Sillag Festival: Spectacle of lights, colors

Katerina Francisco
Find out what happened in the two-day festival of lights in La Union

READY FOR FLIGHT. A woman holds a lantern upright before releasing it to the sky. All photos by Katerina Francisco

MANILA, Philippines – The moon did not show itself here on the eve of March 10, but what the sky lacked in illumination, it made up for in color.

Thousands of people gazed upward as sky lanterns in red, green, and violet rose through the air, later followed by a dazzling fireworks display. This is La Union’s Sillag Festival of Lights — only the second time the province held the event, and already it had begun to generate buzz and attract both tourists and potential investors.

ICONIC LIGHTHOUSE. The Poro Point lighthouse symbolizes the North's potential as a beacon for tourism and development

The two-day event, held March 9 to 10, was a project of the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) and the Poro Point Management Corporation (PPMC). It was meant to be La Union’s answer to Baguio’s Panagbenga Flower Festival and Clark’s Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, both crowd-drawing events in North Luzon.

“Sillag” is an Ilocano word meaning moonbeam or illumination from the moon. The festival was anchored on that theme — lights — with various activities kicking in as soon as the sun went down. 

See Rappler’s photos from Sillag Festival day one (March 9) here.

STREET DANCERS. Smiling performers decked in body paint, feathers, and colorful costumes perform in the street dancing competition

Beacon of the north

To most tourists, La Union is synonymous with picturesque churches and surfing spots. Sillag Festival wanted to bring something different to the table by creating a light-themed summer festival, anchored on the unique co-existence of a piece of cultural heritage with new, modern development projects. 

PPMC manages the Poro Point Freeport Zone, now the site of industrial projects to establish it as a bustling business hub. It also houses the iconic Poro Point lighthouse, which has been in existence since 1979.

Sillag Festival, Poro Point Freeport Zone, La Union

From the top of the lighthouse, visitors get a sweeping, 360-degree view of the San Fernando Bay and the West Philippine Sea. It’s the perfect place, as BCDA Acting Chairman and CEO Arnel Paciano Casanova puts it, to bring your significant other to witness dramatic sunsets.

In 2012, PPMC “adopted” the lighthouse for repair and rehabilitation with a memorandum of agreement with the Philippine Coast Guard. 

For Casanova, the rehabilitation of the lighthouse not only preserves a piece of the past, but serves as a symbol of hope for the province.

Sillag Festival, Poro Point Freeport Zone, La Union

“The lighthouse brings soul to the place,” Casanova told Rappler. “It symbolizes Filipino tenacity. We can choose to be the light that will lead and guide our country.”

PPMC plans to develop the 6-hectare lighthouse property with specialty stores, restaurants, amphitheater, view deck, museum, picnic grounds, and playgrounds.

Sillag Festival, Poro Point Freeport Zone, La Union

Spectacle of lights

In the morning, Thunderbird Resorts felt like an oasis of serenity. The open-air veranda fronted a view of the sea; stark white buildings towered against the blue backdrop of the sky.

But when the sun set, the blue domes lit up, the crowds came pouring in, and the night festival began.

LIGHTS ON. As the sun sets, the blue domes of Thunderbird Resorts light up

For many of La Union’s residents, the Sillag Festival is the only time they get to explore the 5-star luxury resort. For two days, the Santorini-inspired hotel opened its doors to the public, playing host to a variety of activities that kicked off as soon as night set in.

“One of the attractions to the local people here is they do not come to Thunderbird [because] this is a private environment,” said PPMC Chairman Ives Nisce. “Many of the locals look forward to Sillag because they want to come in and see Thunderbird for themselves. This is the time of the year when Thunderbird opens its doors to everybody.”

GUESTS OF HONOR. Local government officials and organizers deliver welcome remarks at the opening of the festival

Thunderbird Resorts occupies PPFZ’s tourism complex boasting casinos, a golf and beach club, hotel, and residences styled in the blue-and-white motif of the Greek island of Santorini. The resort has been recognized by local and foreign tourists, with travel website Trip Advisor listing it as one of the top 25 luxury hotels in the Philippines.

Curiosity may have driven the first-time festival goers last year, but organizers said the thousands who flocked to Thunderbird on March 9 to 10 came because of positive word of mouth.

“We wanted to create a buzz. We wanted to create an awareness of Poro Point,” Nisce said. “We want to put Poro Point in the tourism map, in the [tourism department] calendar of activities.”

SKY SHOW. Crowds line near the boardwalk to watch fireworks over the sea

About a thousand people registered for the March 9 Sunset Run for Hope, the kickoff to the main events lined up. Even before the activities began, people crowded around the boardwalk area fronting the sea, already securing the best spots to watch the night’s highlights.

Children decked in colorful costumes — some of them outfitted with light-emitters — danced their way towards the boardwalk in a street dancing competition. Booths selling food and souvenir products lined the walkway. 

SEA SPECTACLE. Colorful boats all aglow for the night show

In the evening, all eyes looked to the sea. It was supposed to be a synchronized activity, but the crowd’s excitement couldn’t be held back: first it was one, then a handful, and finally dozens of sky lanterns floated upwards and acted as makeshift stars.

Down below, colorful boats assembled in a straight line. For several minutes, land, sea, and sky were aglow: lanterns and fireworks illuminated the night sky, a fluvial parade was at sea, and the bright blue domes of Thunderbird Resorts lit up.

The crowd watched quietly as instrumental music blared out of the speakers. On their own, the events were nothing new, but the creative combination and use of lights and colors made for a memorable spectacle.

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