Four Days in Manila

Disclaimer: this is an insanely long post. 
TL;DR - Manila was stressful, but ok.

Part One: Figuring out the Philippines

It was pouring rain when I arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on Saturday night. As soon as you step outside, people bombard you with overpriced taxi services, but you can get a metered taxi if you wait in a slow line. The majority of the cab ride to my hotel was spent sitting in choked traffic. When we arrived at my hotel, I gave the driver 500 Filipino Pesos and asked for change. He pretended to be confused by my multiple requests, so I gave up and overpaid resentfully. I ordered room service, checked my email, and went to sleep early. Living it up in Manila, heyooo! 

To get a long-term Thai visa, you have to go through a complicated, stressful process. The country has a rule that applicants must submit the visa paperwork outside of Thailand, so I would be spending the next four days in the Philippines. I was nervous about the journey, still being without a debit card (THANK YOU WELLS FARGO). I didn’t want to take all of the cash I had to my name, so I packed money very modestly which would definitely be an issue later in the trip.

Many people had warned me that Manila was dangerous, so I was wary about leaving my room on Sunday (flashback to Bangkok day one!). Pressing through the (probably irrational) fear, I took a taxi to sightsee in the city’s historic area, Intramuros.

One of the city’s many Jeepneys

Driving to Intramuros, I had my first glimpse of the city in the daylight. I had never seen this sort of poverty in my life, and felt really terrible about holding an expensive iPhone. The closer we got to Intramuros, the more I started to worry. I had given the driver a very vague request and could only hope he would drop me off at the most tourist-infested spot.

I started freaking out when we passed through the gates of Intramuros. This wasn’t Disneyland, this was definitely still Manila. Stores made out of sheet metal crammed together selling soda and cigarettes. Rusted bike taxis lined the streets, their drivers waiting idly for customers. I didn’t see many tourists and was starting to panic at the idea of getting dropped off to fend for myself. We pulled up to the Manila Cathedral, Intramuros’ shining star, and I got out of the cab.

Before my eyes could adjust to the piercing sun, hawkers and beggars began to crowd me. Yelling “Hello, ma’am!” they tried to get me to buy things or donate money. Most were men, but there were also girls around six years old begging, a heartbreaking sight. The barrage of requests mixed with my unease put me over the edge. I was the closest I’ve ever been to having a panic attack. Nearly hyperventilating, I stepped into the church and felt an immense relief. No vendors or homeless, just a bunch of tourists taking photos with their iPads.

I wanted to hide out in the church the rest of the day, but didn’t want to give up so easily. I couldn’t travel all the way to Manila and give the experience a half-hearted effort. I walked back out into the street and followed a group of Asian girls way too closely. Doing a horrible job of being subtle, I was soon discovered and they stopped, assuming I wanted to pass them. I smiled and went ahead of them into the abyss of Intramuros, clenching my jaw in fear.

I tried to relax and thought to myself: Be cool! Act like you’re not about to cry! I ducked into a souvenir shop and calmed down again. The cashier gave me a recommendation for lunch and a sightseeing spot. Feeling better, I bought some post cards and went to Barbara’s restaurant.

It’s probably a good rule to avoid lukewarm seafood paella, but I’m a fan of breaking the rules! Kidding of course, but I did eat the cold buffet paella at Barbara’s (and lived to tell the tale). Bonus: there was a spanish guitar quartet playing live throughout the meal. I though the singer sounded a lot like Elvis, and lo and behold, he played Elvis’ I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You. Side note: that song is 100% more awesome performed by a Spanish guitar quartet.

Post paella, I went to Fort Santiago where I paid an entrance fee to tour the historic site. You would never guess you were in the Philippines if not for the Filipino security guards pacing the area.

After sightseeing, it was time for another taxi back to Makati. I’m pretty sure every taxi I took had a different meter pace, and will never be sure which one was fair. I walked around empty Makati (people stay at home with family on Sundays) and went to the Shangri La Hotel for dinner where I knew they would take American Express.

