Greg de la Cruz is an avid online writer from the Philippines. He likes sharing his thoughts about places that might interest tourists.
There are fewer urban places than rural in the Philippines, and the casual tourist has a hard time remembering unknown towns like Amlan because they are many. Everything about Amlan screams rural—the weekly power outages, the slow-moving cars, the solitary 7-Eleven—and if you stay here long enough, you might just forget how everywhere else in the world, skyscrapers get built by the hour and workers are dragging their feet fast on crosswalks onto their final stop that is their desk inside these glass boxes.
But in this lesser-known town along the coast of Negros Oriental—itself a province relatively unknown—the people take their time:
- The eatery shopkeeper (tindera) pours three calculated, big spoonfuls of beef broth onto her patron’s bowl, each pour allowing steam to rise on the hungry man’s forehead, where it misrepresents as sweat. And she finishes by dropping a modest cube of the red meat, now brown from spending hours swimming inside the pot.
- The newly married man takes his time building his native house (bahay-kubo). He wishes to leave the communal house built by his father, and in this soon-to-rise construction made of nipa and bamboo, he will soon live with his wife and children. On some days, he delivers the nipa and bamboo to his site via tricycle, climbing slower than a jogger up a hill. But he prefers to transport via shoulder-and-neck because the miles here in Amlan are known to be shorter than the miles in most places.
- And the barangay captain (kapitan) starts his morning greeting neighbors, who have found themselves outside his room, waiting. There, sitting on wooden sofas their faces bring concern, still, the kapitan takes a detour to his kitchen where his wife has already set water to boil for coffee. He stirs as many cups as there are visitors and mixes in the instant sweetened powder. Carefully placing these on a tray, he walks back to his clients, his wife following behind him as they formally bring a start to his workday.
These are just a few of the unseen sights starring the inhabitants of rural Amlan. But before experiencing its distinct scenes, you first need to know how you get there.
Take a Half-Hour Ride From the Airport
There is no flight that lets you disembark on Amlan. The airport is by the border of Negros Oriental’s capital Dumaguete City, and technically belongs to the territory of Sibulan. There are overpriced shuttle services you can opt for, you can also rent cars, but the easiest ride would be taking a bus or jeepney that passes along the highway. This route to the north of Negros takes you straight to the town, and every five or ten minutes there is a view of the sea on the right, a teaser.
The road is only called a highway because of legalities, as it desperately attempts to function as a four-lane when big yellow buses are cheek-to-cheek with regular cars when overtaking. The beach houses on the right and hillsides on the left make it impossible, or unprofitable, to widen the asphalt. In Negros, the landowners are old and proud, and they require a hefty sum to relinquish the titles handed down from colonial times.
There is a long strip of unobstructed sea with lampposts interrupting every now and then, and this view hints that Amlan is ten minutes away. There is more blue on the landscape than there is anything else, and when this stops, you arrive at San Jose, the adjacent town, where you will eventually make a sharp left along the uninterrupted highway.
Those arriving from Cebu via boat crowd on a tiny waiting shed, where they fight for the few spots left on any of the yellow buses that come from Dumaguete. This is Tandayag wharf, and passing this you are technically already in Amlan, but not quite.
A Short Bridge Announces Arrival
A short bridge, which was narrower than it is now, announces your arrival at Amlan proper. This concrete slab demarcates the two barangays separated by a river that runs from the town’s highlands. Poblacion, which translates to town center, is one of the smallest and least inhabited barangays in Amlan but is considered its center of commerce.
There is a side road you can take which is the first entryway to Amlan’s beaches, while taking the highway further drives you north of Negros where you’ll pass the slightly more urbanized Tanjay and Bais cities. But what marks your formal arrival at Amlan, in the same manner as you would on any other Philippine town, is the municipal hall. The two-storey building which sits on a three-step terrace reads on its façade, “1954” the year it was built.
There are other important years on Amlan’s history such as 1848 and 1912, which we will touch on some other time. Because there are places in this town, starting from its proper, which tell us more about its spirit besides its pre-Japanese, pre-American remnants.
The Park Sits Beside the Catholic Church
There’s a common sight among Philippine towns aside from the Dr. Jose P. Rizal statue that lives on every park—and it’s the commonality of the Catholic church being situated right beside the town park. This Catholic church is where significant events of a family’s existence are marked—a new child (baptism), a union of families (marriage), and the end of someone’s life (funeral).
Amlan’s Catholic church, built using brick and coral limestones, stood during Spanish occupancy and has its own pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial stories to tell. I however, remember how my father used to stand outside the rough red facade while mass was being held. My mom and I would listen in—sometimes dad would join in and sing with us, but he often seemed to not stand the heat inside, owing to the lack of indoor cooling. Today though, the building has more wall-mounted fans than it needs, and churchgoers are more likely to stay inside.
