Phu Phra Bat Historical Park

Even though Phu Phra Bat Historical Park ranks as one of the greatest historical sites of both the Dvaravati civilization and the entire Isaan region, it is a site which attracts few foreign visitors. The reason for this is fairly simple to discern: the site occupies a remote location in the forests of the Phu Phan Mountains. It requires a fair bit of determination to get here, but if you make the effort, you will find a strange and alluring cultural landscape which combines ancient rock art,  Buddhist shrines and bizarrely weathered sandstone rock-forms. If a traveller only had time to see one Dvaravati-era historical site on their holiday, I would recommend either this one or Si Thep in Phetchabun Province.

If you have your own car, finding your way here is an easy day trip from either Udon Thani or Nong Khai. However, even not having our own transport, we managed to visit Phu Phra Bat Historical Park an a long but not overly rushed day trip. Songtheaws run hourly throughout the day from Udon Thani to Ban Phue (บ้านผือ), the closest town to the historical park. They leave from Rangsina Market, which is about six kilometres from the centre of Udon Thani. Ban Phue is pronounced something like baan per (say per with your clenched together and it should work). The trip will take around an hour but the rural countryside you pass through makes for a pleasant enough trip. When you arrive in Ban Phue, a town with a few markets and an obligatory branch of 7-11, you are now within about 10 kilometres of the historical park. I walked up and down the main street of Ban Phue asking every tuk-tuk driver if they wanted to take me out to the park, but a few of them turned me down. The fourth driver I asked finally agreed to go to Phu Phra Bat, quoting me a price of ฿400 including two hours’ waiting time.

The park is located in a sizable forest reserve, which you enter a few kilometres before reaching the tourist centre. It is not the lush, wet rainforest associated with popular parks such as Khao Yai, however; the forest here is classified as dry evergreen forest and it has a sparser, scrubbier feel. It certainly makes a peaceful, beautiful surrounding for the cultural relics of the area. It would be worth coming to the site just to hike through the forest here alone.

At the main trail-head there is a small car park, which is completely surrounded by forest. The ranger station is here. The sight of foreign tourists is still rare enough that the rangers seemed surprised and pleased to see us. One of them seemed to view it as an opportunity to practice his English by asking about Australia and telling us a little about the history of the site. He also gave us a map of the site: it contained 21 different cultural objects which could be seen on a long loop. He said that the full loop would take us about two hours to walk, including a diversion up the cliff-tops to see the views from the top of the hill. We paid our ฿100 (foreigner price) each and set off on the walking tour.

Phu Phra Baht Historical Park could best be described as a cultural landscape: a natural landscape which contains many marks and vestiges of traditional land use. However, at Phu Phra Baht this is not related to the economic use of the landscape. This area seems mostly to have been used for ceremonial or religious purposes. These connections happened both in Thailand’s prehistoric past, when earlier peoples used the rock shelters of the hill as a site for paintings, and in the Dvaravati era when Mon peoples transformed rock formations into religious monuments demarcated by carved stone boundary stones. In both cases the attraction is a combination of the striking features of the natural environment and human creative endeavours at the site. Exploring these cultural relics in such a beautiful setting is what makes Phu Phra Baht special.

Everywhere along the main loop you will encounter strangely weathered rock formations. These are most often large rocks which are balanced on small ‘stems’. Despite their unearthly shapes, they are natural forms, created when a glacier carved its way through the hill a couple of millions of years ago. These rock formations which provided the inspiration for cultural activity at the hill during two distinct periods of history: first, during the prehistoric era, when the natural rock shelters beneath the formations provided an ideal place for primitive artworks; and secondly during the Mon period, when the rock temples were transformed into Buddhist temples by the addition of boundary stones. This combination of cultural relics at Phra Phra Baht is utterly unique in South-East Asia.

