Southeast Asia Map

Southeast Asia Map

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Sagada and the Hanging Coffins (Philippines)

We gave ourselves a late start and left Banaue at 9am. Our route to the little mountain town of Sagada took us through the Mountain Province and, as anticipated by the name, we drove through incredible mountain scenery. The one and only road was well established and maintained.

Ronnie couldn't resist showing his sense of humour (it's not really a drop-off) -

Bay-yo is one of many self-sustaining villages, each with their own terraces to grow rice and vegetables -

Bontoc, the capital of the Mountain Province, was merely a pit stop for fuel and a cash withdrawal. Trawling down the main street, I snapped the photo below through the van window. Momma? What is momma? In my last blog I mentioned that our guide Rusty chewed betel nut. Momma is the name given to the chewed-up discard. The natural bright red dye it contains leaves a stain wherever it falls and betel nut chewers tend to be indiscriminate as to where they spit. Municipalities throughout the Philippines are trying to clean up their streets, hence this sign. In the photo, the characteristic betel nut chewer with his missing front teeth appears to be mad.

Sagada Homestay turned out to be a cheap and cheerful place; we had our own room for P350/person (about $8/person) with a shared bathroom. Arriving there around lunchtime we ate quickly, then registered at the Tourism Information Office. They supplied a guide who could lead us to the famous hanging coffins and tell us a bit of the history. This was well worth the total price of P200 as he had a wealth of information and anecdotes.

The coffins are strangely fascinating if you consider they contain dead people and are hanging on the side of a cliff instead of being buried underground.

The location of the coffins is best understood with some perspective - the coffins in the above photo are the same ones at the bottom of the limestone pillar in this one:

Here's a photo of the surrounding area of Sagada showing some limestone pillars - note the one on the left-hand side in the middle distance that shows a patch of white ...

... I zoomed in on that particular pillar to find this! Fascinating!

Ironically, our walk to see the hanging coffins took us through the local cemetery. Apparently, not everyone likes hanging off a cliff once they're dead!

We left the guys in the marketplace and went for a walkabout around the town. Our first stop was the famous Lemon Pie shop. Time for a treat!

We couldn't understand why their tables and chairs were so small and didn't get the opportunity to ask. As we awkwardly sat down in the lilliputian chairs, I felt compelled to take a photo for the record.

And then it was time to walk off the calories! We decided to explore the 'suburbs'. A friendly dog had followed us earlier and surprisingly, had waited patiently for us to finish eating so that he could follow us once again. Notice the white dog in the photo above? He followed us for the next hour or so and only peeled off right at the end when we presume he headed home for dinner!

This was toward the end of our walk ... the dog still with us!

This viewpoint overlooked the town; our hotel is on the right-hand side higher up in the saddle -

And this is the view from our hotel room looking down toward the main area of Sagada -

It had been a pretty laid-back day as far as travel days go and we had energy to spare that evening to relax and socialize. Not that it was any warmer; I'm wearing four layers in this photo, Dennis three. If there was one more item I could have packed for this trip it would have been a warm beanie! There was nothing for it but to have a few drinks and try to ignore how cold we really were!

Once again, another wonderful day and very special to end it like this, amongst friends!

Dennis, Karen, Ronnie, Rolly, Eduard & Alex

Note on current exchange rate: USD$1.00 is about Philippine Peso P45 is about ZAR10.80

Saturday, April 19, 2014

2000-year old rice terraces in Banaue & Batad (Philippines)

This was easily the highlight of our trip to the Philippines. This rice terrace amphitheatre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site buried deep in the mountains of northern Luzon. The terraces were built about two thousand years ago and have been conscientiously maintained from one generation to the next. Nestled in the middle, the small village of Batad is only accessible by foot; it's not easy to get there. Of course, we wanted to go!

Together with Ronnie, our host in the Philippines, we planned a pretty intense 5-day road trip that incorporated most of the sights we wanted to see. To fit everything in we were facing some very long days and lots of driving! Ronnie took the opportunity to invite three of his friends to share the driving and enjoy the holiday along with us. Great! This allowed us to kick back and relax and be part of a tight circle of friends; we were being well taken care of in quintessential Filipino style!


