Taytay: The Fortress of Palawan

Most of what gets written about Palawan concerns its incredible biodiversity and wealth of natural attractions. This is understandable, as it is undoubtedly the premier destination in The Philippines in terms of the natural world. Yet aside from its forest and reefs, it also boasts hundreds of years of written history, having been settled by the Spaniards in the seventeenth century. For the traveller in search of its colonial past, the best place to head to is not the provincial capital of Puerto Princessa, as this town is just a nineteenth-century upstart. The original Spanish settlement on Palawan- known then as Paragua, meaning ‘umbrella’- was at Taytay, about two hundred kilometres to the north.

A book on the ‘East Indies’ from 1781 offered the following description of the island, which I have decided to quote at length because it provides an evocative introduction to the early history of the island:

The island of Paragua is third in bigness among the Philippines. The compass of it is about two-hundred and fifty leagues, the length one-hundred; but the breadth not above twelve in some places, and fourteen in others. The middle of it lies between nine and ten degrees of latitude; its furthest cape, called Tagusau, towards the south-west, is fifty leagues distant from Borneo, in which there are many low islands that almost join two great ones. The inhabitants of the coasts of these islands, and of Tagusau, are subject to the Mohammedean king of Borneo, but up the country are Indians unconquered, barbarous, subject to no king, and therefore all their care is not to be subdued by the Borneans or the Spaniards; half of the lands of this island are in their possession. The Spaniards have it in about twelve hundred tributary Indians, blacks, like those of Africa, who range from place to place without any certain abode. They are faithful to the Spaniards, who keep a garrison there of two hundred men, part Spaniards, and part Indians, with an alcayde, or governor, whose residence is at Taytay, on the opposite point to Borneo, or, as the Spaniards call it, Bornei, where there is a fort.

We were determined to see this historic structure, the Santa Isabel Fort, during our visit to Palawan, so we stopped off in Taytay on the way between El Nido to Port Barton. We were so taken by the historic settlement that we ended up staying for a couple of days. We got off the Roro bus at the terminal on the edge of town and got a tricycle to Casa Rosa, one of the two main lodgings in town, for sixty pesos for three people. We walked uphill to the reception area (Casa Rosa is set partway up a hill overlooking Taytay Harbor) and were impressed by the beautifully landscaped complex, which consisted of ochre-colored bungalows set in a garden of shade trees, flowering shrubs and orchids potted in empty coconuts. The reception area was a large open space featuring a novel Christmas tree made from dead leaves. Most remarkable, however, was its stunning view of Taytay Bay, featuring numerous islands amidst the sunlit waters. And in the foreground, right along the shore, was the Fort of Santa Isabel, a satisfyingly sturdy-looking structure of dark stone, with a powerful bastion in each of the four corners.

The fort as seen from Casa Rosa

Impressed by the position of the hotel, we had a look at the rooms and found that they had a little bit of style as well, with a poster-bed in the corner of the room, wrapped in a billowing mosquito net. The view from the window took in a large slice of blue sea. There was also a hammock on the balcony, which gave me visions of lying there and reading the copy of Picnic at Hanging Rock I had picked up in El Nido. We decided to take the room. Unfortunately, later on we learned that the room was infested by bedbugs and by the time the sun rose the following morning, we were covered in red welts. It was a shame, because it really was a beautiful place to stay; hopefully they will soon learn how to fumigate the mattresses.

After we checked in, we walked down to Fort Santa Isabelle, where the garrison of 200 Spaniards and ‘Indians’ had once staked Spain’s colonial claim on Palawan. Set on the edge of a magnificent waterway, the Malampaya Sound, with the coastline of Palawan stretching away on both sides, it was a wonderful sight. We walked through the park to the main portal of the fort, which featured beautiful stone-carving over the entrance. In the various panels, there were carved religious figures wearing monastic robes, symbolizing the link between empire and religion in the colonial Philippines. From here we paid the 30 peso entrance fee, and ascended the staircase into the interior of the fort, noticing the ferns and weeds sprouting between the brickwork. The stone had obviously been quarried beneath or near the sea, as many of the blocks were patterned with the shells of sea-life.

At the top of the staircase was the interior of the fortress, now transformed into a peaceful garden. The space was covered with a luxuriant crop of lawn grass, with a few small tress planted here and there, paper lanterns hanging off their branches. In each corner was a bastion, each one named after a Spanish saint: their names were San Toribio, Santa Isabel, San Juan and San Manuel.  Some of them had garitas, or sentry-boxes, mounted in the corners. Also situated around the edge of the fort were a number of cannons, pointing out to sea. The threat of attack was not merely fictitious or speculative, as the fort had been subject to a 21-day siege from Moro (Muslim) pirates during 1739. During the attack the defenders had boiled water with the fat from slaughtered cows and water-buffalos and poured it down the sides of the fort when the pirates tried to climb inside, scalding the attackers and also making the walls slippery.