We set off on our walk, heading towards an area of the site known for its caves; not far along the walking trail are the two best rock art sites at Phu Phra Baht. They are both thought to date back between two and three thousand years ago. One is called Tham Wua (the Cattle Cave) and the other is known as Tham Khon (the People Cave), both of which are named after the rock paintings within. We visited Tham Wua first. It consists of a row of cattle-like creatures which are rendered in a reddish-brown ocher. Perhaps they represent the banteng, a form of wild cattle which still exists in the remote forests of South-East Asia. The next stop was Tham Khon, which is probably the most impressive of the rock art sites at Phu Phra Baht. It consisted of a row of stylized figures in reddish-brown hues. They have a strange stance, almost as if they are performing a dance, which may suggest some kind of spiritual aspect to the painting. However, my interpretation could easily be off the mark.

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The humanoid figures in Tham Khon at Phu Phra Baht Historical Park

In this part of the site, the forest is very close to the relics, closing around the rock forms on all sides. The sound of insect life and bird-life is always audible, and at one point there even came a loud whoop, which sounded very like a gibbon calling in the forest canopy. I later checked later to see if there were any primates in the forest park and was unable to find any mention of them: perhaps it was just an unusual bird call, after all. Nonetheless, the closeness of the natural world at Phu Phra Baht makes it unique among Thailand’s ten great historical parks. We looked around the caves and the rock formations, the only people in the vicinity. From there, we began the climb up towards the cliff-tops, the walking trail occasionally passing by rock forms of greyish-pink rock.

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A strangely weathered rock formation along the side of the walking-trail

At the top of the ascent is a flat area of stone with the best views at the whole site. These cliff-tops are known in Thai as Phra Sadej, and they are for the more scenically inclined, a bigger attraction than the historical relics. From here you have views down in a small valley outside the edge of the forest reserve, some of which is under cultivation. Yet there is no settlement in view and the area is lushly green and very peaceful. It reminded me very much of Phu Por, the Buddhist mountain in Kalasin province, which also combines hilltop views and Buddhist history, but there was no doubting the superiority of the views at Phu Phra Baht.

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The views from the cliff-top of Phra Sadej

From Phra Sadej, the trail curves down to the largest cluster of historical sites, which was presumably any area of great ritual significance in the Mon era. It is so rich in Buddhist antiquities that to try and describe them all would be tiresome for even the most patient blog reader. So I will just give an overview of what struck me as the most eye-catching and remarkable parts of its Buddhist heritage. And the first thing that comes to mind is Bo Nang Usa, a roughly square-shaped ‘well’, which is carved straight down into the sandstone of the hill, reaching a depth of several metres. It must have been a truly painstaking feat to carve this ‘well’ out of solid rock, and it exemplified better than anything else I saw at Phu Phra Bat the patience and dedication of Buddhist monks who used the hill as a retreat. Happily, Bo Nang Usa has lasted to the present day, still serving as a receptacle for rain water in an area which no supply of fresh water.

In the tourist literature about the site, it is sometimes stated that Phu Phra Baht is an enigma. While it may seem mysterious and unexplained to the casual visitor, the original function of the site is well-established. It served as a Buddhist ritual centre for forest monks during the Mon-Dvaravati period. The Buddhist religious elements of the site are readily apparent. The most noteworthy of these are collections of bai sema (beautifully shaped stone boundary markers), which are typically placed in a circle of eight. This was the number often used to mark the boundary of an ubosot, one of the main buildings in a Buddhist temple complex. The twist at Phu Phra Baht is that the stones enclose some of the fantastic rock formations, creating a kind of stupa out of the natural rock-forms. This hybrid of man-made and natural structures is unique, which is what makes Phu Phra Bat one of Isaan’s most compelling attractions.

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Wat Phaya Wat: Hints of Haripunchai

From Khao Noi, the two-hundred-and-seventy-metre-high hill which overlooks the town of Nan, we headed back towards town on foot. Situated on the road out towards jungle-clad Khao Noi was Wat Phaya That, another one of Nan’s intriguing historic wats. Just by chance, I had actually got a glimpse of it when we were flying into town a couple of days before. The flight-path had taken us right over the temple grounds, so we had glimpsed Wat Phaya Wat’s famous chedi out the window of the plane. But unsatisfied with so fleeting a look, we were now determined to see this renowned edifice up close.