Though we left Manila early in the morning it was getting dark ten hours later as we drove into Banaue, the gateway to Batad. A thick fog descended over the valley and the temperature dropped to a wintery coolness. We arrived without reservations thinking we'd easily find a room but apparently it was peak season! By the time we found a hotel that could accommodate all of us on the outskirts of town, it was completely dark.

The hotel was nothing special and the rooms were basic. Despite it being very cold there was no heating, not even in the common areas. It was so cold we put on every long layer we'd brought with us and sat wrapped up in extra blankets as we ate dinner! An en-suite room cost P1,000 (about US$22), which comprised a tiny double bed, one electrical outlet and a bathroom that didn't come with hot water or a toilet seat(?!), BUT ...

... in the morning we discovered the view was OUTSTANDING! These are the rice terraces of Banaue, looking down toward the small town itself in the distant valley. (We hadn't realized how far out of town we were!) Interestingly, this area is not included in the UNESCO Heritage Site because the town and surrounding infrastructure is considered too modern. It was also interesting to note that the terraces are not made from stones, as are the ones in Batad.

We posed with some of the Ifugao tribes people, longtime rice terrace labourers that have turned to tourism in their golden years to earn a few pesos. But in fact, tourism is a double-edged sword because many of the younger generation are eschewing the hard labour of farming for the more lucrative opportunities that tourism provides. As a result, the continued maintenance and usage of the terraces is actually in jeopardy.


There are a few transportation options to get from Banaue to Batad but taking Ronnie's van wasn't one of them! The closest one can get to Batad by vehicle is the saddle that overlooks the town far below. Although it's only about 20kms from Banaue it takes more than an hour to get there! The road is currently being upgraded but mostly it's muddy and narrow. The best choice to manage the challenging terrain is a 70-year old jeepney!

Unfortunately, the only public jeepney to the saddle leaves mid-afternoon so we decided to hire a private one to maximise our time. It came with a very skilled driver as well as a personal guide who would lead us to the village of Batad and beyond. The driver would wait for us to return and take us back to our hotel at the end of the day. Total cost - P3,200 (about US$70). We got an early start as the fog typically rolls in during the afternoon.

Hitchhikers on jeepneys are a common sight and this little boy rode all the way up the mountain with us. We didn't mind but, as our driver pointed out, he should have been in school and/or his parents would worry when he didn't come home. At the end of the road he was put onto another jeepney that was headed back down. Our jeepney only looks empty because Dennis is up front and Ronnie and his friends braved the ride on the roof!

The condition of the road had us holding our breath at times! The driver alternated between babying the jeepney through gear changes and gently easing the bulk of it past other hulking construction vehicles. On the plus side, the grade wasn't too bad (at least, not until the final 3kms) and there wasn't a lot of traffic! And if you're wondering about the little boy hanging off the back, he came inside eventually.

Excuse me, did you say this was a two-way road?  And wait until you see the drop-off!

Lucky break! The road is a teeny bit wider here!

It was a long way to the bottom and not much sign of civilization, other than the road!

Everything was so lush; it took a while to absorb that this is how it must have looked everywhere, before the rice terraces were built. What an incredible feat!

Finally we arrived at the Batad Saddle. Several jeepneys had arrived before us so our driver stopped where he knew he could turn around. We had a short hike uphill before starting downhill into the valley of Batad.

The journey down started with 412 steps; they were signposted, we didn't have to count them. This was the easy part, at least going down. On the way back, our quads and hamstrings burning, these represented the final push to the top. At the bottom of these steps we got a glimpse of the gorgeous valley we were about to enter. If you look carefully you can see a little of Batad and a few of the rice terraces.

Also at the bottom of these steps is a sign welcoming us to Batad.

