Home of the savory Sisig, towering Christmas lanterns, and hot air balloons, Pampanga, in the shadow of the majestic Mt. Arayat, is a mishmash of a destination – strange, proud, piquant and yet comforting at the same time.
Ask any Filipino what he or she thinks of Pampanga – chances are you would hear the words sisig, beauty queens, lahar (volcano’s pyroclastic material), Clark Duty Free, crucifixions and the sin city of Angeles. While, partly, it does describe some of the facets of Pampanga- the province does have something more than that.
Pampanga, 2-3 hours north of Manila, and sits on the wide plains of Central Luzon, got its name from the word pampang or riverbank as the early Kapampangans (the natives-literally meaning riverbank dwellers) living near the banks of the notable Pampanga River. Today, Pampanga is known as the Culinary Capital of the Philippines and its cuisine thought to be the most evolved of all Philippine culinary traditions. Kare-Kare (Oxtail in Vegetables and Peanut Soup), Kilawin (Ceviche) and Sizzling Sisig are one of it notable contributions to this tradition. Pampango’s Best and Mekeni Foods are synonymous with producing excellent Kapampangan version of traditional Filipino-style cured meats and sausages – tocino, tapas, and chorizos/longganisa.
Sisig, is a Kapampangan dish made from parts of a pig’s head, liver, seasoned calamansi (a small green citrus fruit that is very popular in Southeast Asia especially in the Philippines) and chili peppers. This dish is extremely popular and it ranks right up there with adobo, lechon, sinigang, tinola, and pinakbet among others in popularity amongst Filipinos. The recognized inventor of the dish is Lucia Cunanan (also known as Aling Lucing), with her trademark concoction developed in 1974 made of boiled and chopped pig ears and cheeks, mixed with chopped onions, chicken liver, calamansi juice, vinegar and served on sizzling plates.
Sisig by lesterphotogallery
Although heaps of variations have been made throughout the years (such as adding pork cracklings, mayo, eggs, etc.), the sisig is continually evolving with local chefs experimenting with tofu, chicken, squid, tuna, and even frogs. While Aling Lucing’s stores are still very much in operation to this day (in Pampanga and in other places including Manila), the Grand Dame of Sisig was found murdered in her Angeles City home April of 2008. Every year, Angeles City celebrates a Sisig Festival (Sadsaran Qng Angeles) where heaps of sisig is cooked and made available to the public.
Aside from its notable culinary tradition, Pampanga is also known for the three main events that appropriately grab national and even international attention.
Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Festival
Every February, the former American airbase of Clark (just outside Angeles City) hosts one of the biggest and most festive air shows in Asia drawing an approximately 60,000 visitors in 2007. Celebrated since 1994, the Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Festival takes flight in a field next to the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (one of the increasingly important Philippine international gateways), with at least two dozen of hot air balloons of different shapes and sizes (we spied a balloon shaped like a rolled newspaper, a coffee cup, a huge elephant) from all over the globe participating. Skydiving exhibitions, flights of ultra lights, motorized hang-gliding, remote controlled model aircraft, kite flying and other aero-sports activities keeps the usually week-long festival busy. Rides on the hot air balloon are not for free and is on a first come, first served basis. Arrive as early as 4-5am, and then head out to the booth where they hold the list-up. Usually the registration area is in the middle of a concrete pavement leading to the main hangar. Organizers and contact persons on the ground can be very disorganized, so once you sign up, stay where you are- there is a huge chance of being bumped off the list unceremoniously. Unless you finally paid for your ride (do not forget to get a receipt), do not leave the registration booth.
A hot-air balloon flight usually costs 150 USD or its Philippine Peso equivalent per person and this may last from 30-45 minutes to an hour depending on the wind conditions. The availability of the balloons varies, and there are different sizes of baskets (so if you are a group of over two people, you may not fit in the basket that is designed for a maximum of 2-3 people (including the pilot). Once up in the air though, the view is breathtaking, one can see the lahar flows that snake through the great Pampanga landscape- a mighty reminder of the enormous devastation that the eruption of Mount Pinatubo has caused, tiny villages (complete with stunned and gleefully screaming children, old folks and scared chickens). The balloons are being chased all throughout their flights by teams of four wheel drives ready for the landings and/or any emergencies that may occur during the flight (we saw one balloon- I believe it was a small Swiss balloon that just went hurtling straight down during one of the flights – yes, you need to sign a waiver.) We were on the beautiful, rainbow-colored Portland Rose balloon- a British-American balloon, the most photographed balloon of the entire festival, piloted by an able former British Airways pilot. Usually, there are two flights- a sunrise flight and a sunset flight. Again the schedule is usually unreliable. Just after sunset, however, the balloons gather in the field and do a really fanciful lightshow display called the “Nightglow”, where balloonists light up their balloons to the rhythm of recorded music. A concert and fireworks display usually caps off the aviation event.