Arriving at the wat, we found the temple grounds to be largely deserted. There were no cars in the car park, nor any pilgrims or tourists about. But there were a few shade trees and lots of flowering shrubs, which gave the area an attractive appearance. All in all, the grounds were not large and we had soon come up to the viharn (ordination hall) of the temple. Though it was not a very old structure by all accounts, it had been well-constructed (reconstructed?) in a classic Lanna style, so it turned out to be unexpectedly interesting to visit.

The approach to the temple was a naga staircase. These naga staircases seemed to be something of a Nan specialty: we had already encountered them at Wat Phumin and Wat Phra That Khao Noi. The one here was not especially distinguished looking; we were more impressed by the timber architecture inside. The side walls had been decorated with gold stenciling of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac- the Year of the Rabbit, the Year of the Monkey and so on- which was not something we usually expected to see in a Thai vihaan. There was also the more traditional feature of jataka murals telling the life of the Buddha.

Even better than the painted decoration were the ceremonial textiles which hung down from the ceiling. Decorated with elephants, temples and other auspicious symbols of the Buddhist faith, they were clearly had a religious significance. Yet the stylized, geometric look of the motifs also reminded us of the hill-tribe textiles of Northern Thailand, giving the display a very local feel. For Thai pilgrims, however, the focal point of the building would not have been the textiles of stencils but rather the Phra Chao Naikong, an elegant Thai Buddha which was set before the equally lovely altar.

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The interior of the vihaan features ceremonial textiles and jataka panels

But as attractive as the vihaan is, the real reason to come to Wat Phaya That is to head around the back of it and check out its extremely rare chedi. This is what we did next. This five-tiered pyramidal chedi is built in classic Mon style. More exactly, it bears a very close resemblance to the early thirteenth century brick chedi at Wat Kukut in the town of Lamphun. Lamphun was the then-capital of Haripunchai, the greatest Mon kingdom in the northern part of Thailand. It is also home to some of the few extant Mon monuments in the whole of Thailand. The one here at Wat Phaya Wat is very similar. Its brick tower is inset on each tier with rows and rows of niches. Inside them stand diminutive Walking Buddha figures which are covered in stucco; traces of decorative stucco can also be found on the arches above the niches.

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A standing Mon style Buddha with robes rendered in stucco

This combination of brick monuments with stucco facing is one of the hallmarks of the Mon ethnic group, who were once widely dispersed across the territory which is now Thailand. As their were assimilated into Thai culture over the centuries, their sculpture and architecture was to prove influential on the Thai kingdoms such as Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. However, rarely did Thai architecture bear so marked a Mon influence as at Wat Phaya That. It is true that the elongated ear-lobes, long parrot-like nose and elegantly draped robes of the Walking Buddhas show the influence of Sukhothai art but the overall conception of the chedi owes a heavy debt to Haripunchai . What makes this even odder is the fact that this chedi was not built until the seventeenth or eighteenth century- or at least that is what the signboards at this temple claim. It raises the question of why a Haripunchai-style chedi would have been built here four centuries after the fall of Hairpunchai to the Lanna kingdom.

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The brick chedi of Wat Phaya Wat

Was there perhaps a small Mon community which took refuge in Nan after the fall of Haripunchai to Lanna? As a still independent principality, Nan offered an alternative to submission to rule from Chinag Mai. Or was the chedi a simple case of imitation? After all, Lamphun remains an important pilgrimage town until the present day. Had the builders of this more recent chedi merely copied it upon returning from a pilgrimmage? Whatever the answer, this chedi remains one of very few Mon-style monuments in all of Thailand. And it is another element in Nan’s unusually mixed artistic heritage, which includes Lanna, Thai Lu, Lao and Mon influences.

