A Famosa & St Paul’s Church, Malacca

The Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511 and were here for over a 100 years – so its not surprising that they left behind a legacy.

The Serani (or Kristang) people are a product of intermarriages between Portuguese sailors and local Malay women. Numbering about 37,000, they are considered Portuguese-Eurasian and intermarriages are common today between Kristang and local Chinese and Indians. Because most are Christians, not all are willing to change their religious identities by marrying Malays (Malaysia has religious laws on conversion – you have to convert to Islam if you’re marrying a Malay, who are Muslim by birth.)


Other important pieces of history left behind by the Portuguese is a fortress called A Famosa. Called the ‘Porta de Santiago’, it is one of the oldest surviving European architectural remains in Southeast Asia. Once consisting of four towers and four storeys, all that’s left today is the front at the foot of St Paul’s Hill. At the height of their occupation, the fort had an ammunition storage room, captains’ residence and officers quarters.

After the Dutch took over, they pretty much maintained the place, renovating the arch with ‘Anno 1670’ plus adding a bas-relief logo of the Dutch East India Company.

But the English who came in the 18th century were not so obliging. They destroyed most of the fort, leaving behind only this arch and a small part of the wall.


On top of the nearby hill is St Paul’s Church, a Portuguese church built by a nobleman called Duarte Coelho. Originally built in 1521, it is the oldest church building in Malaysia and Southeast Asia (although non-functioning). The ruins are well preserved and attracts a large number of tourists every year.


Strategic location: view of the sea from the hills for any enemy ships and whatnot.


Dedicated to the Virgin Mary (the Portuguese were Catholics), the church was deeded to St Francis Xavier in Goa (he’s a canonized saint). His body was interred here for a short time. Visitors will see a statue of him in front of the church tower and ruins.


The inside of the church was lined with old Portuguese tombstones. Despite being hundreds of years old, the stones were well kept and some were only slightly weathered. Most still carried beautiful details and inscriptions.

The church was used by the Dutch after they drove out the Portuguese, until they built the Christchurch near Stadthuys. It was then deconstructed and used as part of the old fort. When the Brits came, they used it as gun powder storage.


We found a family of cats here!


We saw this little fellow sleeping without a care for the world on top of a metal grilled protecting an underground burial chamber.



The kitten was a real heavy sleeper.


And then E found a treasure trove of kittens behind one of the old tombstones.


Sleepy kittens. Don’t worry, we know the rules about handling kittens.. these were not newborn but had already opened their eyes and could walk around. They were just so sleepy from the afternoon heat lol.

St Paul’s Church and A Famosa are must sees (and must photograph-s!) when in Melaka, and a good reminder of the city’s history. Bonus points for having cats.


Jalan Kota, Bandar Hilir, 75000 Melaka, Malaysia.

Plaza San Luis / Manila Cathedral @ Intramuros Manila

After a whole day of exploring Intramuros, E and I were hungry and raring for food. We walked across the street from San Agustin Church and into Plaza San Luis, a white-washed building with Spanish colonial architecture. It was pleasantly cool as we stepped into the compound, which was lined with trees and wrought-iron lamps.



The historical/commercial complex is home to five houses – namely the Casa Manila, Casa Urdaneta, Casa Blanca, Los Hidalgos and El Hogar Filipino – each representing different eras in Filipino-Hispanic architecture. There is also a museum, theatre, hotel, souvenir shops and eateries.


Despite our tummies roaring in protest, we took some time to admire the beautiful compound within the complex. It was straight out of a periodical Spanish telenovela – the one where the heroine stands on the balcony listening to the hero serenading her at the bottom with musical instrument in hand (coincidentally, that’s a guy up there lol).


