A journey through ancient culture in the Philippines

Skip the beaches and bustle of the Philippines as we take a life-affirming journey through towering rice paddies, rumbling volcanoes and gravity-defying cemeteries in the rural outposts of Luzon.

4 mins
This was the perfect spot, deep at the bottom of a hushed valley filled with ferns and fruit trees, dwarfed by the sacred mountains of the northern Philippines. Silent and peaceful, the scene was almost completely still aside from the butterflies that danced in the gentle breeze. Yes, it was certainly an agreeable place to spend all of eternity.

Clinging to the craggy cliff side before us, the coffins were stacked high, as though suspended in mid-air and defying the very laws of gravity. Death is a journey we all have to face. For many, it comes with warning; for others it’s an unexpected inevitability, barely given a moment’s thought. Some, however, spend much of their time on Earth planning their after-life.

“We all think about that fateful moment. I already know where I am going to spend all of eternity,” confirmed local resident Mel rather matter-of-factly. She wasn’t referring to a cloudy existence beyond the Pearly Gates or a torturous stay courtesy of Satan, but where her earthly remains would reside: hanging from the side of a craggy cliff deep in a sacred valley in Luzon’s mountainous north.

Death is a big part of life here. In centuries gone by, the deceased of Sagada, a small town 400km north of the capital Manila, were laid to rest in tiny coffins suspended on the sheer walls of soaring precipices. Yet the spectacle of the Hanging Coffins of Sagada is just one of the eccentricities that attracts curious travellers to this otherworldly part of the Philippines – a country that just keeps on growing.

A horse and cart ride through Vigan (Nick Boulos)
A horse and cart ride through Vigan (Nick Boulos)

Up until just a few weeks before my visit, it was thought there were 7,170 islands in the chain that makes up the Philippines – enough to fill almost 20 years of travelling if you were to visit one per day. But in actual fact, it seems there are even more. “We’ve just found another 400 new ones,” beamed local guide Pearl, as though they had somehow been misplaced.

The vast majority of these parcels of paradise – around 5,000 – don’t have names and only 2,000 are inhabited, but it still raises the question of which to visit. The celebrated beaches of Boracay and the jungles of Bohol to the south perhaps? Or maybe the laidback surfing community of Siargao to the east?

The Philippines is well known for its sun, sea and sand but I was keen to see what lay beyond, so I set off to explore the largest island in the chain: Luzon, a rich and varied land of mountains, volcanoes, rice terraces, murderous tribes, sprawling metropolises and hanging coffins.

Haircuts and volcano karaoke

My two-week loop of Luzon began in Manila, a capital better known for its frenetic city life and traffic-clogged highways. I skipped both by focusing on the historic neighbourhood of Intramuros (meaning ‘within the walls’), the oldest portion of the city. It was built in the late 16th century by the Spanish and measures just half a square kilometre – but good things come in small packages.

I wandered the walled enclave passing attractive squares dotted with old churches, strolling into historic forts and along cobbled streets where children splashed in inflatable paddling pools and men received their short back and sides from kerbside barbers. From here, I stood on the sidelines and watched life go by until a lady came rushing over to me. She grabbed me by the hand and planted a kiss on my arm. “Welcome,” she said before retreating back to her wok sizzling nearby. It came as no surprise when I told Pearl later. “That’s the Philippines,” she laughed, as we made our way to the island’s south-west region.

We arrived at Tagaytay, an otherwise unremarkable town, in search of one of the country’s more explosive sights. Taal, its resident volcano, lay on an island within a lake of the same name: at its centre a perfect conical crater soaring 600 metres out of the dark waters. It is part of a wider volcanic chain that stretches for 75km, and while its main crater, Binintiang Malaki, last erupted in the 1700s, the island has 35 other cones, some of which have blown a gasket in more recent years, making it one of the most active sites in the world.

