Cape Floral Region Protected Areas

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Inscribed in 2004, followed by an extension in 2015, with the following justifications:

Criterion (ix): The property is considered of Outstanding Universal Value for representing ongoing ecological and biological processes associated with the evolution of the unique Fynbos biome; and,
Criterion (x): The Cape Floral Region is one of the richest areas for plants when compared to any similar sized area in the world. It represents less than 0.5% of the area of Africa but is home to nearly 20% of the continent’s flora.  The outstanding diversity, density and endemism of the flora are among the highest worldwide. (source: http://whc.unesco.org/pg.cfm?cid=31&id_site=1007)

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A large part of my personal satisfaction in being able to tick this site off last 2016 stems from the fact that not only were my friend and I able to see the three nature reserves that form the Table Mountain National Park (i.e., Table Mountain, Silvermine and Cape of Good Hope), but, more importantly, we was able to pay proper visits to seven out of the eight protected areas that make up the inscribed serial property. We only missed out Groot Winterhoek Wilderness Area.

 

 

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Table Mountain National Park embracing Cape Town as seen from Bloubergstrand beach

 

 

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Different kinds of fynbos in Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden with the “Tableback” part of the Table Mountain in the background.

 

The Cape floral kingdom is a truly unique ecosystem dominated by the fynbos,  a plant vegetation (i.e., proteas, ericas, restios and some lilies) that practically only exists in this corner of the world.  Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden, which is the only botanical garden in the world located inside a UNESCO natural world heritage site, provides a bird’s eye view of the different species of fynbos that thrive across different habitats, and it would be best to start one’s travel here. We, however, started with the Baviaanskloof moved towards Table Mountain, then went up to the Cederberg, and finally made the botanical garden our last stop upon returning to Cape Town.

 

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Cape Floral Region: the smallest floral kingdom in the world, the densest, and the most threatened as well, a patrimony of the world of the highest order.

 

 

Here are some of the highlights:

(a) the beautiful mountain scenery provided by the Swartberg Pass and the Merringspoort Pass. Both connect the Little Karoo and the Great Karoo, and are great feats of mountain engineering;

 

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Ericas (a kind of heaths) growing among the rocks on top of the freezing cold Swartberg peaks.

 

 

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The world-famous Swartberg Pass and the montane fynbos that cover the landscape

 

(b) the rock formations of the Cederberg and its extensive collection of ancient Bushmen paintings (we stayed overnight in the wilderness to see the Sevilla rock art trail);

 

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The rock formations of the Cederberg mountains, the only place where the fynbos called rooibos thrive. It is cultivated to make a tea drink of the same name (or red tea in the West).

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One of the 3,000 year-old rock paintings made by ancient San people in the Cederberg near Clanwilliam.

 

(c) the coastal white sand dunes and game drives in De Hoop Nature Reserve and Protected Marine Area;

 

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Constantly reshaped white sand dunes of De Hoop show how strong the coastal trade winds are in this whale-watching area.

 

 

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Spotted a herd of Bonteboks, the rarest of African antelopes, in the grasslands. Other animals spotted were ostriches, Cape buffalos, wildebeasts, kudus, and various birds.

 

(d) views of Strand, Stellenbosch, Franchshoek, Botrivier and the rest fo the Boland area/wine region on top of the Hottentots-Holland mountains;

 

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At the highest point of Sir Lowry’s Pass in the Hottentots mountains, which caught wildfire a few days after we passed through it in getting to Cape Town.

 

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Inside one of the heritage wine estates in Stellenbosch with the Boland mountains in the background

 

(d) scenic coastal drives along the Cape of Good Hope and Kogelberg biosphere reserve — very enjoyable!;

 

 

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A tourist imperative: a photo shot with the Cape of Good Hope marker inside the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve

 

 

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The mountain-to-sea view as one traverses the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve along the coastal road.

 

and (e) the imposing beauty of Table Mountain as seen in and around Cape Town – indeed a true world-class landmark! Also memorable was the walk along the penguin colony in Simon’s Town, which is part of the inscribed property as well.

 

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The top of Table Mountain beginning to be covered by the “table cloth” clouds

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Cape Town and Cape Bay as seen from the Table Mountain

 

 

Overall, the outstanding universal values of this serial property is not hard to understand and appreciate. Each protected area is different from one another, and all of it are definitely worth visiting.

 

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Another species of the endemic protea, South Africa’s national flower

 

PS. Special thanks to Wolffie for making the trip possible and wonderful!

Filipino Culture & History through the Northern Philippines

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The Philippines has a rich history and culture, but we sometimes do not understand the country well enough to realize to what extent. It is not a question of whether we have it or not. Rather, it is of how much we really know and are aware. One way to get reacquainted with the Filipino identity and our past is by taking what I would call as a heritage trail up north. The beauty of Northern Philippines lies on the fact that it is home to four UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites.

What does this mean?

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A UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) is any given natural or cultural place, monument or landscape that holds outstanding universal values critical to the development of humanity, and which reflect diversity. Some of the more popular WHS around the world include the Great Wall of China, the Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, Chitchen Itza, the Table Mountain, the Great Barrier Reefs, and even the Statue of Liberty. Regardless of popularity and fame, however, all of these places are treated with equal degree of cultural and historical importance.

