There are two things I really like, visiting the Philippines and an embalmed former dictator, so when I discovered that these two hobbies could be combined into one trip you can only imagine how happy I felt.
At this point I should admit, I have an obsession with dead dictators. This has taken me to the graves of Lenin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Uncle Ho among others. It was while showing off about this to a Filipino friend that she informed me that former president Ferdinand Marcos had been embalmed and installed in the world’s only privately maintained mausoleum for an ex-leader. I did not need to be told twice, I had to go here.
The final resting place of the late husband of the world’s most famous shoe collector is in Batac, Ilocos Norte, in the far north of Luzon Island. If you don’t know your Philippines geography, that puts it about 11 hours by bus from Manila. I was starting my journey in Angeles, which shaved about two hours off the journey and decided to start by taking the bus all the way to the provincial city of Laoag.
After nine hours on a Filipino bus I probably would have been glad to arrive at the gates of hell, but all told Laoag was a very pleasant city to rock up to, having lots of old architecture, a vibrant night life, and easy access to some great beaches. The city is also famous for its sand dunes where you can rent a 4×4, or a quad bike for some off-roading. It was a lot of fun, right up to the point I nearly killed myself and my passenger by driving into a ravine.
But as fun as drinking Tanduay Rum and totalling quad bikes can be, I had started this trip for a reason and that reason was to get to Batac the self-styled “home of great leaders”. Sticking to our backpacker roots, we jumped on the local bus for the next stage of the journey.
Batac is a much smaller city, and clearly one that is clinging to former glories, not massively unpleasant, but the lack of infrastructure and things to do was only exaggerated by seeing the words “home of great leaders” every five minutes.
One thing that there is to do, and the reason I came, was to see the Marcos museum and mausoleum. I’ve thought a lot about how to describe this place and I’m still not sure where to start.
The museum is mostly quite excellent — but only if you love propaganda and don’t care too much about history. I was genuinely enjoying myself as it detailed his early life and ascent to power, until it suddenly stopped at what should have been just the beginning of the important stuff. “What about the rest?” I asked my friend. “That’s it,” came the reply. Perhaps the Marcos family suspected that celebrating the years of blood-soaked kleptocratic dictatorship might be a little controversial.
Mausoleums of great leaders take many forms, with the Kims in Pyongyang being the most strict, and nowadays Lenin being fairly relaxed. Mr Marcos certainly fell at the lower end of the scale with sneaky pictures being taken by everyone. The big question for most people is whether the body is real or made of wax? I honestly couldn’t tell you for sure, but it certainly looked the part.
After you’ve seen Marcos there really is no other reason to stay here, so we decided to carry on with our provincial explorations. As our plan was to head south towards Angeles and Manila our choices were either the old colonial town of Vigan or a lucky dip. My idea was to head towards the beach and stop at the first town we found. A brief look at the map indicated that this would be a place called Curimao, a beach resort that locals said wasn’t that nice due to its “black sand”. We arrived and found some cheap as chips beach huts and then went to check out the not-very-nice beach. I’m still not even sure what “black sand” means, but Curimao is one of the nicest beaches I’ve ever seen and, because the place is regarded as “not very nice”, almost empty. Only in the Philippines can you get a pristine beach to yourself, because the sand is slightly the wrong colour.
While we had opted for the budget option, right next to our huts was the deluxe Playa Resort, who were kind enough to let us use their pool and wifi if we drank our quota of rum without causing trouble. We’d only planned to stay a night or two but ended up kicking back for four days drinking rum, having beach barbecues and prancing about in a posh hotel.
Only in the Philippines can you head out looking for a dead dictator and end up supping cocktails in paradise.