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Ilocos…The Philippines’ Far North

Their countrymen call their land the extreme north. I find it rough and rugged geographically, and the people there have an identity of their own, distinct from the rest of the country. High seas and rough winds are a frequent visitor to their land, and their skin, as much as their spirit, have been toughened by exposure to the forces of nature. I could be talking about the Scottish, or I could also be talking about the Ilocanos. Inhabitants of the rugged, mountainous northern end of the Philippines, I can see similarities between the rugged highlander, and the tough, sun-blessed Ilocano. To me, Ilocos is to the Philippines, what Scotland is to Britain.

The “Ilocandia” has been one of my favorite places in the country, ever since I first went there around 12 years ago. And it’s not because I have Ilocano blood and have family in the region, but because I find the whole place interesting, and ruggedly beautiful. The cultural identity of the Ilocano is so strong, some people consider the Ilocos, half-jokingly, a republic within a republic. And the rugged  coastlines of their land are a thing of absolute beauty. I consider the coastal highways stretching from Northern Pangasinan to Ilocos Norte to be among the most visually engaging drives in the country.

We drove to Ilocos again during this year’s summer break, and went up as far as Vigan in Ilocos Sur, one of the Philippine’s most beautiful cities, if I may say so my self. Its cobblestoned streets give an experience of colonial-era Philippines better than what even the famous Intramuros could. I have been to other old cities like Cebu, Jaro in Iloilo, and Silay in Negros, but nowhere else has the feel of the old Spanish-era been as well preserved as in Vigan. Whole streets are preserved, and though shops now dominate the lower floors of the old houses, I find their presence mutually beneficial, rather than intrusive, or worse, parasitic. The shops have been regulated not to alter the appearance of the houses, and they give life to the streets, making Vigan an active, living piece of the past, and not just a dust gathering museum piece.

For this trip, we stayed at the Vitalis White Sands resort, in Sabangan Beach, around an hour’s drive south of Vigan. Sister (and neighbour) to the more popular and posh Vitalis Villas, the Vitalis White Sands’ advantage is its direct access to the beachfront along Sabangan Cove. Having white sand, a shallow gradient, and clean and calm waters, the beach along Sabangan Cove is one of the few really good beaches within a day’s driving distance from Manila.

*We were in Ilocos last April 2017.



A bird’s eye view of Penang island, as a thunderstorm rolls over the Malaysian mainland across the strait.

Penang was the start and end point of our cruise with the Superstar Libra. Coming from Manila and entering the county through Kuala Lumpur, we travelled by bus to this northern Malaysian state. One of the best things about Malaysia is that the transportation infrastructure is well developed, by Southeast Asian standards, and so the whole trip was smooth. We left Manila past 6 in the morning, arrived at Kuala Lumpur International before noon, took the train (KLIA express and LRT) to the KLCC area, had lunch, sipped coffee, killed time, before boarding the bus (below) at 4 in the afternoon, and we were in Penang by 9 in the evening. All that while finishing two full movies of my choice through the bus’s onboard personal entertainment system. What a sweet way to travel.

The price of the bus ride itself is just a little over the price of watching 2 movies in a high end cinema, so it’s just like paying for two movies and getting a free ride. Neat.

We stayed at Georgetown, Penang’s capital city, the nights before and after the cruise. Georgetown is an interesting coastal city. Named after the king of Britain at the time of its founding, Georgetown was one of the oldest British settlements in Southeast Asia. Stamford Raffles, the famous founder of Singapore, once worked as an official in Penang in his younger years.

Present day Georgetown retains the old world charm of the colonial days, and the entire city center is a UNESCO heritage site. As Chinese immigrants flocked to Penang during the colonial period, the streets of central Georgetown are lined with old Chinese-style houses, which have been maintained up to now. While these are now occupied by all sorts of establishments, from stores, to restaurants, to hotels, to what have you, they were kept intact. 

Now, that doesn’t mean Georgetown is an overgrown antique shop, for beneath that colonial facade is a modern city, where new buildings blend with the old, and a developed transport system with very organized routes can take you places. Georgetown’s old world charm also attracts many visitors, and like the olden days, some of them arrive by sea. It is regularly on the itinerary of cruise ships that ply Asia, and as such, it has a dedicated cruise ship terminal called the Swettenham Pier.

The old and new. Georgetown was one of the first and oldest British settlements in Southeast Asia, and is currently Malaysia’s second largest city.

The Komtar Tower, Penang’s tallest structure

Superstar Libra and the Ovation of the Seas, at Swettenham Pier, Georgetown’s cruise terminal.

A view of Georgetown’s coastline, from the Superstar Libra at sea.

A view of Georgetown, from the Superstar Libra docked at the pier. An isolated thunderstorm, typical in tropical afternoons, is rolling in from the left.

 Of course, one doesn’t come to Penang just to see, but also to taste. It is called Malaysia’s gastronomic capital, and rightly so. If Kuala Lumpur is a food paradise, then I don’t know what to call Penang. It sits higher than paradise, perhaps too high to be named.Almost every corner in central Georgetown invites you to eat, especially at night when the hawkers take over the streets. The variety of food that you will come across just by walking along is astounding. Among the must tries are the Char Kwey Teow, Penang’s trademark fried noodle, and Fried Oysters, a treasure I just discovered while choosing randomly what to eat among a cluster of hawkers.

Fried Oysters, my personal favorite.

Penang’s trademark Char Kwey Teow

If you’ve got spare time, a trip to Penang Hill, via the Penang Hill Railway (a funicular system) would be worth it. Sitting at 700 meters above sea level, the environment at the top is noticeably cooler than in the rest of the island below, and gives a spectacular view of Georgetown and Seberang Perai, the other half of the state of Penang, on the Malaysian mainland. There are resturants and cafes atop the hill, so you can stay for a while, while soaking up the view.  The Penang Hill Railway starts at the village of Air Itam, around 45 minutes from central Georgetown, via RapidPenang’s bus 203.

*We were in Penang on April 2017.