The Casa Manila is a replica of an 1850s San Nicolas House, and was commissioned by infamous first lady Imelda Marcos in the 1980s. Modeled after Spanish colonial architecture, the three-storey building houses a museum which depicts the lifestyle of wealthy Spanish-Filipino families in 19th century Manila. We didn’t go in because the ticket was quite pricey and we weren’t allowed to take photos. D:


By then the stomach rumbling could not be ignored, so we stopped by at a place called Barbara’s. They had a buffet lunch but we aren’t big eaters and it’d go to waste, so we opted for their ala-carte menu instead. Seating was open air at a nice patio area.

E ordered Pancit Canton without the veggies, which made the waiter roll his eyes. The portion was small but tastewise it was really good: noodles had a fragrant, soy-sauce flavour and there were bits of roast pork in it.


My carbonara was quite disappointing; it was very different from carbonaras back home in Malaysia. (I learnt this is because they use condensed milk in place of cream) The sauce was liquidy in texture, and the pasta serving was small with a sad side of limp garlic bread.

Either way, there aren’t many restaurants within Intramuros – but there are fast food chains a short walk away.


After filling our tummies, we resumed our exploration. Came across a park with a memorial statue dedicated to the 100,000 lives lost in the battle of Manila.

I often doubt the nature of God, even when I ask for his guidance. Because I do believe in a higher power – but it’s hard to question when you hear news of wars and suffering everyday in war torn countries. The innocent children who die. The lives that are lost in the name of religion, ideas, petty things.  Mostly, it comes back to the evil nature of man and why if there is a God, would he allow such cruelty and horror to happen.

I’m still at that stage where I’m soul searching for my own faith. I hope I’ll find it someday.


Palace of the Governor, a grey and orange building resembling a hotel in front of Plaza Roma. Although sitting on the original site of the same name (destroyed in earthquake) , the current building was only constructed in 1976 and is used to house government offices.


Our last (but not least) stop in Intramuros was the Manila Cathedral.Dedicated to Mary and originally built from nipah, wood and bamboo in the late 1500s, it was destroyed in fire and a stone one was erected instead. This was also destroyed in an earthquake in 1600 – but no worries, they rebuilt it. In this way, the cathedral was rebuilt 8 times; after destruction from fires, earthquakes and wars. The latest version was completed in 1958.


The entrance was flanked by statues of saints sculpted in Roman travertine stone, along with Latin inscriptions.


Unlike St Agustins, which was flamboyant and bright, Manila Cathedral seemed more subdued, with white-grey marble columns supporting a simple domed ceiling.


There were smaller chambers all along the main hall, housing states of saints and other religious figures. Here we have a simple but beautiful statue of Mother Mary in front of a carved stone portrait.


In one of this chambers is a replica of Michelangelo’s La Pieta, in which Mary is seen cradling the body of Christ.

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More beautiful works of art within the Cathedral.


Long story short, the trip to Intramuros was an educational one – I learned a lot about Manila and its history, albeit a sad one.  As far as experiences go, I admire Filipinos because even though life is hard, they always have a smile on their faces, drawing strength from religion and family.

So take a break from those glitzy shopping malls to explore Old Manila – one that time has not forgotten and which has helped shape this country’s history to what it is today.





San Agustin Church & Museum, Intramuros Manila


Image: Wikipedia

For some reason, my heart felt heavy as I stepped through the intricately carved doors of San Agustin Church in Intramuros, Manila. Maybe it was the imposing stone facade – a far cry from its once bright yellow front – but mostly I think because the church has a sad beauty about it. It has seen its fair share of wartime horrors, and was one of the only structures to have survived destruction by the end of World War II, while all others lay around it in piles of rubble. The British looted it in 1752, while the Japanese used it as a prisoner concentration camp – God must have turned his face away from the horrors that man inflicted upon each other in His holy place.


The church started off as a monastery and was built by Spanish monks of the Order of St Augustine, whose teachings and way of life were based on St Augustine of Hippo. Completed in the 1600s, it is the oldest church in the Philippines and is now a major tourist attraction in Intramuros. 


