Philippines part 2: Banaue, Batad & Sagada; Puerto Galera

The Philippines is a big place, and it would be a waste of time staying in Manila for the entirety of our stay, so we took an overnight bus from Manila to Banaue on the evening of the 14th of December. The original plan was for Janelle and one of her friends to join, but unfortunately that did not work out. The bus was horribly cold, but otherwise uneventful, and upon arriving in Banaue, around 350 kilometres north of Manila, we were met by our guide for the next few days, by the name of Irene.

Not a bad view from the People's Lodge, where we had breakfast upon arrival.
Not a bad view from the People’s Lodge, where we had breakfast upon arrival.

We set out from Banaue by minibus to Batad Saddle, the furthest point uphill to which the road reaches. Here I tried chewing some Betel nut, traditionally chewed with peppermint leaves, tobacco and powdered lime (the chemical combination, not the fruit, made from cooking rice or something similar) I chose to omit the tobacco though. I must admit, it did not appeal to me. The Betel nut is simply too sour for me.

The Banaue rice terraces, where we stopped for a photo along the way.
The Banaue rice terraces, where we stopped for a photo along the way.

A trek of a few hours got us to Batad, where we checked in to our lodgings at Ramon’s Native Home-stay. It is a collection of traditional Ifugao houses clustered around a nice covered porch overlooking Batad serving as a restaurant and social space. Ramon, the owner, proudly showed me the wall of mementos and souvenirs from all over the world he had received from guests after they had stayed at his hotel, and also offered to let us dress up in the traditional Ifugao g-string and pound rice. I never did try on the g-string (made by wrapping a long 30 cm wide woven piece of cloth in a special manner), but I did try pounding rice.

The Batad rice terraces - been there, done that, got the photo.
The Batad rice terraces – been there, done that, got the photo. (Sun in eyes…)

Later that day, we made the walk down into the village, and along the UNESCO World Heritage listed rice terraces, built over 4000 years ago, and in constant use since then. The rice terraces are constructed by digging around 4-10 metre wide steps into the side of the mountain, and then lining the bottom with clay for waterproofing, and building a wall on the edge. Water from natural springs at the top of the hill is then piped down into the top terrace, and from there it is channelled through all the other terraces, until eventually reaching the river in the valley below. Thus irrigation of the rice is provided.

Walking along the edge of a rice terrace.
Walking along the edge of a rice terrace.

We continued from the village along the side of the rice terraces, making our way across a ridge into the next valley, where we eventually reached the Batad waterfall. What was interesting about this quite tall and powerful waterfall was how the constant spray of water vapour on the surrounding rock made for a microclimate of moss and small ferns clinging to almost sheer rock. Amos had a swim in the water, but I did not think to bring swimming shorts, so I stayed on the rocks, observing previous people’s attempts at rock stacking.

Look! A waterfall!
Look! A waterfall! Note the impressive displays of rock-stacking to the right.

We trekked back to Batad as twilight approached, and spent the rest of the evening relaxing in the silence of the valley. (Batad is, due to not being connected to the road network, free of the otherwise ubiquitous combustion engine.) Later, we sat at a campfire with some of the locals and the other tourists: two German ladies and a motley bunch of people who arrived with a towering Greek-Jewish man who has spent many years “walking barefoot all over South East Asia” as he described himself.

Batad village is visible to the right in this photo.
Batad village is somewhat visible to the right in this photo. A few traditional Ifugao houses in the centre-left portion of the photo.

The next day Ramon had invited us to a traditional, pre-Christian thanksgiving ceremony that he would hold in honour of the assistance the Greek whom I described earlier had given in helping construct the newest of the traditional houses. It involved lots of melodic and chanting retellings of the epics, stories of the beginning of the earth according to the Ifugao. It also involved slaughtering two pigs and two chickens. Certainly memorable to watch.

Could not photograph the ritual, so instead here are some monkey skulls. The more skulls on your house, the richer you are.
Could not photograph the ritual, so instead here are some monkey skulls. The more animal skulls on your Ifugao house, the richer you are.

But we had to leave at around midday, since we had a few hours walking to go before we could get to the road where a tricycle would be waiting to pick us up and get us back to Banaue. Unfortunately, when we got to the road, the tricycle was not there. We were late arriving due to watching the ceremony. But there was a different tricycle available, and Irene engaged his services.

This is the weekly walk for children attending school in Banaue: a view from the track leading to the road.
This is the weekly walk for children attending school in Banaue: a view from the track leading to the road.

