Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas in Bangkok, Manila & Chiang Saen 2011 - No Escaping Christmas

A few weeks ago, there was an article in Yahoo! Travel entitled "8 Places to Escape Christmas" written by Miriam Weiner (December 7, 2011). This list-making included the following exotic places: Marrakech, Morocco; St. Petersburg, Russia; Istanbul, Turkey; The Bahamas; Kyoto, Japan; The Maldives; Agra, India; and of course, Bangkok, Thailand. The common denominator here would be, that most of these places have very few Christians.

But there's something hokey about the premise of such piece. It only comes once every 365 and 1/4 days in a year. If you've indeed spent lots of Christmases, why would you wanna escape it? Unless of course, you're the unrepentant Ebenezer Scrooge.

It is a season when people are generally nicer and more tolerant; the atmosphere, despite the growing capitalism within the season, is light. And places are decked in lovely lights and colorful decorations. It's a festive time. Why indeed would you? It's a ridiculous concept.

Moreover, if you've been to Bangkok lately - a city on the defensive, with sandbags awkwardly lodged in sidewalks - like a war zone waiting to happen, you would know that Christmas is alive in the Thai capital!

As proof, the grounds of Central World, one of my favorite malls in the Pratunam district, is back (it was a victim of the political wranglings; it eventually got arsoned and several areas had been burned by political activists)! At the "lawn" of the mall, you could find a giant Christmas Tree, some semblance of a snowman, and festive animated decorations, including several smaller Christmas Trees! And this is just in one mall. Imagine the hundreds scattered around the metropolis.

While it's true that majority of Thailand's population is Buddhist, it's a wrong assumption that the urban denizens here, both locals and expats, shun Christmas, mangers and mistletoes altogether. If they don't believe in the essence of Christmas, they believe in the beauty of such accoutrements - and there's proof of this everywhere! Even Malaysia's predominantly Muslim population in Kuala Lumpur has lavish Christmas decorations in their malls; I've seen this every December in the last three years. This would make the Yahoo Travel article running on spurious assumptions. It is a figment of Weiner's imagination, i.e. that "Bangkok" most especially is "an excellent holly-jolly escape".

Maybe if you go further away from the madding crowd? Like a very remote and lethargic northern town near the Myanmar and Laos border like "Chiang Saen"? Maybe then you can escape Christmas? Well, check out what I found beautifully decorated as center piece of a Mekong-fronting temple's facade: a Christmas Lantern! The temple - Wat Pha Khao Pan, constructed in 761 A.D.

Escaping Christmas indeed!

Meanwhile, in Manila, beautiful parols (Christmas Lanterns) and Belens (mangers) are once again on display everywhere you look. A colorful manger is on display at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal 3's Departure Hall (see photo below). In Ortigas Center, a giant Christmas Tree is born out of hundreds of little white lanterns, lit by white led lights! Though the spectacle isn't exactly duplicated in photographs, believe me, it's a marvel - live! There are two of them at the crossroads of Julia Vargas near San Miguel Building and Podium. Manila, the only predominantly Catholic nation in Asia, is obviously not a place to escape Christmas.

But why would you?


This is the Eye in the Sky!

Giant "snowman" at the Central World grounds.

At the elevated pedestrian ramp called "skywalk" (connecting Central World to the Siam Malls and MBK) are more Christmas decorations. No mistletoe?



Giant Tree, teddy bears in a leisure park called "World of Happiness" at the Central World.

Holly-jolly escape in Bangkok?

Open air concert with a large LCD screen at the Central World

Wat Pha Khao Pan's center piece decoration is a huge white Christmas Lantern! This Mekong-facing temple in the walled town of Chiang Saen negates the assumption that Christmas is ignored in Thailand!

Manger at the NAIA Terminal 3 Departure Hall

Hundreds of little white lanterns constitute a giant Christmas Tree at the Ortigas Center.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Fort San Pedro - Cebu City

Fort San Pedro is a defensive military structure built a few days after the arrival of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, the Spanish conquistador, who in 1565 built the first Spanish settlement in the Philippines - 44 years after Ferdinand Magellan's "discovery" of the Philippines.