A final interesting feature of the fort was the stone-walled chapel of the fortress, once a ruin but now re-roofed with fibreglass. The most interesting feature of this structure was the altar, which was created entirely from driftwood. A marked contrast to the formal, stylized shapes of the traditional altar, the driftwood emphasized the maritime heritage of Taytayanos and the pivotal role of the sea in this remote Palawan community. Not wanting to leave the fort quickly, we lay down on the lawn besides the church and read a few pages of a novel aloud, soaking in the atmosphere of the unusual fortification, the best-preserved ancient fort of the Philippines.





The Mon Buddha of Prang Ku

After a visit to the temples of Buriram province, we headed north to the little-visited province of Chaiyaphum. We were advised at the bus station in Nang Rong that there was no direct service from Buriram. The bus station touts were all agreed: we should go back to Nakhon Ratchasima first and then get a bus onwards to Chaiyaphum from there. This turned out to be not such a hardship as the connections were quite good and we made it to Chaiyaphum after a few hours on the road.

A Thai-style pavilion at the Siam River Resort

Chaiyaphum was off the main highways, so it seemed a particularly sleepy town even by Isaan standards. There were few cars or pedestrians around as we wandered through the middle of the city towards our pre-booked hotel, the Siam River Resort. It was a sprawling complex with a swimming-pool, a Thai restaurant and bar, a fitness centre, a carp pond and children’s playground. The leafy grounds were very pleasant and the timber architecture gave it a low-key, country feel, though other guests were conspicuous by their absence. We had a late lunch at the airy Thai restaurant (typical Isaan fare such as laab gai) and then set off to see Prang Ku, the city’s one surviving monument from its long history.

This was our first trip to Isaan since 1999, and my memory of the region was of an unusually dry and arid land. But that trip had been towards the end of the Dry Season and our impression this time was completely different. It was raining lightly as we set off for Prang Ku and the river alongside the resort was flowing quickly. The children’s park  near our park was completely inundated with rainwater. As you would expect, the town was full of green trees and flowering shrubs, giving it a completely different look to parched cityscape I had expected. Deciding to brave the light rain, we went straight to Prang Ku, which was only a short walk from our hotel.

Prang Ku is situated about three kilometres from Chaiyaphum’s central market, which places it in the suburbs of the small city. The descriptions we had read in advance made it seem like it was out in the countryside, but this is not the case. There were houses and shops all around the temple; in fact, it is located in a field by the side of a suburban road. However, that did not detract from the appeal of the place; somehow it was an atmospheric ruin in spite of its rather humdrum surroundings.

A spirit house on the grounds of Prang Ku


Prang Ku was set alongside a small accompanying baray (tank), which clearly marked it out as a Khmer construction. This accompanying pond enhanced the appeal of the temple, as did the spreading tamarind tree which was growing behind the temple. There was a small white spirit house beneath it, with floral garlands hanging off it. The rest of the site was covered with grass and creepers, which gave it a shaggy, overgrown look. Though it was in the middle of the small city, it had the look of an archaeological site out in the countryside. Similarly, the temple itself was mostly a ruin, though a modicum of repair work had been done.

The crumbling laterite ruins of Prang Ku

Most sources on Prang Ku describe it as a 13th century Khmer temple but the signboard at the site offered a different view. It said that Prang Ku was in fact one of more than a hundred Angkorean era hospital chapels (arogayasala) from the current territory of Thailand. Whatever  the case, the only part of the structure which has survived intact is the main tower or prang. While far from complete- it may once have been covered by beautiful stucco work- you do get a sense of lotus-bud shaped tower, giving some sense of its original appearance. The tower also has sandstone lintels over the door- the only part of the structure which is not built from laterite. There were  carved figures visible on the these lintels, but they were rather damaged, so we could not identify any particular mythological scene. The surrounding colonnades had mostly collapsed, leaving a jumble of slabs of pitted laterite. This reddish stone was deeply pitted, giving it a look of great age. A few sandstone and window-frames and door-frames remained intact, but the laterite portions had given way.

The Mon Buddha in the cella of Prang Ku

However, perhaps the most interesting feature of the temple was the surprise hidden inside. In the cella of Prang Ku you will find a beautiful, little Buddha image of Mon provenance, perhaps dating back to the eighth or ninth century. This seated Buddha has a serene expression, and the carving is still relatively crisp after twelve centuries or so. Still venerated by locals today, the image was covered in gold-leaf during and cloaked in a golden robe during our visits, revealing that this image- first carved by ancient Mon during the Dvaravati period- is now fully assimilated as a part of Thai religious life. Votives to this sandstone Buddha deck the interior of the shrine. This adoption of Mon culture into mainstream Thai religious practice- here via the Angkorean empire- is one of the most intriguing undercurrents in Thai history. It is rarely so easy to appreciate as at Prang Ku, where Mon, Khmer and Thai culture are all represented in a single shrine.