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The walk to the beach from the Catholic church is a very short one—and it used to be shorter, until the school that stood between it and the beach was walled up to keep students in school. Today, you can head to the beach using either public and private paths. The nearest part of Amlan’s beach to the Catholic church is the seawall portion, which is neither physically attractive nor conducive to tourists, but provides any visitor a snapshot of Amlan’s coastline.
The Beach Expands Both Ways
When I was five, two of my relatives—still unmarried at the time—would let me play with the beach’s brown and black sand. I lived in an ancestral house a hundred meters from the beach, so we had no reason not to spend time there when there was time to spare. The couple would, instead of building castles with the sand like everyone else, fabricate a makeshift speedboat for me to ride on. They even added a turning wheel as if I could change the boat’s direction. Was it a way for them to make me stay put, so I wouldn’t give in to my impulse of running to the water? I didn’t realize it then.
The beach hasn’t changed very much over the almost three decades that I’ve known it. The same parking spots for fishing boats (bangka) are there, the same unobstructed view of Cebu Island, and the same steps from the seawall section down to sea level which leads straight north, where a fifteen-minute boat ride along the coast would let you pass Poblacion, Mag-abo, and the rest of the coastal barangays until you are no longer in Amlan.
The beach expands both ways when you stand around the seawall section. There’s a small activity center on the seawall’s right side, and there used to be a hint of a night life which I’m not so sure still exists today. I’m usually by this area early in the morning, where I do ten laps of light jogging along with an old neighbor who always brought his dog. The sunrise isn’t the prettiest here, but there is one.
The Market Is Often Quiet
Moving away from the beach past the Catholic church and park, and walking across the national highway, you’ll arrive at Amlan’s peaceful public market. Philippine public markets—mercado, tabo-an, chang-ge, talipapa, to give a few other names to them—are often loud and loaded with ecstatic vibrance. If you go to any city within any non-Manila, non-Cebu province, you’ll instantly know that the Filipino public market scene is not a place for meditation and deep thinking. Inside public markets, buyers and sellers alike brush elbows, miscount their money due to distractions, and most of all talk in heightened animation.
But not so much in Amlan’s public market—which seems to only come to life during Sundays or on Catholic holidays. Under ordinary circumstances, the people here talk softly. Sure, the occasional shout from the butcher who instinctively has to talk over his bangs and bashes of the meat will without a doubt break the silence—but other than that, if you don’t know anyone from this place, you’ll probably think you can record a podcast episode over here without fear of background noise.
On Sundays, the painitan is full. Especially since there’s no time to cook breakfast if you choose to attend mass early, the practical solution is to buy sticky rice and hot chocolate (puto’g tsokolate or sikwate for Cebuanos) and either bring these home or eat on the spot. These buyers crowd the square bar, where the seller has to do a 360 check of all the customers who’d like to buy some. And I don’t help her by any means—I used to just sit there as a non-customer, waiting for my mom to finish her rounds of collecting produce from scattered vegetable vendors. I never ate any of the sticky rice and chocolate, as I sat in reverse with my back facing the bar.
Backroads Lead To Hidden Rivers
There’s a river in Amlan that’s popular with local tourists—Dao River (pronounced Dah-Oh). On birthdays, family outings, school outings, friendly outings, and all other outings, Dao River has always been a familiar venue.
My mom had this plastic picnic basket that could hold ten plastic food containers. And as soon as I saw her filling that basket with steaming boxes, I knew there was a very good chance we were going on a trip to the river. Once there, it would take some time for us to set up because somehow, we had to look for some rock formations that would masquerade as tables. We brought with us monobloc chairs, but we almost never had to bring any tables.
After settling in, my dad would himself take a dip so he could watch over me, as I was six, seven, or eight years old when we had those riverside picnics. He would use a serious amount of bathing soap, and the bubbles would form a circle around our spot until gravity pulled them downstream, a straight white line thinning out into the distance.
Mountains Are Vast and Deep, and There’s More to This Town Than I Know
Amlan may be known as a coastal town, but it also has its mountains. During election season, I used to tag along to visit these inaccessible regions—we rode this massive rescue truck with makeshift welded seats on its back. We visited pineapple plantations, sweet potato fields, and vast undeveloped areas.
There are high-up places in Amlan I haven’t dared to visit, and there, families who are hard (inconvenient) for the government to reach, carry on with their lives.
The people here have put up not only their houses—but basketball courts, chapels, stages for barrio pageants, squares for disco parties, convenience stores, activity centers, and many other structures—all signs pointing to a thriving community. Amlan's mountains are a constant reminder that there’s still so much I don’t know about the place where I spent my childhood and teenage years in, and I hope that as a visitor, this encourages you to give Amlan a chance.
© 2022 Greg de la Cruz