The skyscrapers of Makati
The skyscrapers of Makati

At the Shangri La, I went to the hotel’s (totally empty) bar and Tapas lounge, Sage, where I ordered a cliché tiki drink. The food was good, but my body has been very sensitive since moving to Southeast Asia. I become overwhelmed with nausea from time to time without ever getting sick, which is confusing and unpleasant. This sensation often comes up when eating seafood, so I ate my ceviche very slowly hoping to avoid throwing up at the luxury hotel. After dinner, it was back to my hotel where I slept for 10 hours.

Shangri Laaaa!
Shangri Laaaa!

Part Two: Operation Thai visa

On Monday, I arrived at the Thai Embassy at 9:45 am surprised to find only one other person there. I walked up to the window happily and handed the teller my documents. She started to scowl and ask rapid fire questions. On the airplane, a Filipino woman had warned me that the embassy workers would be tough, and that advice gave me the courage to stand my ground. After she interrogated me, she told me that I was missing documents. I asked a round of useless questions until she finally offered the option of emailing her the missing papers.

I left the embassy feeling very panicked. I had no desire to stay in Manila longer than necessary, and set to getting the missing documents from my work. I walked to Greenbelt Mall and found a cafe to work from. I ordered a painfully sweet iced tea and figured out how to get what I needed from the team back in Bangkok.

I had a Facebook notification – new friend request! Who could it be? Oh, just the security guard from the embassy. Needless to say, I did not accept the request, although I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy.

I emailed the missing documents back to the embassy and immediately received a message that my email bounced back. With 15 minutes before the office closed, I literally sprinted through the Makati streets back to embassy. In Manila, taxis honk at pedestrians in hopes of getting business. They honk incessantly if you’re running like a maniac who definitely needs a ride. I ignored them and ran in the 86 degree heat until I found the embassy with minutes to spare.

At the empty embassy, the teller said that the email address I used was wrong (even though I double checked when she gave it to me) and handed me the correct version. I went to a cafe for WiFi and ordered an even sweeter iced tea. Someone tell me what idiot keeps ordering iced teas when they hate them every time? I sent the email (then confirmed it was received) and could only wait until Wednesday afternoon to see if my visa application would be approved.

Part Three: The wait

I spent the majority of my time in Manila at the Museum Cafe in Greenbelt 4 where the food was good and the service was friendly. In between periods of piercing sunshine, raging thunderstorms brought down insane amounts of rain. The thunder was so loud that it hurt your ears. Security guards carried giant guns while daintily holding umbrellas to stay dry.

Being a food-focused tourist, I was excited to try Filipino food. A Shangri La valet attendant recommended his favorite place, Fely J’s, to get a taste of the culture. I ordered Ginataang Nangka at Lamang Dagat, a jackfruit and seafood dish cooked with coconut milk. When the server placed it in front of me, I was taken back and had to ask if it was the dish I ordered. The dish before me looked 100% like a big plate of stewed meat.

After he assured me it was the jackfruit / seafood mashup, I still was freaked out. Not knowing what jackfruit even looked like, I Googled it to see if it resembles a corned beef.

The results were a bunch of shredded pork-looking pictures, so I accepted the meal as jackfruit and gobbled it up. It was delicious, albeit concerning.

At my hotel, I tried a Filipino breakfast of eggs, milk fish, and garlic rice. Do not ask me what milk fish is, but I had yet another bout of nausea eating it. I fought the reflex and tried my best to eat as the wait staff smiled attentively at me. I need to get over trying so hard not to offend people; it’s probably not going to kill anyone if I just say “this isn’t for me.”

The milkiest fish there ever was!
The milkiest fish there ever was!

Days glued to my laptop gave way to nights searching for ways to pass the time. I can’t tell you where local Filipinos hang out, but I can recommend some good luxury hotel bars in Makati. On Monday night, I tried the Fairmont Hotel’s Long Bar where a 70 year old Japanese man tried to buy me drinks. On Tuesday night, I met up with new Israeli friends at the Peninsula’s smokey cigar bar, aptly named The Bar. In the massive lobby, complete with live orchestra, I made a mental note to one day earn enough money to casually stay at Peninsulas around the world.

