Category Archives: Ilocos

Bedok Reservoir and other Lake Stories

Last month we were invited by some friends to eat “bulalo” in Lucky Plaza, the mecca of Filipino overseas workers here in Singapore. During weekends Filipinos, mostly domestic workers, congregate around the area.

We shared stories about our diversions. I told them I enjoy biking around the 4 kilometer shoreline of the Bedok Reservoir especially before the crack of dawn. During this time of the day the manmade lagoon provides spectacular scenes unlike anywhere else.

One of the older women there cautioned me that “it’s not safe”. She started telling me about the numerous “mysterious” deaths that has occurred in the lake. She used to live near the reservoir and claims to having sensed some “bad spirits” in it. I sat there in torment listening to her other supernatural stories but her story about unknown entities residing in lakes did not surprised me.

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I recall this news of children drowning in Taal lake a few years ago. Curious was how the correspondents seem to link the deaths to the paranormal and not measures the local government failed to enact. Why would they assume that spirits are randomly taking lives in that placid lake?

My mother said Visayan folklore also attributes drowning deaths to mysterious sea vortex that abruptly appears from nowhere. They call it “Lilo” or “Liloan”. Some littoral towns carries this name to this day. I wonder if they were named after the fabled whirlpools.

When I was in Laoag, I read about the myth of its lake’s origin. According to local legend the lake was once a town called San Juan de Sagun; apparently an unforgiving god sunk it to teach the wicked townsfolk a lesson. The legend sounded biblical like Soddom and Gomorrah.

Fresh water lakes are remnants of catalytic natural catastrophes. I could imagine whatever creature had been left to struggle in it would ultimately adapt. It is possible that monsters people claimed to have seen in lakes are literally monstrous prehistoric animals.

Speaking of adaptation, the only known fresh water sardines, the tawilis, are from Taal Lake. These once sea dwelling fish learned how to live in fresh water conditions. Now that’s fascinating. One of my favorite history book about Batangas is “The Mysteries of Taal: A Philippine Volcano and Lake” by Thomas Hargrove. In the book he marveled how the lake, categorized as fresh water, appears to have sustained species intended only for the sea.

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One of my favorite legend around Laguna de Ba’y is the one told by old timers of Pila-Pila in Binagonan.

The story goes that a gorgeous lady who had countless suitors decided to test them. She would make her husband the man who can erect a bridge from Pila-Pila to Los Banos’s main market. Because it was practically impossible all of the men back off except one—a fine-looking man who took on the task.

The following night, the barrio was awaken by loud activities. To their shock they found demons building the foundation of the bridge! Turns out that the man was the devil himself. The maiden then went to the church and took the cross from the altar and brought it to where the demons were busy setting up the foundation for her bridge. They all scampered but left the vestiges of their work there in Pila-Pila.

I’m sure those rock formation, called “Fuente del Diablo,” have some scientific explanation behind it but these stories are amusing. But what’s more fascinating is that some people believe in it.

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While biking along the lake shore of Laguna de Ba’y in Muntinlupa two years ago I came across some local fishermen. They were casting their nets and were catching milkfish. What they catch they prepare for their families, any surplus they sell.

I asked these men if a bigger ship could still ply the lake. “You need to get rid of those private fish pens in the middle of the lake first,” they said with these big smiles on their faces. They told me that there’s potential for using the lake for transportation if our government is willing to invest in it. They should know because not only do they boat around it, they swim on it too.

But the fishermen also said that ships must be modest in size for a larger vessel would run into some shallow waters particularly during summer. They told me that the deepest depth of the lake is around 6 feet “mas o menus”. They got it right, LLDA classified the lake as a “shallow freshwater” with maximum depth of 2.8 meters.

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Now going back to the Bedok Reservoir. It was recently the site of some of the water sports for the SEA games where held. Not far from it is the 30 hectare campus of the Temasek Polytechnic. It has the most idyllic site for a learning institution that I have ever seen.

