Province of Aklan is located northwest of Panay Island in the Western Visayas region of the Philippines. It neighbors Iloilo, Capiz, and Antique provinces in its south, east, and southwest borders, respectively and it's facing the Sibuyan Sea from the north. Every third Sunday of January each year, its capital Kalibo becomes a central attraction for its famous Ati-Atihan festival. The feast is to celebrate Santo Nino (Infant Jesus), the most significant religious icon in Roman Catholic Church of Philippines.
Be forewarned, this article contains plentiful of information and a little longer compared to my previous posts. It's not a recommended read prior to bedtime or after taking your lunch. A cold can of Red Bull might help you stay awake, though.
In order to know more about this little known (to us) Filipino region, wifey and I embarked on a mini side-trip right into the heart of Kalibo. It wasn't really a plan to scout around Kalibo but sometimes last minute changes could lead to surprises. It was actually a story from a local acquaintance that drove our intentions to set foot inside its town museum.
Coincidentally, just two days before that, Aklan was selected to host the annual celebration of the International Museum Day (IMD) for 2013. Cut the story short, our drop-off point was at one terminal somewhere in the town center. A tricycle had waited for us at the terminal and ready to take us where we were heading. "Aklan Museum, how much?", I told and asked the tricycle operator at the same time. He nodded but contemplated on the fare amount. He might have guessed we were local tourists and suddenly "Fifteen pesos", he replied after a short pause. I grinned and hopped to the front seat while wifey took the back. I've just realized a few seconds ago that 15 pesos was the cheapest tricycle fare throughout our stay in Aklan.
Three-wheeled ride, Pinoy-style
The local transport called tricycle is a famous form of public transportation that can be found throughout the Philippines. It's actually a modded Honda TMX155 motorbike, with a sidecar. They claimed the maximum number of passengers that can get on a tricycle at any point of time is 7. At first, I doubted it until I realized many times the claim was right. In fact, on several occasions, there were 8 passengers on a tricycle. Seven of them in the sidecar and another one fellow rode pillion. How can that be possible, you may ask? Here's how it goes, the sidecar has a front seat for 2 persons while another 4 can go in the back seats. One more can sit just in front of the front left passenger, on an additional foldable seat. However, this formation can only be achieved depending on the size of each passenger. Most small to medium-built locals or Asians may fit into this 8-person sardine can but definitely not for those westerners. One thing we noticed on all tricycles we had rode on is the disabled speedometer. Although it's not crucial to ride a bike knowing the speed, I couldn't figure out why they have to disable that standard feature. Image below shows a Kalibo tricycle operator's vest, not a prisoner's code or something.
Are we there yet?
Back to Kalibo town, it reminds me of some place which I can't figure its whereabouts. Sounds like dejavu, huh. This small capital of Aklan is obviously far more peaceful than Manila, the nation's capital. It was almost 4 PM on a Tuesday, so business as usual for most locals but everything, especially the traffic looked pretty stress-free. Just five minutes later, I could see a building which architecture dated back to the colonial era, in front of us, and the tricycle stopped right in front of its main entrance. I hoped the tricycle guy took us to the right place because I couldn't see anything that told me that is the museum. The words on the wall above the entrance, Museo It Akean, sounded like we were at the correct location, though. Across the street, we can see the Cathedral of Kalibo. So, upon paying 15 pesos to the tricyclist (sounds like a pro), we walked into the museum feeling a little excited.
One-hour 'hot' tour
At the entrance, we paid up 15 pesos each for admission fee. Two guys were manning the simple reception area near the entrance and we were allowed to put our packs somewhere nearby. Since the museum will be closed at 5 PM, we didn't have much time left to waste. Luckily, the museum is not that huge.
It's only a two-story building with an exhibition area of only about 60 meters long by 30 meters wide on each floor. The only problem with the building is the ventilation system. Given a sunny day such as the day we've been there, visitors would sweat madly on their way out. No air-conditioning units were seen but one expensive-looking, old table fan was used by the guys at the reception. Windows? The building was designed with colored glasses and real windows but they weren't opened. Undeterred by the hot interior climate of the museum, we started the self-tour of the museum from the right side of the building on its ground floor.