One bar had a chalkboard in the bathroom, so I obviously threw my home state a shoutout.

Whatup Cali?
Whatup Cali?

Part Four: Getting the hell out of Manila

On Wednesday, I checked out of my hotel and anxiously waited at the ol’ Museum Cafe for 3 pm to roll around. Would my visa  application be approved? Would I rot in Manila for the rest of my life? These questions ran through my head as time crawled by. Even though the city was starting to grow on me, I was homesick for Bangkok.

At 2:50 pm, I walked in the gloomy drizzle to the embassy as people on the street stared at me. There aren’t a lot of white women here, and I stick out no matter how subtly I creep around. Side note: if you need a confidence boost, head on over to the Philippines where people are very up front with compliments! You will get a “Hello beautiful lady!” every few blocks, which makes for great self-esteem. Even women will throw out unwarranted compliments while you’re standing in line! 

There were more people at the embassy when I arrived, but it only took about 10 minutes for my turn. The teller gruffly gave me my passport without any heads up on whether or not the visa had been approved. I flipped open the booklet to find that


I almost cried when I left the embassy. I had my visa! I could go home! So much happy! Having only been in Thailand for about three weeks, I almost felt like I had moved to Manila for all the time spent there. I went to Mondo Juice to work and wait to head for the airport.

My parents swooped in for another win by wiring me some money, as I was running dangerously low on my cash supply. After my visa win, I still had to pick up the money before the Western Union closed. I looked up the bank on my phone and had time to make it before closing. Got to the bank and had looked at the hours for the wrong day – the bank was closed! Thirty minutes of power walking around Makati, I finally found an open Western Union and got the money (dripping in sweat, of course). If my parents hadn’t sent the money, I wouldn’t be able to take a taxi to the airport or paid the surprise 550 Filipino pesos it cost to leave the country. THANK YOU PARENTS FOR SAVING ME YET AGAIN! 

Another traffic jammed ride to the airport and my time in Manila was coming to a close. I ate a delicious vegetable noodle soup at a place called Kaishu near my gate and felt a pang of sadness to leave.

Pre-plane noods

Manila may not have been my favorite place in the world, but the more time I spent there the more I fond of it I became. The people are welcoming, kind, and helpful. I’d have to come back again and get out of the urban jungle and see the islands.

Happy times in Manila street art
Happy times in Manila street art

I didn’t have to be as scared as I was when I arrived, and should remember that going forward with my travels. People keep referring to my worries as “so American” and maybe being raised on Fox News wasn’t so great for my trust in strangers. The move to Asia, one big learning experience after another.

Bangkok and Other Places

Moving is stressful, traveling abroad is stressful, starting a new job is stressful. Do all of those at the same time, throw in some jet lag, and voila! Your cup will floweth over with stress. Days three and four of this epic journey were not what you would call graceful. 

Day Three

Wednesday started out great! I left my apartment well rested and ready to tackle apartment hunting. I got to an intersection near my hotel to find a motorcycle taxi driver waving at me. MY MOTORCYCLE TAXI DRIVER REMEMBERED ME FROM OUR RE/MAX ADVENTURE THE DAY BEFORE! My heart leapt. Someone remembered me in Bangkok! I had read an article on culture shock prevention, and seeing familiar faces is one way to stave away said shock.

I didn’t need a ride, but I asked him in Thai how his day was. He seemed enthused, and replied happily. I was elated, and practically trotted to the BTS station. I got off at the stop where I was meeting Siri, my great realtor, and stopped to eat street food before our appointment. Thinking I had ordered vegetarian noodle soup (for breakfast), I was bummed when a pork noodle soup was served to me at the food stall. My Thai is not good enough to try and remedy the situation, so I did what any terrible pescetarian would do and ate around the sliced pig.

Noodle Soup

The meal was great, and only $1 or $2. It was a win in my book despite the whole “I just basically ate meat” thing. After probably offending the shop owner for not eating the most expensive part of the soup, I went to meet Siri and her colleague (who was super nice and I cannot remember her name for the life of me). We hopped in a cab to look at apartments nearby. I guessed we would look at sleek, modern apartments and I guessed wrong.