The old wooden doors were carved with figures of saints and religious symbolism, and employed high quality craftsmanship.



For some reason there were lions outside the church, resembling Chinese fu-dogs that you usually see guarding temple entrances.


We were immediately thrown into dark and quiet upon entering – it could easily have been hundreds of years ago. I think the lights were dimmed so as to protect important art pieces, so most of the time the only light sources came from sunshine filtering in through the windows.

The walls were lined with 18th and 19th century oil paintings depicting religious scenes: most were faded or intentionally painted in muted, dull colours (as was common in the style of that era). As we walked down the hallways (the structure is square shaped with a courtyard in the middle), I imagined Augustinian monks, gliding down the same paths we were taking with their oil lamps at night, 400 years ago.

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We entered the actual church area through a side door. It was different from the dark and sombre mood of the adjacent monastery. Soaring buttresses, arching doorways and carefully painted ceilings gave off a feeling of grandeur, while the red carpeted aisle going through the benches was decorated with white drapes and flowers. Adding a Filipino touch were traditional bamboo frames called Singkabans, placed behind life-sized saint statues.

It’s not an understatement to say that it was the most beautiful church I had seen in the Philippines so far. Everything about it reflected the riches of old Manila, married with European glory.



A Santa Nino (child Jesus) statue.  20160209_111723-tile

There were many tombstones on the walls, and placed like tiles underneath our feet. Most were from the late 1800s.

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Gold crosses in wrought iron separate the main altar and the pews.


Podium for sermons


Staring up at the ceiling, you’ll notice that it gives off a 3-D effect despite being flat. This technique is called the Trompe-l’œil, and the ones in San Agustin church were done by Italian painters.


The church also has 16 chandeliers imported from Paris.



We returned to the monastery area. I told E about my trip to the York church in UK – how the place hadn’t needed any loudspeakers for their choir because the building itself had very good acoustics.

“It was so magical. The hymn music and voices just filled the whole hall,” I emphasised.

Meanwhile, a loud voice floated across the courtyard and I saw a man talking on the phone.

“There, our churches have good acoustics too,” E laughed.


Stained glass art. Are those heads with wings!?


One of the chambers was a crypt. Some of the slots were empty, but the ones that weren’t had flowers placed on them. It was colder and draftier here.. or maybe it’s just the air conditioning?


Gallery of religious artworks – mostly paintings and wood carvings.

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Scenes from the Bible.


More statues with missing hands.. idk why but a lot of the old statues at museums and churches here have missing limbs.

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One really has to marvel at how superb the craftsmanship was back in those days, even without the help of machines – just good old hands. These figures of Joseph and Mary flanking a baby Jesus were placed within glass jars, gilded in gold and sky blue. The detailing on their costumes, kindly facial expressions, down to their life-like hair – was nothing short of exceptional.


Regal looking life-sized statue of Mary holding a child Jesus.


Sometimes, old art can be scary/creepy looking, like this set of wooden panel depicting three martyrs. Idk, I guess it just has a very otherworldly vibe to them.

I’d hate to be stuck in this place at night, to be honest.


Robes worn by priests, according to rank.


We also explored the second floor,  which wasn’t much different from downstairs.Most of the rooms were not open to the public.


20160209_115047-tile  Last but not least, we made a quick round of the courtyard. Simple and shady, and a good respite after the church’s dark and sombre interior.

To be very honest, I didn’t much like the church – it feels…. haunted, somehow. If not by ghosts, then by sad memories from all the horrors it has seen (fires, seven earthquakes, one war, a massacre and still standing).

I can’t deny that it’s one of the most beautiful ones I’ve visited so far, but it left me feeling depressed by the end of it. I don’t know if that’s a product of an overactive imagination, or something else. Either way, it’s still one of the must visit places in Intramuros for its history and architecture.


