenbelt 3's cinema complex the last session starts about midnight, seats cost less than a box of popcorn at home (120-170 pesos) and movies are often shown on a loop so your ticket is good for multiple viewings.
Red Box and Greenbelt 3 Cinemas are both at Greenbelt 3, one of five Greenbelt malls in Makati. Red Box is open noon-4am. Rooms cost 499 pesos a person 7pm-midnight (299 pesos a person midnight- 4am) including two drinks. See redbox.com. See clickthecity.com for entertainment listings.
Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Southern Sea Ventures.
Qantas flies non-stop to Manila from Sydney (8hr) for about $1130. Philippine Airlines flies from Melbourne via Brisbane (10hr) for about $1100; return flight is non-stop (7hr 30min). Fares are low-season return including tax. A.Venue Hotel Suites, Makati City, has one- and two-bedroom suites from 4150 pesos a night; see avenuehotelsuites.com.