Dingy and Stained

The first apartment was in a rag tag building very close to work, which is an expensive area. I literally stepped over a dead cockroach entering the room. Stained furniture, low ceilings and bad lighting were standout features. I tried to stay positive and forced a smile as I took photos of the place. A mantra of “F****ing never in my life” ran through my head as scanned the room for the bright side. Even though it was in my budget and extremely close to work, I had to pass on the place. She showed me an equally enticing apartment in the same building that did not sway me to reconsider.

We went on to the second apartment, a high rise building also within blocks of my work. Nearby minimarts, restaurants, laundry services and salons were promising features. Then we took the elevator upstairs. The (blurry) photo below was taken on the way to the room, not in a hospital.

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I tried my hardest to keep smiling as I paced around the room. Hellish would be the wrong word, but depressing would be a very right one. I could 100% never, ever live here. I was starting to question what the f my realtor was thinking when she decided to bring me to these dungeons. Was she trying to manage my expectations? She was doing a great job of that.

The next property was still close to work. Our taxi driver couldn’t take us down the building’s street because the road was too narrow. We had to trek down the eerily quiet path to an old, old blue building with a barking, mangey, tiny dog.

Pathway to hell

While we waited for the building owner to unlock the gate, I asked the realtor, “is it safe to do this walk at night?” She immediately told me that no, it was not safe to do this walk at night. You should definitely not do this walk at night. We decided not go into the decaying building and went on to the next showing (which I assumed was going to be a smashing hit considering what I’d seen thus far).

We looked at two more places that turned out to be much nicer, but I caved and said I’d raise my budget a bit. She had to run back to her office to get in touch with different property owners, so I went to lunch at a mall. [FYI, eating at malls is not like it is in the US. Mall eating in Thailand happens to be great!] After eating a half good / half bizarre meal of MORE SHRIMP, I had a heart-stopping realization.

I. Lost. My. Debit. Card.

I tore through all of my belongings. I tore through them again. I tore through them a third time. It was gone. I thought back to the day and realized that I either left it in an ATM or dropped it. Either way, I felt so stupid and started to panic. My mind went to what it would mean to lose a debit card in Bangkok.

I am going to have to cancel the card before someone uses it / oh god what if someone has already used it / literally all of my money is in that account / what will I do if they used it all / wait I only have an American Express and no one takes American Express so how will I get any money / oh f I only have 300 Thai baht what is that going to get me / holy shit I have to pay cash to get an apartment / holy shit I can’t get an apartment / I am going to have to keep blowing money on hotels and I am going to run out of savings and be in debt in Bangkok / How did I let this happen / It is going to take so long for Wells Fargo to send the replacement card to an address I don’t even have yet in THAILAND / HOW COULD YOU LOSE YOUR DEBIT CARD ON YOUR THIRD DAY. 

I got up from the table and power walked to the only semi-private corner of the mall near the bathrooms. I emptied out my purse and wallet again to be sure the card was gone. It was definitely gone. I crouched into the nook and got out my Thai cell phone, my iPhone and my Wells Fargo American Express card (to which I do not have the pin, so no cash advance opportunities there). I tried calling the international number via my Thai phone and I could not get through. I was in such a panic that I was not dialing the + sign, so that was probably my issue. I lost the semblance of cool that I had and started to cry as I turned on my US cellular (read $$$$$$$$$$$) and called my parents. After telling them that they needed to help me cancel my debit card immediately, I started to sob like the saddest baby there ever was. In hindsight, the crying was probably more cathartic than anything. There was no way that I would be totally without food or shelter, but I couldn’t see that at the time.

My parents would help me by loaning me money through Western Union, and things were going to be ok. I stood up and went to the bathroom to clean up. I pitied my puffy, red-faced reflection. I felt weak (mentally) and tired (physically). How could I do something so careless and easily avoidable the THIRD DAY in Bangkok?

