The storied town of Laoang, located at the northeastern tip of Samar Island, is a vibrant community with a proud tradition of being one of the oldest settlements in the island. Giant galleons, multi-decked sailing ships from Europe and North America in the 16th and 19th centuries, docked on its shores, leaving behind lingering traces of European influences from the Age of Discovery.
The island of Laoang, one of three that are part of the municipality, had once been described by a religious historian who lived more than 300 years ago as a “solid ridge of rock fashioned by nature… a natural fortification, due to its great height of massive rock.”
Looking towards its shoreline today, nothing seems to have changed on the island. It is still an Alcatraz-like land mass covered with lush vegetation, surrounded by a protective natural moat that requires agile boatmen to navigate and cross.
For the 50,000 or so residents, who live in this scenic town though, Laoang is neither fortress stronghold nor prison island. For them it is the home the inevitable bangkero takes them to at the end of the day, when they come from either east or west. Home – whether in a childhood memory or a continuing lived experience – with an ageless church on a hill overlooking the bay, cobblestoned pathways, and mementoes from a rich and colorful past.
There are two versions of the origin of the name Laoang. One account tells of a Spanish official standing one evening on the shore of the Rawis at the edge of mainland Samar, and asking about the island across. The local folk looked in the direction that the Spaniard had pointed and saw that evening lamps had started to be lit on the island as men folk prepared to board their lawagan (a lamp-lit fishing vessel) as night fell.
“Lawagan,” they answered, perhaps thinking to assure him that the lights were nothing mysterious or sinister. The Spaniard naturally concluded that his question had been accurately answered and, with the rest of his companions, began calling the island Lawag and eventually corrupting the term Laoang.
Another version explains that Laoang may have been a contraction of Bukit Lawang, a small fishing village in North Sumatra, Indonesia, where some of the original settlers of Laoang are believed to have come from.
This account is provided by church historian Msgr. Gaspar Balerite, a Laoanganon, whose extensive research on Northern Samar indicates that a settlement, known was Makarato, was already present in this part Samar Island long before the arrival of Spanish colonizers, and the island on the poblacion of Laoang is presently located was the one referred to as Lawang.
It was, to be sure, significant island to the Spanish seafarers who crossed the Pacific to reach the Newfoundland that had become their colony in the 16th century. Laoang, or the nearby Batag Island, was the first stopover of the Galleon ships that traversed the sea routes from Acapulco, Mexico to Manila. After a grueling three to four months at sea, Laoang and Batag – which belonged to Palapag until they were made part of separate and distinct municipality in 1768 – were welcome stopovers for the ships before proceeding to Manila or Cebu via the San Bernardino Strait.
It was thus for the island communities for most of the 250 years from 1565 to 1815, a period of heightened economic activities, until the galleons stopped coming and changed the fortunes of Laoang and the entire Ibabao region. Without the commercial ships, the economic fortunes of Laoang and the rest of Ibabao turned bleak, exacerbated by constant threats of Moro attacks and rebellions against Spanish and, later, America forces
Northeastern point of entry
The municipality of Laoang covers geographical territory beyond Laoang Island alone. In addition to Laoang Island, where the poblacion is situated, its jurisdiction includes three other major areas – the plains at the mouth of the Catubig River on the mainland Samar Island, and Batag and Cahayagan Islands, plus smaller islets closer to its coastline.
Though no longer the major port town it was during the Spanish era and into the American colonial period, Laoang continues today to be a transit town for travelers to and from the so-called Pacific towns of the province – Palapag, Mapanas, Gamay and Lapinig.
The municipal center in Laoang Island is accessible from the rest of the province only by motorized banca, mainly from Rawis pier on mainland Samar Island or from either of two piers in Palapag town. This perhaps accounts for the quaint charm of Laoang, whose relative isolation has preserved many cherished traditions and custom.
The Catholic faith is deeply rooted and strong in the community, borne out by the fact that the town has given local church the most number of priests from among its sons. A particular source of inspiration and pride, the townfolk note, is the fact that a holy man once served as parish priest and walked the streets of Laoang.
Blessed Fr. Angel Rañera, OFM, who was pastor from 1924 until his return to Spain 1929, was among a group of martyrs of the Spanish Civil War who were beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on October 12, 2007. A precious memento from the years Blessed Angel Rañera ministered to the Laoanganons – a church bell inscribed with his name – has been preserved and is installed in a special place in the church courtyard.
The church of Laoang, dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, was one of the fortress churches in Northern Samar built by Spanish priests and local volunteers to deter the approach of Moro invaders and defend the residents from their vicious attacks. The original church was built in 1683 by Jesuit missionaries who ministered to the community until their expulsion from the Philippines in 1768.
According to folklore, early settlers had originally wanted to build a permanent home for their patron saint in Rawis. It was a logical choice, considering its location within mainland Samar. But the statue of the fierce and valiant swordsman saint would constantly disappear from the chapel in Rawis, only to be found later beside a dita (Alstonia scholaris) tree atop a hill in the fortress-like island across Rawis Channel.
The incident purportedly caused the residents to rethink their original plan. They considered the disappearance of the image as a message from their patron saint to build the shrine where his image was found, close to a lucky ridge, protected by a natural moat, a overlooking a majestic sunset in the horizon.