With the recent addition of Mt. Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary in Mindanao in 2014, the Philippines now has six sites listed as WHS. Two of which are marine natural sites in Palawan, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park and Tubattaha Reefs Marine Park. Both of these sites are also declared as Ramsar wetlands of international importance. The other three are cultural sites found in Northern Philippines: the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, the Historic Town of Vigan, and the Baroque Churches of the Philippines.

From Manila — where San Agustin church, another WHS, is found inside Intramuros — one can make a Do-It-Yourself trip in taking on this heritage trail. A bus from Manila can take you to Banaue, the jump-off point for the rice terraces. From there, vans can be arranged to bring you down to Vigan. Sta. Maria is also along the way to Vigan, and finally, going further north by bus will bring you to Paoay in Ilocos Norte. Each place offers a taste of the depth of Philippine history and Filipino ingenuity.

Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras

Agricultural terracing is not unique to the Philippines. China, Indonesia, and Viet Nam have it. Peru and even Switzerland have this method, too. What makes the rice terraces in the Philippines unique is that they are the oldest and most extensive continually-used rice terraces in the world. As a comparison, these rice terraces have been around much longer than Machu Picchu or Angkor have! The more noticeable distinguishing marks of these engineering marvels would be their heights that reach as high as 1,500 metres from the base, and their steepness that defies limits with 70 degrees maximum angulation.

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The incredible mixture of purely man-made terraces, the mountains, the muyongs (forest caps), traditional hamlets, and other visible cultural artifacts in the region certainly does not disappoint. The Food and Agriculture Organization has cited the rice terraces as an outstanding example of “worldwide, specific agricultural systems and landscapes (that) have been created, shaped and maintained by generations of farmers and herders based on diverse natural resources, using locally adapted management practices.” The American Society of Civil Engineers also named the rice terraces as a ‘Historic Engineering Landmark’ for water supply and control. In 1997, the same group came to the Philippines and formally declared (through a marker) the rice terraces as the [original] 8th Wonder of the World.

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For the Filipinos, with the mode of farming and the people’s lifestyles largely unchanged, these ancient rice terraces are an enduring portrait of the ways of life of the Ifugao for over 2,000 years. The WHS-listed clusters are Batad, Bangaan, Hungduan, Mayoyao and Nagacadan rice terraces. Hungduan is also one rare site in the world as it is home to no just one but two UNESCO Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the Hudhud chants and the Punnuk.

Historic Town of Vigan

Why does this small town merit a special place in the collective memory of the Filipino people? It is one of the few towns in the country that was spared from destruction during the World War II (Intramuros, Manila’s walled district, was razed to the ground and only one building was left standing there after the war). Being the best preserved Spanish colonial-era trading town in Asia, Vigan presents itself as an intact and authentic old town. It boasts a good collection of original houses wherein the ground floors are characterized as Hispanic, while its upper floors and windows suggest Chinese and Oriental influences. The best of these houses can be seen along Calle Crisologo, a re-created cobblestone street.

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One will notice that the town faithfully follows the historical “quadricula” or “grid” street plan. This, believe it or not, is the most ‘Hispanic’ feature of the town. The interior of a typical Vigan villa can be seen when visiting the likes of the Sy-Quia mansion, the family house of the former President Quirino.

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In 2012, Vigan bagged the ‘Best Management Practices for a World Heritage City’ award in a worldwide competition by UNESCO. And again, three years later, Vigan was voted as one of the Seven New Wonder Cities in the World through a global online poll.

Baroque Churches of the Philippines: Sta. Maria

Aside from the San Agustin church inside Intramuros and the Miag-ao church in Iloilo, the Northern Philippines boasts two of the best examples of Philippine Spanish-era churches. The town of Sta. Maria, some 40 minutes south of Vigan, houses a citadel church built on top of a fortified man-made hill. In the older days, the only way to reach the church is through the 82-step staircase made of granite slabs, making the complex easily defended.

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Made of red bricks, the Asuncion de la Sta. Maria church boasts a set of massive buttresses that supports the structure from the damages of earthquakes. The pagoda-shaped bell tower is leaning due to the collapsing retaining walls around the hill, which placed this church in the ’100 Most Endangered Sites’ in 2010 by the World Monument Watch of the World Monument Fund.

Baroque Churches of the Philippines: Paoay

The crowning gem of the “earthquake baroque architecture” is the San Agustin church in Paoay. This edifice is largely made of coral stones that have been glued together using egg whites, lime powder and molasses. This important church features a mixture of Oriental, Malay, and Western influences in its design. This comes as no surprise as long before the Spaniards reached present-day Paoay, the site was already a trading settlement known as Bombay in earlier records.

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Keen eyes will notice some fading carvings and bas-reliefs around the church. The most important exponents of this church are definitely its beautifully-constructed massive buttresses. Paoay church is considered to be a masterpiece of the Filipino reinterpretation of the baroque movement, fusing European principles with local Filipino craftsmanship. The bell tower is also separated from the church as a precautionary measure against the effects of earthquakes – this architectural innovation is unique to Philippine churches.

