Philippine Travel: How to get to Ongpin, Chinatown in Binondo, Manila, Philippines

>> Wednesday, May 19, 2010

When people say Chinatown in the Philippines, more often than not, they refer to
Ongpin. Ongpin is the main road in Chinatown.

Here’s how to get there:

The easiest way to go to Chinatown is by taking a cab. Just tell the driver to take you to Ongpin and drop you off in front of Binondo Church which stands at one end of Ongpin Street.

Taxi flag down rate as of this writing is P30 ($0.67) with increments of P2.50 ($0.06) for every kilometer thereafter.

But if you are the adventurous type, why not take the most common means of transportation in Manila which you can only find in the Philippines? The jeepney (or jeep which is how it is more commonly referred to). And to add to the experience, take the other modes of public transport as well.
If you are coming from Edsa, take the southbound MRT3 line (Metrostar Rail Transit), and get off at Taft Station which is the terminal station. Transfer to the LRT1 line (Light Rail Transit) on EDSA Station and get off at the UN (United Nations) Avenue Station. To get to the LRT1 line, turn right upon exiting MRT3 through the turnstile. In case you get lost or are unsure about which way to go, just ask any store vendor at the station or a train station staff if you can spot one. Tell him that you want to get to the LRT1 line going to UN Avenue.
While riding the LRT1, I recommend staying near the glass windows so that you can do some sightseeing of Taft Avenue. On your left, you will pass by De La Salle University and the University of the Philippines Manila which are two of the top schools in the Philippines. You will also see the Philippine General Hospital, the National Bureau of Investigation and the Supreme Court.

After getting off at UN Avenue Station, look for McDonald’s and go to that side of the road, then wait for jeeps with the word “Divisoria” plastered on the windshield.

Divisoria is an area near Chinatown where you can find hundreds of wholesale stores selling just about everything.

To hail a jeepney, just wave your hand at the driver to indicate that you want to get on. The fare from this point to Chinatown is P7.50 ($0.17)

If you don’t know where and when to hail a jeep, just look around, observe how the locals do it, then do as the Filipinos do. As far as I know, having lived in Manila all my life, there are really no rules as to where and when you can get on and off a jeep. Except for some areas where there are explicit signs that say “Loading/Unloading Area”. But even then, these signs aren’t always followed.

After you have successfully got on a jeep, congratulate yourself as in my opinion, riding a jeepney is one of the top things you should do when in Manila.
To pay the fare, give your payment to the driver and say, “Bayad po, sa Binondo Church”, which loosely translates to “Here’s my payment. I’m getting off at Binondo Church”. If you are a little too far from the driver, ask any passenger seated near the driver to help you hand in your payment by saying “Makikiabot po”, which loosely translates to “I would like to ask for your assistance (in handing my payment to the driver)”. Don’t worry if you don’t have the exact amount, the driver can give out change.

From hereon, keep your eyes wide open and look out the window as you would see several interesting sights as you take this downtown Manila jeepney ride. Sightseeing from a jeepney takes some challenge though if the driver of the jeep you’re on feels like he’s the king of the road and drives at breakneck speed. But for most of the time, traffic is heavy at Taft Avenue so I’m pretty sure that you would be able to take in some view. If you’re seated at the right side of the jeep, the sights you can spot on your left would be the relief map of the Philippines in Rizal Park (Luneta), and the walls of Intramuros. On your right would be the Philippine Normal University, and the Manila City Hall.

The jeep will ply two bridges. Upon reaching the end of the first bridge, you will see the Manila Post Office on your right.

Brace yourself for the second bridge, the Jones Bridge which will give you a spectacular view of the Pasig River. The Pasig River is a biologically dead body of water but efforts from the private sector has been ongoing to revive it. Albeit stinky with murky waters, you can actually take a ferry boat to see more of the historic buildings along the river.

When the jeep reaches the end of Jones Bridge, you will see the Filipino-Chinese Friendship Arch welcoming you to Chinatown. You are now on Quintin Paredes street. At the other end of this street is your target landmark, the Binondo Church.

When the jeep is almost near the church, to indicate that you want to get off, tell the driver “Para po sa Binondo Church” which loosely translates to “Please stop at Binondo Church”. You might have to speak a little louder to ensure that the driver hears you amid the traffic noise.

Get off as soon as the jeep makes a stop and go to the nearest sidewalk. Note that the jeeps don’t always stop at a favorable place for unloading, some would even stop at the middle of the road, so be alert and watch out for oncoming vehicles.

Once you reach Binondo Church, you are now at the center of Chinatown!

The mini-garden with the fountain in front of the church is Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz. Take note of the store signs of McDonald’s and Starbucks around the plaza, they’re in Chinese!

To go to the residential area where the old houses are, cross the street from Binondo Church to Philtrust Bank. The bridge beside the bank leads to the residential side of Binondo. The term “residential” is a misnomer though as the Chinese often operates their businesses in their homes.

If you intend to walk around the area, go there in the morning upto mid-afternoon when the place is bustling with business. I don’t recommend going there after sundown as darkness increases vulnerability to theft.

To see the wholesale stores that carry wares which are mostly from China, cross the street from Binondo Church to McDonald’s and walk further to the right. The narrow road beside Starbucks and the web of alleys adjacent to it is home to a myriad of stores that sell anything you can possibly think of. The place is often crowded so be careful of pickpockets. This road leads all the way to Divisoria. The jeep bound for Divisoria passes through this street but since the traffic here is often heavy, almost at a turtle’s pace, people just get off the jeep and walk.

If you plan to walk around this area, I suggest dressing down. I usually wear faded shirts with lengths that go all the way down to my pants’ pockets so that my wallet and cellphone are safely covered and somehow protected from stealthy pickpocket hands. Leave your valuables like earrings and necklaces in your hotel’s safebox. Jewelries are often targets of snatch and run thieves.

A friend who lives in the area doesn’t even carry a wallet. She just puts her money directly into her snugly fit jeans’ pockets to avoid getting her wallet snatched. The place isn’t as scary as it sounds. These tips are just meant to make your trip as hassle-free as possible. Better to be safe than sorry.

Lastly, to go to Ongpin which is the main artery of Chinatown, if you’re facing Binondo Church, the road to the right of the church is Ongpin Street. Walking the street from end to end would probably take 15 to 20 minutes. At the other end of the street is another church, the Sta. Cruz Church.

While Ongpin is lined with must-visit bakeries, groceries, and restaurants among many other establishments, I recommend taking some time to walk around the side streets connected to it as well. One side street worth seeing is Salazar Street which leads to Benavides Street where several family-owned restaurants have sprung up. Aside from dining at the bigger restaurants serving Cantonese dishes along Ongpin, sampling some Fujian style dishes in one of the smaller restaurants or food stalls along Salazar and Benavides streets is a different experience in itself.

Unfortunately, Manila’s Chinatown is fast losing its rustic charm as more and more old structures are being torn down to make way for modern condominiums. Nevertheless, be it antique houses or high-rise condominiums, the rich Chinese culture has been kept intact in this area which has been the home of Chinese immigrants for the past 500 years.


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