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.

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.

 

Jogjakarta in Hindsight

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“It’s Jogja not Yogya!”, I’ve been corrected a hundred of times.

All throughout my stay in Central Java in 2013, I was at the receiving end of the generosity and kindness of Krido and his family. They did not only open their warm home to me, but they also took their precious time in bringing me to the best places there are in the area and endlessly feeding me with the delicious nasi gudeg and different varieties of sambal sauce to pair.

I used this colourful and historic city as my base in exploring three UNESCO World Heritage Sites nearby, namely: Borobudur, Prambanan (together with the Rotu Boko ruins), and Sangiran Early Man Site. The photos in this post, however, are those from Jogjakarta itself.

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The historic Tugu Jogja, the most representative landmark of Jogjakarta

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The Dutch-built Fort Vredeburg and its front moat. The fort was meant to intimidate the then reigning sultanate of Jogjakarta, hence it was constructed right in front of one of the royal palaces (locally called kraton) of the city.

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Mirota Batik is a specialty shop along Malioboro Street, the main thoroughfare of the city. One of the highlights of this boutique is the live demonstration of batik-making. Indonesian batik is in the register of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

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A wonderful artwork standing at the heart of Jogjakarta. The city center still has a lot of Dutch colonial-era buildings to boast.

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the corridors of the Sumur Gumuling, the eccentric underground mosque inside the Kraton Jogjakarta complex.

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The circular well with five staircases at the center of the underground mosque is considered to be a unique architectural feature of the Sumur Gumuling.

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Modernity and Antiquity: inside Kampung Taman, the village adjacent to the kraton complex.

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Taking a break from the hot weather outside: in an artsy nook in Kampung Taman.

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Taman Sari, known to the Dutch as the “Waterkasteel”, used to be the royal bath of the Jogjakarta sultan’s family.

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On top of the central tower of the Taman Sari is the former private chamber of the sultan. From here, would have been able to see everything that was happening inside the bath.

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The stylized gable of the front gate of the Taman Sari.

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One of the best hangout corners in town: Kalimilk, a truly Jogjakarta brand. Durian milkshake – checked.

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We traveled more than thirty minutes out of the city (at 11pm!) to go to this eatery (locally called warung). Krido and his cousins told me that this one is their favourite.

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Aunt Willy, my “supermom” in Jogjakarta. I felt so safe knowing that I was with her! 🙂

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Krido’s mom and dad, who were also in town when I was there, gave me this traditional Indonesian sarong that is typical from their hometown in the Dieng Plateau.

To Krido – I appreciate the gift of friendship. Ours is indeed another proof that it is possible to cultivate deep and meaningful connections from online platforms such as Instagram. Thank you for being with me from my arrival at the Jogja airport, to the magnificent temples and far-flung dig sites we visited, until my day of departure up in Semarang!

Three years and counting 🙂

Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park

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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.

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The limestone cave passage where the underground river exits from the karst mountain to join the South China Sea

 

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The “candle”, one of the spectacular displays of gigantic stalagmites inside the chamber.

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The underground river has a total length of 8.2 kms. The 1.2kms leg that is open for the public allows visitors on paddled boats to view  rock formations that can be as old as 20 million years (Miocene period).

 

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As a site for globally important biodiversity conservation, the park boasts eight forest types that are homes to various endemic species of plants and animals.

 

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World Wildlife Fund reported that the park is largest and most valuable limestone forest in Asia, which also boasts a beach forest and a mangrove forest.

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. 

A Pilgrim’s Progress: Our Lady of Caysasay

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A rare opportunity to have a photo taken of an all-women devotees presented itself. The photo below was taken from the back of the Nuestra Señora de Caysasay, a Marian image canonically crowned by virtue of a Holy See approval in 1954.

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Though I cannot come up with anything conclusive as to what the ongoing activity might have been then, the fact that the service was only attended by women made me feel alienated, and a bit awkward about my presence inside the shrine when things were unfolding. If any, however, despite my unconventional stance on religion, one cannot deny the experience and fulfillment in capturing religion in action as a material culture here.

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Pilgrims to the Shrine of Our Lady of Caysasay in Taal, Batangas may receive the plenary indulgence that is granted to those who visit the ancient church of Sta. Maria Maggiore in Rome.

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The old town of Taal is one of the only four heritage towns in the Philippines — together with Vigan in Ilocos Sur, Pila in Laguna, and Silay in Negros Occidental — designated as National Historic Landmarks by the National Historical Institute of the Philippines.

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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.