Wat Phra That Khao Noi: Nan’s Hilltop Wat

In a town as richly steeped in history and art as Nan, it seems strange to recommend what is, architecturally speaking, a rather undistinguished wat. However, if there is one comparatively modern temple complex in Nan you should visit, it is undoubtedly Wat Phra That Khao Noi, primarily because of its spectacular location 800 feet above Nan town. The best way to go there is by rented motorcycle, because it will be a long and demanding walk on foot.

The trip by bike took us no more than about ten minutes from downtown Nan, heading out towards Khao Noi, the mountain on which the mountain was situated, past a number of historic wats and at least a couple of beautiful, old teak houses. At the outskirts of town, we suddenly entered a patch of hillside jungle, beginning the climb towards the hilltop wat. Suddenly we were in the midst of dipterocarp forest, with huge trees rising up along the roadside, wrapped in a dense mesh of lianas. Suddenly the lush greens of tropical forest were all around us and the shirr of insects could be heard on every side.

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The ceremonial staircase up to Wat Phra That Khao Noi

We wound higher up the mountainside, eventually coming to a vast ceremonial staircase with balustrades in the form of nagas. This reminded me of the magnificent naga staircase at the World Heritage site of Khao Phra Vihaan on the Thai-Cambodian border, though this one was obviously a concrete construction of much more recent vintage. Even so, the sight of hundreds and hundreds of stairs ascending the mountainside was an impressive sight in its way- a reminder that in the past Buddhist pilgrims would have seen toiling up to the peak of Khao Noi as an act of Buddhist devotion. I noticed that on the left hand side of the staircase there was a small Chinese style temple complex with pavilions and statues; evidently, Nan’s small ethnic Chinese population also revered this remote forest temple site. The motorbikes continued past the staircase, climbing to the peak of the hill, where Wat Phra That Khao Noi was located.

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The main chedi at Wat Phra That Khao Noi

Accoding to local legend, there had been a wat on the site since the late fifteenth century. Whatever the truth of this claim, most of the current ensemble of buildings were clearly no more than a few decades old. If any of them had a sense of age, it was the chedi (or thaat), which was a white spire rising up in the centre of the complex. Though it had clearly been renovated in recent decades, having a well-maintained exterior of white plaster, in its shape it resembles many historic chedis from Thailand. There is a history of temples being renovated and repaired many times over the centuries in this part of the world, so it did not seem impossible that an ancient brick core still existed within the modern incarnation of the chedi. The other extremely noticeable construction on the site was a large Walking Buddha in the Sukothai style which stood on an enormous lotus pedestal, looking out towards the Nan Valley. Though this statue only dated back to 1999, it did recall the classic Walking Buddha sculptures of the past, and it was certainly worth a couple of photos.

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However, really the attraction of this wat are the views. Descending to the terrace of the Walking Buddha statue, you will gain a view across the entire city of Nan, with steeply forested hills rising in the background. Somewhere in the middle of town is the Nan River; you are able to make out some of the bridges across it. This 750 km-long river is the third longest which is entirely within the territory of Thailand, eventually draining south into the Ping River, which later joins the Chao Phraya and flows into the Gulf of Siam. The fertility of the Nan River Valley is various obvious from up on Khao Noi, with lush alluvial river lands spreading along its banks. Apart from the city, the entire landscape consisted of various shades of green. It was this river which had nurtured and fed the city for the past thousand years. In addition, to the views, the surrounding forest adds to the appeal, with butterflies drifting past and a large, blue-headed lizard sitting on the tiles and looking up at us. After we taken it all in, we set off down that long ceremonial staircase, starting the walk back towards town.

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The views of Nan city from Khao Noi

Wat Phumin: The Temple of the Whispering Lovers

Nan is a Thai town with a very unusual history. Though it is counted as one of the northern provinces of Thailand, it is located much closer to the Lao border than the former Lanna capital of Chiang Mai, and it has a distinct identity to match its isolated location within Thailand. It was long an autonomous principality which drew as much influence from Xishuangbanna in China as from the Lanna settlements of Northern Thailand. This history of seclusion and separation is very much reflected in its arts and architecture. While the artistic heritage of Lanna is clearly in evidence, you will also see the influence of the Tai Lü, a group whose ancestral homeland is Xishuangbanna district of Yunnan Province in China. There influence is best appreciated by visiting Wat Phumin, which is often regarded as the most extraordinary of Nan’s outstanding collection of wats.

