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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The almacen sits just a few meters away from an old yet still functioning pantalan or wharf that is made of coral stones. 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. 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 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.
Across the archipelago, there are hundreds of watchtowers and fortresses built by the Spaniards in their attempt to fortify their empire in the Pacific. 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. 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.
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. 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. Both of these watchtowers, which stand approximately seven meters high, are thought to have been built in the mid 1800s or even much earlier.
Despite having been declared as National Cultural Treasures in 2015 under the serial inscription “Watchtowers of Ilocos Norte”, 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.
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.
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.
 Presently housing the Ilocos Norte Museum
“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
 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/
 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/
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
A complete “mountain to sea” ecosystem, this karst landscape in the Philippines has the sole underground river in the world that flows out directly to the sea. This unique topography subjects the lower part of the underground river to tidal influences – a remarkable natural phenomenon that has no equal elsewhere across the globe.
The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is part of the bigger UNESCO-led Palawan Biosphere Reserve that was established in 1990. The park was also declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, and, in 2012, it was also proclaimed as one of the Seven New Wonders of Nature though a global popular poll.
These, my friends, are the real bragging rights of this natural gem in Palawan, the Philippines.