This section gave us some introductions to Aklan province including its geographical facts and historical events that contributed to its civilization. Aklan covers more than 190,000 hectares of land area and divided into 17 municipalities:
- Kalibo (oldest town and also the capital)
- New Washington (wowww)
Inside these 17 territories, there are 317 barangays (wards or small districts). In Malaysia, the equivalent to Philippines' barangay is probably the mukim or kampung. Beyond this is more political which I don't bother much.
This is how Aklan started
In 1212, a group of ten Malays from Borneo headed by one Datu Puti came to shore on Panay Island. They fled Borneo as a result of an oppressive ruler, Makatunaw. As the sailing party was considerably huge, with all ten Datus arrived on Panay with their wives, families, and slaves, the need for a small settlement was imminent. For that, Puti sat to negotiate a land deal with Marikudo of Aetas tribe, the chief of Negritos native. Upon consent from other tribal leaders, Marikudo agreed to give up the lowlands to the Borneans to settle in. Meanwhile, those native tribes took up the mountainous regions around the island. The acquired lowland was renamed to Madyaas, which means paradise and later was divided into three areas: Irong-rong, Hamtik, and Akean. The latter was put under Datu Bangkaya's jurisdiction. Historians concluded that the word Akean was derived from the Aklanon word akaean which connotes the warbling of running waters. Why Akean was chosen? None that I know. Later in 1433, Datu Bendahara Kalantiaw, the third chief of Panay introduced a set of code of laws which was known as the Code of Kalantiaw.
Code of Kalantiaw, the ancient Filipino law
The ancient law code pointed out 18 orders on punishment for civil and criminal offenses. Although most of the orders seemed to be ridiculous today, the code had successfully governed Filipino natives for about 100 years before the arrival of the Spaniards. Let's take a look at some of the contents of the Kalantiaw's code of laws:
Type of offense: Have women that are very young or more than one man can support; excessive lust.
Punishment: Swim for three hours for first-time offenders, beaten to death with sharp thorns for repeating it.
Type of offense: Kill a black cat during a new moon or steal anything from the chiefs.
Punishment: Expose to ants for half a day.
Type of offense: Hide or deny own beautiful daughters to be approached by sons of chiefs.
Punishment: To be made slave for life.
Rare offenses but severe punishments will follow. Out of 18 orders, none was targeting the female gender.
Anchored armada of Spain
This section is added just to ensure the continuity in my story-telling. I actually didn't see any exhibits within the museum that told me how Aklan was found, ruled or exploited during the Spanish conquest of islands in the Philippines. Generally, it was Ferdinand Magellan who first found Philippines on his way to the Spice Islands. He was the same ambitious explorer and skillful sailor that came to Malacca and helped started a Portuguese colony back in 1511. With that success in Malacca, he was sponsored by King of Spain to find a better route to Asia in a voyage that took him and his fleet around the world. His expeditions were very inspiring but I have a limited space here this time.
In 1921, he was forced to stop in Cebu to get more supplies. Unfortunately, the natives didn't welcome him so well. The armada of 5 ships was simply taken as a threat to the local natives. A war started and Magellan's life was cut short by natives led by chief Lapu Lapu. He was killed with a poisoned arrow and a spear through his heart. Two decades later, another Spanish fleet, probably with more ships again sailed to islands of Philippines and successfully conquered part of them. The Spanish then named those islands as La Islas Filipinas, after King Philip II of Spain. This was the start of more than 300 years of Spanish rule in the region.