The history of Wat Phumin dates back to 1596 when the wat was first built. It has a highly unusual form; indeed, it is utterly unique in all of Thailand. The wat is designed with a cruciform shape and staircases extend out on all four sides with elaborate nagas for balustrades. This makes it seem as if the entire wat is riding on the back of two gigantic nagas. Besides the staircase sit two even larger guardian figures- a pair of brick and stucco lions which guard the temple from malign spirits. Apart from that, it is has a multi-tiered roof but this does not sweep low down to the ground like those from Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai, remaining a series of horizontal lines. The other unmissable thing is the entrance doors, which are masterpieces of Lanna woodcarving. Every inch of the doors is filled in which intricately carved motifs, many of them floral. Yet its beautiful form notwithstanding, it is the interior of the temple which has earned it such widespread fame within Thailand.

The visitor to a Thai wat will usually expect to see one main Buddha image inside the hall. If it is a famous historic wat, these images will usually be of great artistic or historic value, often dating back to one of the great historic kingdoms of the Thai past. However, in Wat Phumin there are not one but four main Buddha images, with one oriented towards each of the four entrance doorways. Each of the four Buddhas are seated on a high pedestal in the bhumisparsha posture, which is also known as the ‘earth-touching’ position. They are surrounded by four enormous teak pillars which support the roof. The whole tableau is very impressive and atmospheric, with the seated Buddhas dominating the central space of the wat. However, it is also not this central tableau which is Wat Phumin’s main source of fame. That distinction goes to the folksy murals which decorate the walls of the wat in such vivid detail.

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The famous ‘whispering lovers’ scene

The murals of this temple are very famous in Thailand, and entire books have been devoted to describing and commenting on them. In this blog post I have no intention of analyzing, classifying or describing them in any detail. All I intend to do here is offer the broadest of overviews or introductions. Basically, the murals were painted during the second half of the nineteenth century by a Tai Lü artist, and they represent one of the finest examples of extant mural art surviving in Thailand. Rendered in vegetable pigments, they have lovely, rich, earthy colours which are a marked contrast with the more fluorescent colours of modern Bangkok wats. But what really makes them so special is the way they depict nineteenth century village life in a quietly observant way.

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Walled city and people courting

Though there are scenes from the royal court, with all its elaborate rituals, it is the scenes of village life which are most memorable. You will find people playing musical instruments, studying, engaged in scenes of courtship, smoking cigarettes and working in the fields. In other words, unlike the typical jataka scenes we often find on murals, the ones at Wat Phumin are often much more secular, depicting life in Nan in the village and the fields. Often an earthy humour is evident in the murals. In one scene two (gay?) men seem to flirt with their eyes as they go promenading with their supposed girlfriends. There is even the famous ‘monkeys copulating’ panel in which a male monkey flaunts an erect penis at the rather unhappy looking female! The most famous of the scenes, however, is undoubtedly the ‘whispering lovers’ panel, in which a tattooed Tai Lü man in a sarong whispers to his lover, a Tai Lü woman dressed in beautiful traditional textiles. The subtle coloring of this mural and the atmosphere of quiet intimacy make this scene very memorable. Wat Phumin could easily  detain the art lover for much longer than they expected.

 

Wat Phra That Chang Kham

On our two-day trip to Nan,  we managed to get to four historic wats. The early fifteenth-century Wat Phra That Chang Kham was the first Nan wat we visited, and it turned out to be representative of this remote Thai city’s rich historical heritage. Wat Phra That Chang Kham is located in the historic core of Nan, where you will find Nan National Museum (the former palace of the King of Nan) and the nationally famous Wat Phumin. While not quite as unusual or unmissable as Wat Phumin, it is certainly one of the city’s most important monuments, and we spent more time here than we had anticipated.

