A NOTICE in the passage reminded that in the Philippines disputes are often settled quickly, if not amicably: Firearms are not allowed inside the courtroom. I hesitantly peered through the gap between the frosted glass slats. The case had been adjourned for lunch. A lone witness lay full out on a wooden bench in front of the dock, snoring under a creaking fan. Could I take a picture inside? ''Certainly, sir'' said the court clerk, and as I left, ''Come again.'' Marcos country this. His name is everywhere. Even this regional court building in Laoag is named after the former president: The Marcos Hall of Justice. The young Ferdinand Marcos had been jailed on this site, accused of murder. Imprisoned here, he studied law, was acquitted, and went on to become President. It was with a sense of foreboding that I flew into Laoag, capital of Ilocos Norte province, for decades a Marcos stronghold. These people had supported a feared dictator and still do. But I soon learnt that Laoag, unlike Manila, is a city where a foreigner can walk the streets at night in relative safety. Its laid-back people still travel around in horse-drawn carriages, just as they did in the days when Spaniards ruled this tobacco-rich region. Outside the law court, a driver obligingly reined in his horse to pose for a picture. ''That'll cost you one dollar,'' joked an armed security guard behind me. The two men laughed, and the carriage was on its way again. Friendly people, these. Mind you, I was careful not to malign Marcos. Laoag sits above the river of the same name a few kilometres from the coast, and in spite of the fact that it is rich in both historic buildings and scenery - some of its dunes stretch for several kilometres and are nearly a kilometre wide - few foreign tourists venture here. The hour-long flight from Manila is an experience in itself, the Fokker 50 passing over rugged Mountain Province and the famed Banaue rice terraces before landing at the tiny airport a few hundred metres from the sea. Tiny it may be, but Laoag's is an international airport, and chartered flights come in direct from Taiwan. No beggars in Laoag either, no unemployed sitting aimlessly outside the small sari-sari stores. The town is clean, many of its buildings are freshly painted, unlike most provincial towns, and the roads are repaired regularly. Marcos came home often. He not only pumped money into his private Swiss banking accounts, but also into this, his heartland. Tobacco did the rest. But Laoag is noisy, a crazy mixture of horses and carriages, brightly painted jeepneys and motor tricycles, the main forms of public transport. If Pisa has its leaning tower, then Laoag has its sinking one. The bell tower, right in the centre of town - and the traffic - was built by the Spaniards in 1783, and a man on horse-back could pass through the gateway then. Now even a small man, dismounted, would have to bend over to avoid banging his head on the roof. Testimony to a region subject to earthquakes and subsidence. Evidence of the disruptive subterranean forces is scattered liberally around Ilocos Norte. At the nearby village of Baccara, the belfry's metre-thick walls are disfigured by wide and deep gashes, rents left by a quake in 1930. The dome crashed in on itself and rests menacingly. More earth movement might be the death-knell, but children fool around in the school yard opposite, totally unconcerned. When the traffic fumes become overbearing, grab a freshly opened coconut and wend your way down the banks of the wide Laoag River. A raging torrent when the rains come to the Philippines around June, the river is now a trickle, a silent retreat. Dozens of washer-women sit in the water, pounding clothes and chattering, some with cigars dangling from their lips. Clothes are pegged out or strewn across the pebbles to dry in the unrelenting sun. Some mask their faces like bandits to keep out the searing rays. You don't have to ask permission to take a photograph. They love it. ''Thank you,'' they shout, as if you have just done them a big favour. A father runs towards me with his son. ''Take us, please.'' The rushing waters carry with them tons of shale during the typhoon season, and a few hundred metres downstream, lorries reap this harvest of building material. I am told the body of Ferdinand Marcos lies in a glass-covered coffin in a specially-built mausoleum at Batac, some 20 kilometres south of Laoag, in the grounds of the Marcos family's colonial-style home. Morbid curiosity overcomes me. I want to see the dictator's body. So I hire a car. 8 am to five for 1,000 pesos (about HK$300). Nine hours, and of course there is a driver thrown in. It's the only real way to get around quickly. ''Are you a Marcos supporter?'' I asked casually from the rear seat, as we sped off towards Sarrat, seven kilometres away, to see the house where Marcos was born. It is of course now the Marcos Museum. He turned his head slowly, with a look of surprise that I should even venture to ask. ''Of course!''