Ethical travel: Visiting Manila’s Baseco Slum in Philippines

Manila gets a lot of bad press, so I really wanted to visit it for myself and it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as people say.

It reminded me of cities in South America because of the Spanish influence, and it had a whole different vibe to the other cities I’d visited in Southeast Asia.

There was lots of history, friendly people and things to do and one of the things we wanted to visit was the Baseco Slum with Smokey Tours (not an ad) as it had been recommended to us.

Just like when I went on the Dharavi Slum tour, I wanted to learn more about the realities of living in poverty, as if you’re seeing the world, you should see it.

You are not permitted to take photographs in the slum, as poverty porn is not encouraged whatsoever so I’ve used stock images to illustrate this story (except for the recycled chairs).

Smokey Tours are an NGO who give all their profits back to the slum for community projects and train local guides. It’s an experience and a donation all in one so it’s a great way to travel ethically. Poverty ultimately exists because the world is unfair, and it’s important to redress the balance in any way we can.

If you want a long read to find out more about the ethics of visiting slums, then try Inside the Controversial World of Slum Tourism.

Aerial view slums of Manila, Philippines, Manila
Aerial view slums of Manila, Philippines, Manila

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We met our guide (who is a resident at BASECO), at McDonald’s at Good Earth Plaza in the morning and then we grabbed a jeepney to Intramuros and then swapped to a tricycle to get to the slum. You can also visit the cemetery slums in Manila too, but only with a tour. If you’re not travelling around the Philippines then this is your opportunity to experience this local transport, but less interesting for backpackers who are doing that anyway.

The company used to go to Smokey Mountain slum, hence the name but now they go to BASECO which is the Bataan Shipping and Engineering Company Compound. It’s next to the sea in Metro Manila which is a problem in itself because the it means that people drown when visiting the shipping yard to take fresh water or sell sex to ship workers. It also means that inclement weather like the typhoons can badly damage the fragile housing and leave people homeless.

The government charges more for fresh water from the taps in the slum than they do elsewhere, which is one of the many injustices facing the BASECO residents. Not only that, but the government want to redevelop this prime real estate in the city, which would shatter this vital Metro Manila community. If there‘s one thing the Philippines doesn’t need, it’s more middle-class development in the shape of chain shops and restaurants.

We walked through the residential area which is a thin planked walkway lined with wooden shacks. You can buy internet from a wireless machine and there’s a gaming centre and shops where we ate a delicious sticky coconut pancake.

Aerial view slums of Manila, Philippines, Manila
Aerial view slums of Manila, Philippines, Manila

The slum has a beach which is filled with trash from the sea and various fires that are used to make charcoal and to get rid of rubbish. It was incredibly hot and I saw a Japanese woman on another tour vomit as a result. The Filipinos leapt to help her because community is everything here and they have a saying that money won’t pick you up off the floor. Which is true.

Many older people in the slum work as garlic peelers for the various fast food outlets around Manila as BASECO is used for cheap labour so people have to work hard.

We saw loads of kids, especially young lads who especially wanted to chat with my boyfriend. There isn’t so much of a language barrier in Philippines as so many people speak Taglish so there is a lot of crossover and it’s easy to chat. As a small group of two, we had such a good time with the people that we met as Filipinos can be naturally gregarious and we weren’t treated as ‘foreign’ as you can be in other places.

We visited a community library, paid for by Smokey Tours where people can get materials they need to learn various things. I heard that they are struggling to make money to fund the projects, so I hope that they can find a way to continue to do so.

Recycled school chairs, Baseco Slum, Manila
Recycled school chairs, Baseco Slum, Manila

Another great project is that the plastic waste is made into school chairs that you can see in this photograph, a similar one to the pellet making that goes on in Indian slums. The tour is three hours in total so you get to see a good chunk of BASECO life.

You are asked to give feedback at the end, which is your opportunity to give a tip or a donation. There is also a small shop of local handicrafts where you can buy water lily weaving as they’re grown in the sea.

I was impressed by the sheer amount of work that gets done here and it was further proof that Philippino friendliness knows no bounds. It’s also a good way to give back to the community and see how international governments treat their people in a time when international news bureaus are closing down.

It’s important not to look away from anything as you could be missing a great injustice, whether it’s your back garden or that of someone else. If nothing else, it will make you appreciate your own life as well as the power of a strong community has on wellbeing. I hope that BASECO slum can be developed for the people and not at their expense.

Have you been on a slum tour? Did you feel that it helped you to have a greater understanding of life below the poverty line? Share your stories and thoughts in the comments below.

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Ethical travel: Visiting Manila’s Baseco Slum in Philippines
Ethical travel: Visiting Manila’s Baseco Slum in Philippines


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