General Luna St, Manila, Metro Manila, Philippines

Phone: +63 2 527 4060

Church Hopping in Manila – Quiapo, Sta Cruz & Binondo

IF there’s one thing you’ll come across a lot in Manila (other than malls), it’s churches. Not surprising, seeing that 83% of the Philippines (about 84mil people) are Catholics.

The Filipino love for religion isn’t just about praying – it’s a way of life. I mean, when the Pope turned up, a whopping 6mil people came to attend Mass at Rizal Park. That’s like the entire population of Selangor (an entire state) in Malaysia! Mass is a big thing and religious symbols are everywhere – I’ve never seen that many figures/pictures/paintings of Jesus and the saints anywhere else on the planet. Even the Jeepneys have names like ‘God Bless the Philippines’ or  ‘Santa Maria’.

So it would be poor form as a traveler if I didn’t at least drop by to visit a couple of churches – to understand more about how this religion pervades the life of the average Filipino. Also, I had the perfect guide for explaining stuff to me, since E is Catholic


Our first church for the day was Quaipo Church, or the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene. It is famous as the home of the Black Nazarene, a black statue of Jesus carrying a cross over his shoulder. The church site has been there since the 1500s, even though earlier structures were destroyed in fires/earthquakes. The current building was reconstructed in 1899. It is done in the Baroque style.


Only got one picture in. I think they were having mass so we were told not to take pix.


Exterior of church.


There were a few Black Nazarene statues; some are copies while the original is enshrined in a glass case at the back of the church. Believed to have been carved by a Mexican artist from black wood, it is reputed to be miraculous and was brought to the Phils in a Spanish galleon in the 17th century. Every year, there is a procession to honour the Black Nazarene and thousands of people turn up for the devotion. Some men carry the statue as a way of purging their sins for the year.


The statue’s detailing was exquisite, and it wore a rich dark red gown embroidered with gold stitches, and wore a golden, three-pronged crown. The artist did well with the face – Christ wore a sad yet compassionate expression. I followed what E did : wiped the statue with a cloth and then kissed the feet. It was surprisingly fragrant and smelled like sandalwood, with a velvety, oiled texture.


Devotees lining up in the rain to touch the statue.

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Other side of the church, which had figures of saints lining the walls.


Behind the church was a small chamber with more religious figures.


The original Black Nazarene. The statue’s foot was outside the case and devotees touched, wiped and kissed it for blessing.


At the marketplace outside the church, prayer candles and other paraphernalia were on sale. Rosary beads, figures of Jesus on the cross, Santo Nino (child Jesus), Mother Mary and etc.

But there is a dark side to Quaipo. The streets surrounding the church are a popular spot to find abortion elixirs. Abortions are illegal in the Phils, and people resort to unsafe practices to get rid of their unwanted foetuses. This despite teachings that discourage pre-marital sex; and abortion is definitely a no-no that would earn you a free pass to the fires of hell.

Idk, I find that ironic.

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Our next church was the Santa Cruz church, also done in a Baroque style and built by Jesuits in the 1600s. It was completely destroyed in the Battle of Manila, then rebuilt in 1957. The interior had a Chinese flavour – red lanterns hung at the entrance. Maybe because Chinatown is just nearby.

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Outside Santa Cruz.

Exiting the church, we were assailed by small children selling flower garlands. They were dressed in old, worn out clothes, slippers worn down to thin rubber soles, and looked at us with huge puppy eyes. This was a common sight throughout Manila. It was really sad. Here there were churches and everyday people attending mass, and outside were poor children running around, sniffing glue (we saw a row of them by the streets) and scraping by for a living when they should be in school and getting an education. The contrast is jarring. The tranquil interior of the holy place vs the sweat and tears of poverty stricken people outside.

Sometimes, I wonder.


Our last church for the day was in Binondo, or Chinatown. This looked the grandest among all of the churches we had visited, and it was decked out for a wedding ceremony with white drapes and flowers lining a red carpeted aisle. Founded in 1596 for Chinese converts in Manila, it was destroyed by British bombardment, and then the second world war, before being restored. Once upon a time, it was considered to be the most beautiful church in the Philippines.