The tree lined pathway of the Bedok Reservoir

I did check some online articles and found that some believe the reservoir is cursed, some say it’s haunted, others attribute its location as bad fengshui. But I’m of the opinion that these so called mysterious deaths are nothing more but coincidence. The lake’s so peaceful and attractive that troubled souls would naturally gravitate to it—to die? Maybe, we don’t know what really goes on the minds of those people who unexpectedly plunge in its still waters.

Also, the lake have a maximum depth of 18 feet. Extremely dangerous for someone who can’t swim. I could barely swim so I’m not thinking of dipping in its placid water anytime soon. I’m happy biking around it in a sunshiny picture-perfect Sunday.

Vigan’s pretty houses all in a row

One of my favorite philosopher, the late Terrence Mckenna, once said:

“The imagination is the goal of history. I see culture as an effort to literally realize our collective dreams.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Our tangible heritage is an essential part of this imagination.

Architecture, being one of the earliest and most constant expressions of development – hispano filipino architecture – is the product of the evolving Filipino imagination, as he was slowly shaping his own world in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

There’s a reason why there’s a sense of familiarity in themes and design. The antillean houses and churches were all built to establish an identifiable pattern. Clearly, the voicing out of the Filipino identity and culture.

Here are some more pictures I took in the Sts. of A. Reyes, V. De los Reyes, Plaridel, Singson & Luna:


Back to Vigan

Vigan Before Sunrise

Back to Vigan

This isn’t my first time in Ilocos but it sure feels like it. The last time, about 2+ years ago, was a disaster. I thought I could squeeze touring Ilocos Norte and Sur in just one weekend – epic fail – I ended up on a hurried tour of inspection.

You know you’ve messed up the travel when all you think about is getting back in time for work.

Well, I’m known for poor planning and weak time management when it comes to traveling. I leave a lot to chance. That’s the kind of traveler I am but I like it, keep things interesting.

How could I even begin to write about my Vigan experience here?


One has to see Vigan to fully grasp exactly how conserving heritage revives the spirit of identity — our ancestors came a long way before they started building these massive stone houses. In order for us to regain our lost sense of identity and pride we have to study the historic shift that took place during the last couple of centuries.

What a delight to see all these bahay na bato’s still standing as if they were rooted so deep that nothing could ever remove them from existence.

Today we’ve embraced the culture of planned obsolescence. Building for the generations is  a concept that is as foreign to us as another planet. We’ve come full circle – from pawid to stones to weak hollow blocks – nothings built to last anymore.

I feel that these giant houses are material manifestation of our ancestors longing to be different, to have an identity that is unique, incomparable. This was their way of saying, this is us now — capable of achieving development. Proud of what they have become.

But as in all civilization, decline is inevitable.

No wonder Vigan produced someone like Padre Burgos, who advocated for the Filipinization of parishes. There’s this proud history that led him to believe that we’re ready. The revolution we celebrate had its roots here in Vigan.

Vigan was not the original site of the Diocese of Nueva Segovia, Cagayan was but because the place where the old Diocese sat regularly gets flooded, the Bishops then requested to moved out toVigan. This was to be the beginning of the golden era of Vigan. A period started when there was a renaissance of interest in commerce, arts, traditions and religious culture. That the present Vigueños has managed to conserved much of its historical treasures, including its traditional food, is simply magical.

Related: Vigan Before Sunrise

September 2012

Thoughts, Laoag

Clear or light, according to locals is where the city got its name. They must be referring to the skies. The sky in these parts, on a clear day, is blue as blue can be. The weather (I don’t know if its just me) feels a lot hotter around here. Must be the reason why Ilocanos are darker than the rest of us.

I once met an old man from Pangasinan who told me that the Ilocanos were originally confined in what is now Ilocos but because their ancestors were industrious farmers always looking for land to earn from, they found their way to La Union, Pangasinan, Isabela and Cagayan. This must be true because I’ve heard of Negrense relatives that married Ilocano farmers. These men my mother told me was known to them as sacadas, seasonal farmers that worked the sugar fields of Negros back in the day.