The volcanic crater of Binintiang Malaki (Shutterstock)
The volcanic crater of Binintiang Malaki (Shutterstock)

There is no disputing the dramatic natural beauty of Taal but living in its tempestuous presence isn’t easy. One person who knows that only too well is local hotelier Emma Malabanan. “I remember the 1965 eruption,” she told me. “I was 13 years old and the whole sky went red. There was lightning everywhere and we thought it was the end of the world. We fled our homes with nothing but pots of rice.”

The next day we got a closer look. Boats with names like Karla and Krystal were moored on the stony shoreline of ‘Volcano Island’, where mules with dyed pink manes were waiting to transport visitors to one of the calderas. Most decided to walk the steep but not overly challenging trail past steaming vents and large wooden crucifixes.

At the top, the most unexpected sound greeted us. Over the loud huffing and puffing from out-of-breath hikers rose the unmistakable signature track from the film Dirty Dancing. Only it wasn’t the original but a karaoke version, the music playing from a crackly radio and being sung to by an out-of-tune individual who had called up a local radio station for his big moment.

“Filipinos love karaoke,” laughed Pearl. He may have sounded like an animal in pain but, as the song goes, he was having the time of his life. In fairness, so, too, were we. The spectacle was unlike any other. I gazed out across the deep sulphurous lake, separated from the wider surrounding waters by a slither of high-rising land, and the sheer power of it all struck me. Then I thought back to Emma’s words and shivered, imagining a red sky above.

Lake crater at Taal volcano (Shutterstock)
Lake crater at Taal volcano (Shutterstock)

When two tribes go to war

Rice, like mortality, is a recurring theme on Luzon. After several days spent in the north of the island relaxing on the picture-perfect beaches of Pagudpud and roaming the colonial streets of Vigan (more Havana than Manila), we slowly weaved our way south towards the fabled rice terraces of Banaue.

First carved into the steep hillsides of the rugged Cordillera mountain range 2,000 years ago, its emerald terraces rippled across the deep valleys. For most of the families who own this ancestral Ifugao (the local tribe) land, it’s a source of great pride to continue the tradition, but also one of hardship and sacrifice. In these parts, the rice is mostly planted, grown and harvested for personal consumption rather than commercial gain, meaning many have to juggle the demands with paid work elsewhere.

But they do so without complaint and look to the gods for mercy and blessings. The indigenous rice god, known as Bulul, is still as revered today as he has been for centuries. Every year, farmers sacrifice pigs in his honour as they prepare for another harvest.

Some believe the Ifugao (meaning ‘rice eaters’) people migrated here from the lowlands while others think they travelled from China. Either way, they’ve been the custodians of this great feat of engineering since the days of Christ.

An Ifugao man in traditional dress (Nick Boulos)
An Ifugao man in traditional dress (Nick Boulos)

In Banaue, we came across a group of Ifugao hanging out on a side street like a group of elderly delinquents. They sat on the kerb wearing traditional feathered headdresses, chatting, playing music on homemade instruments, watching the world go by and hoping the odd tourist might cross their palms with a peso in exchange for a photo. Among them was Baar, a lady of around 90 (she wasn’t quite sure) with cloudy eyes and just the one slightly loose tooth, which rested over her bottom lip.

Like her friends, Baar is now too old and frail to work the paddy fields but her lifetime has been spent on those terraces. “I’ve never left Banaue,” she said. “I’ve heard all about Manila, the killing and stealing. We don’t have those problems here,” she tutted. “It’s a happy life because we are never hungry. We pray to the rice gods and perform rituals for a good harvest.”

At the other end of the spectrum was Diohisio, a young man in his early twenties who makes a living as a guide but harbours dreams of one day working in a hotel in Manila. “My family owns three paddy fields and I used to run around in them playing games of ocahan [a local version of tag] with my siblings,” he reminisced. “When I was eight years old I was taught how to build and maintain the walls. The women do the planting but the men keep the foundations strong. It’s hard work and most young people don’t want to do it, plus we get bored of eating rice,” he laughed.

