Blog Updated! July 13, 2013
Story Updated! August 2, 2012

Philippines 2013: It's More Fun in the Philippines!

DAYS SEVEN-NINE Ilocos Sur & Vigan

The descent into the lowlands of Ilocos Sur

Time to come down from the mountains and into Old Mexico! Felt that way anyway. Like in Baguio we started out at 4 AM. It was a little trickier getting down that it was going up. Our first destination was Cervantes and from there we could take the road to Vigan. The problem was finding Cervantes. There aren't a whole lot of signs and sometimes coming to a fork in the road means guessing which way is correct.

We had to double back a few times and during one of them we had a run in of sorts. I'm used to seeing odd things on the road, carabaos, rice drying, jeepneys overloaded with people, all old hat to me but until today I'd not seen a formation of men wearing what appeared to be basketball uniforms and carrying M-16A1 rifles with old-style 20 round magazines. I didn't know if they were militia, Huk guerillas or government troops so I ducked down so as not be seen. Later I was assured they were government troops and not Huk guerillas.

Green gave way to brown as we drew closer to our destination, which at this point was 'anywhere near sea level.' One of the things we'd wanted to see was the location of the Battle of Bessang Pass, the last large World War II battle in the Philippines. It took place on the road so while I usually am just staring at the country side and taking pictures now I was doing that and looking for some kind of marker. I got my hopes up when I saw Bessang Pass Memorial Hospital, but got worried when our descent leveled out and we started going up another mountain again. Over half an hour passed and still no Bessang Pass.

Seriously, there is one road on this mountain, where's the monument?!

I did see one thing of note right beside the hospital. A man wearing black homemade army fatigues and a beret standing on the side of the road and smoking a cigarette. On his chest  a patch read (something I didn't make out) ARMY. Huh, so that's a rebel. A bit less threatening that what I was expecting. Later I was assured he too was some kind of government troop, part of a local militia. God, I love travelling in this country!

We came upon Bessang Pass National Shrine almost an hour after passing Bessang Pass Memorial Hospital. It's not much to look at, really just a small park but its local makes one appreciate the difficulty of fighting here. Not a lot of maneuvering room on the side of the mountain. The battle took place June 14, 1945 and pitted a force of 94,000 Filipinos and 6 Americans against General Yamashita's 8,000 troops. What's interesting is this force was Col. Russell Volckmann's guerilla force, itself composed heavily of former Filipino soldiers, that was converted into a regular army unit. The shrine is really just a small roadside rest stop and memorial piece. Driving down the road you'll see it coming because there's a giant tattered and torn canvas billboard for the Shrine right beside the place.

Candon City: Civilization at last?

We stopped in Candon City for a mid-morning meal at McDos (McDonald's) and my first taste of Ilocos Sur. Once out of the mountains we were surrounded by corn fields and shanties until hitting Candon City proper, but just because it's a city doesn't mean it can't be a little bit country.

I give you exhibit A.

Being the only white guy wandering around I'm used to getting stares so I didn't really take notice of the behavior when we sat down to eat. Oli was uncomfortable though. She explained that this time they weren't staring at me, but at her and Audrey. She explained these people are "kind of country" and seeing two stunning women walk in with a white guy everyone just assumes they're his hired women. I wanted to jump up and make an announcement, Ron Burgundy style, "SHE IS NOT A WHORE!"

Something I've not brought up so far in this travelogue is that my visit was at the tail end of campaign season. Political ads covered entire buildings everywhere you went. Walls, windows, nipa huts, lolo's grave (really), everything was covered in them and that's cool. What's not cool are the jeepneys and trucks running circuits around town with big megaphones strapped to their roof reminding me who's cousin I need to vote for. It would only get worse, and by that I mean more amusing, in Vigan.

At first we'd planned on parking and eating, but after a futile effort at finding parking our driver just dropped us off and circled the block waiting for us.The traffic here was as congested as Manila so we tried some of the side roads and while doing so I saw some of my first old-fashion Spanish houses. Vigan is famous for them but I hadn't realized that there were still many scattered all over the province. I don't know what it is about the style but it instantly made me want to have a place like it.

The style is a fusion of Spanish Colonial by way of Mexico with Chinese and Filipino. Combine that with the warm weather and the surrounding area it really helped make it feel like I'd wandered into some wayward province of Old Mexico. That's probably why much of "Born on the Fourth of July" was filmed up in Vigan. The Philippines is probably the only place that can simultaneously stand in for Mexico and Vietnam.

