Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Philippines Day 1 - 3

Sunday - Tuesday, 15 - 17 November 2015

We took a 0930 flight from Taipei to Manila, bidding Taiwan a fond farewell.

We landed in Manila around noon, and getting through customs/immigration was a breeze.  From there, due to what I’d read online, we got a white taxi into the city (be sure to verify that the cab is “metered” when you get in…or find a different cab). 

We were to take a 2200 night bus to Banaue that evening, famous for its UNESCO labeled rice terraces.  We’d contemplated doing a day trip somewhere in the Manila area until then, however since we were stuck with our bags, and because of what I’d read on several travel forums, we instead headed to the Mall of Asia.  The Mall of Asia as a leave-luggage service for free (ask your taxi driver to drop you off near the ice skating rink, if you exit the mall there and turn right you’ll see the leave-luggage service).  Our decision to kill time at the mall was based purely on logistics and the ability to be rid of our bags, but it was rather humorous to us since we both have very little affection for malls.

That being said, it was quite the entertaining cultural experience – everything from a top spinning competition in a mini-arena for youth, to a marching band parading by stores, and views of the bay from the outdoor sections.  We even went and saw a movie (in English fortunately for us).

We took a cab from the mall to the Ohayami bus stop, getting there around 2100.  We had reserved the tickets in advance, so just a show of the printed out voucher and we were given physical tickets with assigned seats.  

The bus was FULL.  And by FULL I mean not only every seat in the bus had an assigned patron, but they also folded out individual mini seats for people to sit in the aisle.  It was about a 9.5 hour bus ride, with 2 bathroom stops.  We slept more than we had expected, but word to the wise – do bring some warmer layers, the AC blasts the entire way and some others in the bus didn’t come as prepared as we did.


At 0730 we arrived in Banaue.  Before I get into the details of our tale here are a few thing I recommend for you when you plan your visit here:
  • Take the night bus.  You won’t sleep amazing, but it is very inexpensive and it beats driving yourself here. 
  • Hire a guide to follow this itinerary I found online.  I normally am not one to sign on for a tour guide – I pridefully like to figure things out on my own and like the freedom to go at my own pace.  But at the terraces it is well worth it. Not only because some section of the terraces you would never find without a guide, not only because the guide gives you a much richer understanding of the terraces and the local culture, but also because it is just a good thing to support the local economy.  I highly recommend the guide we used, and any of his friends/associates who also guided us.
  • Spend two nights and three days in the area.  A lot of people seem to come just for a day, and only see the main views at Banaue.  You’ll want to take in some of the lesser-seen, harder to reach sights, and you need to schedule some time in to just linger and absorb the view.
  • Book accommodations in advance.  Some seasons are particularly busy here, so just play it safe and book ahead: first night in Batad and second in Banaue. 
  • Bring a headlamp.  Both for the night bus (in case insomnia strikes, at least you can start and finish a book) and because it is a rural area, so artificial light is sometimes in short supply.

So, when you get off the night bus in Banaue, your basic first step is to hire a trike to drive you to the Batad Saddle (where the road ends and you hike down to the village).  Or, if you booked your accommodations in advance like us, you will likely have a trike waiting for you, driver holding a sign with your name on it.  I had not realized that by booking in advance (at least at the homestay I booked, see below for more details on that) I’d have a trike driver waiting for us, so quite the amusing surprise, made me briefly feel famous (even though my first and last name were spelled wrong). Your trike driver may very well have some sort of connection to a tour guide, if he is not a tour guide himself.  So, don’t be shy to ask.

When we got in our reserved trike, the driver first took us to a little restaurant about a 5 minute drive from the bus stop, where we had breakfast (a brief bit of Wifi) and were approached by a tour guide (a friend of our trike driver) – Ayson Binnoy.

 From the breakfast place we hopped back in the trike where our Ayson + trike driver took us to a few fabulous view points of the Banaue terraces.  Riding in a trike is, for an American, a giddy sort of experience.  I shamelessly felt I was on a theme park ride. Think the batman motorcyle plus robin in the side car, hum the batman theme song in your head, and your part way there to the simply exhilaration of the experience. A trike is essentially a motorcycle with a  jimmy-rigged companion car that can fit (in a pinch) 3-4 people. Two with daypacks is much better however. They are incredibly capable vehicles, can navigate rocking roads and tight spaces with ease, and they get you seeing things from a different perspective quite literally – close to the ground, back to a childlike height.  You feel like a child again in the hard-to-explain entertainment of it all.

