Lights Dominate the Night in Burma on Christmas Eve, 2014. Amazing view.
If you paid attention during a high school world history class or during a discussion about empires rising and falling, odds are that you learned a lot about the Iberian Union between the Spanish and the Portuguese. At the same time, you most likely learned about the Spanish Empire and the Portuguese Empire and the vast, wealthy trade empires both nations built. The famous military leaders, the military victories and defeats, and even cultural traces like national languages are known to most, but one of the most interesting aspects of colonial rule I want to investigate is strikingly visible all over Macau and many parts of Manila: architecture.
In previous posts (some solely dedicated to architecture, and some not), I have mentioned the interesting nature iconic imagery that accompanies many of these old colonial structures as newer, more modern buildings spring up around them. In Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, high rises and office buildings stand next to crumbling (albeit beautiful) colonial structures, and those structures stand next to other well preserved colonial buildings. The contrast is fascinating and deserves its own post.
The nature of the Iberian Union and the close ties between the Portuguese and Spanish, though Catholicism and colonial architecture are a dominating presence as you walk through historic Macau and Intramuros, the famous walled city within metro Manila. There is one uniting factor between the two cities, even though they are thousands of miles apart: Spanish Baroque style architecture. This influence resonates from the gates of Intramuros to the walls of St. Paul’s.
The main impetus for me traveling to Macau for the first time over a year ago was rather simple. I wanted to play roulette at the famous Grand Lisboa Casino, eat some of the famous Portuguese egg tarts, and see the famous fountain at Senado Square, right in the heart of old Macau. As soon as I arrived, though, I was taken back by the fantastic job that Portuguese authorities (until 1999) and the current Chinese government have done with preserving and protecting the colonial architectural treasures that await in Macau. The fabulous parks and street signs instantly let you know that you are in a special place, unlike any other on Earth.
Of course Senado Square is the most famous attraction, with its 16th Century tiled walkways and plazas, boasting images of sea creatures and boats within the intricate tile work. I thought the historic nature of the city would be limited to this touristy area, but I was happily mistaken. Almost as soon as one gets off of the bus at one of the casinos, the rich history of Macau becomes visible. The pastel pink governor’s mansion is visible across the lagoon from Macau Tower.
As my friend and I made our way towards this beautiful building, we walked up more back alleys and found ourselves in a world of a past time. Tiled plazas were abound, as were nice walkways and statues. The dominating factor of it all, though, was the nature of the architecture. There were Catholic Churches everywhere. Nearby buildings borrowed from the Spanish Baroque style of architecture to help create a unique feel and flavor in the world’s most-densely populated city. It is quite a site to see Catholic nuns walking through the streets in China with a backdrop as elegant as the various Catholic Churches in the area. We haven’t even gotten to the most famous part of the Portuguese legacy in Macau: the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
When one walks through Intramuros, similar sights and sounds follow you in a completely different environment than the one found in Macau. Ravaged by war, the colonial history of the city is still visible, but only in small places like Intramuros.
Once you pass through the gates to the city, a whole new world comes to life. Children bustle on the cobblestone streets and in the back alleys while horse-drawn carriages carry tourists from one place to another in the Spanish-era fortification. Ruins of old shops, homes, and stores have been turned into museums and antique shops while the plazas, fountains, and monuments to previous leaders and religious figures are kept largely in tact. Pastel-colored buildings adorned with Spanish names and large cast-iron gates represent what life was like during another era. I did not find it difficult to imagine myself walking down these streets prior to the Spanish-American War.
As you realize you are inside of a massive walled city and earthwork fortification, something else becomes very clear: Manila was a very important and strategic location for the Spanish Empire. Overlooking various waterways and the Pacific Ocean, there was a reason why the Spanish, Americans, and Japanese all coveted Manila at different points in history. These kinds of views and outlook points are very similar to those one can observe in Macau, adjacent to the Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The Portuguese built a sizable and imposing fort at the top of the ridge next to St. Paul’s centuries ago and this fort helped stave off a formidable Dutch invasion centuries ago. Much like in Manila, the guns and soldiers are long gone but the fort symbolizes the military importance of a port city to trading giants. In Manila, forts look out over some of the poorer areas of the city, but in Macau there are some spectacular views of the Grand Lisboa Casino.