Going to Laoag (this time from Vigan) I passed by hometowns of some of our most recognizable heroes. Towns like Badoc, Batac and Sn. Nicolas. I skipped the Marcos museum and the Fort Ilocandia. I was told that these are “must visit” when you’re in the province. I thought about it but in the end decided not to go. I felt that I wouldn’t enjoy it anyway.

What I did try is this popular delicacy called tinubo. A combo of cheese and melted sugar steamed inside a bamboo. And since I’m a veggie fan I also tested their dinengdeng, just to sample one that was cooked by an Ilocano and not an Ilonga! My mother loves to cook this dish back home.

If there’s one thing that I regret not seeing that’s the town of Sta. Maria and its church. I completely forgot about it. I usually don’t do extensive travel planning. It finally caught up with me.

Along the way I saw banners of birthday greetings for Apo Lakay. Ferdinand Marcos is still king around here. The Marcoses still dominate the politics of the province. To Ilocanos he’s a hero. For an outsider, this is all too strange, especially those who were taught to believe that Macoy reigned with nothing but terror and destruction. Now that we’re learning more and more about what really happened during those tumultuous decades – well maybe, yes, some part of it was really that bad but not all of it. On a personal note, our family benefited from his policies in land tenancy. In the end we have to acknowledge that there are groups that supports and still believes in them.

It took me more than 2 hours to reach Laoag (from Vigan). There are roads that were being repaired somewhere in San Nicolas, so my bus encountered some traffic along the way.

Laoag have a typical Spanish era town design where the church and all the other administrative buildings are located not far from each other. Just imagine how it looked during the heyday of tobacco production in the 1800’s. They for sure must’ve rivaled the most progressive towns back then.

The rotonda goes around what they call Ilocano Heroes Hall where there is also a monument built to commemorate the end of the tobacco monopoly. The park is well kept and have fountains that are working. Near the capitol building is a wonderful old red brick building that once housed the Spanish era tabacco factory (this now houses their provincial museum). It’s a good idea to walk around this area as there are plenty to see if you take pleasure seeing heritage structures.

I was surprised to see so many calesas still doing the routes around Vigan. The streets are uncluttered. I also noticed that tributaries and rivers around the city are relatively clean. So there’s some good points on how the city is being managed.

This bell tower is enormous that I thought it was an old building. So solid they say that it has slowly been sinking under its own weight. Its a fascinating engineering feat considering the time when it was constructed. Some believes that the reason for this “shrinking” phenomena is that the tower was built on sandy soft land. Well, the river is not that far from the area so its a plausible explanation. Historians regards it as the “most solid and tallest bell tower” in the country.

I believe that there’s much that we don’t know about this shrinking tower. Its time that church officials look into getting some expert advice on the bell tower’s structural integrity and maybe some of its history. We don’t build them like we used to – these towers are gems of our religious and cultural heritage. A comprehensive study would certainly reveal things we don’t know about its construction.

September 2012

Bantay Church and Tower as History

The bell tower built on a mound

I wasn’t suppose to see Bantay today but I did because I saw countless tourists gathered to have their pictures taken with the iconic red brick tower as background. I got curious if there was an event. I later found out that those folks were pilgrims. The church is popular pilgrimage among Catholics because it houses the miraculous image of Apo Caridad, the Lady of Charity, the oldest Marian icon in the region.

According to historians Galende and Javellana the builders feared that the enormous belltower, that doubled as an observation tower, would squash the church in the event it collapse during an earthquake. So they built it away from the main building. Compared to the customary church towers built (usually attached to the main building) during that same century, these towers in Ilocos are distinct because they were designed to perform multiple functions. From this belltower one could see a fantastic view of the town, including Vigan, the vast western seas and the mountains in the east.

In the Visayas, we have the “bantay sa hari” (like that of Mandaue but these towers, sadly, are fast diminishing), towers that have no bells but served as sentinels against pirates and Moro raiders. Ilocos’s Bantay, the town’s name, must have been derived from its bell tower’s role during those days. Similar to Cebu, the Augustinians built these structures that doubled as defensive towers which were sometimes armed with canons like that of Argao.

An old house that serves delicious grilled pork bbq!