The churches of the Philippines are unique, and, thus, cannot be compared to those found in Europe or Latin America. As religious monuments, they are key in spreading further the Christian faith in the region (Southeast and East Asia, and the Pacific Islands). While as cultural specimens, they embody the artistic, technological, and intellectual interchange between the West and the East for more than three centuries.

While knowing and understanding Philippine history and culture is a large part of what I do as a heritage advocate, the biggest challenge is in making others see and appreciate things the way I do.

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I often have a hard time convincing friends who have already settled abroad to come back home to re-experience their native land. Most of them would rather spend their vacations going around Europe or elsewhere in Asia to see cultural and grand ancient monuments or old towns, believing none exist here.

 

The Defenses of Currimao

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Ever since I was a kid, Currimao in Ilocos Norte has always had a special place in my heart. It has decent packets of beaches very close to where I live, making it an easy weekend getaway. Pangil, one of its barangays, offers what I would describe as the site of the most romantic sunset one can witness in the north thanks to its dramatic rocky landscape. It’s very easy to fall in love with it. Aside from this, however, I did not know anything else about this small, sleepy town by the sea.

Well, until recently[1].

A Reminder of the Tobacco Trade

During the Spanish period, Currimao, which was still a  part of Paoay, was a commercial port that played an important role in the tobacco trade. The northern Philippines was then known to have focused on this cash crop, supplying not only local demands but even those from overseas. The town has an 1869-built almacen, popularly known today as the tabacalera, which was used by the Compania General de los Tabacos de Filipinas. There are two other extant tabacaleras in the province, one in Laoag[2] and another in Dingras. But, what makes Currimao’s tabacalera special is that it was at the forefront of the trade given its strategic location and access to the open waters.

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Inside the tabacalera ruins

The massive structure follows a simple rectangular floor plan, with all sides supported by identical buttresses reminiscent of earthquake baroque churches. It also has gabled ends and what appears to be a portico on the main portal. Vestiges of an old perimeter wall made of the same materials used in constructing the almacen – rocks, coral stones and ladrillos – can be found around it as well.

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Exterior of the tabacalera with its buttresses, and the mess around it.

Given its already fragile condition, what is more disturbing, however, is the obvious neglect of the site by the locals. Currently, it is used as a heavy equipment and motor pool, as well as a dump site for gravel and aggregates for construction works. This is alarming because its state of disrepair might jeopardize the ongoing process to designate the site yet another National Cultural Treasure – a procedure to be completed, hopefully, by next year[3].

The almacen sits just a few meters away from an old yet still functioning pantalan or wharf that is made of coral stones[4]. This, however, was cemented with concrete a few years ago giving a very modern appearance to it nowadays. Also, close to the almacen, to its left, is another ruins of what might have been the aduana or the customs office[5]. Presently, the remains of this brick edifice is within a private property and no one really knows  what will happen to it nor can anyone guarantee its preservation. Furthermore, a few meters again from the ruins is an agua del pozo[6] or a water well. Aside from it still being used, what is more impressive about this simple structure is that it is dated: 12 de Diciembre de 1878 ano.

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The Spanish period well with the date of its construction

Man-made Fortifications

Across the archipelago, there are hundreds of watchtowers and fortresses built by the Spaniards in their attempt to fortify their empire in the Pacific[7]. Ilocos Norte alone has six, and neighboring Ilocos Sur has five. The existence of a twin watchtowers or garitas only reinforces the historical – and commercial – importance of Currimao as a port. In the Philippines, I am only aware of one other town where a twin watchtowers also exist: Romblon, Romblon[8]. Furthermore, the twin watchtowers of Romblon and Currimao have another striking resemblance: their fortifications can be found at either ends of their poblacion harbour. Their only difference is that, for Romblon, the watchtowers were meant to guard over the pueblo with a church, while Currimao’s were meant to watch over a coastal settlement with a tabacalera.

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The eastern watchtower

The more obvious of the two watchtowers in Currimao is partly damaged as a segment of its wall has already collapsed. This one is noticeable at any point along the seawall as it prominently stands at the eastern end of the harbour, without any obstruction surrounding it[9]. The other watchtower, which is still complete, is currently heavily vegetated. Several concrete structures have also already been built around it, thus compromising its visual integrity[10]. Both of these watchtowers, which stand approximately seven meters high, are thought to have been built in the mid 1800s or even much earlier.

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The western watchtower

Despite having been declared as National Cultural Treasures in 2015 under the serial inscription “Watchtowers of Ilocos Norte”[11], there is still the urgent need to conserve and restore the structures that are clearly under threats caused by human negligence and natural disasters.

The Coral Rocks as Natural Barriers

Currimao also boasts a unique landscape and seascape. It is home to a very long coral rock formation along its coast. The entire length of this geological curiosity spans nearly three kilometers, and the best exponents of it are found in Barangay Pangil.

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The sharp coral cocks make it impossible for boats and ships to get any closer than 100 metres to shore.

What many might not realize, however, is that these sharp ancient rocks form a durable wall, which creates a natural fortification for the community. During the time when the tobacco trade was at its peak (as a component of the Galleon trade), threats from invading Moros and Chinese pirates were very common in the area. This is also the reason why the watchtowers have come to be known locally as the Moro watchtowers. But, given its rocky shores, boats, let alone ships, cannot dock just anywhere; the rocks and waves make that impossible. Hence, anyone who wished to make a landing would have to go to the only area devoid of coral rocks – the poblacion harbour.

