The Philippines

Past & Present United by the Fiesta

Christened the “Pearl of the Orient” at the end of the last century by the revolutionary martyr Dr. Jose Rizal , and the Fiesta Islands of Asia” by tourist promoters, the Philippines islands are a blend of the romanticism implied in the first description and the joyfulfervour in the second.  A republic of islands dotting the Philippine, Celebes and South China Seas, the Philippines is renowned for its glorious beaches, ancient rice terraces, imposing mountain ranges, spectacular scuba diving and languid lifestyle interspersed with boisterous celebrations. 

Filipinos are a hospitable, irrepressible people, a mix of cultures and races as diverse as Malay, Indian, Chinese and Spanish.  Quick to embrace outside influences on dress, language and food, they nevertheless retain traditional Malay values, placing family needs above personal desire and eschewing the forthright style of westerners.  The country’s human kaleidoscopes further enriched by over 60 cultural minorities, many of whom have managed to resist the worst of outside influences.  The Batak in Palawan still eke out a semi-nomadic existence, the Igorots comprise several smaller tribes who were formidable head-hunters, the Ifugaos’ ancestors built the huge rice terraces of Banaue in Luzon, the Negritos are nomads who hunt with bows and poison-tipped arrows. 

Over 120 languages and dialects are spoken in the Philippines.  To unify these disparate tongues, Pilipino has been developed as national language, based mainly on Tagalog, with certain elements of other dialects. English is widely spoken, and along with the relatively new amalgam of Pilipino, has been designated as an official language.  The influences of the colonial past have moulded a country seemingly at odds with its geographical position: the Philippines is part of Asia, yet it is the fourth most popular country in which English is an official language, and the archipelago is a lone bastion of Roman Catholicism surrounded by devotees of Islam and Buddhism.  The Philippines has a close cultural affinity with West, yet the people are most assuredly Asian in consciousness. 

Interest and pride in traditional art has surged to new heights in recent years, and people are committed to nurturing and preserving their cultural past.  Intricate Islamic wood carving and metal craft, impressionist painting, ceramics, handicrafts made from the shells and brass, and folk dances are native to the Philippines. Folk art has found expression in the jeepneys, the gaudily decorated jeeps that are as much a form of public transport as the city bus.

It can seen that in every Filipinos there is a great musician just waiting to be discovered.  Filipino musicians are the wandering minstrels of Asia, entertaining in clubs and hotels from Seoul to Singapore.  At home, traditional love ballads and folk songs are popular, and ethnic music, played on instruments such as bamboo nose flutes and drums, has thankfully survived the power of the Top 40 charts. 

Each tremors and rumbling volcanoes bear witness to the upheavals producing 7,107 islands which comprise the Philippine archipelago.  The landscape is dramatic myriad islands, forbidding mountainous regions, narrow coastal plains, inland seas and channels, and ancient rice terraces. The total coastline is over 14,400 km (21,500 miles) and boast vast , untrammelled expanses of white sand.  Only about 500 of the islands have a land area greater than one square kilometre 1,625 square miles, and 2,500 are yet to be named. You can relax on a tiny, deserted island at low tide, and then, from the comfort of your boat, watch its gradual complete submergence as the water rises. 

Due to the disparate nature, the Philippines underwent colonization before developing a central government.  Even today, some far-flung islands exist in semi-isolation because of a poor infrastructure, and international communication more advanced than internal.  Mindful of their colonial past, vigorous debate preceded the withdrawal of the last American forces from Clark and Subic base in 1992, a decision finally decided by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo.  The first inhabitants of the Philippines reached the area by a landbridge from the Asiatic mainland some 150,000 to 30,000 years ago.  Immigration was brought to a temporary halt when the last bridge was covered by the sea, and the next colonizers were Indo-Chinese, who arrived in 1500BC. 

The construction of the giant rice terraces at Banaue, north Luzon, has been attributed to the last wave canoe travelling Indo-Chinese. From 500 BC to AD 1500, the main population of the Philippines was of Malay origin.  Settlement were scattered around fishing grounds, houses set on stilts were built of bamboo and palm thatch.  Farmers were forced into a semi nomadic existence by their “slash and burn” planting techniques. 