The western seas

Bantay is home to one of the first native author in our history, Pedro Bukaneg, who also helped the friars learn Iloco during the crucial years of putting the northern region under the bells. In Bantay, he co-wrote the first book written in Ilocano, “libro a naisuratan ami a bagas to doctrina cristiana” in 1621. Bukaneg is an interesting historical character, but like Pinpin, little is known about him. It is said that he appeared in the river, a baby floating in a basket like Moses. “Christianized heathen” according to some Ilocano historians is the true meaning of “bukaneg”. It was likely that he was abandoned because he had perceived physical disabilities. Adopted by the Augustinians and was sent to Manila to study. Inside the convent he became a linguist, a master poet and a musical genius. Bukaneg and Pinpin are examples of native converts that became zealous advocates of spreading the religion. The missionaries and their native scribes pioneered literature in the local languages because evangelization, they figured, will spread much faster, become more potent, when its agents speaks the local language. Teaching Spanish would’ve been impractical, almost impossible given the missionaries number so even if there’s a decree that all subjects must be taught Spanish, the friars never prioritized this (a case of, obedezco pero no cumplo).

Another figure that became part of Bantay history are the Silangs. In San Agustin, Diego Silang imprisoned a handful of friars including the bishop. When the British successfully took Manila, Silang collaborated with them to overthrow what remains of the Spanish in his Ilocos. He was appointed by the British, the Governor of Ilocos. In the end he was killed by a fellow Ilocano – a man denounced as traitor because he sided with Filipinos who wanted to stay Spanish against Silang’s, who wanted to go under British. He was killed in a house not far from the church. After the assassination of Silang, his wife Gabriela continued the struggle but was later captured in Abra and was hanged along with his men. This husband and wife story presents to us an admirable story of heroism for love and freedom but their concept of liberation was limited to their Ilocos, they were operating in that confined space because the Filipino idea was yet to be born. To claim that their movement was one that is national, or moving towards a united revolution, is historical allegory.

In recent years, I’ve written more on churches, their cultural and historical importance, than any other heritage structures. I feel I’m beginning to sound more like a religious nut to some people. But you know, tangible heritage, what’s left of it, are mostly churches these days – a huge chunk of it . These centuries old buildings dominates our heritage landscape, while the clusters of bahay na bato and all the other civilian structures built during Spanish Philippines era has been largely removed from our landscape. Economics has a lot to do with this situation. The preference of descendants and local governments to make profit rather than contribute to society by preserving these centuries old structures. But the root of our peoples eagerness to impart from our heritage can be traced to how history is taught as national education. Aided by revisionist historians text books that regards Spanish era as “colonial”, thus, deserving no merits affected conservation in all levels.

The campaign to eliminate our hispano filipino memory by detaching us from it has been for the most part successful because this disinformation campaign has become our history text. Unwittingly, these so called nationalist historians, desperately wanting to make the Filipino accept their asianic golden age by debasing his hispano filipino past, assisted the cultural and economic intrusion of the Americans. Instead of embracing the idea of an decolonized Filipino, the Filipino in turn went to the culture that America introduced. In the end, we ended up with neither a Filipino identity that is asianic nor hispano, we became the brown styled, wannabe Americans.

Not unless we understand what these monuments of our heritage represents, we’ll remain the kind of Filipinos our failed historians wanted us to become. We’ll never see an end of Filipinos who unconsciously declares their revulsion towards the accomplishments of our hispano filipino ancestors and the culture they bequeathed us within their circle of Filipino friends but among outsiders and foreigners lay claim with pride “my grandparents are Spanish”, “I have Spanish blood”,  and ” my grandparents, they spoke Spanish!”.

San Agustin of Bantay


Behind these mountain must be Provencia de Abra!

The bells of Bantay


Salamat kaayo sa Ginoo sa tanang kalipay nga among gibati diri sa pagsuroy-suroy diri.. a Visayan note in the church log book.

The ruins at the side of the church

The guide usually acoomodate tourists who wants to climb the church tower. To avoid children from loitering and climbing the tower, volunteers guards the church grounds which I thought is a good idea.

