Historic Trading Towns and Cities in Southeast Asia

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My interest in UNESCO World Heritage Sites started some 10 years ago. Ever since then, I have always patterned my trips towards seeing as many of these sites as I can. I have also been lucky enough with a few sites as I was able to pay them proper visits because of fieldwork and assignments. I consider this as my little addiction.

For my next article here, I would like to discuss more the five historic trading port towns in East and Southeast Asia. I just need to find that much sought after spare time to write down my thoughts and observations on Hoi An, Vigan, Macao, Malacca and George Town.

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Hoi An Ancient Town, the best example of a traditional trading port in Southeast Asia dating from the 15th to the 19th century (Viet Nam).

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Historic Town of Vigan, the best preserved planned Spanish colonial town in Asia that was established in the 16th century (the Philippines).

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Historic Centre of Macao, the first European enclave in the region and an outstanding representation of the interchange between Chinese and Western civilizations since the mid 16th century (China).

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Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca: Melaka, a strategic 15th century Malay port that developed further during the Portuguese and Dutch periods beginning in the early 16th century (Malaysia).

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Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca: George Town, a remarkable example of a British-built city in Southeast Asia from the end of the 18th century (Malaysia).

 

For now, may these photos continue to supply me the needed motivation, optimism, and determination to be able to finally sit down, gather my thoughts properly, and write again one of these days.

This is an article in progress.

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.

 

A Maranao Woman in Tugaya

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Largely unheard of even among fellow Filipinos, the Maranao of Tugaya in Lanao del Sur are some of the most artistic groups in the country. The humble town beside the ancient Lake Lanao (one of the oldest known lakes in the world) is nearly purely composed of artisans in various pursuits.

The lady in this photo was inlaying shells to a newly constructed wooden chest. This, together with weaving local textiles called ina-ol, is one of the few things that women are permitted to do for work in this still gendered community.

Their unique artistic concept of okir manifests in their wood works, metal crafts, textiles, paintings, and even house decorations. The okir happens to be the strongest component in its nomination to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List. Their epic, the Darangen, is already proclaimed in 2005 as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. 

As it was in the holy months of the Ramadan — in fact a few days before Eid’l Fitr — when I did this site visit for a project, she was on fast since sunrise and made some short breaks from work only at prayer time until the fasting ends at dusk. Such display of obedience and faith never fails to inspire me.

Tri Hita Karana: A Study in Photos

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The cultural landscape of Bali in Indonesia is largely shaped by its locals’ traditional belief systems. Tri Hita Karana — roughly translated into English as “the three causes of prosperity” — is a philosophy that governs and guides the daily lives and attitudes of the Balinese. This unique concept puts premium to the universal respect of and observance to the three domains of the world: the divine (gods), the universe (nature), and the domain of the people (human beings). This doctrine is said to be best illustrated during many special ceremonies, the most common of which would be acts of worship.

In here, I am sharing what I believe is the easiest demonstration and most obvious material cultural manifestation of the practice of Tri Hita Karana:

The realm of the divine. Worships and offerings made inside public temples (major temples such as the sea temples, water temples, the directional temples, and village temples) are dedicated to the gods who created life, and nature and all of its gifts.

Balinese Hindu attending a ceremony in the monastery of Gunung Kawi in the subak landscape of the Pakerisan watershed.

Balinese Hindu villagers attending a ceremony in the monastery of Candi Gunung Kawi in the subak landscape of the Pakerisan watershed.

Locals and some converts  are making their pilgrimage in Tirta Empul, the source of holy water that flows out to the waterways and irrigation systems in Tampak Siring area.

Locals and some converts are making their pilgrimage in the sacred Pura Tirta Empul, the source of holy water that flows out to the waterways and irrigation systems in Tampaksiring.

The realm of universe. Offerings made outdoors (streets, parks, rice fields and the like) are exponents of worships to nature, the domain that sustains and supports the needs and activities of humans.

