Tattoos are for afterlife...

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December 7th 2009
Published: December 29th 2009
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We'd read about the tiny village of Kabayan in LP and were both intrigued with the mummies in caves so decided that a side trip there to do a trek would be well worth the journey. The rickety old bus ride there along roads that were quite honestly plain scary made us have some doubts but we made it there fine and we were just glad we wouldn't be going back the same way!

Kabayan is a tiny little village with one guesthouse so finding a room wasn't a problem at all, our plan was to stay there one night then make the 6 hour trek up the mountain to the site of the mummies before circling back to the highway to catch a bus back to Baguio. Doing this was a piece of cake as our lovely guesthouse lady sorted us a guide as well as a bed and also hooked us up with 2 others who wanted to do the same trip so we also managed to share the guide cost.

Although it's only tiny Kabayan still packs in a few sights along with it's wonderful terrace views so after a surprisingly lovely lunch on a shop
Sign to the caves!Sign to the caves!Sign to the caves!

only 5 hours to go!
terrace we wandered down to the Opdas Mass Burial Site. This can be found just off the main road and is accessed by speaking to the right shop lady to obtain the key, passing a handful of scary barking dogs on leads and entering through the gate. The burial site itself is found in a cave and the remains here are thought to be between 500 - 1,000 years old which is incredible in itself. More incredible is the sheer number of skulls & bones that are in here all neatly lined up on shelves, we were left to have a look by ourselves and make the appropriate donation (P20 seems to be about right) but there's not a whole lot else to do once you've seen them and taken a few snaps so we didn't stay too long and got out of there as it was a bit creepy really.

We had a quick walk around the village and said hello to every friendly local we passed then Sophie made a quick stop to a market stall having a clear out to purchase a couple of tops which were a steal at only P20 each.. she never thought

Sadly the white stuff is mould that has grown because they keep opening the coffins. We weren't really sure we'd have wanted to look had we known that it makes them deteriorate so much.
she'd leave such a small place swinging a carrier bag in the fashion that all girls do but if a girls got to shop... after the exhausting shopping trip we decided we'd best save our energies for the trek tomorrow so retreated to our room only popping out again later that evening for another quick bite to eat and to stock up on food for the following day. We hit the sack pretty early a) because there really wasn't anything else to do and b) because we'd have to be up at 5am.

We'd read in LP and various blogs that the trek up to Timbac Caves, the home to the mummies was quite an exhausting 5 - 6 hour one straight uphill so were prepared for it to be hard work, but just how hard we hadn't totally anticipated! Like we said we were up at 5am ready to leave at 6am and managed to squeeze in a few pot noodles and super strength coffees before we left courtesy of the lovely shop man next door to our guesthouse. Along with our 2 companions and our essential Ibaloi guide Albert we set off through Kabayan and out towards the valley below.

There's really no need to go into the wheres and wherefores of this trek as it was quite simple really.. we went down to the valley bed which took about 20 minutes of fast easy walking in the shade. What followed this was a 5 hour trek up 3 mountain faces via winding potted gravel roads with no flat bits.. no down bits... and no easy sections to rest our weary legs! We can only be thankful that because we'd set off so early the majority of the walk was in the shade of the pine trees which made it slightly bearable. We must also be thankful that we had left our main bags in Baguio because we'd read one blog of people who'd taken their 20kg bags with them and we both thought that they must have literally been on their last legs by the time they reached the top as we struggled and we only had one small bag with us.. well when we say we... what we mean is Dale carried our one bag while Sophie got a much easier ride.

So a little information about the main attraction should probably be

You can still clearly see the tattoos on the larger mummy
included here before we divulge what we saw. What we will say first is that we hadn't really considered the morals of going to see this kind of thing before we set out and were just keen to see more examples of what different cultures do with their dead. Having been to this beautiful area and having done the trek and seen the mummies we couldn't help but leave with a bit of a guilty feeling that we'd overstepped the mark.