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Peddlers selling everlasting flowers,

20160206_133318-tileRed and gray granite facade of Binondo Church.

My church hopping experience in Manila was an interesting one, to say the least. It was an insight into not only a religion, but a way of life for the Filipinos.


National Art Gallery, Manila

If I were to sum up my visit to the Philippine National Art Gallery in Rizal Park, it would be impressive. Spanning across two floors, it was used as the Old Legislative Building from the 1920s – 1970s, before it was converted into a museum. It currently houses hundreds of works by Filipino artists through the ages.


There is a big difference between Filipino and Malaysian art. Malaysian art is heavily influenced by Islam: hence, a strong use of geometry, patterns and calligraphy. It is impossible to find religious/naked figures in our national art gallery.

The Philippines, having been colonized by the Spanish for hundreds of years, draws inspiration from Europe. In fact, stepping into the spacious main lobby, I was immediately reminded of European art galleries. Just behind a detailed statue of a winged angel is one of the most famous paintings in Filipino art: Spoliarium by Juan Luna Y Novicio.


The huge oil on canvas painting, which was submitted for a contest in Madrid where it garnered first place, towers over visitors from floor to ceiling. The subject of the painting was none other than bloody carcasses of slave gladiators being dragged away from the arena. In a speech, Filipino freedom fighter Jose Rizal said that the painting embodied the Filipino experience with their Spanish masters, and “embodied the essense of our social, moral and political life: humanity in severe ordeal, humanity unredeemed, reason and idealism in open struggle with prejudice, fanaticism..”

Luna’s win, in a way, proved to the world that even the ‘oppressed’ could outshine their colonists, who regarded them as inferior and barbaric. Second place was also won by a Filipino painter: El Asesinato del Gobernador Bustamante (The Assassination of Governor Bustamante) by Félix Resurrección Hidalgo (which is also displayed here, just across the Spoliarium)


We started our exploration of the gallery. Most of the first floor was dedicated to older pieces. Other than paintings, there were wooden statues and stone carvings. Many pieces were religious works, featuring figures in Catholicism such as Jesus, Mother Mary and the saints (for some reason many were missing hands).


The hall holds a National Cultural Treasure: a retablo (altar piece) from the Church of San Nicolas de Tolentino in Dimiao, Bohol.


There was a series of paintings which detailed Jesus’ crucifixion and his eventual ascension to heaven. Framed in dark wood, the colours were muted and sombre, giving the characters in them a sad, suffering quality.


Detailed stained glass, featuring Jesus and angels.




There was a whole hall dedicated to Jose P.Rizal. He’s so famous that we even read about him in Malaysian history books! His is a true example of the pen being mightier than the sword. Although he had never organised a direct rebellion, his writings and ideas fueled a drive for independence among the Filipinos, which eventually led the country to finally be free of Spain’s influence. He was executed (at a young age of 35) by the Spanish for rebellion.

PS: Apparently he was quite the ladies man. I mean, he does look dashing in most of the paintings.. 😀


Besides writing, Rizal had an artistic flair, creating sculptures and statues such as the one above.


A hall dedicated to paintings of former politicians and presidents (and their wives – guess which famous president’s wife has a portrait here? Clue: bouffant hair).


Upstairs was the former Session Hall of the Senate of the Philippines. 

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The second floor featured modern art. Other than portraits, there were also scenes of rural Filipino life and surrealist pieces.

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Watercolour – material used for painting.

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The Philippine National Art Gallery is a must visit – both for art appreciators and the regular visitor, to see how the scene has evolved through the ages and how they resonate with cultural and political issues.


P. Burgos Drive, Rizal Park, Manila
Opening hours: Tuesdays-Sundays, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM

Entry ticket: PHP150 (adults – includes entry to Museum of the Filipino People, Planetarium)