Manila seems like an obvious place for a youth hostel, but until recently the budget accommodations in the Philippines' capital offered slim pickings for backpackers looking for both a cheap place to stay for the night and a place that consciously tapped into the worldwide hostel zeitgeist.
MNL Boutique Hostel now steps into the breach with a very Filipino take on the hostel experience: a 12-room, 40-bed, two-storey affair converted from a cozy family residence (the old house is still visible from behind the funkily-painted outer wall). Inside, the accommodations straddle that volatile intersection between "boutique" and "hostel": common shower stalls have rainshowers and pebble-lined floors, and the rooms flaunt pop-style artwork depicting iconic Filipino images (the jeepney, Manny Pacquiao, among others).
MNL's owners, a trio of travel-tested twenty-somethings, actively take an interest in their guests: Maica, Celina and Gonz often host beer sessions on tables set up on the street outside the hostel, swapping travel tales with backpackers from all over.
- More information here: Hostels 101 - What You Need to Know About Hostels
- Budget digs elsewhere: If you're searching for other budget options in the Philippines' capital, read this list of hostels and budget hotels in Manila.
Location of MNL Boutique Hostel
Finding MNL Boutique Hostel isn't easy at first: located in a back street bordering the rapidly gentrifying Poblacion district of Makati (one of Metro Manila's component cities), MNL is tucked away behind the A.Venue shopping center on Makati Avenue. The hostel is part of a cluster of blocks that has so far resisted the mall-ification and skyscraperization of the rest of the district.
Once you're there, though, it's not easy to miss: MNL Boutique Hostel advertises itself with a wall painted over with diagonal stripes of purple and pink, as if the giant sign isn't enough to draw your attention.
The neighborhood surrounding MNL Boutique Hostel provides a host of conveniences within walking distance. A jeepney passes right through the adjacent street, dropping passengers off at the MRT light rail system. A 7-Eleven convenience store stands about five minutes' walk down the street. And A.Venue mall is practically right next door.
The Poblacion district itself is full of watering holes, nightclubs and beer joints catering to a growing tourist segment. Nearby Jupiter Street is a restaurant precinct of some repute, and neighboring Burgos Street is lined with nightclubs and girlie joints. (More information in this blog: burgosstreet.net) A jeepney ride or long walk southwest of Poblacion takes you to Makati's central business district, where the Ayala Shopping Center and its more upscale shopping and dining establishments can be found.
Inside MNL Boutique HostelWhen the security guard buzzes you in, you'll find yourself in a small reception area facing the hostel's common room. Little touches around the common room encourage conversation and interaction between guests: here a little Jenga travel set, there a few travel guides, with comfy purple couches and a conversation-starting series of questions painted on the wall opposite the seats.
A flat-screen TV with cable access hangs on the west-facing wall, while the south-facing wall has a computer for guests' surfing use. Guests bringing their own laptops or tablets can use the house WiFi signal, which is easily accessible in the common area, but can hardly be detected inside the rooms.
The décor in the common areas can best be described as "Filipino funky modern": the couches resemble traditional woven-rattan furniture, but with green plastic reeds instead of natural rattan; artificial plants and incense burners line the shelves. Natural light only comes from windows on one wall of the common area, but the décor helps warm the place up.
A small kitchen with a microwave serves a very simple, complimentary bread-and-spread breakfast in the mornings, along with instant coffee. The photo wall in the kitchen features a small (but growing) collection of images contributed by satisfied guests.
MNL Boutique Hostel's Rooms and Facilities
Your guide was booked in one of the private rooms on the ground floor, a small, windowless space with air conditioning and just enough room for a queen-size bed. The floors and walls were bare concrete except for the west-facing wall, which was painted over with portraits of two Filipino heroes (Jose Rizal and Manny Pacquiao, courtesy of in-house artist Gonz). A small shelf and a mirror hang on the wall opposite the bed.
MNL Boutique Hostel has seven private rooms like the one I stayed in, with the rest being made up of dorm rooms meant for sharing. Lockers in the dorm rooms secure valuables while you step out to explore or socialize with other guests.
Bathrooms on both floors are all for common use. The "boutique" touch is most apparent here - guests used to grimy cold-water common showers in youth hostels will appreciate the change. Showers produce both hot and cold water from a rainshower directly overhead. The floors have both tile and pebble components, adding a touch of luxe to what otherwise would be the least appealing part of the hostel experience.
- Look Inside: For this Philippines backpacker hostel in pictures, check out our gallery of Images of MNL Boutique Hostel.
MNL Boutique Hostel Goes the Extra Mile
Getting to know MNL Boutique Hostel's owners is part of the stay experience, and MNL's guests are all the better for it. "We're very personal with the guests; we make sure we attend to their needs," explains Maica Lao, one of MNL's co-owners. "We know their first names, and that little thing is very important already. We send them emails, we become friends on Facebook... it's just showing them Filipino hospitality."
MNL Boutique Hostel's owners go out of their way to encourage guests' socializing with each other, mainly by instigating the socializing themselves. On most nights, Maica, Celina and Gonz set up folding tables on the street outside MNL - which, handily enough, is barricaded against automobile traffic in the evenings - and break out beer and wine in the grand Filipino tradition of "tambay sa kanto", or drinking sessions on the street corner. (More info in our guide to drinking in the Philippines.)
Evolving from a spur-of-the-moment decision on Celina's part, the outdoor sessions have evolved into "BYOB (bring-your-own-beer) nights"; guests bring their booze of choice (often just purchased at the 7-Eleven down the street) to share with new friends.
Guests attending BYOB nights get an excellent introduction to San Miguel Beer, one of Southeast Asia's better beers, not to mention other, weirder local delicacies. "The other night, a balut seller passed by," Maica tells us. (Here's our guide to eating balut, for those not in the know.) "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!'" That night, no less than eight guests tried balut; score one for exotic Filipino street food.
Sometimes guests get their own back - "Some Korean guests shared their drinks with us," remembers Maica. "We had makgeolli: it's in a very unassuming milk tea bottle, but it's like alcoholic yogurt."
This kind of meeting of minds represents the youth hostel zeitgeist that MNL Boutique Hostel plugs into - being a place where world travelers can swap experiences in a free, friendly spirit. "It's a cultural exchange - you get to ask, 'What do you do? Where do you come from? Where do you plan on going?'" Maica explains. "It's the same set of questions every night, but it's a wide variety of answers that you get from different people."
MNL Boutique Hostel at a GlanceLocation: Valdez cor Santiago St., Poblacion, Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines (location on Google Maps). Forty minutes' taxi ride from Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Rooms: two storeys, 12 guestrooms - 7 private rooms, 5 dorm rooms, with a total of 40 beds. 8-inch spring mattresses on all beds with hotel-grade linen and pillows; duvet for private rooms. Dorms have lockers for personal effects.
Amenities: Free WiFi access in common areas. Common area with computer, flatscreen TV, and board games. Common bath areas have rainshower heads and pebble floors. Free breakfast served in kitchen, but don't expect more than bread, jam, butter, and instant coffee. "Cool-cierge" service provides local and domestic travel advice and tips: visitors looking to take public transport to Intramuros, or find the cheapest way to get to El Nido, need look no further. "BYOB nights" gets guests drinking and sharing on foldaway tables on the street just outside the hostel.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.