Marching through Bataan

Balanga’s Plaza Mayor with the old water tower and the Plaza Hotel in the background.

MANILA, Philippines - Behold Bataan. Two words that welcome us upon arrival at the provincial tourism office in the capital of Balanga. The stylish facility is a delightful surprise for a province that doesn't figure prominently in the tourist radar. As a destination, Bataan has largely been uncharted territory, which is why we welcomed the opportunity to explore this province upon the invitation of retired wedding photographer and now tour organizer Lee Llamas together with the Bataan Tourism Office.

From Manila, it's a smooth 2.5-hour drive west to Balanga. Arriving on a Saturday night, we are surprised at the vibrancy of the old town square now called Plaza Mayor. Focal to the area is the Balanga Cathedral with its bricked facade and octagonal bell tower constructed in 1739. In 2013, the city government revamped the once decrepit space, allowing modern development in the form of commercial spaces and restaurant chains to be built around the historical street plan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our host, the 34-room Plaza Hotel, sits right smack in the middle of this square which is brightly lit at night and enhanced with colorful dancing fountains. It's the perfect base from which to explore the city and her surroundings. Ersatz architecture aside, Balanga's Plaza Mayor is a refreshing urban reinterpretation in this day and age when mammoth malls have all but sucked out the life from traditional old plazas.

From war memorials to wetlands

 There's no escaping it, the history of the Second World War looms large in Bataan. As the site of a bloody military encounter in 1942 between Filipino, colonial American and invading Japanese forces, the name of the province is forever enshrined in the annals of the world's biggest armed conflicts through the infamous Bataan Death March, that ruthless transfer of POWs from the town of Mariveles to Capas, Tarlac, which literally killed thousands along the way.

Over in the town of Pilar, a steep but scenic drive up to Mount Samat take us to the iconic Dambana ng Kagitingan, a shrine built in 1970 by then President Ferdinand Marcos to honor the fallen heroes of the siege of 1942.

The site is dominated by the 555-meter high memorial cross that provides a panoramic view of the peninsula. As you go up the ageing lift, take time to appreciate the concrete bas reliefs and bronze doors depicting significant battles in the country's history as interpreted by National Artist Napoleon Abueva. At the base of shrine is the Colonnade, a marble-capped structure that houses an altar, esplanade and museum.

Impressive as it is in scale and significance, the shrine has aged like the war veterans it honors and is in need of a major, up-to-date renovation to inspire the next generation of youth as well as honor the sacrifices of our forefathers.

Capping off our visit, we hike up to the 540-meter Mount Samat zip line for an exhilarating bird's eye view of Bataan's hills and rice terraces, finally landing conveniently near Dunsulan Waterfalls for refreshing dip.

For a fresher and more intimate look at this aspect of provincial history, we make a quick stop at Balanga Elementary School to visit the life-sized surrender site marker and the recently opened Bataan World War II Museum. Here story panels, selected war memorabilia and two over-sized dioramas chronicle the history of the war in the province. This community museum is a project of the HAS Club of Balanga and is run by cheery teacher volunteers within the school facility.   

Still in Balanga, a quick visit to the city's Wetland and Nature Park acquainted us with the mangrove ecosystem on the fringes of Manila Bay which has become a transient natural habitat for endemic and migratory birds who nest here during the cold winter months. This facility really comes alive every December as the city hosts the annual Ibong Dayo Festival which attracts bird watching enthusiasts for a seasonal mass assemblage of feathered creatures.

Of nuclear plants and refugee camps     

More than war memorials, Bataan also hosts historical reminders of a more recent vintage. An unexpected highlight for this trip is a visit to the controversial Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNNP) in the seaside town of Morong. Started in 1976 by Marcos, this facility was built at the cost of $2.3 billion but never went into operation. Today, the BNNP has opened its doors to visitors for a peak at the only nuclear plant in the country.

With an in-house engineer now turned guide leading the way, we explore the facility's central core, seeing major sections such as the control room, turbines and down to the nuclear reactor. The tour is a fascinating one, with a curious blend of nuclear dynamics, peppered with local and political history.

Not too far away, the Bataan Technology Park in Baranggay Sabang is the site of the former Philippine Refugee Processing Center (PRPC). Today, a museum within highlights a chapter in the provincial history when Bataan welcomed and hosted around 350,000 Indochinese, mostly Vietnamese, refugees and asylum seekers from 1980-1994.

Through basic displays and faded photographs, the exhibit chronicles the daily life and society of these refugees while they waited out the processing of their documents for their eventual resettlement to host countries such as the US, Canada and Australia.

An original prototype of a boat used by a group of Vietnamese ‘Boat People' that washed ashore is displayed prominently inside the center.

As we wrapped up our weekend at the sprawling Montemar Beach Resort in Bagac, we watched the beautiful sunset by the West Philippine Sea and reflected on the seaside calm, truly an antithesis from the dramatic events of WWII which the province has come to be associated with.

As we discovered in this trip, marching through Bataan revealed more than just the familiar textbook war history but also that of a naturally blessed land whose recent history is as compelling as its storied wartime past.

 

For more information on historical tours to Bataan, visit www.theplazahotelbalanga.com or email Lee Llamas leellamas@gmail.com.

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