Muralla and watchtower
The church that was to be home of the town’s beloved patron, San Miguel Archangel, was meant by its builders to be more than a place of prayer and worship. For as the faith took root and deepened, so too did attacks of the Moro invaders intensify. Pirates on multi-colored sailboats from Mindanao and the nearby islands of Sabah and Brunei constantly swooped down on various Christian communities in Samar, pillaging villages, ransacking farms, looting churches, and abducting young men and women to be sold in the then thriving Dutch slave trade.
Most of these structures were destroyed during a devastating fire in 1869, but some remnants are still visible at the back of the parish church, a few of them reconstructed to their original design and others still awaiting restoration.
A few meters from the church, just beside the police station and municipal hall is the pergola, a concrete arch reportedly built in 1894 as a garden accent to the old Casa Tribunal (Hall of Justice), also built on a hill. Two rusting centuries-old Spanish cannons rest beside the arch, at the entry to the police station – power artillery that have seen better days. A similar pergola serves as the entrance to the old camposanto (cemetery), the arched top bearing the year 1880.
A pathway through the hill
Not too far from the church compound is a town landmark known as inogkahan (literally, excavated or carved into) to the local folk. This stone-lined trail, created in 1913 during the American colonial period, actually cuts trough and splits Tumaguinting Hill, resulting in a shorter route to the other side of the town center. The pathway is 85 meters long, meters wide and 5 meters high.
While the Americans created this passageway for travel convenience, the Japanese Forces that took over in 1942 had other uses for it. Making Samar one of their defense outposts in the Visayas, Japanese soldiers dug holes on the sides of the Inogkahan purportedly to serve as foxholes, where they waited for the dreadful march of American soldiers into Samar soil towards the end of the war.
The confrontation and ambushes apparently did not take place. There was relative calm in Laoang during the Liberation, compared to nearby Catarman where hundreds of Guerilla sympathizers were reported to have been executed by desperate Japanese soldiers towards the end of the war. Many Laoanganons, mostly women and children, evacuated to interior Barangays to stay out of trouble, while able-bodied fathers and sons went to the hills to actively engage the enemy in guerilla warfare.
More than a solid ridge of rock
Laoang is not simply one “solid ridge rock” across Rawis. It encompasses 56 barangays, most of which are located outside island the poblacion. Many of the town’s interior Barangays are situated in the mainland, while others are in separate islands outside of Laoang proper, including Batag and Cahayagan islands.
The town proper o Laoang has evolved into a natural tourist destination on its own, with its trademark bancas and agile bangkeros providing a unique welcome attraction. The town’s turn-off-the-century houses, ruins of old buildings, antique fortress church, and many educational institutions are among its interesting man-made attractions.
Although tucked away in a distant island miles away from Manila and separated by rivers from the provincial capital of Catarman, the municipality of Laoang has developed into a quiet resort town that that native Laoanganons from big cities hanker to re-visit and newcomers are curious to discover.
Comfortable lodging places are available to meet this need, with some local families converting ancestral homes and gardens into charming pension houses and venues for special events, like Samara’s Home in Brgy. Guilaoangi and Brgy. San Miguel. Mostly located conveniently close to the island’s port entry, they are also good starting points for even a day tour of Laoang.
Must visit by tricycle ride is Onay Beach in Brgy. Doña Luisa, a popular picnic and swimming destination at the northern tip of the town’s coastline. No one in town seems to wonder about or seek an explanation for the beach’s intriguing name (Onay is the vernacular for suicide). For time spent in the quiet cove, with mostly light breezes and calm waters to soothe bathers, has always been rejuvenating.
At day’s end, catch what remains of the sun in a stroll around the plaza and relive the experience of generations of Laoanganons. Near the church, in what is known as doro-ungan san Pade (priest’s port landing), witness an eternal ritual that transpires just before the bell tolls for the Angelus – the sun sets with an orange haze cast over the blue sea, reflecting off tiny waves of silvery and bluish radiance. This famous sunset has been the subject of music, poetry and canvas of local artists, extolling the charms of an old and cherished hometown.
For an its-more-fun, only-in-Laoang adventure, historic Batag Island fits the bill.
One of three islands that are part of the municipality of Laoang, Batag is best known for the lighthouse at its northeastern point, built in 1905 during the early part of American colonial period.
The lighthouse is historically significant because along with the Capul Island lighthouse, it guided sea vessels coming into the archipelago from the Pacific Ocean via the San Bernardino Strait, one of the most traveled waterways in the archipelago.
Though now in a state of disrepair and non-functioning the 30.8-meter lighthouse is still complete, with rewarding the more daring and brave who ascend its steps with a panoramic view of the San Bernardino Strait and the Pacific Ocean.
Marubay, one of six Barangays in Batag Island, has a natural pool which is just a few minutes walk from the pier. Crystal clear spring water flows from an inexhaustible source into a nature pond before trailing out into the sea. The spring is called Tina-e, the vernacular translation of innards because, oldtimers explain, this used to be where cattle were slaughtered and cleansed.
Today the spring and pool server as the native Laundromat, where townsfolk gather to do the week’s wash and keep track of each other’s lives. When they are not involved in the laundry, youngster frolic in the pool while older guardians keep watch from native huts.
Aside from its nurture pool, Marubay is also known to be the only barangay in the country which produces its own electricity through solar power.
And, at the other end of the island, a must-stop for believers of a higher power is Brgy. Napotiocan, where pilgrims come regularly to the church where the image of Our Lady of Salvation is enshrined. The image believed to be miraculous and an increasing number of devotees testify to the numerous favors granted by the Virgin Mary whose image here is depicted with two young children by her side.