Pampanga, especially the city of San Fernando, hosts another major gathering of a different kind on Good Friday (during the Christian season of Lent- so either March or April) called the Mal Al Aldo or Maleldo otherwise known as the San Pedro Cutud Lenten Rites. In the hot, humid and dusty field of San Pedro Cutud (bring heaps of water and apply sunscreen), on the outskirts of the city, over 20 men and the occasional woman are literally nailed to a cross in a makeshift Calvary in a gruesomely real reenactment of Jesus Christ’s passion and death.
While there are three crucifixion sites in the same area, San Pedro Cutud is the most organized and most popular drawing hordes of foreign and local tourists as well as the national and international media. Streets leading to the crucifixion sites are filled with penitents with covered faces wearing makeshift crowns of thorns, whipping themselves in silent processions. Some of the penitents prostrate to the ground once in a while and their companions would prick their backs with steel nails. Wear dark colored shirts as blood can spray from all sides while you take photos.
While the local Catholic Church strongly discourages these acts (especially the crucifixions), it continues to this day since it first started in the late 50s to mid 60s. However, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the local city government supports and promotes the activities. The activities are on its website (complete with a very inaccurate map and information). Pick up a Map of the City of San Fernando before going to the area instead- and make sure you get the map a few days before you leave, virtually the entire country shuts down especially during Holy Thursday and Good Friday. There are no buses plying to San Fernando during this time. One can hire a van or a car instead or go with a group and split the tab with everyone. Please check local vans/cars for hire more information. If you are part of the media or a foreigner, you will have better chances of getting into the so-called VIP area (basically a gated area with an average-sized raised platform with a tin roof).
While loud gasps can be heard all throughout the field every time the hammer hits the 2-inch stainless steel nail (Microphones apparently installed nearby), murmurs from the makeshift gallery can be heard – we had the misfortune of standing right next to a very loud hippie-looking, unwashed American woman trying to flirt with a Canadian guy while this was going on. When the ladies at the registration area were asked why most Filipinos were not allowed to get inside the area, one of the ladies (apparently from the tourism office of San Fernando City) replied that it is to minimize security threats. I guess an Afghan Taliban can come in inside and watch the entire show before blowing everyone to kingdom come). Crucifixions usually start between 1PM-3PM. A procession of dressed-up, life-sized saints in floats follows at dusk. A souvenir whip can be bought for about 150PhP.
On a finer note, San Fernando lights up on the Saturday before Christmas with its Giant Lanterns Festival (Ligligan Parul). The lanterns are approximately 20 feet high, and illuminated by about 3,500 to 5,000 light bulbs that dance to tune of Christmas carols and popular songs. The Lantern Festival was said to have started sometime between 1904-1908. With the popularity of the event, as well as, the presence of Paskuhan Village (Christmas Village, now known as Hilaga Philippines) – the third Christmas theme park in the world and the only one in Asia – San Fernando City also earned the moniker, “Christmas Capital of the Philippines.” Having a Christmas Village, where Christmas is celebrated the whole year round, is not an oddity for Filipinos, where Christmas decorations are put up and Christmas carols can be heard as early as September 1st and as late as the 1st week of January, making the Philippines, the country with the longest Christmas celebration anywhere in the world.
Another noteworthy and similarly quirky festival in Pampanga is the Aguman Sanduk (Fellowship of the Ladle) of Minalin Town, where men and boys cross-dress and parade around town on New Year’s Day in full tranny gear. Apparently, at the end of the day, the ugliest cross-dresser is chosen.