This is where things get interesting. We drove along the road to a spot overlooking a scenic meandering river, and took some photographs. But as we set off again from there, the tricycle had punctured its front tyre. Not good. So we started walking, while Irene tried to get hold of her contacts in Banaue to send a different trike. But suddenly, unexpectedly, a bus appeared on the road, bound for Banaue. Usually, there is only one bus on that road a day, but this day, being a Sunday, had an additional afternoon bus for all the students heading in to Banaue for boarding school. We got on board, to the great amusement of the Filipino students, who at the same time were quite shy to try out their English with us, so we just settled in to what must be one of the world’s most spectacular school bus routes.

On the bus.
On the bus.

Arriving in Banaue after a few hours on the bus, we checked in to the People’s Lodge, one of the hotels in town. It overlooks the river and has views across the valley to the rice terraces on the opposite mountain, and is built two stories up and four stories down, as it sits on the edge of the river valley, between road above and river below. The hotel is quite ok, but of slight concern is that they seem to lock the door to the lobby and restaurant floor during night (which I discovered as I was trying to find water to drink), effectively meaning there is no emergency exit in case of fire. Disconcerting.

A bit of afternoon sightseeing in Banaue.
A bit of afternoon sightseeing in Banaue.

Irene had left us during the evening, and had arranged for her brother to drive us to Sagada, a town in neighbouring Mountain Province famed for its caves and hanging coffins. What we found most amicable about the town was the climate: sitting high in the mountains, it is surrounded by tall fir trees, and has a temperature somewhat reminiscent of France during spring. An enjoyable escape from the otherwise subtropical Philippines. We did a brief tour of the sights, including the hanging coffins, and then went caving.

Spot the coffins. There are more somewhere further outside town, but we did not go.
Spot the coffins. There are more somewhere further outside town, but we did not go.

The cave we went into is part of a larger cave system in the area, and it contains some quite amusing rock formations, and a lot of running water, including a veritable pool at the end. This made for a fun experience, for me only tempered by a slip down a particularly treacherous section where I managed to stub my toe and crack a nail. But no serious harm done.

A rock formation in the cave. Looking suspiciously like rice terraces.
A rock formation in the cave. Looking suspiciously like rice terraces.
Amos taking a dive in the pool at the end of the cave.
Amos taking a dive in the pool at the end of the cave.

We re-emerged into daylight, drove back into Sagada, had lunch, and then set off back to Banaue. Along the way we stopped in Bontoc at a museum, which had a fascinating collection of artefacts and documentary images about the traditional lifestyle of the people of the Luzon Highlands. Back in Banaue we killed time until the bus would take us back to Manila. The bus left Banaue at seven pm, and made good speed, arriving in Manila at around 3 am. To me that is not an overnight bus, but never mind. Janelle’s parents had extremely kindly promised to pick us up, so we got back to the hotel in the middle of the night, and were disappointed to hear they did not have a room available, so we camped in the balcony lobby until at around 5 am some people checked out, meaning there was space for us. I decided though to just pretend it was morning, and watched the sun rise while spending some time on the internet. That day was spent relaxing and recovering, but also planning our next trip out, which was to be the next day. We had decided on a trip to the beach, at Puerto Galera.

The Bontoc museum had a replica of a traditional village.
The Bontoc museum had a replica of a traditional village.

Next day, Wednesday the 19th, we took our first trip on the MRT (crowded, but cheap, and much faster than being stuck in traffic. I almost retract my previous criticism of it) to get to the bus terminal for buses going to Batangas, the port from which it is a brief crossing across to Puerto Galera. The crossing from Batangas was done by a 60-seater boat with retrofitted bamboo-reinforced outriggers, to increase stability in the quite choppy waters that flow between Luzon and Mindoro, on which Puerto Galera is located. Sitting in this boat, you really get a feel for the power of the waters of the South China Sea, connected as it is to the Pacific. And a new found appreciation of the strength and flexibility of Bamboo as a construction material. (The boat had a conventional steel hull, but at three places along the hull they had made holes on each side through which they put large crossbars made of bamboo reaching out to the outriggers, themselves being a mixture of pontoons and bamboo.

Outriggers of our boat, about to depart from Batangas port.
Outriggers of our boat, about to depart from Batangas port.
Afternoon sun at White Beach.
Afternoon sun at White Beach.

