Published: February 3rd 2007January 27th 2007
The 8th ancient wonder of the world
Rice terraces seen from the roadside between Bontoc and Banaue. These terraces were hacked out of the mountains 2,000 - 3,000 years ago.
Voy donde no hay esclavos, verdugos ni opresores,
Donde le fe no mata, donde el que reina es Dios.
"Mi ultimos adios",Jose Rizal. Written on the eve of his execution.
(I go where there are no slaves, hangmen nor oppressors,
Where faith does not kill, where the one who reigns is God.)
As I was climbing down some steps towards the village of Tam-an I saw a very little woman dressed in cheap western clothes. It was 10am but the sun was already strong. I was hot. The very short woman in the village had spotted me and she started climbing the steps, moving towards me. Despite the heat she was wearing a slightly discoloured pink coat. She looked very young, I wondered if she should have been in school.
Moments later the following conversation ensued:-
"You want guide?"
"You want to see next village?"
Tam-an is a small village at the bottom of a hill from the town of Banaue. It is a small collection of huts next to some rice terraces. Most of the huts are shabby with tin roofs, although there are still some more traditional huts in the village.
The people of Tam-an live a traditional subsidence life from farming with a supplementary income from passing
Manila street scene
Seen from Fort Santiago, looking across Pasig River.
tourists. Tam-an is a very short distance from the larger settlement of Banaue which is famous for its rice terraces.
THE 8TH WONDER OF THE WORLD Banaue
is the tourist gateway to the rice terraces of the Cordillera mountains. The rice terraces have been described as the 8th Wonder of the ancient World. They were hacked out of the mountains 2,000 - 3,000 years ago, with an extensive irrigation system. The local Igorot tribes people of the mountains have maintained the terrace walls continuously since they were built.
BONES OF MY ANCESTORS
The first stop in the guided tour was a hut full of souvenirs. A man asked, "You want to see bones for a donation?"
"Yes", I said.
He produced a package which was wrapped in a brightly coloured cloth. He opened the bundle to produce a bundle of human bones - the bones of one of his ancestors.
We continued the tour to the edge of the village, where my guide asked if I wanted to visit the next village, Poi-tan.
I agreed. I didn't realise that it was
a one hour hike away. Within minutes I began to regret my decision. The way out of Tam-an was wet and muddy because it had been raining the previous night. I tried to keep my balance, walking down and up hills that were muddy and slippy. My guide though took it in her stride and kept up a fast pace.
After a while we started walking along a narrow stone barrier. It was the wall of an ancient irrigation canal built into the side of a mountain. I tried not to look down, as there was a long drop to one side of the canal wall down the mountainside. So, if I had fallen, I could have fallen into the irrigation canal or down the side of the mountain. I was sweating in the sun. My shirt was stuck to my back. Finally we got to Poi-tan. There was still another one hour walk up a hill to the main road back to Banaue.
ARRIVAL IN MANILA
I'll take you back in time now, to my arrival in Manila
on the 8th of January. I arrived at the airport in the middle
of the night. I had flown from Singapore (see my last blog, Singapore Sling). Because I arrived in the middle of the night I waited till sunrise, much to the surprise of all the taxi-drivers, who kept trying to get me into their cars. I didn't fancy walking around Manila in the middle of the night looking for a bed. Finally, I relented once the sun rose and took a taxi into town. I went straight to bed after I booked into a hotel, losing most of the day.
CHILD BEGGARS AND PIMPS
Manila was a shock after the wealth of Singapore. It was obviously much poorer. When I arrived in Manila I took a hotel in the middle of Manila's main tourist areas of Ermita and Malate. Probably a mistake. The tourists areas seem to be full of child beggars. Something I haven't seen for months. The tourist ghetto is also full of seedy men asking, "You want girls?" I ignored the pimps, walking straight past them, pretending to be deaf and never looking at them.
I later moved to a less touristy area, where I found I could walk the streets
without being harassed by child beggars and pimps. Manila has a good public transport system, so its a good idea to stay in a hotel or guesthouse outside of the main tourist lodging ghetto.
Poverty and squalor is evident everywhere on the streets of Manila. There is though a very different world in the swish Shopping Malls. Shopping Malls full of designer labels. To enter the world of the Malls you have to deal with the Philippines all pervasive security industry. Every Shopping Mall , mass transit train station, in fact most public buildings have security guards. The security guards have metal detecting batons, and always ask people to open their bags. I got used to being patted down whenever I entered a public building.
There are security issues in parts of the far south of the Philippines, particularly in Mindanao (which I didn't visit). Although, I would stress that most of the Philippines is very safe. There is a longstanding separatist struggle in the Muslim parts of Mindanao. Most of the rest of the country is Roman Catholic; in fact 80% of Filipinos self identify themselves as Roman Catholic. The
Bones of my ancestors
Tam-an village, near Banaue, Cordillera mountains.
most notorious of the separatists is the Abu Sayyaf
group. It's estimated that this Islamist group only has a membership of a couple of hundred people. Whilst I was in the Philippines the government claimed that a leading member of Abu Sayyaf had been killed in a shot out in the far south.