I spoke with the church’s tour guide and he told me stories about local movies and music videos shot in the grounds of the church.My sweet Lord. What a comedic relief this was. I was tired traveling all day, listening to him was a welcome break. Yeah, he should have lectured me with the towns historical facts but hey, lets cut him some slack, these guys don’t get paid (they’re given an allowance everyday for food), but still they look after the church and its visitors, and that’s a very noble thing to do. I’m sure he knows more but we just never had that conversation. Anyway, he gave me a snippet about a popular telenovela in channel 2, I would like to share this here. This is his exact words: “Katrina and the guy will be married here (with Bantay church as background), this will be the ending of the telenovela”. I don’t know what he was saying but I wrote it down. You’ll never know when these kind of information would come in handy!

The Old Convent Ruins of Paoay

Nature has begun to reclaim the insides of this old ruin

Coming from the euphoria of seeing the heritage treasure that is Paoay Church, I crashed into a sad state of realization seeing the old convent, lying in decay just across the church. Potentially another historical gem, I thought, only if we could just find a way to restore it or maybe find some useful means to showcase it for educational purpose, just like what other people do with their centuries old buildings. I really don’t know much about the history of this building aside from that it was the old residence of the missionary fathers. Chances are that this building was used for other different functions, as it was common for such buildings to take on new roles as time goes by. Most of these convent were made schools by the seculars during the early 1900’s. The rudiments of education, essentially religious of course, had been given to the early natives of the area from this building. This event alone merits its preservation.

It was strange walking around the ruins, thinking that people lived and died in what was once a wonderful building – what were their memories of this place? I have these qustions in my head, wondering, do we have an obligation to take care of these old buildings and preserve them? What if I’m non-Catholic and I see these relics as nothing more but remnants of a past that I resent? Do I have to support the restoration of such things?

In a time when bashing the religion is the flavor of the month, I could only see the support to conserve old churches and her structures to diminish. Not to put the blame on anyone who does not believe in the church, the local hierarchy has its share of failures in protecting these wonderful buildings. There’s what appear to be a movement to do away with conservation, instead, build new constructs, everything must be new, the old uprooted – the only justification is that this method is the practical way to do things.

We went through different stages in our culture and tradition of building structures, it begun with the temporary shelter (with the kubo). Then came the shift to permanence (with the balay na bato and the stone churches) and now, the disposable (plastic, glass and metal). It’s sad to think that we are reverting back to the beginning, a mentality that is concerned only with the present, not the future – only difference now is that we’re using different (recyclable) materials, but exacting more from our environment.

The great things our forebears accomplished in the past; the buildings, stone houses, literature, paintings, sculptures, advances in science, quality of life, all of these are the realization of their imagination of who they are. Joaquin is right that when they built their bahay na bato it was their way of saying this is us now. We only need to look back and compare what they have then and what we have now to understand what we’ve become – offshoots from the original Filipino.

The facade with windows adorned with Catholic symbols

It appears that the facade has been reinforced as there were quite a few parts that had been cemented with concrete

Coral stones and red bricks

What was once a hall way

The Augustinian Church of Paoay

The Iconic facade that to this day remains as mysterious as ever. According to experts, the church was designed based on different architectural approach. They indicated that one of the influences for the form came from the Buddhist style.

I’m a big kid myself but just look at how this bell tower dwarfs me like an ant!

I’ve been wanting to see this church for a long, long time not only because I’ve read so much about it but I’ve been intrigued by its unusual form ever since I first saw a picture of it. I hardly ever get to visit this part of the country (this being only the second time). The first time, I missed the chance to see Paoay. I was in Laoag then, went to Vigan and on that same day, went back to Laoag to catch the flight back to Manila. I run out of time and skipped Paoay. This time I made sure I have enough time to wander around like a zombie in a resident evil movie.