Aside from these events, Pampanga is also a very important ecological pit stop of thousands of international migratory birds. For bird-watching fanatics, ornithologists and environmentalists, the 32,000-hectare Candaba Wetlands is a very important global environmental site. During a 24 hour census on January 2008, a record 17,000 birds visited the Candaba Wetlands. Rare birds such as Shrenck’s Bittern, Gadwall, Coot, Great Bittern, Philippine Mallard, Eurasian Spoonbill were among the the 80 species that were spotted in a 100 hectare fishpond in Barangay Doña Simang and in Barangay Paralaya in the town of Candaba. Three rare species were also spotted in the swamp such as the Black-Crowned Night Heron, Purple Swamphen, and the Chinese Pond Heron.
If interested in learning more about the Candaba Wetlands as well as bird-watching in the Philippines, you may contact the folks at the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines. They usually post their activities and heaps of other information on their website.
The Candaba Wetlands is a very significant part of the East Asia-Australasian Migratory Flyway that includes Siberia, China, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea. Remember that while the Philippines promotes bird-watching, hunting is illegal in the country. A few months ago, members of Bacolod Rifle Group went on a slaughter of critically endangered birds like Philippine Mallards in several towns of Negros Occidental. The group composed of Tet Lara, Mike and Jade de Guzman then posted the photos of their kill in their website (which was subsequently taken down after popular outrage surfaced). This writer unequivocally condemns these horrifying acts, and these people should suffer the consequences of their actions and be punished to the fullest extent of the law. Read more of the story on a privilege speech by a Philippine senator made last February.
Other interesting sites in the province include the ruins of a historic train station in San Fernando that was built in 1892 and operated up to the infamous Bataan Death March where POWs were stuffed into box carts (reminiscent of the transportation of the millions of Jews in Europe) and sent to their final destination in Capas, Tarlac. The Church of Lubao, meanwhile is a picturesque and no-less historic church that was built in 1572 out of locally made bricks and sand and mixed with egg albumin. It was destroyed during the heavy shelling of World War 2 and was reconstructed and finished in 1952.
Forget about beaches. Pampanga is not known for top-notch beaches. Mount Arayat dominates the skyline. It is almost virtually landlocked save from some small strip of land that lines the tiny coast on Pampanga Bay (which is actually part of Manila Bay).
If the excellent Kapampangan cuisine, hot air balloons, bird-watching and decidedly Ripley’s-worthy festival is not going to make you go to Pampanga then we don’t know what will.
Best Time to Go Visit
Go during Festival time but be prepared to wade through a crowd of people in the middle of searing heat especially during the Crucifixions. Check out the calendar for the festivals. October-April every year is the best season to go to the Candaba Wetlands, as the swamp is the staging and wintering area.
There are plenty of places to stay in Pampanga especially in the city of Angeles. However, most cater to prostitutes and their customers. We tried out the creepy-looking Flamingo Hotel in Balibago during the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Since the pricy Holiday Inn Clark is out of the question to stay in for a few hours, we checked in to Flamingo Hotel for PhP500 for six hours to rest from the heat. The hotel room is roomy but badly lit, damp, and has a musty odor. The sheets had “Stolen from Flamingo Hotel” printed across them, the ashtray was glued to a plastic chair, bathroom sink had steel reinforcements and the love chair had cigarette burn marks. As we checked out, a transvestite and another man proceeded to check in.
For people with a bigger budget and planning on longer stays in Angeles, try Clarkton Hotel, a Standard Class Hotel, which is a bit away from the bars but still in the Balibago District. Clearwater Resort and Country Club is another good choice with its sprawling grounds, where one can even play a game of croquet and have a picnic under big trees. Holiday Inn Resort Clark and Fontana Leisure Park are other pricier yet comfortable hideaways for families, groups of friends or honeymooners. Fontana has a wave pool, and 4-5 storey high waterslides. Please check their websites for the updated rates.
Where & What to Eat
One must not forget the sizzling sisig at Aling Lucing’s restaurant as well as specialty foods such as kare-kare (Oxtail in Vegetables in Peanut Sauce), adobong kamaru (mole crickets in adobo style), embutido (ground pork roll), relleno (Stuffed Fish), bringhe (green sticky rice ala Spanish Paella) and desserts and delicacies such as pastillas (milk candies), turonnes de casoy and buro.