As I really love old architecture one of the things I was excited to see on this trip was at least one of the old "earthquake" Baroque churches, which according to my map there was one was on our way in the city of Santa Maria. This confused our tour guide Alex, as Santa Maria is well north of Vigan and we were south. The confusion was because there's no such thing as too many towns in one area named Santa Maria. I mean, really shouldn't they all just be Santa Maria? (And shouldn't everyone be walking around in sombreros?)

It was about noon when we reached Santa Maria and the Church of Nuestra Seniora de la Asuncion (Church of Santa Maria), which is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. I've seen so many on this trip it feels like there should be a rewards card for it, like frequent sightseer miles or something.

This church is unique from other Spanish church because normally the church is in the center of town, it's the law. (No, really.) Instead this one is on a small hill overlooking Santa Maria which means you have to go up a flight of stairs to get to it. Did I mention it was almost noon on a cloudless tropical day and the weather was oppressively warm?

Not shown: Many more steps

Oppressive heat be damned I was ready to see the church! Oli and Audrey were ready to enjoy the van's air con, there was some they hadn't enjoyed yet and they didn't want to be wasteful. I tried to talk Oli into seeing the church but she suddenly remembered that, even though she's never been to Ilocos Sur she has been here before so I can go ahead and enjoy it on my own.

The things that set "earthquake" Baroques apart from your run of the mill standard Baroque churches are the placement ot it's bell tower and it's buttresses. They feature detached towers so that if the tower falls during an earthquake it won't collapse into the church. The buttresses are also thicker to help reinforce the structure to better withstand earthquakes. These churches are built like small fortresses and throughout their history have been used as strongholds by Filipino revolutionaries and guerillas. This church, which was built in 1765, was used as a fort by revolutionary forces during the Philippine Revolution.

Looks legit.

Apparently someone stole the UNESCO marker. Savages in this town. (Before anyone gets upset that's a line from Clerks in reference to vandalism.) Also, the ground around the church was covered in litter, though that didn't take away from the church's beauty. Before leaving I bought a soda from one of the vendors on the church grounds. It's called Pop Cola and comes in a glass bottle devoid of any markings. It just says "Pop Cola" and that's good enough. It even tasted refreshingly generic.

The church doesn't face town but is parallel to it, so one side faces Santa Maria and the other the countryside.


The sign should say VIGAN but Olongapo's Senator Richard "Action" Gordon was in town so the N is covered. In the van side mirror you can see the rear of the statue of Isabelo De Los Reyes, father of the Filipino labor movement. Pretty much every town has a statue out front.

The culmination of our trip. Everything else was fun and awesome but they were just things to see on the way to Vigan.Vigan is one of the three oldest Spanish settlements in the Philippines and the only one to survive World War II with its original buildings intact. Juan de Salcedo conquered what is now Vigan and established Villa Fernandina de Vigan here in 1572. Though there aren't any signs of it, this was also one of the first places Japan invaded on Luzon December 10, 1941.

Salcedo Plaza; the dancing fountain is resting. St. Paul's Cathedral is in the background.

Vigan is a Spanish Colonial town built along the traditional lines. Salcedo Plaza is at it's center, the church (St. Paul's Cathedral) and government buildings (City Hall and Ilocos Sur Provincial Capitol) surround it and from there you have the business district and around all that is everything else.

A statue of President Elpidic R. Quirino, Vigan's native son, on the cathedral side of the Salcedo Plaza. The dancing fountain gives a mid-day performance behind him.

Salcedo Plaza is the heart of Vigan and home to a cool dancing fountain. The Salcedo Lagoon, as it's called, is built around the Salcedo Obelisk, which has stood in the plaza center since the 17th century. Sounds tame. But how many centuries old obelisks are also the center of a dancing fountain and laser light show set to today's hottest club hits? This one is. At 7 PM, or whenever that special out out of town dignitary shows up, say 15 or 30 minutes late the show begins with a welcome from the governor of Ilocos Sur. His laser image greets you with an outstretch hand and then a big thumbs up. Because that's how we do it Governor Style (Hey, Pinay ladies...). Surprisingly the governor's brother, the mayor of Vigan, doesn't make an appearance. From there the fountain goes off like "Fireworks," shows off "Moves Like Jagger" and gets down "Gangnam Style" complete with a laser horse-dancing Psy playing off the central fountain streams. In the midst of all that partying down it also dances to slower traditional music before getting back to booty shaking time.

This freaking happened.

Bellagio may be bigger, but not better. There's a strange appeal in watching this kind of show in an old Spanish town on an island off the coast of Asia. Like this shouldn't be happening, yet here it is.

Other quirky points of interest around the fountain are some broken scale models of the wonders of the world, a large now empty pond with rocks shaped like the Philippines in the center and a one-of-a-kind McDonald's designed to blend in with the traditional architecture surrounding it.

