Summer in Saudi is long, hot and quiet. Most expats leave for home countries or head off on holidays if they can. Going back to Wales (where Tom’s family are) is always fantastic but works out expensive by the time we have rented a house, a car, stocked food cupboards etc. This year we decided not to head out of Saudi until the end of July. Giving us a good four weeks to kill at home in Khobar. As the summer drew nearer and things got hotter and our friends started talking about their impending flights out, that four weeks started to seem like a long time!
Obviously, we couldn’t just book a holiday anywhere as the main point in not leaving for Wales was the expense. So we went on SkyScanner to look at where we could fly to. We wanted a destination we could get to for under £300 (1460SAR) with a low cost of living once we arrived. This offered us Bangkok (awesome but already been), Manila (so far away) or Colombo (we have booked Goa for October so thought somewhere more dissimilar would be better). Manila won! Arthur kept telling people we were going to “the billy beanz” for a while until we managed to get him to say it properly!
We booked the @hoteljenmanila, which gave us a pool, good location and came within budget. We booked for six nights, just long enough to make the flight time worthwhile.
Flight night arrived and we headed to the airport. Got our boarding passes, so far so good. Time for passport control. One look at Tom’s passport and the man behind the desk frowns and calls someone else over. More frowning. “Sir, you are still in Bahrain. You can’t leave Saudi. You are not here.” Whaaat?!
For those of you who don’t know, Saudi Arabia is connected to Bahrain by a causeway near us in Al Khobar. Bahrain is a little more liberal than Saudi, abayas are not required, alcohol and pork are available, shops don’t close for prayer time. Many people, us included, head over fairly regularly to go for dinner, to the shops or cinemas, or for a drink. This does involve crossing a border, so passports are inspected and stamped.
It transpired that on our last trip Tom’s passport had not been stamped and so according to the computer he was still in Bahrain. FFS!! The desk where he could have this remedied was shut, obviously. Cue more calling of different staff. Eventually they found the right person but we were getting close to boarding time now. Finally, they fixed the problem and we were whisked through to the gate, feeling a bit frazzled and with two bored toddlers in tow. Good way to start a nine hour flight! Especially when on Saudia Airline so no alcohol served (not that I can have it anyway)!
The flight was as ok as nine hours on a plane can be with a four and two year old. They slept for some of it, thankfully.
We arrived and A and E were so excited. They loved looking out of the windows in the airport and on the taxi ride into Manila. We were all excited to see green everywhere. Trees and plants grow in every available gap between buildings and roads, creeping over the concrete.
All exhausted, we decided to just relax for a first afternoon, explore our hotel and go for a walk to find dinner. We were right opposite the Cultural Centre of the Philippines and ASEAN Park so we headed off towards to the park for a wander. We walked around a corner and saw a busy BBQ restaurant. The heat and humidity was starting to creep up on us (July is rainy season but it is still hot!) so we decided to sit. Sky Garden by the Bay serves a mix of Filipino and Korean BBQ. Not entirely sure what everything on the menu was, we just asked for what the locals at the table next to us had. Always a good way to get a yummy meal!
What turned up were loads of tiny dishes; pickles, rice, soups, noodle salad, cucumber salad, kimchi, tofu dishes, potatoes. Then a griddle was lit and a lady came and cooked heaps of pork belly. Absolutely perfect for our first evening on holiday. So good it almost made up for the fact that I could only watch Tom drink his ice-cold San Miguel! We watched the sun begin go down over Manila bay and walked back just as a rain cloud started to come in over the sea.
Our first day was reserved for Dream Play, a children’s activity and play centre built in collaboration with Dream Works. It was fantastic. Having a gingerbread man cook-a-long with the Gingerbread Man, with help from Shrek and Donkey, was a highlight. We played in Shrek’s swamp, made and flew dragons from How To Train Your Dragon, had a boat race coached by the penguins from Madagascar and much more. Tom and I were still pretty knackered from the flight but grabbed some downtime in the cinema, showing Dream Works shorts, and could watch A and E play in certain areas while sipping cups of tea and coffee!
Day two we headed out of our area to Fort Bonifacio, a smarter, trendier part of greater Manila. The contrast between this are and downtown Manila was huge. A big difference in wealth and urban design was evident. In the centre of the district is a large, modern, pedestrianised “high street”. This space was filled with gardens, sculptures, seating areas and great shops and food options. Ideal for letting the kids run free and grabbing a juice. Fort Bonifacio is also home to @themindmuseum, which was our main reason for visiting. A world class science museum, this space was filled with all sorts of interactive exhibits which we all enjoyed. Favourites were the T-Rex, animal noise cave and Van de Graaf generator. Outside they had a gorgeous science themed park too.
Our next trip out was to Intramuros, a walled city that was the main seat of government and religion during Spanish colonial rule. Like much of Manila, a lot of the area was destroyed in WWII. There has been a lot of careful restoration of buildings and preservation of what remained, resulting in a fantastic historical space full of interesting places to explore. Arthur loved going to down into the dungeons and the walk around (we only managed part way) the walls was great. There was even some live theatre going on with singing and gunfire as visitors followed the actors around Fort Santiago. I have got to be honest, as interesting and pretty as the area was, we didn’t last long. It was the most humid day yet and the heat was stifling. Two toddlers, one pregnant lady, 32°c and a 78% humidity level, does not make for a pleasant outing! Tempers frayed quickly and we retreated to the hotel embarrassingly early.
Manila is actually made up of lots of cities all merged together, each with their own personality, several of which we had already explored, and next up was Makati. Another more contemporary district, near to Fort Bonifacio. Here we were looking to wander around the malls (air conditioned), hopefully do some souvenir shopping and explore the Greenbelt Park. The park was beautiful: we could walk across bridges and wooden walkways over pools filled with fish, terrapins and tadpoles. In the centre of the park was an open-air chapel and as it was Sunday it was overflowing. The singing was lovely to listen to as we walked around. Lunch was a delicious disaster. We ate at Felix, where the food was amazing, but A and E were a nightmare. They had obviously had enough of being asked to sit in restaurants three times a day and had decided to revolt! Tom may or may not have thrown one of Arthur’s toys in the bin when we got back to the hotel…(he fished it back out overnight so they kissed and made up).
Manila Ocean Park was another highlight for A and E, they loved the big aquariums and stingray encounter. Tom and I also enjoyed eating in the City of Dreams, a huge hotel/casino/entertainment complex, thinking of heading back there one day without the kids!
We didn’t stick to our own travelling-with-kids advice, which did cause some frustrations. There weren’t many hotels with balcony/terrace options, so we went without. Meaning six nights in a small hotel room, which didn’t give Tom and I somewhere to relax without the children in the evening (important recovery time!). It also meant we needed to eat out a lot. Our two are usually brilliantly behaved in restaurants, but the novelty wore off after a few days and this slipped. We did too many “activities” instead of having time just sat playing by a pool/park/beach. Even child-centred plans required them to do a lot of walking and listening and they got tired and grumpy.
We were glad to have the time to explore so much of Manila. Less time in the city with a move out to the beaches on one of islands for a longer break, would probably have made more sense for us. Overall Manila was a fantastic experience. There was plenty to do with the kids and it was very different to other cities we have been to before, as a couple or family. That is what it was all about after all, being able to see somewhere different together and have a new adventure. So that’s it, our trip to “the billy beanz”!