The first of the wat’s three main ‘sights’ is the vihaan (assembly hall). Flanked by a pair of guardian figures, it features an elaborate portico with slender, white columns and ornately decorated woodwork. However, it is the interior which deserves most of your -attention. Sadly, the original nineteenth-century murals have been whitewashed, though traces of them can be glimpsed through the white paint. More satisfying are the traces of richly ornamental stucco which decorate part of the interior. Equally appealing are the teak columns which are painted in red and black and decorated with golden motifs. However, the real draw-card is the huge seated Buddha in the centre of the vihaan. The Buddha is performing the bhumisparshamudra, or touching the Earth posture. This represents the moment the Buddha attained Enlightenment. There are other Buddha figurines standing on the platform on which the Buddha sits, as well as a curving pair of elephant tusks.

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A Sukhothai-era Buddha in the earth-touching posture

Behind the wat is the oldest and most historically significant part of the complex: the fifteenth-century chedi known as Phra That Chang Kham, or the Elephant Chedi. It gets its name from the fact that a frieze of twenty-four elephants appear to support the golden chedi which rises above it. This style of ‘elephant chedi’ was popular in the Sukhothai period and a few other examples exist, notably at Kamphaeng Phet, Chiang Mai and Sukhothai itself. Though there are some plants growing in the cracks in the lower part of the structure, the golden spire of this chedi is well-maintained, revealing that it is still held sacred by the people of Nan and religious visitors from elsewhere in Thailand. Moreover, a large group of robed monks were visiting the complex at the time of our visit. Not wanting to make any cultural faux pas, we mostly tried to keep out of their way.

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The Elephant Chedi behind the vihaan

The final major sight to see at this wat is a beautiful statue of a Sukhothai-era Walking Buddha which is housed in the former hor trai, or manuscript library, of the wat. Until 1955 it was believed that this was a crude, plaster statue but whilst being moved, the plaster cracked to reveal a solid gold statue beneath. It was common in Thailand during periods of war or invasion for monks to disguise priceless antiquities in this way to make them less attractive to foreign looters. Today the statue is encased by a glass display cabinet, which keeps it safe from art thieves: the graceful, flowing lines of the statue are another reason to spend a little more time at this historic Nan wat.

A Trip to Albay

Albay is a name of a province in the Bicol region of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines archipelago. We decided to visit it after our trip to Catanduanes, another island located off the eastern coast of the province of Albay. Our main goal was to see the Mount Mayon, reputed to be the most beautiful island in the Philippines, but we also thought we would stop off in the cities of Tabaco and Legazpi along the way, thinking that these might be a good place to try some of the famously spicy Bicol food. We also presumed that they might have some historical sights to show for their long history of colonization, though we were uncertain about this as the sights mentioned in our guidebook were all situated outside of town.

From the Virac, the largest town on Catanduanes, we caught a minivan around the southwestern tip of the island to the small port town of San Andres. The coastal scenery was unexpectedly attractive, with impressive hill country rising up in the hinterland. San Andres, a nondescript town with the usual straggle of shops along the dusty main street, was a much less prepossessing affair. Fortunately, we did not have to wait all that long before catching the morning ferry across to the mainland at the port city of Tabaco.

It was raining when we arrived in Tabaco, so we quickly climbed into a pedicab to take us to a hotel. There were a number of small hotels near the centre of town, most of them offering basic rooms for around 1000 peso, or about $22 a night. We chose the best of the two hotels we viewed and then asked at the hotel about the possibilities of visiting the Mayon Volcano from town. According to our guidebook, it was possible to visit an abandoned motel high up on the slopes of the volcano, from which point the views were said to be spectacular. However, the hotel worker assured us that the road up to the motel was now closed due to increased geothermal activity. Those monitoring the volcano reported an increase in emissions of poisonous gases. Disappointed to find our plans disrupted, we waited for the rain to stop and then set out to explore Tabaco City on foot. While now of its sights were of the ‘unmissable’ category, the town did have a few historical buildings of note, most of them concentrated around the town plaza.