These architectural styles are fantastic, but the true beauty in Manila and Macanese architecture rest in the Catholic Churches and other places of worship that dot the respective cities. In Macau, there are various churches and cathedrals, which, with their bright exteriors and somewhat plain interiors, show off the importance of Catholicism while being somewhat modes in their construction. At the same time, the Baroque style dominates their exteriors with concrete sculptures, high rooflines, and ornate woodwork. The true beauty in Macau rests with the world famous St. Paul’s ruins. A truly baroque building, the stonework and remaining elements of this church make one wonder, in awe, bout how it would have looked in its prime before it was destroyed by a fire.
Manila’s lavishly painted San Agustin Church, along with the Manila Cathedral provide a similar feel for the Catholic influence over the largest city in the Philippines. Dominating stone facades and interiors show the Spanish Baroque-influenced architectural similarities, as well.
Had it not been for World War II’s destruction of much of Manila, I often wonder what the rest of the city would look like, and whether or not many of its historic and colonial structures would have been preserved. While the most famous elements of Macau’s colonial architecture rests on the northern island, a trip to the southern island and its town, called Taipa, reveals even more interesting colonial architecture. Entire streets of colonial homes and businesses give this part of Macau a very unique feel, even though it is very close to the center of the casino industry. The coolest part about going to Taipa at this time of year was seeing the Lusophone Festival in full swing and sampling some Portuguese and Macanese delights as I walked through the streets of the historic port city.
When traveling, especially in Asia, where colonial outposts, forts, and other remnants of empire exist, it is important to take some time out of your travel to take in the architecture and try to understand the influences and underlying causes to these buildings and why they are there in the first place. I was surprised by how similar Macau and Manila were, architecturally speaking. I will be visiting a former Dutch garrison in Taiwan in a few weeks and look forward to seeing my first piece of the former Dutch East India Company.
In the coming days, I will post another article documenting some of the architecture I witnessed in Malaysia, specifically Kuala Lumpur, and how seeing that British architecture inspired me to embark on my most daring and exotic trip yet: Burma.
All Photos are Copyright Erik Jacobs, Erik Abroad (c) 2013 – Present
As my travels in Asia have continued to evolve, so have my interests and sights I intend to see when I travel. Initially, I looked for skyline photos and other modern aspects that compliment and often overwhelm the Asian mega city. While captivating skyline photos are still near the top of my list when I travel, a new form of building to see in former colonial cities now tops my list of places to see: Catholic Churches. This may surprise some readers 3when you find that I am not Catholic, but the intrinsic beauty and Architectural components within many of the colonial-era Catholic churches in cities like Manila and Macau are ripe with these buildings and all the history attached to them.
Many buildings in Manila’s Intramuros had fantastic, vibrant colonial-era exteriors and architecture, but San Agustin Church (founded in 1607) was a cut above the rest. Its unique form of beauty, both on the interior and exterior stole the show for me.
When I did research about Manila before my trip last weekend, I was immediately mesmerized by the brightly colored, almost florescent stucco exterior of the San Agustin Church. Images online all showed the Philippines’s oldest adobe building adorned with pink, peach, red, or yellow walls and white window frames and pillars. The feeling was distinctly Spanish and colonial, so I could not wait to see it. When I first arrived, I was in for quite a surprise: the colors were GONE and the bare, four hundred year old walls, were fully exposed to the outside world. While some may have been disappointed (I certainly was), reflection has allowed me to realize the true beauty and character of this church.
While it was disappointing, the exposed exterior shows the amount of craftsmanship and skill that went into constructing a stone church the size of San Agustin. Everything from the mortar to the pillars and regular facade had a lot of wear, the type of erosion which only buildings with immense character hold.
After passing through the double doors on the right side and entering the church, I entered the interior courtyard of the church, which, although as bare as the exterior, exuded a similar sense of beauty in its plainness. The palm trees and fountains provided another unique scene.
After entering another set of doors in the back side of this plaza, More stone corridors were waiting for me, and somehow the cool temperature of the hallway and the accompanying oil paintings of Catholic leaders in Manila through the centuries showed a different sense of plain beauty. All of the hallways in San Agustin resembled this one in one way or another, with ceiling heights varying slightly between floors. It was the first time I have seen hallways like this in a Catholic Church since I set foot in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem back in 2013.
At the end of this hallway, another first inside of a Catholic church awaited: a completely bare, bricked dome. As I have visited more and more churches, I have become accustomed to ornate mosaics or paintings at the top of many domes inside of these churches, but San Agustin was so different. There was no artwork at the top of this dome. The cool, dark hallway, only illuminated with a chandelier and sunlight provided yet another, different, backdrop for another amazing piece of architecture in Manila.