The coral rocks in Pangil can reach as high as four meters tall.

The coral rocks can rise as high as four meters above the water line.

Until now, it is only this particular area where fishermen can safely dock their fishing boats and rafts (with the exception, of course, of the more sandy shores of Victoria and Gaang that are already far away from the poblacion). The Spaniards erected the watchtowers precisely where the natural fortifications ceased.

Fortified Commercial Complex?

A good fortification utilizes elements in its surroundings to its advantage. The coral rocks and the watchtowers complemented each other in as far as guarding Currimao and its commercial activities were concerned. This outstanding system of natural barriers and man-made fortifications made the poblacion of Currimao a highly defensive coastal settlement by Philippine standards at that time. With the presence of the ruins of an almacen and an aduana, a functioning agua del pozo and pantalan, as well as two garitas, together with its imposing long coral rock formations, it is only fitting to reassess, rethink, and reintroduce the poblacion of Currimao – yes, the small, sleepy town – as an intact, fortified, Spanish-period commercial complex that might be hard to match elsewhere in the country.

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Legend: Blue – location of the almacen, aduana, pozo del agua, and pantalan; red – the two garitas declared as National Cultural Treasures; grey – the coastal areas with coral rocks.

 

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[1] Performed cultural mapping and documentation in town on March 14, 2016 for www.philippineheritagemap.org

[2] Presently housing the Ilocos Norte Museum

[3]“Pending cultural properties for consideration for declaration as Important Cultural Properties or National Cultural Treasures by the National Museum in 2016” http://www.ivanhenares.com/2015/12/national-cultural-treasure-2015.html

[4] http://philippineheritagemap.org/reports/14231c4b-5ae5-46ac-a911-77d384e4bf1f

[5] http://philippineheritagemap.org/reports/54b3d96f-5c09-4cc6-b4af-f5cf8aed0d78

[6] http://philippineheritagemap.org/reports/85df66cc-a2f5-4a5a-a704-506c873f4984

[7] Javellana, R (1997). Fortress of empire: Spanish colonial fortification of the Philippines, 1565 to 1898. Manila: Bookmark. Also look at http://simbahan.net/2009/08/27/fortress-of-empire-rene-javellana-sj/

[8] Fort San Andres was a component of the now widthrawn “Spanish Fortifications of the Philippines” nomination for UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. It is also a declared National Cultural Treasure. Its twin Fort Santiago is already in ruins. Also look at http://pamana.ph/fort-san-andres/

[9] http://philippineheritagemap.org/reports/ede424b7-984b-4e21-ac9e-e83c3d45241a

[10] http://philippineheritagemap.org/reports/df3a9836-4f09-441f-9745-a0fa6049ef42

[11] http://ncca.gov.ph/national-museum-bares-2015-list-of-cultural-treasures-properties/

Melaka and George Town: Trade Hegemons of Colonial-era Southeast Asia

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Since there is not much noise being made about George Town while unanimous praises are given to Melaka (Malacca), I was surprised to find out that the former component-city would be the highlight of Malaysia’s first UNESCO cultural world heritage site that was inscribed in 2008. The character of George Town is definitely more presentable.


Melaka has a rich cultural and trading history, and the role it once played in regional commerce cannot be underestimated. Its current condition, however, does not live up to its glorious past anymore. Without knowing its history, the city simply looks like any other Chinese-Malay trading town.

The red Dutch Square, the most recognizable exponent of Melaka.

Its history dates back to the well-networked and influential Malaccan sultanate, and later gained greater worldwide interest when it was occupied by the Portuguese and the Dutch successively. Though Melaka was never made as a capital of the Dutch East Indies (VOC), it served as the most important Dutch-controlled port-town between India and Batavia (present day Jakarta), monopolizing the trade movements over the narrow Straits of Malacca. Melaka was such a strong city then that it even rivaled the might and wealth of Ayutthaya in Thailand, yet it fell with the rise of the British control over the peninsula.

Porta da Santiago, or A' Famosa, is the only remaining section of the old walls that once protected Melaka.

This ancient city’s important monuments  can be easily explored in a day, on foot. I started off in the residential/commercial district of the core zone, just across the bridge over the Melaka River. From how I recall, nothing really stood out in that area, and its main thoroughfare Jonker Street (popularly pronounced nowadays as /djongker/ despite its original Dutch pronunciation /Yongker/) was a bit sober and empty during my visit as it was post-election time; most shops were closed in protest against the recent results. The spirit of Jonker Street, nevertheless, went to life when I visited some of the shop houses, learning some few things from store-keepers about the items that they sell. Only then can one feel that he is truly in a multi-cultural trading town.

Shop houses along Jonker Street in Melaka

The Street of Harmony, situated parallel to Jonker Street,  is nice, but its religious monuments are not as spectacular compared to those of George Town. The urban planning concept of putting houses of worships along one lane is one of the unique features of the two historic cities.

The oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, the Temple of the Goddess of Mercy (Cheng Hoon Teng Temple)

The Dutch Square, also called Red Square, is small but very recognizable. While it is indeed picturesque, there is not much that the plaza has to offer other than four monuments: the Dutch Stadthuys  and Christ Church, Tan Beng Swee Clock Tower, and the British Queen Victoria Fountain. The red color of the city is often seen as impressive, but I’m not quite sure if I share the same assessment. After all, the old historic Dutch buildings were originally painted white. 

The better exponent of Melaka where one can feel its colonial past more would be the A’ Famosa – St. Paul’s Hill area. Inside St. Paul’s ruins, there are numerous 16th to 17th century Dutch gravestones on display. This site was also the first resting place of the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier before it was transferred to Goa in India. It is said that during the canonization of the saint, the Vatican asked for his right hand as a relic for its safekeeping. Interestingly, the statue of St. Francis Xavier in front of the ruins is missing its right hand! Apparently, a branch of the tree fell over and broke it.

Dutch gravestones inside the ruins of St. Paul church.

The St. Paul ruins also offers a commanding view of the city and the straits. Other interesting monuments in Melaka would be the watermill along the river, just beside the ruins of the old Portuguese and Dutch ramparts, and the small windmill near the Dutch Square.

The Malacca Sultan Watermill along the Melaka River.


George Town, on the other hand, was a real surprise. Historically, this British-era city rose to prominence with the decline and demise of Melaka. Without expecting much, I originally planned to stay there just for a night. But, seeing how lovely the place was, I ended up staying for three days. I enjoyed going around the city on a bike. Aside from surveying the main sites, there are other things to do here like checking out the street arts (which became a big craze after a Lithuanian artist did some wonderful works in the city), as well as treating oneself with the famous Penang dishes like Penang laksa and char kway cheow.

Georgian architecture-inspired George Town City Hall.

There are more monuments in George Town, and they are more grand, colorful, and definitely better maintained than those in Melaka. Key British legacies include the impressive Georgian-inspired City and Town Halls, the bit worn-out and empty Fort Cornwallis, the two mid-sized churches, and the colonial-era buildings along Lebuh Pantai, the old business lane of the city. By seeing some old photos of George Town, I was surprised to learn that there were more British colonial buildings that stood there before, creating a real “Little Europe” atmosphere during its heyday.

mix-architecture houses in George Town. Most are shop houses.

George Town was intended to be the successor to Melaka’s trade hegemony, as well as the crowning glory of the British empire’s might and supremacy in Southeast Asia. In comparison to Melaka, the historic centre of George Town is larger and that there are more shop houses around.

Fort Cornwallis, a brick fortification built upon the site where Sir Francis Light first landed in Penang.

Furthermore, I enjoyed the city a lot as local colours are much vibrant there. Its Little India, for example, is one of the better Indian quarters I’ve seen so far in the region; Muslim communities (Southern Indians and Malays alike) are largely concentrated around George Town’s three mosques; and the Chinese clan temples are richly decorated. In experiencing the straits Chinese-Malay culture, the Pinang Peranakan Mansion in George Town appears to be better than the Baba Nyonya Museum in Melaka. Also, George Town’s Teochew Temple and Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion have been conferred by UNESCO Asia-Pacific with the Best in Heritage Conservation Awards as well.

Masjid Kapitan Kelling along the Street of Harmony in George Town

Melaka is one reminder of Asia’s close contact with the Portuguese and the Dutch; George Town, with the British. Key to a better appreciation of these sites is to see each city holistically and to understand the diversity and cultural uniqueness that each has to offer.

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As with any South and Southeast Asian trading town such as Vigan, Hoi An, Macao and Galle, the biggest threats at present to the two cities are urban developmental pressures. Buffer zones are obviously weak in some areas. The waterfront face-lifting of the Melaka River and the intrusive development plan in the historic enclave of George Town have been frowned upon by the World Monuments Fund and other international organizations.

Street art in George Town - this is the biggest! Here's a photo of my newly found friends doing some rounds around the city at 2AM (after a night of booze!) :p


PS. Is it possible to have Singapore inscribed, too? Trade control in the Straits of Malacca started in Melaka, then transferred to George Town, and eventually ended in Singapore. It would be nice to see Singapore alongside the two inscribed sites in representing the complete trading history along the straits. The difficulty with Singapore, however, is that much of its old district landscape has already been altered, modernized and compromised.

** Visited George Town and Malacca in May 2013

Tumauini and Piat: Culture and Faith in Cagayan Valley

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It was one of those crazy impulsive decisions to head to another place rather than to go straight back home after the long-weekend stay in Manila. This time around, I went to Isabela and Cagayan not only to visit a few places there that I wanted to see, but also to catch up with a good journalist friend of mine whom I have not seen for almost six months already.

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The province of Isabela was a big surprise! I did not know that some parts are largely developed and urbanized already (Santiago City, for example, is definitely bigger and more vibrant than Laoag City). Upon arrival, I immediately met up April for breakfast and headed to the town of Tumauini.

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Tumauini is home to one of the most precious Spanish colonial era monuments in the country: the 18th century church of St. Matthias. This religious structure boasts the most artistic expression of brick baroque craftsmanship there is to find in the Philippines. Also worth noting is its rather fancy-looking wedding cake-inspired cylindrical bell tower and its circular pediment, which have no parallel in the Orient.