Tabaco City dates back to the early days of Spanish colonization, though its built heritage has been devastated over the centuries by repeated eruptions from Mount Mayon. However, the main plaza, laid out in Spanish colonial style is very pleasant. There are two main buildings of historic note in this area The first is Tabaco City Hall, which is an especially good example of the American colonial style in the Philippines. With its brilliant white facade and its two prominent Doric columns in the centre, it achieves a sense of monumentality for such a small building, recalling the National Museum in Manila.

The other notable building in the city is its grand historic church, St. John the Baptist Church on the main plaza. This church is an outstanding example of the so-called Earthquake Baroque style of the Philippines, in which stone churches were built with wide, low facades to increase their structural stability in the earthquake-prone nation. Here, the elegant stone facade is embellished by column pinnacles and decorative urns at the top of the structure and six false columns across the front. However, its greatest beauty is its four-storey belfry, which is possibly the most beautiful in Albay. It features ornamental niches edged with columns, an elegant balustrade around the terrace on each level and a dome on top. A local legend says the ghostly sound of its former pirate-warning bell can sometimes still be heard in the wee hours. The interior of the church is also worth checking out: the solemn, dark stonework and slender, decorative columns lend it an aesthetic appeal which few modern Filipino churches could equal.

The following day we headed to Legazpi, which provided some ample opportunities to try Bicol food, which is a pleasantly spicy change from the usual bland Filipino favorites such as pancit and tapsilog, and we also welcomed the chance to enjoy some beers along the waterfront at the Embarcadero. But we soon realized that there the city had very few buildings which seemed to be more than a few decades old. Eventually we heard that the more historic part of the city was known as Old Albay District. Therefore, we hopped on a jeepney up to Old Albay to see if we could spot any historical vestiges there. As it turned out, there were also sparse in Albay but at least there was one major monument we could visit: St. Gregory the Great Cathedral.

There was apparently a wooden church on the site as early as the 1580s and several extensions over the coming years but the original church was completely destroyed in the eruption of Mount Mayon in 1754. It wasn’t until 1834 that funds were to be found to construct a new church, and the cathedral built then is still the one we see today. It is made of coral stone with the most decoration on the facade. Here we find a pair of niches housing statues and a portico on two columns. There is a coat of arms over the door and a bell-tower on top of the facade. The inclusion of the bell-tower in the facade is a kind of local variation of the typical Catholic church of the Philippines, with another noteworthy example of this style being found at Bato in nearby Catanduanes. The front of the church has been covered in plaster, which had been painted blue. This gave the building an unusually bright and lively look.

The interior of the church was typical of other historical churches of the Philippines. There were rows of heavy wooden pews, metal lights hanging down from the wooden ceiling, minimal use of coloured glass in the windows and a rather simple altarpiece showing Jesus in a white robe. There was no one else around when we visited, and we found that a short visit was enough to satisfy our curiosity. But there was one question which still bothered us: Why was this the only major historical monument which had survived in a city with more than four centuries of recorded history? Apart from ravages of nearby Mount Mayon, it turned out that there was another interesting reason for this mystery.

The Historic Bato Church

We visited Catanduanes on our third trip to the Philippines in 2009. The island was certainly not one of the more famous destinations in the country, but if anything we were attracted by the island’s off-the-tourist radar status; we were looking for an alternative to the well-known beach resorts such as Boracay and Puerto Galera. Catanduanes was said to have fine beaches that were yet to be discovered by foreign tourists. Travellers were likely scared away by the island’s reputation as one of the country’s most typhoon-prone islands. We too had our reservations: mostly we like to see historical sights on our travels; Catanduanes had so often been battered by typhoons that little of its built heritage had survived the centuries. Nonetheless, we took some solace in the fact that there was at least one historic church to see- the  St. John the Baptist Catholic Church of Bato, often just known as the Bato Church.