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Bantens, the traditional offerings in Bali, scattered on the walkways in Ubud. This one was seen on the way to Sari Organik, a restaurant in the middle of the rice paddies in Central Bali.

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These offerings were made in an irrigation canal of one of the subak systems in Gianyar, a regency northeast of Ubud.

The realm of human beings. Worships and offerings made inside clan temples, home temples and shrines, or even inside cars and houses are dedicated to the people who have the moral duties to establish traditional communities,  erect temples in which to worship and hold ceremonies such as daily offerings, and preserve nature and all its contents.

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A Balinese Hindu casually making an evening offering before a family temple inside his home compound in Kuta.

Tri Hita Karana is also the single most important backbone of Bali’s inclusion to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Several keys sites in the island were collectively inscribed  in 2012 as the “Cultural Landscape of Bali Province: the Subak System as a Manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana Philososphy”.

Acknowledgement. My appreciation to Dewa Gugun for taking the time in explaining to me the doctrine of Tri Hita Karana while I was trying to understand the equally difficult concept of subak.

Guling-guling 2014

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In the Philippines, it is only my hometown Paoay that celebrates Fat Tuesday, the last day of merry-making before entering the Lenten season. Guling-guling, a four-century old tradition, involves street dancing, cooking dodol (a Malay deli), and smearing the sign of the cross (using ash or rice flour mixtures) on the foreheads of devote Christians – which is interesting as, in this town, this religious practice is done prior to Ash Wednesday. Modern-day celebrations now culminate in a dance showdown in front of the UNESCO World Heritage listed San Agustin church, the crowning glory of the earthquake baroque architecture.

The dancers sport the loom-woven textile called abel Iloco, one of the products that my humble town is known for.

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Prambanan Temple Compounds: In Humble Defense to Hinduism

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Prambanan temple compounds came in as one of the first world heritage sites of Indonesia in 1991. This site was inscribed under two criteria: as a masterpiece of human creative genius, and as an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble that represents a significant stage in human history (i.e., spread of Hinduism in the East). It happens to be the biggest and most extensive Hindu religious site in the predominantly Islamic country.

The first glimpse of Prambanan. I enjoyed the fact that it has a wide open yard.

The first glimpse of Prambanan. I enjoyed the fact that it has a wide open yard.

How is Prambanan assessed?

On one hand, Prambanan may look quite similar to Angkor Wat. True enough, they are both intended as Hindu temples, and that both follow the pointed South Indian Dravidian styles. In closer inspection, however, Prambanan reveals itself as a totally different architectural masterpiece that is unique in their own ways. In fact, Prambanan was built over 300 years earlier (9th century vs. 12th century).  On the other hand, Prambanan still faces yet another challenge as it is often overshadowed nowadays by the more famous Borobudur given their close proximity to each other. Nevertheless, in ancient times, the former might have looked far more impressive in terms of lay-out, scale of construction, and even its setting as the construction of Prambanan is to be seen as a response of the Hindu Sanjaya Dynasty to the Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty‘s Borobudur.

the obligatory SELFIE! :D Thanks to Nils Mosbach for this photo.

Thanks to Nils Mosbach for my representative photo of this site.

Often really crowded throughout the day, I visited Prambanan late in the afternoon instead so as to have better chance in appreciating more the place  (it turned out later on to be an uncalculated risk as it rained some few minutes after!). One thing that I noticed immediately upon entering the gate is its vast, well-manicured yard. Not far from there, and I started seeing the magnitude of the damages this site had to endure: endless — and now meaningless — piles of rubble scattered everywhere.

View of the smaller temples housing the vessels of the Trimurti. Shot taken just before it started raining.

View of the smaller temples housing the vessels of the Trimurti. Shot taken just before it started raining.