It's quite clear to us that the people in this scenic area wanted to get in on the tourist trekking scene and with many caves containing mummies in the vicinity they saw a niche in the market. It's always a toss up with these things if it's really worth making an attraction out of something so sacred and in this case we aren't sure that they fully considered the negative aspects over the money the tourists would bring in. From our point of view we felt awful for Albert who had the job of uncovering the coffins and unwrapping the mummies themselves, all the time he did this he chatted to the mummies which is part of their customs to the dead, and whilst we were not allowed to touch the mummies there was no real way he could avoid doing it in order to show them to us. Sadly in the years since this small handful of mummies have been 'open' to the pubic they have deteriorated very badly and most now have mould all over them from exposure to the air, sunlight & camera flashes. Albert explained that this is only due to them being uncovered most days and we really had to wonder if it was all worth it? Would people still come trekking here in this amazing area if there weren't the mummies to attract them.. we only really came here to see them so in turn we added to the problem which is why we couldn't help but feel a little guilty. In past experiences of seeing the cave coffins, the funeral in Sulawesi etc our involvement didn't really have much impact but here it really does and we felt it was far from positive.. for the families of the mummies anyway.

There are 2 caves open to the public which are part of the Timbac Caves, admission is P90 each and you have to be accompanied by a guide for the reasons outlined above. The caves are under strict lock & key so you would not be allowed to see them without a guide anyway and the locals in this area constantly ask you where you guide is if you walk on ahead so be warned if you plan to go the 'easy route' that LP offers. We were told that there are in fact 100's of caves in the area around Kabayan, most are secret of course and it was only recently that these 2 caves were opened up and even more recently that gates were put on there because of stealing of some of the mummies... who steals things like this we will never know as in our mind it would take a very certain breed of person to want to own one of these.

As we said sadly some of the mummies have developed mould but despite this they are in near perfect condition, to the point that you can still clearly see the skin, nails, hairs and even tattoos on some of them. We got to see 7 mummies in total, 2 in one cave and
Vegetable terracesVegetable terracesVegetable terraces

The views that these farmers get is absoloutely awesome. Really hard work though as no machinery can be used on the terraces, they don't even tend to use buffalo and do all the work by hand.
5 in another and whilst it was certainly interesting it's probably not something we feel the need to do again in our lifetime. These mummies are created by basically drying out the bodies using heat & smoke and unlike all the other cultures who practice mummification in the world, these mummies are unique because they are totally in tact retaining all their internal organs.. which can actually be seen in one of them.

We won't go into detail on each mummy but out of all of them we were truly fascinated by the one which had retained all his arm & leg tattoos. Both having numerous tattoos it was a reminder to us that they really are for life.. and afterlife too! These tattoos were so well preserved that you could tell exactly what they were and still in perfect detail.. it really was quite incredible to see something that is 100+ years old in such detail.

So after a 5 hour trek up the mountain sides from a point way down in the valley to the dot we'd seen so far in the distance we were totally exhausted.. and we mean we really felt like the life had been sapped from us after going up and up and up and up. Seeing the mummies was a good part of the trek but by no means the best part so we'd encourage people to come to this area not only to see these but to appreciate the absolutely amazing scenery from the top. This, and the feeling of achievement that you get when you've reached it and can look 2000m+ down to where you've come from which is now just a tiny dot! If you want to take it one step further there is also the 2 day trek to the highest point in the Philippines to enjoy so why not do that too and really feel like you are at the top of the world?!

After seeing the mummies and saying our goodbyes to them we enjoyed a much needed coffee & rest stop at the cave caretakers house. From here we took the easy option of a 45 minute walk (all downhill), to the highway where we'd hail a bus back to Baguio.. poor Albert had the long walk back to Kabayan but it was all downhill for him too so we didn't feel too guilty.

We only had one night in Baguio to rest our weary legs before we were heading back to Manila and beyond to visit one of the Philippines most active volcanoes...

Additional photos below
Photos: 43, Displayed: 29


Skulls in the Opdas Mass Burial Cave Skulls in the Opdas Mass Burial Cave
Skulls in the Opdas Mass Burial Cave

Some of these are 1,000 years old
Sophie going upSophie going up
Sophie going up

and up and up...

31st August 2010

Iv been following you guying for about a week now as im heading on my travels in 6 months so im on a crash course getting as much info as possible. You seem to have had an amazing adventure. Keep me posted and i know its cheeky but if you have a min it would be great if you could send some tips and hints. Many Thanks Lauren

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