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While most other blogs would highlight the intricate artworks on its facade, I, on the other hand, was particularly impressed by its interior decorations – or what’s left of them after being a casualty to the World War 2. In the Philippines, a lot of churches display amazing exteriors, but their structural interiors often appear to be lacking in grace and are just too plain. This, however, was not the case of Tumauini church.

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Tumauini church is a declared National Historical Landmark and a National Cultural Treasure. It, together with Boljoon church in Cebu and Lazi church in Siquijor, is also included in the proposed extension to the serial Baroque Churches of the Philippines UNESCO World Heritage Site. In my opinion, this church is a real gem that Filipinos can truly be proud of.

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After Tumauini, driven by our yearning for spiritual guidance and some other needs, we were determined as well to visit the “Pilgrimage Capital of the North”, the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Piat. Although the site is relatively close to where I live, this was my first visit to the said place. The architecture of the church is of the neo-Romanesque tradition; and the venerated Marian image is thought to be from the 16th century, making it one of the oldest religious articles in the country.

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After saying our intentions, we headed back to Tuguegarao, the capital city of the province of Cagayan, where we quickly visited the cathedral before we parted ways.

Some “culture and faith” day trip, indeed! 🙂

India: the People Who Added More Life to It

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Looking back, India is not a hard place to travel to. But, at the same time, it is not the easiest one either. Depending on your traveling attitude and worldview, it can shock you in a good way or the other way around. India is potent in equally giving both impressions. Nevertheless, I like India the way it is, with all its ups and downs.

Definitely, I enjoyed the places I’ve seen, and I can say that it was indeed a successful nearly month-long birthday trip. Not only had I saw all the sites and monuments I listed out to see from the beginning, I also saw other places — and appreciated the journey more! — with the help of the people I met and bumped into along the way. Some of them I have known for years (take for example my good friend Dr. Rahul Rochani, whose friendship I have gained when he was taking up his MA in Manila); some I have known through Instagram, and have been drawn to each other by the sheer shared passion for photography, traveling and culture; and there were some who I just ran into in the places I went to, putting more colours to what should have just been some solo wanderings.

I love the sites I visited in India, as well as its food (those who know me too well can vouch that Indian cuisine is my favourite. So, yes, it was a true gastronomic pilgrimage for me, too!). But, more important to highlight in this post is that I love its people, and the hospitality and goodness they have shown me from my first day in Chennai to the last hour I had in Kolkata.

This post is for the people who have made my India trip memorable and more meaningful. I appreciate the wonderful friendship we all have forged!

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Khaja was my de facto welcoming committee in India. Without him – and his kind friend Venkat – I would not have seen Chennai, the monuments of Mahabalipuram, the former French-occupied Pondicherry, the Big Temple at Thanjavur (which is one of the sites I liked the most, btw), and the other interesting towns in between, as conveniently as the one I had. Thank you for driving a total of 800kms (maybe more?) just so we can cover all the spots I wanted to see in Tamil Nadu. both of you made my first few days in India very smooth, setting the good momentum for the rest of my trip. I certainly miss eating on banana leaves and drinking filter coffee now.

Manoj had to travel 2 hours just to meet me up in Mumbai, and I would have gladly accepted his invitation to spend the night at his family's house in not for my tight schedule. Not only did you accompany me in exploring Elephanta Caves and the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Victoria Terminus), but you also made my stay in Mumbai more relevant by showing me the other historic facets of the city. When I asked, out of curiosity, where Churchgate was, you quickly responded with

Manoj had to travel 2 hours just to meet me up in Mumbai, and I would also have gladly accepted his invitation to spend the night at his family’s house if not for my tight schedule in Maharashtra. Not only did he accompany me in exploring Elephanta Caves (and the hour-long boat ride) and the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus), but he also made my stay in Mumbai more relevant by showing me the other historic facets of the city. When I asked, out of curiosity, where Churchgate was, you quickly responded with “Let’s get a cab and go there first” – you knew well how to piece together what was on my mind.

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In Mumbai, I met another friend who lives in West Bandra. Parul warmly opened his family’s house for me to stay in for a night. He was kind enough to take me around the neighborhood, showing me local landmarks and walking through the Esplanade. While going around, I came to realize that he is a local ‘celebrity’ in his own right – people there seem to know him well! Thanks much for the generosity you have shown me. I wish I had brought my camera with me when we visited those historic sites in the vicinity.

The trip to Matheran was true to the saying,

Akhil and I were still messaging each other at 3am, when we were to meet in Neral at 7am! Initially, ticking off the Matheran mountain railway and hill station was a definite impossibility. I eventually had to cancel (ditch, really) my original bus schedule to Aurangabad to make time for it – thanks to his insistence that I add this to my trip. True enough, I had no regrets.  I would not have appreciated riding on the toy train and enjoyed the natural views offered by the Western Ghats as I did if not for Akhil’s company – not only did I have a good photographer taking great photos of me, I also had the pleasure of knowing someone who reminded me so much of myself 5 years ago. I wish that you follow and chase your dreams and passion. “The journey is the destination” sums up Matheran.

