Boats in Philippine Life, Culture and Spirituality


For thousands of years, boats continue to be an essential part of life and culture in the Philippine archipelago. With various types and sizes that could fit up to a hundred people, boats serve as vessels between the islands for travel, transportation, exploration, fishing, as well as recreation.


One of these boats is called the balangay, which is known to be the oldest water vessel in the archipelago. In 2013, the largest balangay known as the “Mother Boat” was found in Butuan City in Mindanao. It is estimated that it was made between the years 1215 to 1250; centuries older than the Spanish galleons that first arrived in the archipelago in the 16th century. This “Mother Boat” is 25 meters long, twice the size of regular balangays, and is made of individual planks the width of man’s chest and wooden pegs the size of a fist. The word balangay (sailboat) is the origin of barangay (village), the basic unit of government in the Philippines.


At home in the water, boats also serve as dwelling places for the Sama Badjao of Southern Philippines. They traditionally spent the majority of their lives at sea as a nomadic group of people who would only come to land to bury their dead. The Sama Badjao are known to be some of the most skilled craftsmen who built boats from precolonial times up to the present.


Also known in different parts of the islands as bangka, paraw, baroto, vinta, andkakap, boats are also an integral aspect of indigenous Philippine spirituality. Its purpose extends beyond the practical to that of ritual: as a vessel to the realm of the spirit. 

As a symbol and metaphor of a vessel taken on a journey between the corporeal and the spiritual realm, it is a vehicle for communing with the spirit world and for traversing the transitory state between life and death, and life, again.


Watch Voyage of the Balangay, the documentary about the 2009-2011 voyage of three balangays around the Philippines and Southeast Asia.