Almost all of these dishes can be found in most Kapampangan restaurants, but one should try Aling Lucing’s first. Usually the best places to eat are the places which are crowded with locals.
Pampanga nightlife is mostly defined by the seedy Balibago District and Fields Avenue in Angeles City. Angeles City gained notoriety for its strip clubs and prostitution dens during its heyday as an R&R spot for American servicemen of the nearby Clark Air Base. Clark Airbase was one of the most important airbases during the Vietnam War, and was only closed down during the eruption of Mount Pinatubo (Mount Pinatubo while virtually on the intersection of the provinces of Pampanga, Tarlac and Zambales- most trips are either launched from Tarlac or Zambales). While the American bases are long gone, the strip clubs and prostitution dens remain, even while the current Pampanga governor is a priest.
Even during the daytime, some tricycle drivers in Angeles would ask tourists or any obviously non-local if one would want a prostitute and they can be a little persistent. Being called at “Hey Joe!” (if one is Caucasian) can be unsettling sometimes, but mostly the locals mean no harm.
Having said that, once in Pampanga, try checking out small eating places by the roadside and try the local grill, and what else, of course sisig, drowned in a bottle of cold and crisp San Miguel.
My to do List
1. Go on a hot-air balloon flight during the Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. **
2. Go on a birdwatching tour in the Candaba Wetlands.*
3. Eat Sisig at Aling Lucing’s and have Razon’s Halo-halo to cool down.**
4. Witness the Crucifixions at San Pedro Cutud.*
5. Visit the Hilaga Philippines (Paskuhan/Christmas Village).
6. Take home tocinos and tapas from Pampanga’s Best or Mekeni Food.
*- Highly Recommended
**- Recommended by Locals
Stay Away From
1. Mosquitoes! – just bring bug repellent to be sure
2. Dust Mites. – bring Lysol with you, if you think the hotel room is oldish and not cleaned properly. (If you are bringing pets, it goes without saying that pets can die from Lysol.)
3. Pimps and prostitutes. – Don’t contribute to the proliferation of this trade. Also know that some of the prostitutes can be minors (Sex with a minor is punishable in the Philippines, and usually punishable as well in your own home country). It could also be a trap to fleece you out of your hard-earned dollars like the infamous “Rape me” brouhaha that happened in Subic that severely strained Philippine-American relations because a woman (Suzette Nicolas also known as “Nicole”) of dubious character claimed she was raped by American Servicemen. While a lot of Filipinos and most of the expat community think otherwise, the poor guy is under detention at the American Embassy in Manila. Recently, Nicolas recanted her statement and was granted a US visa and flew to the United States under an assumed name while leaving the local activists who had been noisily rallying against American military presence in the Philippines literally dumbfounded and severely humiliated.
There are buses plying to the different parts of Pampanga daily from Manila, and these usually leave on an hourly basis. Buses like Victory Liner and Saulog Transit from Manila to Olongapo pass through San Fernando City. Philtranco, meanwhile, heads out directly to the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (left photo) and goes through Angeles City.
For the Candaba Wetlands, take the North Luzon Expressway and exit via signs on the right side of the road that say Candaba Wetlands. Alternatively, one can hire a car or a van (with or without a driver) from any of the car rental companies in Manila (Avis is the most reliable but also a bit costlier option.)
Motorbikes with sidecars (tricycles) and bicycles with sidecars are the primary mode of transportation in Angeles and San Fernando Cities as well as jeepneys. If you plan to commute, it is best to get a road map of the province from National Bookstore.
You can also fly into the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport. Flights from Cebu (via Cebu Pacific) and Boracay/Caticlan (via South East Asian Airlines or SEAIR) go through this airport. International flights coming from Incheon (Asiana Airlines), Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur (Air Asia), Macau and Taipei (Spirit of Manila- Beginning June 2009; Cebu Pacific), Singapore (Tiger Airways; Cebu Pacific), and Bangkok and Hong Kong (Cebu Pacific) also land in this airport. Another caveat with Cebu Pacific – airport delays have been pretty common in the past year, but they do offer some of the best rates in the industry. Refunding your ticket with Cebu Pacific will take months if ever you will actually get refunded in the end.
Ryan supports socially and environmentally responsible and sustainable tourism, as well as the promotion of the Philippines as an alternative Asian tourist destination.
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