The Philippines also has a more mainstream separatist insurgency. It also has a Maoist group called the
New Peoples' Army
which is still active. Considering the crimes of Mao it seems incredible that anyone would still identify themselves as Maoist. But there are still Maoist so called 'peoples wars' in the Philippines and parts of India (the Naxalites). Although the Nepalese Maoists have recently signed a cease fire in their 'peoples war'.
The Philippines Government has a very bad human rights record. This though is mirrored by the crimes of the Filipino Maoists. The N.P.A. (New Peoples' Army), purged thousands of its own cadre in the 1980's. For more on the NPA's atrocities click on this link
The crimes of the Maoists does not absolve the government of the
blame for the recent round of political killings. Click here for an Amnesty International
report on the Philippine state's crimes against humanity.
Intramuros is the main tourist attraction in Manila. It is the old Spanish colonial city - or what is left of it. Much of Manila was destroyed, when American troops fought to retake their colony from the Japanese at the end of World War 2. Within Intramuros is Fort Santiago, the former Spanish military headquarters. The inside of a former barracks within Fort Santiago has been converted into a shrine for the national hero, Jose Rizal. Rizal was imprisoned in the fort prior to his execution. Jose Rizal's execution was the spark that ignited the Philippine revolution.
BAGUIO AND VIGAN
After 4 days in Manila I took a bus to Baguio which was used by the Americans as their summer capital when the Philippines was a colony of the USA. At 1,450m it has a much cooler climate than Manila.
I stayed one night then made my way to Vigan.
Vigan is the best preserved planned Spanish town in the whole of
SAGADA, BONTOC & HEADHUNTERS
I returned to Baguio for a night from Vigan because there is no bus across the Cordillera mountains to Sagada.
Sagada is a quiet village in the Cordillera mountains. This area was ignored by waves of colonists, so traditional tribal customs have survived. All the guest houses and restaurants in the village have photos taken by the local photographer Eduardo Masferre. He captured wonderful images of local tribal traditions that were disappearing. He didn't get much recognition in his lifetime, though near the end of his life the Smithsonian bought 120 of his photos. Click here for a link to Masferre's photos.
I hired a local guide to explore the area. My guide told me that he was intending to leave the Philippines like millions of other Filipinos. Despite having a University Degree, guiding is the only job he can get in the Philippines. A very large portion of the Filipino population works abroad. The first thing I saw when entering the Philippines was a separate queue for Filipino overseas workers at Manila airport.
From Sagada I took a Jeepney to
the regional capital of Bontoc.
Jeepneys are a unique Filipino form of public transport. They are basically stretch Jeeps! Near Bontoc are the villages of the Kalinga people, who were head hunters until they signed a peace treaty with the government in the 1950's. I though didn't visit the Kalinga. Instead I got another Jeepney to Banaue.
Which brings us back to where I started this blog in the opening paragraphs. In Banaue I hiked around the area and visited the viewpoint of the rice terraces near the town.
BACK TO MANILA
I returned south to Manila from Banaue. I managed to get a daytime bus. The guidebooks only mention a bus that leaves at 5.30pm, which means arriving in Manila at 2am. Not a good idea! I had no intention of arriving back in Manila in the middle of the night. I found a better option by asking someone local for advise. I caught a bus at 7am to the city of San Jose. The bus dropped me at the bus depot for Manila in San Jose. I only had to wait for 15 minutes before the bus in San
Jose left for Manila. I got into the Cubuio depot at 6pm. I didn't bother going to the tourist ghetto. Instead I found a hotel near the bus depot which was much better value than those in tourist central. It had an added bonus - no pimps or child beggars!
I only stopped in Manila in order to break the journey down to the Bicol region in the south of Luzon island. The main purpose of the journey was to get to the fishing village of Donsol. Donsol has become an Eco-tourist destination. Butanding (Whale Sharks) are often spotted off the coast of this village. Butanding are the largest fish in the world; they can grow to 18m long.
On the way down to Donsol I stopped in the cities of Naga and Legazpi. The city of Naga has a large student population, but I was only there one night.
My next stop after Naga was Legazpi, which is built in the shadow of the huge Mount Mayon. Mount Mayon is beautiful but it is an active volcano.
When I arrived in
Legazpi I thought it looked very shabby and run down, even for a poor country like the Philippines. I saw boarded up windows, missing roofs and a banner hanging on the Town Hall that said "Headquarters, Legazpi Disaster Fund".
It was only a month since Typhoon Durian
hit the city. Many houses were buried under landslides from mud loosened from the side of Mount Mayon. Hundreds were killed. This happened only a short time after people had returned to the city in September. The city was evacuated earlier in 2006 amid fears that Mount Mayon was about to erupt.
Finally I got to the village of Donsol. I went on a spotting trip for Buntanding (Whale Sharks). I shared the boat with a young couple from Sweden who were staying in the same guest house. Despite the fact that January - May is supposed to be the best time to spot Whale Sharks, we saw nothing.
It was though a pleasant day out, made better by the lack of other tourists around.
From Donsol I had to rush back to Manila to catch a flight to
Despite my tabloid style headline for this blog, I really enjoyed my time in the Philippines. The country is beautiful and the people are friendly. I only explored the large northern island of Luzon. The Philippines is a nation of islands. There is a lot more I would like to see. So, I will return.
There are more photos below