Butuan City is full of surprises (from the historical to the gastronomical), and the Balangay Festival in May is the perfect time to discover and indulge in them all.
WRITTEN BY PATRICIA MAE TAN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MARK JACOB
I have never set foot anywhere in the Caraga Region (located on the northeastern part of the island of Mindanao), but as soon as I arrived at Butuan City’s Bancasi Airport and was met with a grand welcome courtesy of young dancers in Butuanon costume, I knew I was going to have the best time.
I have to admit, I had no idea what to expect from Butuan. Most people just know it as a stopover city on the way to Siargao or Surigao, but it’s slowly becoming a destination in itself because of its rich and surprising history. As early as the 10th century, long before trading centers in Asia were established, Butuan City had already established trading relations with the Kingdom of Champa (now southern Vietnam). By the 11th century, it was already the center of trade and commerce in the Philippines.
Various goods were traded across the neighboring islands using balangays, wooden boats adjoined by carved-out planks through pins or dowels, propelled by sails made of buri, nipa fiber or padding. More than just a mere boat, the term balangay also refers to the smallest political unit among the Filipinos (barangay).
You may have already known that from your history classes in grade school, but here’s something that might make you question your lessons: although we’re taught that the first mass in the Philippines was celebrated in Limasawa, Leyte, it may actually have been in Masao, Butuan City. While there is still a lot of controversy and debate around it, it is certain that Ferdinand Magellan dropped anchor by the mouth of Agusan River in 1521 and held a mass to commemorate the event. According to the chronicles of Spanish historian Antonio Pigafetta, this happened in the afternoon of March 31, 1521, after the Easter Mass (attended by two Butuanon brother kings) was celebrated in the morning of the same date. Pigafetta had noted the surrounding fields and balangay boats on the bay that could be seen from the hill.
Another surprise: the first wooden watercraft ever excavated in Southeast Asia was discovered in Butuan in the late 1970s. Also known as the Butuan boat, this artifact—which dates back to the year 320—is a prime example of the Filipino’s impressive and advanced boat making and seafaring skills at the time. A total of nine balangays were recovered in the province, but only three have been excavated from their original locations. The rest remain in their original waterlogged condition in order to preserve them. To commemorate the historical importance of the centuries old balangays and the coming of the early immigrants that settled in the Philippines onboard these boats, the Balangay Festival was born.
THE BALANGAY FESTIVAL
The Balangay (or Balanghai) Festival is celebrated for the whole month of May. Preparations for the recent 26th Balangay Festival underwent extensive planning and conceptualization headed by Mayor Ferdinand Amante Jr. to make the celebration more splendid, memorable and unique. “The balangay is who we are,” he declared. “It is a source of our pride. Not only are we celebrating it to commemorate how the balangay was born, but it’s an opportunity to attract tourists to Butuan.”
And indeed, the Butuanos were very proud and excited about the festival. Along with several visitors from neighboring towns and cities, locals looked forward to the month-long festivities, especially the most-awaited Mutya Hong Butuan, Synchronized Street Dancing, the Balangay Theater Float Parade and Competition, and the Balangay Street Party. “What made this year’s festival different from the past celebrations is that we’ve started to expand our horizons by promoting Butuan globally,” added Mayor Amante. “We are just a sleeping giant waiting to wake up. It’s about time.”
Unlike most town fiestas in the Philippines which usually begin early in the morning, the major activities—the Synchronized Street Dancing and the Balangay Theater Float Parade and Competition began after lunch. As I watched the crowd patiently waiting for the parade to begin, I could see that Butuanos exuded a calm and cheery disposition. They didn’t need any police escorts manning the area; they were completely self-organized! Soon, the festivities kicked off, hosted by Filipino tour guide, cultural activist, and performing artist Carlos Celdran, and a sea of bright colors and different balangays filled the streets of Butuan. Despite the scorching heat of the sun, participants from the Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, and the Department of Public Works and Highways danced gracefully to the ethnic tune of the gong and other indigenous musical instruments, to the delight of the crowd. Even the lovely ladies of Mutya Hong Butuan 2013 were in full support as they joined the parade in their very own balangay. Much to the delight of the Butuanons, the street party began right after the parade, and a free concert made for a magnificent nightcap to a festive day.
CITY SIGHTS AND EATS
But aside from the festival, Butuan has so many great places to visit: Mount Mayapay, a majestic mountain plateau looming southwest of the Agusan Valley; Delta Discovery Park, the longest zip-line in Mindanao and in Asia with a length of 1.3 kilometers; Saint Joseph Cathedral, the first church ever built in Mindanao, and the Bood Promontory Eco Park, the historic hill believed to have been where Magellan and his men celebrated the first Catholic Mass in the country. Butuan, of course, also has countless beach resorts for vacationers looking for something relaxing.
My favorite discovery about Butuan is its food. Butuan is fast becoming a foodie’s must-visit destination! On our first day, we had a taste of the famous burgers at Isla’s Burger Shack. They say that their burgers are so good that people who come to Butuan actually hand-carry these burgers back to Manila. We also visited Margie’s Kitchen, famous for its mouth-watering cakes, desserts and pastries, and Baron’s, a carwash and Caraga Emission Testing Center by day, restaurant by night. This hole-in-the-wall has become one of the best restaurants in Butuan (it almost always gets packed, you need to make a reservation beforehand) because of itsaffordable, fresh, and delicious seafood. No matter if it’s kinilaw, sinugba, sashimi or barbecue, you will love it.
While Butuan City still has so far to go when it comes to tourism, it has already begun moving forward. The exceptional festival and the strong participation of the local government in promoting the region just prove that there is so much more to Butuan than just being a stopover destination.