Paoay brings to mind men like Valentín Díaz, one of the original founders of Katipunan, signatoree of the Pact of the Biak na Bato. A native Paoayeño. And of course, Marcos, who according to Homobono Adaza, instructed the US military men commanding the helicopter he and his family boarded to transport them to Paoay. Site of his grand “Malacanang ti Amianan” residence constructed along the shore of the town’s great lake. The tall story was that the pilots misheard Marcos and brought them, not to Paoay, but Hawaii. Obviously, a joke, but there could be some truth to the story because it’s probable that Marcos demanded to be brought to Ilocos instead. To this day, Marcos’s children asserts that they were abducted and was taken out of the country without their approval. “Kidnapped” according to Marcos Jr, who’s now a senator of the republic. It is said that Cory was consulted if the Marcos could stay in the country. Fearing the dictator could muster a come back , as he was still widely popular especially among his fellow Ilocanos. Madam Corazon refused to allow it.

There’s plenty of attraction in Paoay. You have the sand dunes. Of course, the Marcos residence, now a museum. The lake, that according to legends used to be a thriving community before it was flooded by the heavens. But the town’s eternally known and associated with an Augustinian creation, appropriately named after their Order’s patron saint- the San Agustin church – the single greatest symbol of Paoay and its people.

The upper portion of the facade

In the book “Angels in Stone”, Padre Galende describes the church as possessing “the most striking examples of religious architecture in the Ilocos and perhaps in the whole country”. Its uniqueness and eccentric design has drawn many tourist to its doors. Some, curious of its figure and are just excited to look and touch it. Others, to have their pictures taken so they can pretentiously show to their friends that they’ve seen the mystical church of the north. But whatever the reasons are, it’s clear that the designers and builders of the church wanted to make a daring statement. And they did.

Considered as North Luzon’s most famous and recognizable church, San Agustin of Paoay is made of enormous bricks and thick coral slabs, said to had been harden together with a blend of limestone mortar and sugar cane juice. If the sugar cane juice failed to impress you, then perhaps the fact that the church took almost 100 years to complete must be compelling enough to impress you. The construction focused on building a structure that can withstand strong earthquakes. This baroque church is “distinguished for its heavy buttress that begins with massive volutes on the ground and tapers to fine points”. After centuries of existence, the builders accomplished what they originally set out to do.

Described as, “fortress-like… with crenelations and niches suggestive of south-east Asian temples and pyramids”. Its appearance has inspired stories and traditions. Its architectural design has many expert still talking to this day. It’s one of the oddest, and I mean this in a beautiful way, Filipino Catholic church I’ve ever seen – and I’ve seen a lot of them in my lifetime. Some historians, attempting to give details to its peculiar appearance, suggest that the Itnegs, a pagan tribe who live in the mountains, might have influenced its design because of its geometrical form. Truth is, who knows what the Augustinian fathers were thinking. All I know is that for as long as this church stand, it’ll continue to astonish and puzzle us with its seemingly unexplainable charm.

The interior of the church is currently undergoing repairs. I was surprised to see this. We usually just see the outside but there’s a lot of things happening in the inside. We have to keep in mind that this building has went through countless natural and man made calamities. The fact that it is still standing is a testament to the ingenuity of its builders and the people of Paoay who’ve taken good care of their beloved church.

The entrance door and the choir loft

These beams appears to had been recently installed.

Aside from the retablos and santos, this pulpit is among the only original furniture inside the church.

The center retablo

The old thick tiles appears to be in good shape

The marker providing a brief account of the church’s long history

17 September 2012


SM Again, Threatening our Heritage Landscape

Please read the Manifesto (HERE)

Leave a comment (with your name) in support of our kababayan pleading not to allow SM from altering the historical landscape of their town.

The said company is seeking to build their mall beside the historic church.

San Nicolas in Ilocos

This heritage insensitive company is at it again.

But they won’t be there if our church leaders doesn’t entertain them in the first place. I don’t have all the facts here but I’ve seen how some Parish Priest, instead of protecting their old churches are the ones that destroys it.

Profit is all that matters for these kind of companies these days  – and for the rest of us, well that’s just the breaks.

A friend, writer Guia Imperial, reports the” imminent lease or probably sale of a southern portion of the lot on which the Catholic Church stands.”

Pass this along.

Photo coutesy of  San Nicolas de Tolentino by Photo Blogger Arnel Hutalla the rest of his photos can be found at

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