We flew into the island from Manila on the now-defunct PAL Express. We had got the fare for a bargain basement price of around $40 each, which had also factored into our decision to choose Catanduanes as a destination. The flight took us across Luzon and the Maqueda Chanel to the mid-sized island, which was positioned right at the westernmost edge of the Pacific Ocean. We touched down at the island’s main airport at Virac, the largest city on the island. Virac Airport was a very low-key affair; it was one of those airports at which they wheel the luggage-trolley onto the apron and you collect the luggage yourself. Having done that, we simply walked into town, the outskirts of which stretched right to the airport.

Having checked into our hotel, we immediately set out to explore the centre of town. In terms of sightseeing, the picking turned out to be pretty meagre. It was easy to believe that the city had been repeatedly hit by typhoons, as despite it’s considerable age- Virac was already established by the middle of the eighteenth century- there was very little to show for its two and a half centuries of history. This was perhaps not all the fault of the typhoons: apparently the depredations of Moros (Muslim pirates) had also taken a heavy toll at times. Anyway, the end result that we saw was an underwhelming settlement of cinder-block houses with little grand public architecture to speak of. There were a couple of small churches which seemed to combine cinder-block renovations with older portions. Perhaps these had incorporated the ruins of older more elegant structures into themselves, but really were clutching at straws. Virac had little to recommend it to the history buff; it was time to head out to the Bato Church.

We hired a motorized tricycle out to the church, which was located about ten kilometres out of town. The road took us through pretty, green scenery with steep hills rising up behind the road. After several kilometres we stopped at a small cascade which had been promoted in the tourist literature. It was certainly not a breathtaking sight, but the water was clean and cool and it was very peaceful, surrounded only by shrubs and grasses. After a quick dip in one of the larger pools, we climbed back into the carriage of the tricycle and continued on towards Bato. As we neared our destination, we crossed the Bato, a swift-flowing river which was coming down from the hills, and I was reminded that the scenery of the interior was supposed to be wild and rugged, with many beautiful falls. Unfortunately, I realized that such adventuring was beyond the scope of our flying visit to the island.

Soon thereafter we came to the church. Made of coral rock, it has a solid, weighty look, almost as it it were hewn right out of a mountain. The heavy blocks of stone, beautifully fitted together, had doubtless helped it to weather almost two centuries of island’s turbulent weather. Began towards the end of the eighteenth century as the replacement of an earlier wooden church, it had not been completed since 1830. This suggested that it was difficult to marshall much in the way of manpower and resources during the early history of the island. Nonetheless, the Spanish had persisted and it had stood intact in that spot ever since.

The appearance of the church was in some senses rather plain. There was nothing in the way of sculpture or reliefs to speak of on the exterior, but there were some domes and cupolas, a large one on top, mounted by a cross, and smaller ones on the corners of the facade. There was also an empty niche and some small windows along the side. The focal point of the front was a bell which hung above the main door, which was locked when we visited. (Apparently access to the belltower was gained by an internal staircase). There were also two simple colonettes on either side of the door and a further one at each end of  the facade. These were not free-standing columns but rather ornamental ones which were worked into the design. At various points, vegetation sprouted out of the grey stonework, giving it a look of considerable age, or even something like a ruin from Angkor, overgrown with jungle foliage. This perception was reinforced by the lush, jungle-like growth which was covering the hill behind the church. Overall the structure had a certain grandeur in spite of its plain design.

Heading down the side, we found that there was a side door, which was open. Stepping inside, we gained a look at the interior. It was again a fairly simple affair, but it was did have a certain rustic appeal. There were rows and rows of wooden pews and a modern altar at the front. Though none of this was as original as the stone interior, it still had its charm. The front wall was decorated with simple but stately columns and a couple of chandeliers hung down from the ceiling. The altar was certainly not original but the later additions were not too ostentatious and did not greatly compromise the historical character of the church. Overall, we thought it was quite well-suited to a church of its historical stature. We agreed that it was easily the most impressive monument we had seen on our first day in Catanduanes.

Bato Church.jpg
The Bato Church from 1830, made from blocks of coral stone