I went to look at the other apartments with Siri after returning to my hotel first to try and figure out my financial life. I was wonderfully relieved when she showed me a fantastic place with a breathtaking view. I had found a home on the 31st floor of the Villa Sathorn. HALLELUJAH! We agreed to meet the next morning for me to sign the lease, pay the landlord, and get the keys to my apartment.

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Exhausted from all of the happy and sad of the day, I had no intention of officially moving into my apartment. Instead, I booked another night at my hotel, ordered room service and ate it in bed.

 Day Four 

At 6 am, I woke up at the hotel and realized I had a ton of things to do before my first day of work. I had to order a new debit card, get to Western Union to pick up the money order, get to my apartment, sign the lease, and get to work by 10 am. This was doable until I discovered Western Union didn’t open until 8:30 am. I panicked and had to tell my new job I would be late (on my first day), but hoped they’d understand given the circumstances.

First up: call Wells Fargo. I was delighted to revisit my stupidity on the phone. “Are you sure you lost the card?” Yes. “Where did you leave the card?” I DON’T KNOW, I CAN’T BELIEVE I LOST IT IN THE FIRST PLACE. PLEASE END THIS SALTING OF MY WOUNDS! My debit card replacement was scheduled to arrive in 5-10 business days (although I don’t think international travel time was factored into that generic estimate).

I was 100% ready to quit everything and move back to California, although I knew that I would never actually go through with giving up that easily. I felt the same way during my first week in San Francisco. It’s natural for me to want to capitulate from the get go. Things will get better, and I know that.

I checked out of the hotel, went to the bank for the money order, and took a motorcycle taxi to the BTS station. Everything was looking up thanks to the clutch financial save from my parents. I met Siri the realtor at the Villa Sathorn and became an official renter of property in Bangkok, and the property had a pool!


Back on the BTS, I made my way to my first day at work. I couldn’t believe that I would be working at a job in my field abroad. I paused to stare at the building before I went in. It was a great feeling.

Sathorn Square

Everyone was extremely welcoming and I had a great feeling about the new position. I’ll have to get used to the heat outside, but I think things are going to be wonderful in Bangkok.

Sathorn at Night

After work, I was too tired to go through with shopping for bed sheets, towels, and other household necessities to move in. I checked in yet again to the Hotel Icon Bangkok after another mall meal.

Bun for one
Bun for one

Back at the hotel, writing this blog post helped me put the experiences into perspective. Nothing that bad has happened to me. Some milestones have been hit, and things are trending positively. I made this move explicitly for the challenge, and I have to keep remembering that. The entire point of this experience was to get through the rough transition. I can’t keep getting so upset so easily.

I have eaten delicious food, encountered wonderful people, and reached major goals. Time to shake off the minor upsets and dive into the exciting new obstacles ahead.

New to Bangkok

How is this real? I woke up a few times in the night, but made the official decision to stop sleeping at 9 am. I couldn’t believe that I was not only alone in a hotel in Thailand, but starting a life here. HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?!

I spent the morning scourging the Internet for apartments. There were a lot of great ones in my price range, but I decided it may be better to go to a real estate office in person. At noon, I hit the streets anxiously and thought I would try getting to the Re/Max real estate office on my own. I had looked up directions ahead of time, and headed for the BTS station to start the adventure. I proudly got off the train and at street level, I thought I would reward myself with lunch. I had green curry and shrimp, as that is one of the only things I know how to say.

Rainy view from the BTS

After lunch, I went back to the street and walked toward my destination. Weird, that McDonald’s looks super familiar. Maybe they all look exactly the same? NOPE. I had made a loop back to my hotel’s street. Extremely flustered and without WiFi, I decided I needed someone to just take me to my destination. It took me a solid 10 minutes before I had the courage to approach a motorcycle taxi and ask for a ride. At the time, I didn’t know that Thai people only take motorcycle taxis for very short distances. They automatically charge more for idiot tourists who don’t know that, so I paid him a good 3x the going rate.