After entering the second floor of the building, I encountered the church organ, and then to my right, a spectacular view of the altar and pews of San Agustin.
As you can tell from the ceiling’s stonework and the woodwork style, San Agustin boasts a baroque style of architecture certainly unique to this part of the world. One of my family friends is an organist, and I could think of him playing this centuries-old organ as the pews fill on hot and steamy Sunday morning in September. The view over the railing was spectacular.
High ceilings, dimmed and off chandeliers, simple painting on the ceilings, and an acoustically pleasing main hall accent an ornate and spectacular front altar. In the aforementioned paragraphs, the simple, historic, and cultural implications of San Agustin make this one of the most beautiful Catholic churches I have ever seen. Next up on the tour was the main floor.
The altar was as spectacular as the rest of the church. High ceilings, marble pillars, and Spanish paintings dominated the main hall. The ornate masonry and stone carvings on the ceiling were the highlights of the architectural components of the main floor in San Agustin.
Even though I was initially met with disappointment surrounding the exterior of San Agustin, I am so happy that I continued to explore the interior of the oldest stone church in the Philippines and certainly one of the oldest churches in Asia. The high ceilings, palm trees, plazas, and bare, stone walls created a very different, memorable, building for me. Much different than other churches in Asia and North America, San Agustin stands alone for several reasons.
When you stop in Intramuros, I hope you take a few minutes to tour this fantastic church.
Almost as soon as I started my journey from Singapore to Malaysia, I knew my two day stay in Kuala Lumpur would be full of interesting surprises and unexpected turns along the way.
It all started when I made my way to Woodlands train station, located in northern Singapore, to board my overnight train to Kuala Lumpur. For starters, this train station could have been one of the most poorly designed and signed stations into which I have ever gone. There are several different busses and trains that depart from Singapore for Malaysia and the busses and trains have their own immigration checkpoints and checkin procedures. If only it was labeled as such. I arrived at the station two hours before my scheduled departure to ensure everything went off without a hitch, and, boy, am I glad I did.
I walked through a long, cold, Soviet-looking corridor through the terminal and up to a set of immigration gates. What had been a cursory process in Singapore, Thailand, and all other destinations up to this point on my trip suddenly hit a snag when the immigration officer told me that i was at the bus terminal instead of the train terminal. Other immigration officers came and escorted me into a quarantine area as they ran all my documents before personally escorting me back to the immigration check at the train station. Following a lengthy wait, I was stamped out of Singapore and awaited my entry stamps for Malaysia at jointly operated checkpoint.
I had heard stories about folks who had gone to Israel that had faced hassles entering Malaysia and were even denied entry, so I was a bit antsy given I had been to Israel in January. Certainly the border agents would not know as I had no entry or exit stamp, but that crossed my mind. I faced a lengthy series of questions as they scrupulously flipped through my passport before stamping my passport.
I lain in my bed for the overnight train when I heard two fellows speaking English in the cots near me so I struck up conversation and who knew? They were also Americans working in Japan. We had a great chat and plan to rendezvous at some point in the future.
Eight hours later, my train rolled into Kuala Lumpur’s Sentral Station and when I disembarked I knew I was in a completely different world. Many different sights surrounded me in the train station: women bustling in every which way wearing burkas, Muslim prayer rooms, and signs written in Malay. Given this was my first time in the Muslim world, I should have expected that, but it still took me a bit off guard.
Following a quick coffee, I was on my way to my hostel in Central KL when I ran into something oddly familiar- a Girl’s Generation (Korean pop music group) ad in the station.
As someone interested in the British Empire and European influence in Asia, I was very excited to see Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur. I had heard stories from my Malaysian friends and friends who had visited that Kuala Lumpur is a bustling metropolis where dilapidated colonial-era buildings stand side-by-side with the well preserved buildings and new buildings towering over them. I was in for a treat as soon as I stepped out of the station near my hostel. In front of me were various types of colonial buildings and newer hotels/apartments, but this motorcycle stuck out to me, especially as the Petronas Towers loomed large in the background.
From here, I went to my hostel, checked in, charged up my camera and phone, and took a short nap on account of the fact that it was extremely difficult to sleep on that overnight train. The second day of my trip was already fully booked with a tour of the Batu Caves and some other areas in KL, so I set out on foot to explore a swath of the area near my hostel: Chinatown, Little India, Merdeka Square, etc. were all within walking distance.
