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Michael Aquino

BYOB Night at MNL Boutique Hostel, Philippines: the Youth Hostel Spirit Lives in Manila.

By February 21, 2013

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Image courtesy of MNL Boutique Hostel.

On the day I check into MNL Boutique Hostel (compare rates), its manager and co-owner Maica La'O has good news: the crowd for that evening's "bring-your-own-beer night" looks to be one of the best they've had since they opened. "At around 9pm, we're welcoming the Philippine Flow Fest," she tells me. "A lot of them are performers. They have fire poi, contact juggling, hoops. We have around ten artists that are staying here."

The "BYOB nights" take place almost every evening on the street outside MNL Boutique Hostel, and very few guests pass up the opportunity to sit down on plastic chairs and swap stories with fellow travelers. It's a youth hostel thing: "it's like coming home to a group of travelers that you haven't even met, but it's so easy to be free-flowing with discussion, like you're long time friends," says Maica, something she felt wasn't happening too much in the Philippines' capital.

So Maica, along with business partners Celina B. Cruz and Gonzalo "Gonz" Santos, decided to tap into the hostel zeitgeist with their own quirky little establishment. Located in a former family home in the Poblacion district of Makati in Metro Manila, MNL Boutique Hostel provides a setting for the community-building that the partners are so passionate about.

"You just share experiences, and that's what we like, and that's also what we want to foster here in MNL: the community- building of like-minded travelers," Maica tells us. "We want to show the world that there's something like this in Manila."

We sat down with Maica to get the complete story on MNL Boutique Hostel and the freewheeling hostel spirit it brings to Manila. For more on the place, read our review of MNL Boutique Hostel, or look at the hostel's image gallery. If you're searching for other budget options in the Philippines' capital, read this list of hostels and budget hotels in Manila.

Image Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.

Tell me about BYOB Night: how did it get started?

When we started conceptualizing the hostel, we had a schedule every weeknight: like, for Lambanog Monday, Tambay Tuesday, We Dare You Wednesday... but on our second night, we had a really good mix of Korean and Danish travelers, and they were all so game to hang out. We had these folding tables, and it just happened!

Celina called me up - "I set up tables outside!" "What are you doing?" "We're drinking! We just bought drinks from 7-11." "OK! Cool!" And then I went here and took pictures and, what am I going to post this on Facebook as? It's "bring your own beer night"! And since then, it's been happening every night.

Funny that drinking on the street can be such a lesson in the Filipino way of doing things...

We want to make it culturally relevant. Like tambay sa kanto (hanging out on the street corner), that's what Filipinos do - we set up tables outside our homes, then watch passersby, bring your own beer. Tagayan (the Filipino practice of passing around drinks), we teach them that.

The other night, a balut seller passed by. We called him over and said, "OK, you demonstrate what balut is!" We opened up a balut egg, showed our guests, "this is what it is, now eat!" The other night we had eight people try balut. With pictures and all. We share with them the local drinks, like Tanduay, lambanog, and of course San Miguel Beer, and they love it! (Read about the Best Beers in Southeast Asia! - Mike)

It's a cultural exchange - you get to ask, "What do you do? Where do you come from? Where do you plan on going?" It's the same set of questions every night, but it's a wide variety of answers that you get from different people.

Image Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.

How did you guys get the idea of starting your own hostel?

Me and Celina, we're travel buddies. When we travel, we really stay at hostels. When we think about it, there's no place like that in Manila - if there are, maybe just a handful for backpackers. So we were thinking, "I think there's an opening in that market for a funky nice, clean youth hostel in Manila." Then we just brainstormed everything out based on our past experience.

Celina and I decided on the colors, on the accents, the furniture; we really didn't have a professional interior designer. We really just got it from all the hostels and hotels we've stayed at abroad.

It's really just a mishmash: when we travel, we take photos of places that we've stayed at, then we just look back: "Oh, this looks cool, I want to have something like this." These frames on the wall, we got the idea from a hotel in Phuket. The door numbers idea is also very Phuket. Check out the toilet and bath. We have rain showers: that's what you experience in a five star hotel, right? And we put some pebbles there; that's the boutique part of it.

[We're] not just a hostel, a bed to sleep in. It's very well thought out: the fixtures, colors, bursts of color everywhere... we wanted to make it vibrant like that.

Image Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.

What's your style for dealing with guests? How do the three of you work together?

We're very personal with the guests; we make sure we attend to their needs. It's really about the extra mile that we go for them. If they need to print something, if they need assistance with the bus, if they need to do a phone call... it costs us some time, but it's an additional effort we're happy to do to welcome them all to MNL.

Celina is a travel writer; she grew up in a very travel-oriented family. Me, I'm just a very passionate traveler. But I handle the business side of the hostel, all the numbers.

Gonz is our resident artist. He made the paintings [around the hostel]. We wanted a Pinoy flavor [to the art]: In the rooms are Filipino-themed paintings, pop stuff like jeepneys, ice cream and balut vendors, and an Ifugao woman. In the common area, there's a mandatory world map - in all the hostels, it has to be there!

Image Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com.

What's your typical guest like?

The typical MNL guest is very diverse; there's no particular country that they come from. We were expecting we'd get a lot of Koreans, but we're really getting a lot of Europeans - Scandinavians, Eastern European countries, which is like, the littlest demographic of Philippine tourism!

One thing that we've noticed [about MNL's guests] is that Manila is their jump-off point: they just come in from Clark Airport or one of the budget airlines, and stay one day here. The next day, they fly off to Coron, to Boracay, to Cebu. (Read our Boracay travel guide for more info on the place - Mike.) So that's one of our advocacies: we don't want Manila to be just a jump-off point anymore. We want people to stay longer in Manila.

Image courtesy of MNL Boutique Hostel.

And those who do stay longer - how do they like it? Is getting around in traffic here a pain?

They're super into it; they love riding the jeepney. The foreigners might think that the jeepney is super-chaotic, but they just ride! They're really adventurous, and they have good feedback on Filipinos - they usually say, "They're so nice!" [It goes against] the image other countries have about the Philippines - "It's dangerous there" - when they get here, it's so nice after all! So it's great to hear that kind of feedback.

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