Inside the train to Aurangabad, I met this photographer and talked with him about cameras. Upon arriving in the city, Ganesh offered to take me to Ellora caves using his bike.

Inside the train to Aurangabad, I met Ganesh, a photographer, and got hooked into talking with him about cameras. Upon arriving in the city, he offered something I never would have thought: to take me to Ellora Caves — my destination — using his bike. Thanks to him, not only did I see the famous rock cut-out caves much easier than what it would have taken me if I did it on my own (the cave clusters are of huge distances apart!), I also got to enjoy the views of the Deccan plateau in a ‘Che Guevara Motorcycle Diaries’ style.

I ran into Animesh and Vipasha on the way to the rock shelters of Bhimbetka. The three of us rode on a bike, found out the stories of the 20,000-year old paintings together, and shared travel stories with each other with so much gusto. Being in the company of this couple seemingly made the harsh heat in Bhopal more tolerable. Your friendship was indeed a birthday gift.

I ran into Animesh and Vipasha on the way to the rock shelters of Bhimbetka. The three of us rode on a bike, found out the history of the 20,000-year old paintings together, and shared travel stories with each other with so much gusto. Being in the company of this couple seemingly made the harsh heat in Bhopal more tolerable. Your friendship was indeed a birthday gift.

The reunion of the year! Rahul and I have 5 years of amazing friendship between us. I appreciated so much that you made time - despite the difficulties of it - to join me to Sanchi. There would not have been any better person to be with in seeing one place I have long wanted to see than you. It was my pleasure to have met your family and have been welcomed like I was an extended part of it. BTW, the evening tour around your city was crazy, crazy.

The reunion of the year! Rahul and I have 5 years of amazing (love/hate) friendship between us. We haven’t seen each other since 2012. I appreciated so much that he made time – despite the difficulties of doing it – in joining me to Sanchi. There would not have been any better person to be with in seeing one place I have long wanted to see than him! It was my pleasure to have finally met his family and to have been welcomed like I was an extended member of it. I would be happy to do the crazy evening tour around the city again. Your family in the Philippines misses you a lot already.

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After being ripped off in Agra, I met Amar, a visiting student from another city who’s just using his spare time to check Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal prior to his train ride back home. When we parted ways after seeing the fort, he gave me a collection of Agra photographs souvenir as remembrance. Thank you, Amar, for clicking the only photos I have of myself inside Agra Fort.

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These guys were a surprise: I knew that they are nice, but I did not expect that they are THAT nice! Sanjiv, Pramod and Jogendra are so much younger than me, but they acted way above their ages. Thank you so much for the warm embrace in Rajasthan, and all your kind gestures in making me experience the real Jaipur – from the stories you have earnestly shared until we fell asleep, to the Rajput sites we have visited, to the food we sampled, and to the gifts you have given me (yes, Sanjiv, they are the most colourful in my collection now :p). I might not have met the ‘Prince of Jaipur’ (name of a former Indian restaurant in Manila), but I have met Jogie, a Bana of Alwar. Indeed, I got a more than royal company with the three of you! 

I have high respect to this family a lot. Despite being Instagram friends, I was still technically a stranger. Yet, they offered me a home in Delhi the moment I told Neeraj I'm heading their way.

I have high respect to Neeraj’s family. Despite being Instagram friends for quite some time already then, I was still technically a stranger; and yet, without thinking twice, he and his wife Deepali offered me a place in their home in Gurgaon the moment I told him I’m heading to Delhi next. Neeraj – thank you for sacrificing a complete night’s rest just to pick me up at the bus stop before sunrise, for showing me how easy it was to explore the city using the metro, and for the beers to cap a great day with. Deepali – I enjoyed my conversations with you, in the same way that I truly cherished the Punjabi dinner you had prepared at home.

Saundhar had to travel 6 hours just to meet me and be with me for a few hours. That, I appreciate very much. I am happy that we have finally met and gone beyond just social networking friends.

Saundhar had to travel 6 hours just so he can meet me and be with me for some two hours. That, I appreciated very much. I am happy that we have finally met in person, and have transcended beyond just being social networking friends. Without you I would not have known of this historic ancient step well (baoli) in Delhi, which was the first step well I saw in India.

When I saw her in Sarnath, I knew she's Southeast Asian. But, to my surprise, she's also a Filipino!! Helene and Ville put more sense to my trip to Sarnath.

When I saw her, I instantly knew she’s Southeast Asian. Only to find out that she’s also a Filipino! Helene and Ville (from Finland) put more sense to my visit in Sarnath. Being young travelers that the three of us are, we easily connected with each other – in so many levels. Although we no longer saw each other in Gaya the following day as originally planned (communication was hard as I didn’t have a working phone with me), I am certain that we will run into each other again sometime, somewhere. The world is small.

Despite having been warned several times not to trust anyone in Bihar, Manish made me feel safe and secure the moment we -- together with Naga, a senior resident monk at the Mahabodhi temple -- started talking inside the shared auto. Thank you for bringing me closer to the teachings and philosophy of Buddha. My young friendship with you that day brought about two more new friends: Joe and Jenny's.