A local man paddles across Pandin Lake (Nick Boulos)
A local man paddles across Pandin Lake (Nick Boulos)

The next day we got a closer look at the terraces on a short hike through the outskirts of Banaue, along the same walls that Diohisio worked so hard to keep strong. I wanted to savour every aspect of the surroundings, from the delicate flowers growing on the ground to the misty mountaintops, but that would have been foolish. The paths, barely a foot wide, required every ounce of concentration. One false move would, at the very least, result in a wet and muddy foot (as one of our group found out) or, if you’re unlucky enough to fall the other way, a nasty crash into the shallow and muddy field seven feet below.

We crossed makeshift bridges, hopped over stone slabs placed across small streams and past farmhouses with grazing goats and barking puppies. Dotted along the route were chongla plants. They stood like rhubarb-coloured beacons with large floppy leaves. Far more than being simply pleasing to the eye, this plant formed an important part of the gruesome ceremonies that once played out across these valleys. Headhunting tribes would smear the leaves all over their bodies during victory dances.

Yes, you read correctly: headhunters. These green and pleasant hillsides haven’t always been quite so peaceful and serene. Up until as recently as the 1960s, members of rival tribes would go into battle with the sole aim of returning home with the heads of their rivals.

In the small but fascinating Bontoc Museum, the whole unsettling process was laid bare. Dozens of skulls filled a dusty corner cabinet, while black-and-white photos of hunters with long spears were displayed on the wall alongside others of tribes proudly holding the heads of their slain enemies. The rest of the remains were sent back to the deceased’s families as a warning. Thankfully, the folks around here are a lot friendlier these days.

Manila (Nick Boulos)
Manila (Nick Boulos)

Peace of pie

From the rice terraces we headed north-west, winding up mountain roads to the sleepy town of Sagada – a small community with a strong backpacker vibe and an obsession with lemon pie, which is advertised and available almost everywhere. But we weren’t there for dessert.

That day, we hiked through Echo Valley to see the famous hanging coffins, a tradition with origins shrouded in mystery. Those with a spiritual inclination believe it derives from the desire to be laid to rest closer to heaven, while others of a more pragmatic bent insist it has to do with stopping scavenging wildlife from reaching the bodies during a time when no other burial places were available.

These days the town has a conventional cemetery; and while a hanging burial is still possible, it is not a common request. “There are many peaceful sites elsewhere in the valley and I know where I would like to end up, but it’s down to my family to decide after I’ve died,” explained local resident Mel as we stared up at the dozen coffins elevated high off the ground.

Among the hanging deceased were two ramshackle wooden chairs, also suspended seemingly in mid-air. Tradition dictates that the bodies are placed in these chairs in the family home the night before the funeral and before rigor mortis sets in. At this point they are placed in a foetal position and lifted into the coffin, which is later carried through the woods.

Some prefer the cool and calm surroundings of the plentiful caves that lurk among the peaks and pine forests of Echo Valley. In one, an chasm further down the escarpment, we found hundreds of ancient coffins stacked high. One had broken apart and the bones within were plainly visible. That coffin, like most, was carved from a tree trunk and completely devoid of any inscription or decoration. Others, though, boasted the motif of a lizard: a sign of vitality to local tribes. “It’s strange that people come from so far away to see our coffins. Some find them unsettling but there’s no need,” mused another local woman. “Death will come to us all and there’s nothing to fear.” Her words lingered and a small lizard scurried away in the dry undergrowth as I contemplated my own mortality, silently vowing to make the very most of my limited time on this precious and wondrous planet of ours.

The author travelled with Explore (01252 883851), whose new guided 13-day North Philippines Explorer itinerary covers a number of destinations across the country, including Manila, Banaue, Sagada and Vigan.

Main Image: Hanging Coffins of Sagada, Philippines (Shutterstock)

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