By about AD1000, contacts with Chinese, Indian, Arab and Indonesian traders began.  Settlements at this time consisted of barangays, each ruled by a datu.  Social classes, rules of succession and a complex social structuredeveloped, but the region’s geography prohibited and cohesion , with each village forming an independent body. The Chinese, whose economic presence and influence had developed since the 12th century, were the first to try conquering the Philippines.  In the 15th century, a fleet of junks sailed into Manila Bay with the aim of bringing the islands under Ming  Dynasty rule, but it was repelled.  During the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadores arrived to stamp their indelible impression on the Philippines. Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese sailor in the service of the Spanish, landed in the archipelago on 17th April 1521.  But the triumph soon turn into tragedy when tribal chief Lapu-lapu, objecting to the takeover, mounted a bloody uprising in which Magellan was killed.  Spanish colonial occupation began with a vengeance in 1565, when Miguel Lopez de Legaspi estabkished a foothold on Cebu.  Eventually Manila was conquered and Roman Catholicism was spread throughout the country, with the exception of Mindanao, which had embraced the Muslim region introduced by Islam traders in the 14th century.  Under Spanish rule, friars held authority over the people, converting the population, building churches and schools, and accumulating vast tracts of land for the church.  The Spaniards bought exotic goods from Chinese junks and loaded them on the famouns Manila Galleon, which sailed annually between Manila and Acapulco from 1572 to 1815. Supported by this galleon trade, the Spanish neglected the development of agriculture and industry.  During Britain’s Sevenn Years’ War with Spain, Manila was held by the British forces led by Brigadier General William Draper.  The occupation was brief, lasting from 1762 to 1764.  Political, economic and social reforms initiated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries failed to placate the growing numbers of Filipino nationalists.  Following a major revolt in 1896, the execution of physician and writer, Dr. Jose Rizal – who wrote Mi Ultimo Adios (My Last Farewell) on the eve of his death – fanned the national flames. The Spanish-American war broke out in 1898 and led to a sudden switch of nationality towards the end of the Philippines colonial period.  Commodore George Dewey trounced the Spanish fleet and Spain eventually ceded the Philippines to the Americans.  Filipino troops had fought alongside the Americans, expecting to be rewarded with independence: instead they face a new brand of colonialism.

Under the Americans, the Philippines progressed in terms of developing political, economic and social structure. Inn 1935 the country was constituted a commonwealth and independence was scheduled for 1947. But World War II intervened: the Japanese invaded Manila in January 1942, and their occupation lasted until 1944 when General McArthur fulfilled his promise to return and liberate the Philippines, paving the way for the granting of independence on 4th of July, 1944.  Independence brought its own burdens.  Nearly two-thirds of the people derive their living from agriculture, forestry or fishing.  Major exports include copra, tobacco, sugarcane, bananas, pineapples and timber.  As in ancient times, rice ranks as the most important agricultural product.  The archipelago’s early isolation has reaped evolutionary benefits in the form of unusual and intriguing species of plants and animals. The Philippine eagle, tiny mouse deer, certain orchids, scarce varieties of sea shells and the Pandaka Pygmaea, the smallest fish in the world, are unique to the Philippines. There are nearly 10,000 species of trees, shrubs and ferns, and nearly 1,000 species of orchids.

The Philippines is divided into three major land groupings: Luzon in the north included the islands of Luzon, Mindoro, Marinduque, and Palawan to the west; Mindanao lies in the south of the archipelago, and the Visayas encompasses islands between Luzon and Mindanao.