. This guy even looked like Marcos. He was in his 60s, almost the double of the former president. THE house was locked up, but a villager rushed off to find the caretaker, elderly Aurora Tagmay. ''I don't have the key,'' she apologised, ''but the kitchen is open.'' But surely, this was a museum. What was inside? ''Oh, there's nothing inside,'' she assured me. So I got to see the kitchen where Marcos had his milk heated when he was a baby. ''You know,'' Mrs Tagmay confided, ''some people around here say Marcos is still alive. But I know that's not true. When he was brought back, and they were preparing the body, I lifted the coffin and put my hand on his face. It was really him.'' The moment of truth would come at the end of this bizarre runaround. Off we went to Badoc, a coastal village 40 kms south of Laoag to see the massively buttressed Spanish church, which, like all of Ilocos Norte's colonial heritage, is slowly falling apart. Birds live in the rafters, flying in and out of the great doorway in search of nesting materials. Like a pied piper, I was followed into the church by a score of giggling children from the nearby school. The priest frowned at this noisy intrusion, signalling the need for silence by holding a finger over his lips. And then on to Paoay, whose church has just celebrated its 400th anniversary. The belltower was built in 1793 and I gingerly made my way up seven levels of open wooden staircase, keeping as close to the wall as possible. Hitchcock's Vertigo all over again. No angels up here. The three bells are covered in graffiti, the most memorable advice being: ''**** U to all vandals.'' Nearby is the ''country palace'' where Marcos lavishly entertained his cronies. On the way my driver pointed out an unfinished school building. ''The President launched that project,'' he said. ''You mean Ramos?'' My driver was losing patience. ''Marcos!'' he snapped. Marcos' country mansion is open to the public. I am the only visitor. A young guard takes me up the sweeping staircase to see Imelda's bedroom. No shoes under the bed. The former president's chamber is downstairs, adjoining his library, the cupboards now bare, and an operating theatre. A surgeon was on hand at all times when Marcos was in town. The guard, who is aged about 20, proudly leads me out to the mansion's gardens which overlook the five-square-kilometres Paoay Lake, and makes the ''V'' sign signalling that he is a Marcos man. Strange things happen in the Philippines. A woman swore she had given birth to a fish recently, and a man claimed he was pregnant. Newsmen swarmed around them from all over the world. As legend goes, a town lies at the bottom of the lake. It was supposedly flooded as punishment for the inhabitants' materialism. Fishermen here swear they have seen fish wearing earrings . . . I stopped at Suba beach for a beer before the big moment in Batac. A local girl mocked at the thought that Marcos' body was there in the mausoleum. ''Of course, that is just a waxwork,'' she said. ''Marcos' body was brought here long ago and buried secretly.'' In Marcos' former childhood home in Batac there is a museum of Marcos memorabilia on the first floor. Here were at least 20 life-size plastic Marcos lookalikes in glass cases, dressed in his favourite clothes. Also his medals, including the Medal for Valour, which the Americans say he did not earn. Photographs of the Baby Marcos. Marcos postage stamps. Books on Marcos. Poems praising Marcos. And on. The moment had arrived. I stepped into the dimly-lit mausoleum, spooky music playing in the background, and there . . . and there in a transparent coffin was what looked like an exhibit in a waxwork museum. Could this really be Marcos? I wanted to cry out 'Marcos is alive and well and driving my car', but I slipped quietly out into the sunlight where a smiling stall-holder tried to sell me a Marcos hat and a Marcos T-shirt. All dictators die eventually. But some get to haunt your washing machine. I signed the visitors' book and left. Mike Currie travelled to the Philippines with Emirates.