Arriving in Puerto Galera we took a short shuttle ride to White Beach further along the coast, and as soon as we got off the bus we were offered a room. We asked to see it, and were quite pleased with the deal: the room had three beds, aircon, television, shower with hot water, free wifi and a view of the ocean. All for 1000 pesos per night, not much more than we were paying for the windowless place in Manila. We gladly accepted, and spent the rest of the day and evening on the beach with a retired American man and his charming Filipino wife whom we had met on the ferry. White beach itself is indeed white, and really comes alive during the evening, when all the bars along the coast put on shows to attract customers to their particular bar. This includes fire dancing (impressive) and crossdressers singing solo and putting on dance routines (amusing).

Sunset at White Beach.
Sunset at White Beach.

During daytime, one may want to venture into the water to swim, but it seems they were suffering from a minor infestation of jellyfish. I got stung the first two times I went swimming, and heard of quite a few others who also met with these invisible irritants. Otherwise, one can go diving (there is a coral reef along the beach), or just lounge on the beach, fighting away the hordes of salesmen and masseurs offering necklaces, bracelets, hats, palm oil, massages, island hopping trips, motorcycle rentals and almond cookies. But we discovered that if one looks sufficiently absorbed in a good book, they won’t bother you. During the four days we spent on the beach, we also trekked up to a waterfall in the mountains behind town, walked a few beaches along the coast to a very nice Italian restaurant that was recommended to us, and generally just enjoyed drinking Mango Shakes and trying all the interesting food.

Pancake volcano. The cafe we got this from has a challenge: Eat it in three minutes, and get it for free.
Pancake volcano. The café we got this from has a challenge: Eat it in three minutes, and get it for free.

We went back to Manila on the 22, and on the 23rd, visited the National Museum, since it is free on Sundays. It quite a nice museum, with a large selection of artworks by local Filipino painters all the way from pre-colonial up to the present era. It also has exhibits documenting the discovery of a Spanish Galleon shipwrecked off the Philippines in the 1600’s, and a set of galleries outlining Filipino history in general. It contained a particularly moving gallery of paintings depicting the second world war in the Philippines, with some truly horrendous scenes depicted in artistic thoughtfulness. In short a very interesting museum, with surprisingly few visitors. After this, we walked around in Chinatown, and found a nice restaurant serving Chinese fast food, before heading back on the LRT.

The museum is housed in the old Senate House of the Philippines. Here the chamber where the Senate used to meet.
The museum is housed in the old Senate House of the Philippines. Here the chamber where the Senate used to meet.

The 24th and 25th were spent with Janelle’s maternal and paternal side of the family respectively, celebrating Christmas in a Chinese Filipino style. This involved lots of delicious food, good company, gift exchanges, and many hours of board games. We were very grateful for the opportunity to celebrate Christmas in such welcoming company, even though I had trouble wrapping my head round it being Christmas and twenty-something degrees outside.

The 26th Amos and I visited Corregidor island, a fortified island guarding the entrance to Manila bay, to which the American forces retreated when the Japanese invaded the Philippines in the second world war. The island was put under siege, but managed to hold out for many months, delaying the Japanese advance, and presumably being responsible for the Japanese not managing to invade Australia. The only way to visit the island is via a tour operator, but the tour is very well structured, and our guide on the open-sided bus spoke humorously and intelligently about the events on the island and the people involved. It was quite interesting to get the perspective of the invaded before we headed off to Japan, to try and understand the view of the invaders.

Touristing @ Corregidor. Ruins of the longest barracks in the world at the time.
Touristing @ Corregidor. Ruins of the longest barracks in the world at the time.
Part of the Pacific War Memorial on Corregidor island.
Part of the Pacific War Memorial on Corregidor island.

Next day was just resting at the hotel, because we had an early flight to Japan, which we managed to get on without mayor problems. Only annoyance was the bad exchange rate we got for the last of our Pesos when we converted them into Yen, but I suppose there are worse things in life. All in all, the Philippines is certainly a country full of contrasts. The squalor of certain areas of Manila contrast with the beauty of the countryside. The constant traffic of Quezon City and the quietness in Batad. The friendly people, the con artists, the opportunistic salesmen. The American and Spanish legacies and the Chinese influences, which almost obscure the Malay roots of the people. Certainly this is not a country that can be understood in two weeks, not even the 18 days we were there, but we got a good feel for it, a lot of it thanks to the kind hospitality we received.

Author: jpamills

Website: www.jpamills.dk

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