First up for me was the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. As the power center of British Malay, this elaborately constructed building certainly has stood the test of time. Unlike in other colonies, the British incorporated local and Muslim architectural elements into what would be the center of their operations in Malaysia for many decades. The domes, clock tower, and facade make for an interesting appearance which both stands out and fits in with the surrounding area. One of the most interesting pieces of art nearby is the Queen Victoria fountain, brought from England in 1898 to commemorate Victoria’s rule and British influence in Malaysia. Below is a photo of both of them in Merdeka Square.
Aside from this building, several other interesting buildings surround the square. An Anglican Church and former private British club flank the other sides of the square, which used to be a cricket ground. Certainly a must-see place if you are in Kuala Lumpur.
The other element of the square which I found fascinating was the enormous flagpole. I have always been fascinated with flags, and this is certainly the largest flagpole I have ever seen in my life. Eerily similar to the United States flag (and the British East India Company flag), I took a double take when I arrived in Merdeka Square. The dominating presence of the flag speaks for itself as a symbol of Malaysian pride.
From here, it was off to see some colonial architecture and visit Chinatown before a trip to the Petronas Towers in the evening.
On my way to Chinatown, I encountered some of the dilapidated and gorgeous colonial-era buildings about which my friends told me! It was truly a sight to behold. The chipping pastel paint brushing up against street signs and traffic lights is a scene that will not leave my mind when I think of Malaysia and walking the streets of Kuala Lumpur.
Then I stumbled upon the Malaysian Heritage Trail and saw some more beautiful colonial-era buildings which had been converted into shops, restaurants, and other places of business. It was another beautiful scene which shows off the history and richness of Kuala Lumpur.
Chinatown was a whole different animal. With bustling markets and the smell of street food percolating through the air, I don’t know how anyone could not enjoy a stroll down its narrow streets. That is, of course, so long as cars were not trying to make it down the alleys as well.
I encountered never before seen foods and shared some delicious chicken at a street side market with a fellow traveler before eventually returning to my hostel to change and head out into the Malaysian night.
If you ever go to this part of Kuala Lumpur, I am sure you will notice what I did at this point of my journey: the streets are higher than the sidewalks at certain points in the city! I could not figure out what was so peculiar about the streets until I tripped up the stairs when leaving a shop. Years of new pavement, sewage systems, and electrical utilities are certainly the cause of this. Here’s a look.
I could not wait to see the Petronas Towers in person and the two skyscrapers did not disappoint. I arrived at twilight and was fortunate enough to see the lights turn on from below. The glistening eight-sided spires connected by the skywalk was certainly a sight to behold for all. Add into the mix the luxury malls beneath both towers and I could see why people would come to these towers for a day out on the town.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the interesting people I met in Singapore was in Kuala Lumpur not his evening as well. My new Korean friend and I rendezvoused at the fabulous SkyBar inside Traders Hotel to have a drink and take in the breathtaking view of the Petronas Towers from 33 Floors above Kuala Lumpur. I usually am not keen on spending big bucks for a drink, but if you love cityscapes, skylines, or just breathtaking views, you MUST go to SkyBar. Add into the mix that there is a pool inside the bar and I don’t know how you cannot go. I was very happy to meet up with my friend and discuss Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and other travel destinations in such an unlikely place.
As the rain began to fall for the first time on my trip, we decided to head to the streets to feast on the cheap street food that is omnipresent in the city. Once we arrived at Jalan Petaling Market, we were very pleased. Delicious street food was everywhere for the taking. I enjoyed an entire deep fried frog and some other delicacies on a stick and she had various other types of local fare. The gentlemen running all of the stands were very nice and helpful when it came to suggesting what to eat. This was my first time going to a real street market in Southeast Asia outside of the tourist-ridden markets in Bangkok and I am thrilled I went. The food was delicious and the company was nice, as well.
As the rain picked up and the night wore on, my friend and I split our separate ways and I took a cab back to my hostel where I thought the night was over, but not before I made some more friends on the road.
My hostel boasted a rooftop bar so I headed up there to see if any interesting people were still awake. I met a fascinating traveler from London and we had a few drinks discussing our travels, our college experiences, and our current travels before going our separate ways.
Early to arrive and late to bed, my first day in Malaysia was phenomenal. From the historical buildings to the Petronas Towers and the markets in between, I was thrilled to be in KL and could not wait for what the next day had to offer. It was a marathon day of meandering through Kuala Lumpur’s narrow streets.