If only Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan knew what he was in store for him when he arrived to the shore of a series of interconnecting islands, to be later named after King Phillip II of Spain – the Philippines. He must have known it was paradise, because he greedily claimed the archipelago consisting of 7,107 islands as Spain’s territory.
Here’s what’s interesting about the Philippines, there isn’t a well treaded backpacker mill littered with hostel row, tossed plastic and beer bottles accumulating into untenable spaces or alleys devoted solely to selling trinkets made in China. There are hostels, markets and beer, but it’s nothing packaged, sold and consumed. It’s all a bit muddy and undefined. There’s room for improvisation.
A sense of purity tickles the senses once you leave the metropolis of Manila and begin exploring the other provinces.
The Philippines offers the jaded traveler a chance at innocence again. People from a spectrum of stratospheres readily extended friendship to me, without airs or ulterior motives. Indeed, the reputation that the locals are welcoming far exceeds the illusion. I never felt unsafe, scared or alone.
I fell in love with all of them, even though all they were doing was executing what they’ve learned from birth. Niceness is a lost art that our current world could use a harsh lesson in.
As you pull away the curtain to reveal the delightful diversity of each province and revel in the laid back attitude of “Pinoy”, you mustn’t ever forget the Batad Rice Terraces.
When my colleague, Matt Gibson and I touched down at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, we hit the ground fast and hard. Making it to the rice terraces was high on our list.
Though, for a moment, we took a breath. Manila garners a negative reputation. Accounts I’ve heard label it as a sprawling, steamy, concrete mass of nothing.
Ouch. I’m not so harsh. To me, it’s simply a large city. And like all other large cities, on hand are international cuisine, nightlife and urban spectacle.
Manila is divided into cities, each with their own mayor and dependant on the corruption level of that mayor, living in Shangria-la or demented hell is a thin thread.
We stationed ourselves for a two-night stay in Malate, an old district that has revolved throughout history, from a fishing village to Spanish rule and then into a thriving area for American expatriates who built themselves high rise buildings. By the 80’s the district started booming with that city nightlife I mentioned. A mass of hotels and pensions have revitalized the area for tourism, yet the run-off from neighboring Ermita, the supposedly former red-light district isn’t so former, when Matt was being ‘thrown’ a fleet of women. Marketing usually involves a man standing on the street, holding a cardboard sign with pictures of girls taped on it, a smorgasbord of women. One night I was unhappily included in the exchange.
“Mistah, do you and your wife want woman?” A threesome, oh dear. If only I were his wife, how tempting that would be.
Besides that, Malate does have an array of cuisine to choose from and walks along Manila Bay balance out those kernels of seediness.
What Malate does lack are a good number of budget minded accommodations. There’s one hostel called Friendly’s, but that seems to be perpetually booked. So, we were lucky that HostelBookers assisted us with our digs in Manila.
I was thrilled with Where 2 Next Hostel, run by two Filipino sisters who were raised in Melbourne, Australia.
When you’ve been toiling around the world for as long as I have, my list of must-haves in accommodation is actually simple, yet seems hard to achieve.
A hot shower.
Staff who are knowledgeable and friendly.
Four things, and luckily Where 2 Next delivered all of my standards.
Getting to Banaue
Banaue is the launching point for all the rice terraces, located in the province of Ifugao. “Ifugao” refers to the people of this region as well. Their livelihood, community and daily functions revolve around rice culture. During rice harvesting season, elaborate feasts flow through communities, where the end of harvest concludes with tungo (day of rest). Wild game, rice cakes, betel nuts and beer made from rice are shared and consumed.
Any hotel or hostel worth its salt will assist you with transportation to the rice terraces. A common way to access the town is by bus, usually people book the night bus, but forewarning, sleeping on the bus was similar to standing in a meat locker for an indeterminate amount of time. Bundle with blankets, a wool hat and socks.
Expect to pay about 500 pesos and steel yourself for a bumpy, cold, 8 to 10 hour bus ride, but once you arrive, the sights seduce away annoyances.
There are several Barangays that harvest rice, but only a handful are considered part of the UNESCO World Heritage designation. In order: Batad, Bangaan, Mayoyao, Hungduan and Nagacadan round out the five.
Staying in Hapao
I felt lucky, because I got the opportunity to hike the terraces and also stay right by the Hapao rice terraces.
An astute Dutch businessman, named Graham Taylor, had the foresight to build an idyllic getaway aptly named Native Village Inn.
Though it’s a measurable distance from Banaue (9 km), the all girl staff and intense quiet propelled me back to sitting in front of a campfire, swapping tales or soaking in the chirps and rustling of a surrounding forest.
The huts themselves appear luxurious, but the sturdy wood emits a musky smell that can only be associated with sleeping outdoors.
Hiking to Batad
Rise early, is my recommendation. Also, arrange a jeepney to take you there. Matt and I shared with people staying at Native Village Inn.
For a group, whether large or small, the price stood at 1,600 pesos. We expanded the group as much as possible to cut back on costs.
The jeepney takes you through Banaue and beyond to an unmarked fork in the road where most people start the descent to Batad.
Two hours later, Valhalla reveals itself.
Due to my shaky knee, I had to opt out of hiking to the waterfalls, which are on the far side of the terraces.
I hung back and interacted with the Ifugao.
In particular, Rita.
Rita is in her 70’s and is the only woman left in Batad who practices an ancient weaving practice. She hikes into the hills and retrieves tree bark that she breaks down until the material is malleable enough to weave with by hand. She’s been teaching some of the younger ones in the village, but I sensed the practice might die with her.
Including Batad, all of the other terraces are estimated to be about 2,000 years old. I think what’s significant about the terraces is how inventive the Ifugao people were, merging together design and practicality. The irrigation system alone is wildly impressive. Water is funneled from a canal above the beds of terraces.
It was sad when we were there, because the irrigation system was not functional, so growing season was halted, though it was under repair. Tides of change were evident, as the village seemed fairly reliant on tourism and apparently this reflects in the younger generation.
Rather than farm rice, a growing number of youngsters prefer jobs in town or focus on tourism businesses. I only wish the lush, green hills and strong ties to community will help the Ifugao people retain their identity. Maybe it will, I can hope.
Progress changes everything, so while the terraces still exist and draw visitors, go before anything else fades to the wind.
Photos of me (except group picture): courtesy of Matt Gibson
Where 2 Next Hostel photos courtesy of management