By Carl Martin Faannessen
Carl Martin Faannessen has lived in Manila with his wife and two children since 2013, after moving from Singapore. The Norwegian is managing director of Abojeb Company, a maritime and manpower company founded in 1982.
The Philippines is a teeming mass of 103m people spread across more than 7,000 islands. Filipinos are warm, friendly and helpful, and almost everyone you come across speaks English fluently.
The country’s geography makes for an abundance of beaches, reefs and scenic aquatic crossings. It also makes for some challenging infrastructure and, when that falls short, it is the warmth of the Filipinos that turns an unbearable day into a bearable one.
Manila has a large, vibrant expat community. A sizeable cluster can be found near the headquarters of the Asian Development Bank in Ortigas, one of the cities that make up the Metro Manila conurbation, about 12km inland from the airport. Another popular area is Makati, the Philippines’ commercial heart, where you find most of the multinationals, the banks, insurers and so on.
We have settled in “the villages”, a group of gated compounds in Makati. Right now we are in Dasmariñas Village in a four-bedroom bungalow with a garden and a small pool. This gives us easy access to both Makati and Bonifacio Global City (BGC, or the Fort as some call it), another area popular with expats that is also very close to the leading international schools. The village is large enough for a good variety of jogs and walks.
A fourth cluster of expats lies to the south of the city at Alabang. This connects to central Manila via the Skyway, an elevated highway, allowing a relatively easy commute. Traffic being what it is, most expats stay where facilities are close at hand. Travelling the two or three miles from Makati to BGC at almost any time of day can take more than 30 minutes. Proximity is king.
Housing in general is easy to arrange: there is constant availability to suit every wish and budget. Find a good agent through your employer and be clear on what you will and won’t accept.
Likewise, make it clear to the agent whether your budget is for rent only, or is also expected to cover utilities. Electricity is expensive in the Philippines — it is not uncommon for a family with three or four air-conditioning units running most of the time to rack up bills of well over 50,000 pesos (about $950) a month.
A single expat can expect to pay 20,000-50,000 pesos a month for a studio or one-bedroom apartment. At the upper end of the scale, large villas cost from 500,000 pesos a month. A family of four wanting a house with a small garden, and maybe a splash pool, should expect to pay at least 300,000 pesos a month.
You can save money by going off the beaten track, but bear in mind that most expats settle in these areas for a reason: they offer some space and privacy (important in a city of 13m inhabitants), as well as security and the knowledge that problems with utilities, for example, will be solved relatively swiftly.
Don’t worry about shopping and household supplies — in Manila you can get pretty much everything under the sun, from Hershey’s syrups to Norwegian seafood. Imported items are generally more expensive than local goods, but the latter are mostly near-perfect substitutes. Shopping malls are huge and home to familiar brands.
November to March are the best months, when it is one long summer afternoon for those of us from colder climes. This is also the best time to explore the country’s amazing array of islands, cultures and beaches — from the overdeveloped (Boracay, a one-hour flight from Manila) to the unheard of (Siquijor, anyone?).
To appreciate the span of cultures, catch some of the festivities and parades where a whole area goes into party mode for two to three days; about 80 minutes flying time from Manila, the city of Bacolod’s MassKara Festival each October is well known locally.
About two and a half hours south of Manila is Anilao, offering beaches and decent scuba-diving. An hour’s ferry ride from Batangas will take you to Puerto Galera, where White Beach is exactly as its name suggests.
The Philippines is scuba diving paradise. Both our children have taken their junior licences. Besides being fun, it boosts confidence in the water, teaches environmental awareness and instils a general sense of awe at the diversity of nature. Other water sports, such as kitesurfing and wakeboarding, are hugely popular too.
For surfers, Siargao, a 90-minute flight from Manila, is the gem that is making a name for itself on the surf circuits. There is also a microlight aircraft community, several hiking clubs and golf galore. You won’t be idle, unless you want to be.
Manila has an abundance of fine dining, excellent wine cellars, cheap food and ample local beer. At the high end, Txanton in Makati has an outstanding cellar and good Spanish food, built on the Spanish legacy in the Philippines. BGC’s Gallery by Chele offers an inventive takes on local classics. Antonio’s, about two hours south of town, is an oasis of fresh air, quiet and above-average food.
The national dish is lechon, a whole roasted pig with super-crispy skin. Order one delivered, pile up good drinks and make an evening of it.
In short, you won’t lack for anything and, through it all, will be surrounded by the Filipinos and their world-charming warmth and friendliness.
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Photographs: Historic Collection/Alamy Stock Photo; Getty Images/iStockphoto; Panther Media/Alamy Stock Photo; Dreamstime