The Church of the Holy Clogged Artery. Forgive me Grimace, for I have sinned...

The Provincial Capitol, which sits opposite St. Paul's Cathedral

Fun Fact! In 1763 Gabriel Silang, the Philippine's first female governor was publicly executed here in Salcedo Plaza! She became governor and the leader of the local rebellion in 1763 after her husband, the prior governor  and head of the revolt,Diego Silang, was killed. (The Spanish paid a friend of his to murder him.)

Municipal Hall

St. Paul's Cathedral is the local church, the current structure was erected in 1800 though a chapel or church has stood on these grounds since 1574. It was elevated to cathedral status when the provincial captial was moved here, literally across the pond (or lagoon), in 1758. And how did that horse get in the window?! It's not quite as impressive as the older churches but it too is an Earthquake Baroque with touches of, to quote the Vigan website, neo-Gothic, pseudo-Romanesque and Chinese craftsmanship. I didn't get to go in, a wedding appeared to be going on inside, but its probably the only Catholic church with Chinese fuu dogs in its design.

Behind the Court and Capitol are a pair of special old buildings. The first is the Father Burgos Museum, which was a mansion built in 1788 for a Spanish soldier and his wife, but is better known for the priest that was born there. Father Jose Apolonio Burgos was one of three Filipino priests executed for the 1872 Cavite Mutiny. There wasn't any evidence he was part of the mutiny, but he was an outspoken Filipino priest who believed Filipino priests should have the same rights as Spanish ones and other such blasphemous, unholy nonsense, so the Spanish had him executed. They tried to get the church to defrock him first but the church refused and told the governor if they wanted to execute him they would have to execute him as a priest. So they did. How many Hail Mary's do you think that's worth? "Forgive me father for I have unjustly executed... father? Oh right, I just had you killed."

The house is unlike other older homes because in the course of its long existence it also served as a post office and the ground floor still  is set up one. All they did was take the sign down and move the artifacts in. That includes Ifugao artifacts like the ones we spent days seeing in the mountains, even though there aren't any Ifugao here.

A diorama depicting the construction of the Church of St. Augustin in Paoay.

This wall is part of the post office modification. It was left as is, the OBSERVE SILENCE sign is even still up.

A traditional Spanish home is two stories, the lower level is for storage, servants, animals, y'know logistics. The upper level is the home and the upstairs here is set up as it would have been during its years as a residence with plenty of antique narra wood furniture. This of course, includes the Father's chamber pot.

Behold, Father Burgos' chamberpot and other stuff too. This has been the chamberpot tour of Philippine history.

One of Vigan's many calesas in front of an unrestored portion of the museum.

Next door to Father Burgos' birthplace is the birthplace of Elpidic R. Quirino, the Ilocos Sur Provincial Jail. When a man is born in jail he has nowhere to go but up and Quirino made it all the way to Malacanang Palace when he became the sixth President of the Philippines. He was born there because his father was the warden and he was born in the warden's office. Thought that story was going to go somewhere else, didn't you?

The jail was built in 1657 and today it is currently... still a jail. It's really good at it, so they haven't made a museum out of it. When Quirino was president it became a library for a few years and got named after his mother, but after he was out it went back to housing inmates.

The best part of this picture is the inmate photo-bombing in the background.

They're used to tourists, so I do recommend swinging by to see it. An employee gave us a quick tour of the building, pointed out the wood stairwell is the same one from when Quirino was born here in 1890 then took us out on the roof to see the jail yard. Oli asked if the prisoners were there for petty crimes and he told us no, everything from the smallest crime to murder and/or rape. Then one of the prisoners tossed up a calesa (horse-drawn carriage) made out newspaper and lacquer and through the guard sold us this interesting souvenir. Later walking through the Mestizo District we'd see more of these prisoner made calesas for sale, but not at as near a good price. That's what I call factory direct.

I hope you enjoyed the travelogue so far, next we'll continue our visit to Vigan and the surrounding community in a horse-drawn carriage.

Philippines Vacation 2013: Manila-Capas

Philippines Vacation 2013: Baguio-Banaue

Philippines Vacation 2013: Bontoc-Sagada

Ghosts of Seattle

Mariveles, Bataan Province, Philippines

This metal 'Soldier's Grave' is part of the Death March Memorial at Kilometer 0, where the march began in Mariveles. An identical sculpture is on Corregidor as well. We found this by accident, we were driving to the bancay boats to get to Corregidor when we missed our turn. I noticed the Death March marker we passed said "2 km" on it, so I asked our driver if he could go another two kilometers before turning around. Sure enough two kilometers down the road, across the the beach and nestled in a quiet little park next to a Jollibee fast food restaurant was the Death March Kilometer 0 Memorial Park.

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