Perhaps another half hour later, traversing the mountain and gradually going downhill, we arrived at this viewpoint. It's still amazing to think that we headed right into this picture; all the way across the terraces to exit on the other side and make our way to Tappia Waterfall, hidden from sight at the bottom of the valley.

No, I haven't zoomed in - we're actually here! Pinch me, it's so beautiful!

That's our guide Rusty, giving a thumbs up. The path through the terraces was narrow and not necessarily obvious but in hindsight we could probably have found our way without him. In truth, we had mixed feelings about Rusty; he wasn't the guide we were expecting. In typical Asian fashion, we had been passed off to someone of a lesser calibre. He'd been introduced as family ... was that supposed to make it okay?

Ronnie, Alex, Eduard and Rolly taking up the rear.

No, no, the waterfall isn't very far now ... just down a few more hundred steps!

Another half hour later and the hidden Tappia Waterfall was revealed!

At this point, we'd come so far downhill our legs were shaking like jelly! I'll admit, I had to be convinced that it was worth going all the way down to the water. I'd already started thinking about the long climb back and dreading it. However, a vendor had strategically positioned herself at this viewpoint and after a 5-minute rest and a snack break I'd changed my mind. How could I come this far and not put my feet in an icy cold bath?

The guys took it one step further and fully immersed themselves!

Rusty has a betel nut chewing habit that has stained his lips a bright red. Betel nut is a mild stimulant and proven carcinogen. This is a pretty disgusting habit and it seemed he could hardly go one minute without stuffing more into his mouth, all of which has to be spit out somewhere, staining everything it touches. Unable to even speak properly with a mouth full of 'chew', he tried to convince us that it was good for him. As our arguments against it fell on deaf ears, we could only watch him in dumbstruck fascination.

It had been the perfect rest stop and after delaying for as long as we could, we reluctantly began the journey back to the top. First the rough path from the waterfall, then the ancient steps of the rice terraces. Do you spot Ronnie at the start of the stairs? It felt like a really long way to the top of the terraces. From there the path wound its way steadily uphill to the bottom of the last 412 stairs. We lost track of time but it probably took us a good three hours to return all the way to the Batad Saddle.

Down to the final 412 steps! C'mon guys, we're almost there!

Finally, we made it! Sure enough, our jeepney driver was waiting for us. I'm not sure which was scarier, coming up or going back down to Banaue! The jeepney was full, no-one wanted to be outside; once again the temperature had dropped several degrees as the fog rolled in. It felt good to pick up a few school children that would otherwise have had to walk miles to get home. It had been a long exhausting, incredible day!
Alex, Ronnie, Karen, our jeepney driver, Dennis, Eduard & Rolly

Note on current exchange rate: US$1.00 is about Philippine Peso P45 is about ZAR10.80

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Dennis eats Balut! (Philippines)

Any fans of the TV show, Survivor? I've always thought Dennis would do well on this show and here is yet one more thing that strengthens that theory. Balut, commonly sold as street food in the Philippines and eaten warm, is generally considered a delicious treat. More recently it has even been introduced as an appetizer in upscale restaurants. But in fact, the population is split in its opinion as we found out firsthand through Ronnie and his family. 

Balut is a fertilized duck egg that is cooked when the embryo is partially developed. Taking a few photos to record the event, I watched in absolute fascination as Dennis unwaveringly consumed this strangely weird food item. If you think these photos are going to make you feel queasy you may not want to read any further! Though he declined to eat one himself, Ronnie instructed Dennis in the art of fully appreciating this delicacy.

Step 1: Gently crack open the hollow end of the egg and open it up just enough to make a 'cup'.

Step 2: Sip and savour the delicious broth!

Step 3: Once all the juice is gone, peel away the rest of the eggshell.

Step 4: Pop the whole thing into your mouth before you have too much time to think about it!

Just like Survivor!

Not so bad! Definite instant credibility with the locals!

So, what does Dennis have to say? "It tasted like a hard-boiled egg, maybe a little tougher." And as for me, I just don't have the courage to try it!

Note on current exchange rate: US$1.00 is about Philippine Peso P45 is about ZAR10.80