An official report in 1739 described it as triangular in shape and made of mortar and stone. Its three bastions (defensive sides) are named La Concepcion, San Ignacio de Loyola and San Miguel. However, records show that 11 days after the arrival of Legaspi, the construction of the fort (which commenced on May 8, 1565) was fast-tracked to provide immediate security in the area. It was originally made of a triangular wooden palisade situated on a promontory and enclosing a few "wells" of fresh water, one is still operation. The two sides facing the sea were defended by artillery while the side facing the land was sufficiently defended by a thick wall.

The fort was named Fort San Pedro, in honor of Legaspi's flagship, the same ship that was sent back to Mexico after the establishment of the first Spanish settlement in Cebu. I do wonder why Mexico, and not Spain.

The significance of the fort rests on its being a physical evidence of the arrival of the Spaniards in the Philippines, building a settlement that eventually grew into an empire all throughout the Philippine archipelago. The Spaniards then ruled the country for the next 500 years.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Entrance to the Fort. There's a cheap P30 entrance fee for adults; cheaper if you're a student.

The Santo Nino looking from above the fort entrance.

This building used to house a small museum that has since been moved elsewhere. It presently holds some letters written by Andres Bonifacio and some weapons used by the revolutionaries.

Our Lady of the Fort - Our Virgin of the Remedies: The 2nd oldest image of the Virgin Mary in the country is Nuestra Senora de la Cotta found in the Cathedral of Cebu City. This image, according to traditional Cebuanos, was found in a well that was in the Cotta (fort) between 1570 to 1575. This discovery proved to be "miraculous" due to the water in the well used by local folk to cure illnesses.

The statue is small, with an infant in her arms. The sculpture was European, and venerated by the locals in the chapel of the fort until the mid-1900s when it was eventually transferred to the Cathedral of Cebu. Its feast day is celebrated every 18th of December (five days ago from this posting).

The way out.

The gradually ascending ramp way leading towards the frontal bastion.

The upper portion of the port has gardens and plants - even coconuts.

A cannon directed towards Plaza Independencia.

Here are a few photos of how the fort looked like back in the days:

A triangular fort with its 3 bastions which were partly destroyed again during the earthquake of 2014.

The grounds within the fort.

Fort San Pedro circa 1920.

The earliest fort, made of wood, constructed 11 days after the arrival of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi in 1565. This was gradually modified in stages; wood is replaced by stone and mortar.

Portraits of Ferdinand Magellan (left), the Portuguese who headed the first Spanish expedition that reached the Philippines in 1521; and of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi (right) who, in 1565, founded the first Spanish settlement in Cebu. He became the first governor general of this settlement.

The arrival of the Spanish fleet; the first Spanish settlement in the Philippines.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Plaza Independencia, Cebu City

It's the unofficial lawn of Fort San Pedro, and one of the most picture-perfect places to visit in Cebu - Plaza Independencia.

It pays homage to Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, the Spaniard touted to be the founder of Cebu City. He is also the first governor general of the Philippines under the Spanish rule. His all-white memorial edifice (see photo above) rises right across a pavilion. It also has a bronze statue of former president Ramon Magsaysay, one of the most beloved presidents the country has ever had. Magsaysay is the 7th president of the country, particularly admired by the grass root society. The plaza also hosts a weird looking statue in honor of the war veterans; the monument faces the Philippine Ports Authority building from the bayside area. A skating rink is situated near Legaspi's memorial, with huge Acacia trees gracefully rising from the plain.


It was originally called Plaza de Armas in the early 1600's, probably due to it's strategic location to the defensive fort, but after an expansion of the grounds, it was renamed Plaza Mayor. Another name change occurred when the Spaniards wanted to honor the Spanish Queen , calling the place Plaza Maria Cristina. When the Americans took over the reigns, they emphasized the country's "freedom" from the haughty Spaniards, thus renaming once again the park into "Plaza Libertad". Its latest renaming resulted to "Plaza Independencia".

These days, the plaza is a stately facade of the frequently visited Fort San Pedro. It deserves to be visited.

This gated plaza is open daily: 6AM to 10 PM Mondays to Fridays, and 5 AM to 12 AM on Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is free.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Memorial of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, the first governor general of the country and the founder of Cebu City.

Ramon Magsaysay, the Philippines' 7th President

War Veterans' Monument

Giant Acacia trees