Luzon is the largest island, site of the capital city and home to the majority of the population. Metro Manila is a booming, energetic city, with a mixed bag of treasures ranging from the greenery of Rizal Park to the glossy shops and high rises of Makati and Ermita night spots. Beyond Manila lie some of the most stunning vistas in the Philippines, Baguio, in northern Luzon, is regaining its equilibrium following a devastating earthquake in July 1990. An American built anomaly, Baguio is a replica of an Adirondacks village, complete with clapboard houses and wrap around porches. From Baguio, a mountain road wends its way along a treacherous route high above mountain valleys and past thundering waterfalls to the massive rice terraces of Banaue. Heralded as the eighth wonder of the world, the terrace were built over 1,000 years ago by Ifugao tribes people using simple tools. Vigan, on Luzon’s north-west coast, is an enchanting remnant of the Spanish colonial past. Cobblestone streets, horse drawn carts, a 16th century cathedral and old brick and wood houses recall the era of friars and conquistadores. “The Batanes Islands form the northern perimeter of the Philippines. They are regularly battered by thyphoon, and the inhabitants protect themselves as best they can in low houses built from solid rock, with roofs made from cogon grass. Marinduque, inhabited mainly by the Tagalog people, produces coconuts and rice, and mines ore and copper. During Holy Week, the island holds the Moriones Festival, famous for the elaborate re-enactment of the story Roman centurion Longinus, and the flagellations of the devout. Mindoro lies directly south of Manila, and boasts the superb beaches and coral reefs of Puerto Galera, and groups of the Mangyan tribes in the dense jungle and mountains. Divers head out from the town of San Jose for Apo Reef, one of the Philippines’ most spectacular dive sites. The Bicol peninsula in southern Luzon has a remarkable array of aland formations. Mayon Volcano the “beautiful” volcano known for its perfect cone last erupted in 1984, one of its 40 recorded eruptions killed 1,200 people. Outside Legaspi City is the labyrinth of the Hoyop-hoyopan Caves, which sheltered Filipinos guerrillas during World War II and a discotheque during martial law.  North of Legaspi are the Tiwi Hot Springs, and west of Tiwi the smallest fish in the world are netted and served in a “thousand fish omelette”. 

The people of the Visaysas lay claim to a happy and loving disposition that is a mirror of the gentle, tilting beauty of their surroundings. A network of ferry, bus and jeepney routes makes for intriguing island hopping possibilities.  The island of Leyte is where General McArthur fulfilled his “I shall return” promise.  The harbour town of Iloilo on Panay has a wonderful collection of pre-Spanish art and cultural relics, and some of the best preserved Spanish colonial churches in the country.  The island of Cebu in the Visayas has historical attractions such as Magellan’s Cross and Fort San Pedro, the oldest fort in the Philippines. The Cebuanos have vigorously promoted their island for tourism, and beach resorts abound. Bohol the third largest island in the Philippines, lies off Cebu’s east coast. Near the centre of the island, there is an unusual group of 30 m (98 feet) high hills which, when burnished by the sun, look like a cluster of giant chocolate drops. The Chocolate Hills are attributed to the tears of a sorrowful giant, or, more prosaically, an unusual weathering process. The glittering white sands of tiny Boracay, off the north west tip of Panay, have become synonymous with paradise. Just seven kilometres (four miles) long. Boracay is blessed with beautiful beaches, inviting crystal clear waters and a population with a relaxed attitude to life. The rich volcanic soil of the western plains of Negros island has supported sugarcane production since the late 19th century, known as the sugar island. Negros produces about 75 percent of the Philippines’ total sugar output.

Mindanao, the southernmost island in the archipelago is home to Mount Apo, at 10,311 feet making it the highest peak in the country. The island also has ancient, though much depleted lauan forest and a profusion of exotic fruits. The rarest eagle in the world, the Philippine eagle, can still be found in the larger remnants of forest, which also hold endangered orchids. The province of Palawan includes 1,768 islands as well as the main island, also named Palawan. Agricultural production on Palawan Island is restricted to rice, coconuts, bananas and ground nuts. But off the north coast the sea abounds with fish – 60 percent of the Philippines catch is from here. Palawan is also known for scuba diving, though some reefs have been extensively damaged by the local practise of fishing using explosives. Mounds and reefs of coral and an abundance of cowrie, cone and helmet shells can be found among the cluster of tiny islands. Fish include Spanish mackerel, parrot fish, barracuda, tuna, black tip, white tip, and hammerhead sharks. For living drama, the wreck of a Japanese cargo ship torpedoed during World War II lies off the Conception Pearl Farm on Palawan Island, sheltering numerous fish and live ammunition.