Ban Khon Sawan

The Khorat Plateau, a sandstone formation of an average height of about one and hundred and fifty to two hundred metres above sea level, dominates much of Northeastern Thailand, the part of the country usually known as Isaan. This part of the country is unusually dry, with sparse vegetation and yellow grassland replacing the vivid green vegetation of Central and Southern Thailand. If you come through here, many of the houses are on stilts with huge, earthen water-jars under the houses to store water for the long, dry months when there is little precipitation. It is a very different part of the country that few Western tourists ever see, being much more poorer and more rural than most other parts of the country. There is very little English spoken and it can take some time and effort catching local transportation out to remote villages and sites, but travel in Isaan can be an adventure in a way that the main tourist destinations of Thailand have not been for decades. And if you are interested in history and culture there is a lot to see.

On our trip to Chaiyaphum, an Isaan province well off any tourist trail, we focused on the province’s rich heritage from the Mon-Dvaravati period. According to Stephen A. Murphy, the leading expert on the bai sema monuments of Isaan, the province contains one of the most important clusters of these ancient stones. Around a tenth of all 110 known bai sema sites are in the modern province of Chaiyaphum, all of them located near the Chi River or its numerous small tributaries. At 750 kilometres long, it is the longest river wholly within Thailand, running through some of the driest territory in the country. It was clearly used as a river for trade by the ancient Mon, as numerous moated settlement sites are situated near the Chi and its tributaries. During the 8th and 9th centuries these sites produced beautiful carved stones called bai sema depicting jataka scenes, scenes from the life of the Buddha. Artistically, these rank as some of the most beautiful ancient art of the Isaan region. Perhaps the two best sites, as suggested by Murphy, are at the modern villages of Ban Kut Ngong and Ban Khon Sawan.

Ban Khon Sawan is set in the easternmost part of Chaiyaphum province along a small tributary of the Chi River. It is situated about thirty-eight kilometres from the provincial capital and it can be accessed by local bus from Chaiyaphum  city. The trip out there takes you through dry, sere Isaan countryside, with timber houses rising up on stilts above the flat, infertile land. It was far from obvious during our trip, but Isaan’s flat terrain can be subject to catastrophic flooding if the Chi River bursts its banks. This last happened in 2011, and many photos of the province we encountered in researching our trip depicted the province in a state of inundation.

The shelter containing the bai sema
The shelter containing the bai sema

When you finally arrive at Ban Khon Sawan, it is a very quiet, almost deserted, Thai village of timber houses, gardens full of banana palms and concrete public buildings by the side of country lanes. It does, however, boast an impressive collection of bai sema at Wat Ban Khon Sawan, the main temple in the village. Within the grounds of the temple is a very Thai-looking wooden shelter housing a collection of about two dozen carved stones. The shelter itself is a white, open-walled structure with a running flame motif around the edges of the roof. It is the ancient stones within that are the treasure, however.

These sandstone slabs are in various states of repair but many of them depict jataka scenes from the life of the Buddha. One especially fine carving depicted a Buddha seated in the lotus position with an aura of mystical energy around him as he looks down, with a serene expression, on a slightly grotesque seated figure. Another important one, identified by Stephen A. Murphy as Sema 662, depicts the Brahmin Alambayana seizing the Bodhisattva in his incarnation as a naga meditating on an anthill. The Brahmin wrestles him from his perch and put him into a basket. After that he brings him to a village and uses him to make money as a snake-charmer. Another important stone, Sema 663, depicts the story of Prince Temiya and the charioteer. The charioteer has been tasked with digging a grave for Prince Temiya, whom the evil king believes is deaf and dumb, a mere ‘idiot’. This finally forces the prince to reveal that he can speak and move. Overall, the condition of the carving on the bai sema was not as crisp as at Ban Kut Ngong, but it is still affords fascinating insights into the history and culture of Thailand before the Thais.

Before leaving the wat, there was one more important thing to see. In addition to the shed housing the bai sema, there is a shrine at the site which contains a stone statue dating back to the Dvaravati period. It was largely covered in a monastic robe which had been wrapped around it, but the ancient head was still visible. The plethora of votive offerings left at its feet revealed that the image was still much venerated by locals. As many places elsewhere in Thailand, the Thais had adopted a former Mon statue as their own, absorbing it as part of their own cultural heritage.