Local delicacies (but we didn't get to taste any)
Next up, the locally popular food among the Aklanons. While I don't think Aklan's authentic main dishes like Binakoe (mixture of young bamboo, young native chicken, onions, and other condiments), Tamilok (raw woodworms dipped in vinegar mix), or Inubarang Manok (native chicken, banana core, coconut milk, and other common ingredients) will suit my tastebud, a few of its delicacies looked quite tasty. Among them are Carioca (deep-fried sticky rice dipped in sugar), Kumbo (deep-fried mixture of bananas and flour and sugar), and Latik (wrapped sticky rice topped with sweetened coconut). Sadly, we didn't get the chance to find all these delicacies during our stay in the Philippines. We always turn away from being foodies while traveling. Somehow I think Filipinos like a little extra sweetness in their cooking, based on several major meals I tried. A little turn off for me, unfortunately.
(Climbing a flight of stairs to the first floor)
My shirt is a pineapple
I kid you not. Okay, it's not really a pineapple but the fiber extracted from selected leaves of wild native pineapple plants. It's called pina (Spanish for pineapple) fiber. This fiber will then be woven and turned into pina cloth. Aklan is the oldest and major producer of pina fabric in the Philippines. It's an age-old tradition where extracting and weaving techniques were passed from generations to another. During the 18th century, clothing made from this material was made as precious gift to monarchs of Europe. Unsurprisingly, due to its rarity, pina textile are still one of the country's premium export to North America and Europe.
When it comes to clothing, pina fiber is not really everything that symbolizes the Filipino people. Their traditional attire had undergone many decades, centuries of changes and innovations with culture influences from other neighboring countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Chinese, Indian, and also Arab. It then got mixed up with European variations and tastes after the arrival of the Spaniards. It is learnt that of all styles brought in to the country's fashion boom, only baro't saya has retained its pre-colonial, traditional design.
Apart from local traditional clothing and pina textile, top floor of the museum also serves as a place to store unique and limited collection of religious artifacts. When we talk about Philippines, of course Christianity is the main religion. More precisely, the Roman Catholics. The Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s came to these group of islands nation mainly to introduce Christianity to the natives as part of its religious expansion plans. From there, the believe grew larger and finally conveyed throughout the country. Images of Santo Nino has become the most popular image of Christ since then. Other well known images that can be found in the Philippines are Santo Cristo, Bambino, St Joseph, and a few others. Half of the museum's top floor is dedicated to display most of these elements of Jesus and Christianity. Also on display, a red chair seated by the Pope John Paul II during his celebration of the Holy Mass in Iloilo City, 1982.
Ati-Atihan, from friendship celebration to religious fest
Datu Puti's entourage negotiated a purchase of pieces of land in Panay with an Ati chieftain Marikudo. In exchange for that land, the chieftain received golden necklace, golden salakot (a type of hat), golden wash basin, cloth, as well as trinkets for the chieftain's wife. I believe they were still trading in barter system those days. To celebrate the joyous moment, the chieftain ordered a feast to be held. To appreciate the good gesture and friendliness of their host, those Malays wore costumes to look like Aetas (native Negritos) and everyone danced to the drum beats. In commemoration of this historical event, Datu Bangkaya, one of the ten Malay Datus who later founded Kalibo, had started to observe the anniversary of the purchase each year.
By mid-1500s, Ati-Atihan festival started to be linked to Santo Nino after the arrival of Spanish priest Andres de Aguirre to Madyanos. It was then a feast to honor the holy Child in Christianity. Until today, the festival maintains its dual purposes but greatly improved for tourism benefits. Each year, foreign tourists join Aklanons and devotees of Holy Child in Ati-Atihan festival at several locations throughout Aklan. Other than Kalibo, Ati-Atihan is also being held in Altavas, Batan, Ibajay, and Makato.
Walking out from the museum, I was glad we came to visit this probably one of the most intriguing places on Panay Island that contains full of information on the historical heritage and culture of Aklanons in particular and Filipinos in general, from their tribal roots to what they're now. It was a one-hour well spent inside the Museo It Akean (Museum of Aklan). At present day, Aklan is no longer a strange location in Philippines since the best island destination in the country, Boracay, is less than 90 minutes away from Kalibo central.