After the viewpoints of the Banaue terraces, we drove to the Batad Saddle.  It is a rather long, switchback road up, the trike working hard so we didn’t have to.  The walk down into Batad is easy though (just don’t think too much about the fact you’ll have to be climbing out of it on the return journey).  Our accommodations for the evening was reached after about 5 mintues walk on a foliage-buried trail.  I highly recommend that you stay here: the Batad Top View Point Homestay and Restaurant.  The owner, Grace Binalt Duntugan, is incredibly kind and she, without a doubt, offers you one of the best views of any lodgings you can have anywhere.  From her dining area / balcony you can see the entirety of the Batad terraces plus and eagle-eye view of the main village of Batad.  It is truly breathtaking.  Something you’d never dare dream of having your morning coffee to.

After a brief rest and lunch, we got a new guide - Scott (partners with Ayson and brother of Grace).  Scott took us to the high viewpoint of the terraces.  The narrow trail winds up and down tiny stairs with ferns grown over them, then along the terraces themselves. Although Dad and I weren’t exactly sure what to expect from visiting these terraces, we most certainly did not anticipate we’d actually be able to walk among the terraces themselves.

 We spent a lot of time both at sat the high lookout and then from the balcony of our homestay just trying to drink in the sight of the terraces more fully.  First, the very fact that these terraces are 2,000 years old, and that they are still planted and harvested without machinery, all done by hand, maintaining traditional ways.  These terraces are a bit of living history.  But there is also the quaintness of it all, you feel you are peering down into a “Once Upon a Time” scene, something out of a fairy tale.  It is too precious and too antiquated to be real.  Then there is the aesthetics of the design – each terrace a different shape, all woven together like an intentional mosaic.  The workers in the terraces, viewed from above, are so small you can’t help thinking this might be a Polly-Pocket landscape, things so delicate, so barely moving. 

Scott and Ayson were both very informative about how the planting / harvesting takes place and gave us a lot of insight into the culture here.  We stared on to the view as potential rain clouds roll in and pass on through.  This caused the vibrantly green mountains surrounding to subtly change hues, creating a rainbow spectrum of greens were you to create a time lapse of the scene.  Ayosha gave us a pre-meal snack of sugarcane and pomelo he had picked that were growing on the property – both delicious.   We ordered dinner at our homestay (including some rice grown right from the terraces!) and ate with the view of the terraces as the sun set.  Called it an early night as we were eager to sleep horizontal after last night’s vertical rest in the bus.  There was a symphony of jungle-mountain insects and birds that serenaded us to slumber.


We awoke to rooster crows, or rather the 3rd round of a symphony of rooster crows that chorused all around the valley below us.  We watched the sun rise, light creeping slowly over the tips of the mountain peaks to our right and bleeding light down the mountain peaks and hillsides to our left, flowing like slowly falling water.  I love early morning, but I so rarely take time to simply sit and watch light increase and then move across a landscape.  So rarely sit in silence to truly make note of how landscape changes with the changes in light.  What a Creator we have to design such displays for us to take in, a show that occurs every day all around the world, and yet I only once in a blue moon rally early enough and then sit still enough to notice.

Scott (our Batad guide) returned promptly at 0800 and took us on a hike down to the village of Batad, the portion that sits at the base of the terraces.  We walked past an elementary school and several homes on the way, all tucked in to the hillside.  The trail down and up is narrow, with many many stairs.  No person living in Batad could ever possibly be overweight – an errand to visit a neighbor or down to the terraces requires some significant “stair master” time.  

After reaching the village at the base of the terraces, we hiked onward and further down to the waterfalls that Batad is somewhat known for.  This trail was also narrow and a rather steep downhill grade.  Don’t let it intimidate you though, there are shady portions and rest huts (wooden structures with an awning that sometimes even sell snacks and drinks) on the way.

The falls in November were strong and spectacular.  Since we had left to get down to the falls around 0800 (hike from our homestay takes about an hour), we got to experience them quite alone.  The falls empty into a pool, so we had a swim and then sun dried on a rock near the river the falls / pool empty into.  On our hike back out, starting around 1030, we ran into several other hiking groups with guides.  So, word to the wise – ask your guide to lead you to the falls at a time such that you get there before 1000.

The hike back was all uphill, so challenging, but our guide went slow for us.  You could tell he could have easily gone double or triple time on the speed, but he had a good sense of when to offer a rest and when to keep going.  He’s a great guide, I highly recommend you seek him about when you are planning your trip to Batad.

We got back to our homestay around noonish and talked with Grace (owner of the homestay) for the remainder of the afternoon, looking on to the spectacular view.  She is a truly incredible woman, we feel blessed to have gotten to know her.

At 1345 we began the hike back towards the Saddle, where we’d set a meet time with our Banaue guide + trike driver the day before.  A 20 minute hike uphill out and a 45 minute trike ride got us to our Banaue accomodations for this evening.

Off to dinner and getting this post off with a bit of Wifi we found.  

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