A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Six
The Batad Rice Terraces are the big-ticket draw in the northern Philippines. A UNESCO World Heritage Site in a bowl-shaped valley, this emerald-green landscape is an astonishing feat of ancient engineering.
But while getting to the Cordillera Mountains of Luzon can be arduous (please see A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Parts One-Six), it’s the relatively brief journey from Banaue’s main road to the terraces themselves that’s actually more of a challenge.
The good news? If you manage to get here all in one piece, you’ll be rewarded with an experience so moving that it could possibly restore your faith in humanity.
Well…except for the country music. That part’s just bizarre.
The Batad Rice Terraces are popular with 20-something European backpacker couples. If you don’t believe me, climb into a sturdy vehicle, head up the Saddle — a long, steep, not-quite-paved excuse for a road to Batad’s trailhead — and see how many sweet, young, deodorant-free kids from France, Turkey, Belgium, Germany and/or England you come across in the first 10 minutes.
All of Batad’s visitors used to have a 40-minute walk up the Saddle, back when it was more of a dirt path. These days, jeepneys and vans can make the trek, while tricycles (tricked -out combos of motorbikes and covered sidecars) are still an iffy choice; they’ll tend to drop their passengers at the bottom of the hill, leaving them to tackle the switchbacks alone. If you’re lucky enough to be in a larger vehicle, it’s a good deed to stop for these poor souls and give them a ride.
The Batad trailhead begins at a clusterf*%k of a parking lot/market, where hikers can hoard provisions, narrowly avoid stepping on a chicken, climb a crowded lookout tower or just get the heck going. Kelly the Tribal Tour Guide led JD and I down a flight of 412 mossy steps and we hit the mud-packed, woodsy and pebbly slog to rice-terrace glory.
We passed the site’s UNESCO sign (see above), some small groups of Japanese and Chinese tourists, a few village locals listening to music on hand-held cell phones (earbuds aren’t really a thing in these parts), some Koosh-ball-looking flower pods (see below), and makeshift vendor huts hawking various trinkets, wood carvings and hand-woven fabrics. Some of these huts featured “comfort rooms” (read: outhouses), but you can do a little better for bathrooms at the restaurants down below.
It’s about a 20-minute downhill walk to the start of the village, where you’ll have to pay 50 PHP to a high school girl in a wooden hut for a ticket to see the terraces. Eateries here take credit cards, but you’ll need cash for your tickets.
Do you absolutely need a guide here? Maybe not, since the route is clearly marked in several places, and your goal is simply to keep to the paths, stones and stairs. But terrace-edge drop-offs are perilously steep, and aside from one crazy mid-terrace staircase, there no railings; having a guide show you around Batad is the next best thing to signing a waiver.
On the day of our visit it was muggy-hot and overcast, the greens all plush with a velvet glow. Batad’s gajillion terraces tend to tumble in waves, and a few times I had to stop myself from irrationally tipping forward, leaning toward the softness.
Instead, I managed only to slip off the rock-lined rim of a rice bed, my foot landing deep in the muddy muck. Fortunately, my messy shame was brief: Kelly led me to a splashy little irrigation stream, which felt just lovely in the sweaty heat.
The valley’s bowl is spiked with tin-roof shacks, some alone on grass-cushioned spines, others embedded in brightly colored clusters. There are no vehicles, no radio towers, no high-rise buildings.
It’s an age-old scene that could easily transport you from modern life to an era that pre-dates machines.
However, one thing makes this time-travel impossible: if someone cranks their stereo at the center of the valley, the sound echoes everywhere, in the round.
Which is how JD, Kelly and I ended up standing side by side, high atop the ancient rice terraces of Batad, listening to “Forever and Ever, Amen,” country star Randy Travis’ biggest hit from 1987.
There was also some Dolly Parton. And some Dixie Chicks. And a little Brooks & Dunn, too.
See, according to Kelly, young Filipinos love them some American country music. And cheesy movie ballads, too. And young Batad locals, in particular, don’t care that you might not want to experience their ancient surroundings in the spirit of…ancient surroundings.
JD and I thought this soundtrack was strange, and even a little hilarious. But when they busted out this classic from our high school days, we sang along in earnest as we strolled beside the rice, a perfect blend of old and merely vintage.
We opted not to hike to a nearby Tappia Waterfall, but instead to stair-step our way to the valley floor and climb back up one side. Many chickens, dogs and middle-aged men in tank tops later, it was starting to drizzle, and lunch seemed a grand idea. We had just made it to the covered deck of Rita’s, a restaurant at the very top of the village, as the skies exploded in rain so forceful it even shocked the locals.
One minute, you could see the terraces, and then they vanished in a curtain of cloud. JD and I picked our way through some bone-in chicken adobo and garlic rice, chatted up a young British couple on leave from their jobs on a Manila-docked charter yacht, and watched a group of Filipino tourists suit up for the return hike in a bunch of plastic bags.
The way back up was steep and muddy and long, and for me, unexpectedly traumatic. A wedding was being held in the village that night, and gruff teams of men were bringing in three large pigs, hog-tied upside down on long, slim logs. These pigs screamed in terror, their snorts and squeals echoing far beyond the path, long after we’d managed to get past them.
Stunned by their pain, I felt tears sting my eyes and blinked them back. I’m no poker player, though, and the guys knew I was upset, hovering wordlessly beside me. I walked ahead a ways, collected myself…and haven’t eaten pork since that day.
We finally reached the bottom of the 412 steps to the parking lot/market, a route marked with a sign that reads: “Shortcut.”Once again clear-headed, I chose the long way, a stairs-free squish through mud and rubble that, once conquered, delivered us just about straight to a market-stall bench.
Kelly congratulated us for our efforts, we thanked him for his guidance, and then we sat quiet and smiling, watching a heavy-lidded little girl try not to fall asleep on her mother’s shoulder. We totally knew how she felt.
And we couldn’t help feeling a little bit proud of ourselves.
To be continued in
A Philippine Comedy of Errors: Part Eight