Despite having been warned several times not to trust anyone in Bihar, Manish made me feel safe and secure the moment we — together with Naga, a senior resident monk at the Mahabodhi temple — started talking inside the shared auto. Thank you for bringing me closer to the teachings and philosophy of Buddha, as well as sharing me your artworks. My newly-formed friendship with you that day brought about two more new friends: Joe and Jenny. BTW, the young Bodhi sapling is now in the Philippines.

In here, I would also like to thank Ajay Reddy, Glen Dias, and Parul Sharma. Despite not having the chance to meet, they have helped me as well in organizing and planning out the trip since the day I decided to go to India.

To all of you, once again, thank you very much!

Temple of Preah Vihear: Sacred amidst Tensions

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When I found out that it was possible (albeit near-impossibility at that time) to visit this sacred temple on a day trip from Siem Reap in 2012, I immediately grabbed the opportunity to see it while it was then — once again — enjoying a short “time of peace”. For a very long time in the past, as a disputed territory, the promontory of the Temple of Preah Vihear and its environs have had some serious history of crossfires between the Cambodian and Thai military forces. In fact, a few months prior to my visit, several soldiers from both camps were killed in an unexpected clash.

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The iconic first gopura, which contains some of the most impressive carvings in the temple complex.

Three years after that brave trip, as I look back, it is still perhaps the single most unique experience I have had in visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Back then, it took me nearly four hours on a private vehicle to reach the temple from Siem Reap. Given recent road constructions, the travel time is now reduced to nearly half of what it took when I went there.

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The second gopura: the carving style of the pediment is different from the first one.

The Temple of Preah Vihear never failed my towering expectations, to say the least. After all, it was confidently inscribed on only one criterium: “(i) as a masterpiece of human creative genius”. So far, only this temple, the Taj Mahal, and the Sydney Opera House are inscribed solely on this basis.

The third gopura as seen from the elevated fourth gopura that encases the main sanctuary of the Preah Vihear Temple.

The third gopura: the walkway leading to the fourth gopura prior to the main central sanctuary is dotted with lingams. One lingam near the portal can be seen in this photo.

In my opinion, the temple rightly deserves to be on the same ranks as Angkor Wat and Bayon, if not even better. The incomparable beauty of this site stems from the following:

1. its history – older than those in Angkor, dedicated to Shiva and, according to some sources, is also one of a few that has a history of critical lingam worshiping;

2. its location – situated right beside a cliff, on top of the Dangrek Mountains to a height of nearly 600 metres. From the temple, one can already gaze at the Golden Triangle, an area shared by Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos;

The Infamous Golden Triangle: transnational boundaries of Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos.

The Golden Triangle

3. its relevance – a major pilgrimage site for Khmer kings, as well as a rare key temple off-route the Angkorian Royal Road;

4. its architecture – the extensive 800m-long layout of the temple is unique, the galleries surrounding the central sanctuary served as inspiration for the arrangement of Angkor Wat 300 years later, and the carvings offer a different style from those in Angkor (notice the style of its nagas, and the impressive quality of its carvings can only be compared to those of the much younger Banteay Srei); and, lastly,

5. the geopolitical struggles and controversies associated with its WHS-inscription in 2008, and the earlier landmark International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in 1962. More recently, in 2013, another ICJ ruling finally awarded the contested peripheral forest zone of the temple to Cambodia, putting an end to the long-standing dispute between the two Southeast Asian kingdoms.

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As a military zone, several soldiers are stationed in and around the temple complex. A political statement such as that in the photo clearly asserts Cambodian ownership over the promontory and its immediate vicinity.

As the Temple of Preah Vihear lies in an active military zone, it comes, then, as no surprise that not many travelers take the effort in seeing this site when I made my visit. In the five pleasurable hours that I spent there, I only managed to see about three other civilians — who might just be even locals — in the temple complex.

The central sanctuary guarded by a military personnel

The central sanctuary that is guarded by chanting monks. Outside, a soldier is also on guard.

Aside from the breathtaking view from the top, I truly enjoyed receiving blessings by chanting monks guarding the central sanctuary; as well as exploring the interior of the largely ignored vegetated Tower of the Long-haired Lady that is reminiscent of Ta Prohm in Angkor.

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The tower of the long-haired lady, an isolated structure that has been overgrown by plants and a tree.

Clearly, I got the strong impression that the Khmer people are indeed proud of the Temple of Preah Vihear as suggested by the displaying of the flags of UNESCO, Cambodia, and the World Heritage Committee not far from the first gopura. Such subtle declarations never fail to get noticed.

The temple of Preah Vihear together with its brother temple atop Phnom Chisor in the province of Takeo, which I also got the chance of visiting back in 2010, will always have special places in my heart for the wonderful experiences they have left me. In sum, the Temple of Preah Vihear clearly and easily justified itself as being one of the best single sites I have seen so far.

Just behind the temple: one simple mistake and I am history. The cliff drops to a height of 600 metres.

A view of the plains of the Preah Vihear province. This was taken at the edge of the Dangrek Mountain cliff.

There is no entrance fee to the temple. But, at the base camp, visitors have to pay for the motorbike that will transport them to the top for a fairly reasonable price. On this trip, I also went to the nearby town of Anlong Veng, visiting some ‘Khmer Rouge’ related sites such as the house of Ta Mok and the final resting place of Pol Pot.