We got to the address and my heart sunk. It was massage parlor with giant lips on the sign that I was 100% sure was not Re/Max. I showed him the address again, and he motioned for me to call the phone number on the ad. He graciously waited as I called and sweat in the street. An American man told me that the office had moved. I wanted to crumple up and disappear.

The American gave me directions and I scribbled them down in my notebook. I told my driver where to go in broken Thai. He didn’t turn when I wanted him to, so I panicked and asked him to turn around and go back to “Lao Sai,” or turn left. He did, and we ended up going down another street I thought seemed wrong. Why the f am I giving anyone directions? I have no idea where I am! We came to a slow stop and we brokenly communicated. I didn’t want to waste his time, so I got off the motorcycle and tried to thank him and go it alone (or give up and cry). He asked a few people around him about the address, and urged me to call the Re/Max number again. On the phone with the agent, I realized that we were just a few buildings away! I almost leapt for joy and thanked the driver excessively.

Being one million degrees here, I was sweating pretty heavily when I walked into the Re/Max office. The agent, Siri, looked very concerned and asked me if I was okay. She power walked to get me some filtered water, and seemed genuinely worried as she turned up the air conditioning. I tried to laugh it off and vowed to get used to the tropical heat ASAP. We talked budget, location, other wish list items and made a plan to meet the next day to look at available condos.

Scenes from Ari

After fulfilling my main task for the day, I realized I had nothing else planned to do. I had developed about 10 blisters from all of the walking I had done in the first 48 hours. As someone sans thigh gap, I was getting a pretty intense leg chafe and was cringing with each step. Despite not wanting to spend a lot of time walking around in pain, I chose to head to a cool neighborhood and walk around.


I had read that the neighborhood Ari was essentially the Brooklyn or Hayes Valley of Bangkok, so I got back on the BTS to explore. Almost immediately after I got off the train, it started pouring rain. I ducked under a plumeria tree until I decided to wait out the storm with a foot massage. Second massage in less than 48 hours… Only God can judge me!! The woman gave me some amazing shorts to change into that I may have worn backwards (unintentionally):

Hot new pants

Coming from the California drought, I was blown away by the torrential downpour. You could have told me that this was a monsoon and I would have believed you. Post massage, the masseuse gave me hot tea and some dried fruit to snack on. I waited for the rain to stop and applied a thousand bandaids to my blistered feet. Two days of tromping through Bangkok had really ruined my barking dogs.

I walked into the drizzle and tried to find street food to eat. It’s a challenge to find street food as a pescetarian. Most of the stalls seem to serve pork and chicken. If a vendor does sell fish, it looks like it has been sitting out a while, and I have been so wildly paranoid about traveler’s diarrhea that I refuse to take that risk. Giving up on food, I kept walking around checking out the area. Ari had many similarities to the cool cities it was compared to online. There were a number of restaurants that could have been plucked out of San Francisco or New York that I’d love to visit for dinner (when I actually have friends here).

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I got back on the BTS and headed home in case the rain started again. Like an idiot, I didn’t bring an umbrella out despite it being the rainy season. Back in my temporary neighborhood, I walked around looking for food. I turned down a busy street and found myself in the midst of many bustling bars. Signs advertised Buttery Nipple cocktails and I noticed that the white people were mainly single, white males. The bars were teeming with beautiful Thai women, and more lined the street. My chest tightened and I was instantly depressed when I realized that I was in some sort of red light area and that these were prostitutes. I kept walking down the street hoping to escape the sad reality and got out as quickly as possible. I know I will have to get used to seeing the sex tourism that goes on in Thailand, but it was hard to take in the first time around.

I ordered a Chang beer at a tourist-y pub called Bully and the bartender gave me some free popcorn. I happily gobbled up the popcorn, two beers and watched golf on mute for a good 30 minutes. After warily chatting with the two men in the airline business next to me, I beelined back to my hotel. I’m mandating a two beer limit whenever I’m alone to avoid the whole “lost drunk in a foreign country” thing. I cringed when I realized I had beer and popcorn for dinner. Americans, am I right?

Tomorrow marks a new day, hopefully one filled with apartment leasing and good food eating.