The Prambanan temple complex — or what remains of it — is pretty small and easy explore. It has to be understood that temples currently standing in the compound hardly make up 15% of what used to be there. Originally, more than 240 temples comprise the compound, yet only a handful remains today. Below is a photo showing the model of the compound’s original composition – thanks to Wiki!. Throughout many centuries, earthquakes (the last strong one being the May 2006 shake) and several bouts of volcanic eruptions of the Merapi volcano further added damages to the already abandoned and neglected royal religious site since the early 10th century – yes, it was relatively short lived as an active place of worship.

A model of the Prambanan Temple Compounds (photo courtesy: Wikipedia)

A model of the Prambanan Temple Compounds (photo courtesy: Wikipedia)

Its central main towers are almost total reconstructions via anastylosis, and Indonesia is proud that it was all her efforts (together with the Brits!) to pull this up without any help coming from UNESCO. Nevertheless, strict measures are still being observed such as prohibiting public access to the temples’ interiors. The management body no longer plans to reconstruct all of the temples – the tons of rubble are there to act as a reminder of the site’s painful history in confronting the destructive forces of nature. Moreover, some stones are already missing as locals used them in building their houses nearby, rendering massive rehabilitation a definite impossibility.

Ruins of the peripheral temples. There were about 220 of these minor shrines before.

Ruins of the peripheral temples. There were about 220 of these minor shrines before.

It being a Trimurti site, Prambanan is dedicated to the highest three Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The commanding 47-metre high Shiva temple (or Loro Jonggrang), the largest in the area, lies at the center. Here, a local myth is also highly intertwined with Prambanan: Loro Jonggrang is a legendary Javanese princess, and it is believed that she is depicted in a statue inside the Shiva temple; hence, the Shiva temple is often referred to by locals as Loro Jonggrang temple as well. This legend is worth knowing when visiting this temple.

The carvings and reliefs in the temples are quite different from those that I have seen in Angkor, though both depict Hindu characters,icons, and stories. I can say that the images and artworks there are more “pure” in the Hindu sense of the word; in contrast, Angkorian art is made in the image of the Khmers.

Carvings depicting Hindu celestial nymphs in the exteriors of Loro Jonggrang, the central temple in Prambanan.

Carvings depicting Hindu celestial nymphs in the exteriors of Loro Jonggrang, the central temple in Prambanan.

Prambanan never failed to enchant me. Despite only having a little less than an hour for this site (thanks to the rain!), it definitely left a lasting impression on me: the temple compound is really simple — and it may not even boast much given the state it is in right now — but it never fails to assert its right as a ‘classic’ monument the world will forever be proud of.

Last man out. Guards patiently waited for us before they called it a day. I think they understood I was on a mission.

Last man out. Guards patiently waited for us before they called it a day. I think they understood I was on a mission.

On a separate day, I also went to  the nearby ruins of the 8th-century Ratu Boko palace. Actually, it happens to be on the tentative list of Indonesia for a possible inclusion to the WHS list, too! Ratu Boko palace — oh, I’ll be writing a separate note for this site as it deserves one of its own — is nestled in the Boko Hills, some 3km from Prambanan temple compounds. Given its altitude of 196 metres, the site offers a commanding view of the Prambanan plains and townscape with the Merapi as the background. In the evening, the beautifully glittering Prambanan temple dominates the skyline, subtly suggesting that it is there to stay and that it will never be forgotten again.

Prambanan fields as seen from Ratu Boko Palace ruins. Prambanan temple compounds shine like gold, dominating the view.

Prambanan fields as seen from Ratu Boko Palace ruins. Prambanan temple compounds shine like gold, dominating the view.

PS. Oh, lastly, one thing that can really surprise a bit is how Indonesians usually ask to take photos of/with foreigners, and I was not an exception even in Borobudur. As a traveler, this is but a part of the local charm of the place.

Out of the blue: some locals would poke and ask to have a photo taken with any foreigner. Case in point, Nils! lol

Out of the blue: some locals would poke and ask to have a photo taken with any foreigner. Case in point, Nils! lol