Philippines – hunting rice fields in the land of headhunters

View of Batad in Banaue

For a long time I wanted to get amongst the famous rice terraces of Banaue in the north of the Philippines. During the month of November I finally made the long drive (8 hours from Clark Airport and 10 from Manila Airport …. ) to this beautiful area. Without the kids in tow we were able to explore the rice fields thoroughly and go on an adventure in search of the famous Ifugao, who are the local people of the area known to have been serial head hunters. But like many other “traditions” of the world, this one has (fortunately) disappeared and the “people of the mountains ” are now famous for their sculptures and their stone rice terraces – the terraces were originally built about 2000 years ago and are now World Heritage listed.

banaue road

The road towards Bane

Banaue

After an hour and a half flight and the eight hour drive, we arrived late in Banaue, which is the gateway to this region of rice fields. Banaue gives the impression of a border town –  this is where the comfortable paved road ends, the guesthouses fill with backpackers and it is also where the cultivation of rice terraces has begun to be abandoned as a result of tourism and “development”. The traditional landscapes are being degraded and it seems that the local government is having difficultly developing the area without killing its attractiveness. Suffice to say we left Banaue in a hurry to escape into the mountains .

 

hapao rice terraces

Hapao Rice Terraces

Hapao

Crammed into a tuk-tuk as we head to Hapao we realise that we are not built in the same format as the Filipinos! The road is sometimes smooth and sometimes full of potholes… rain adds to the discomfort but despite having to get out a few times to lighten the load and sometimes push, we arrive safely and in another world: rice terraces as far we can see with no one in the picture. Scaling the rice terraces seem simple for the locals but with narrow, irregular and sometimes missing terrace walls to navigate, there is often the risk of falling a couple of meters…. but at least our fall would be broken by a bath… of mud. The rice terraces are a special ecosystem and we discovered that you can find shellfish and fish there to enjoy for dinner.

Hapao has a hot spring, where we found the mistress of the local school and her girls enjoying a bath. We chatted a bit before heading back to sleep in our rice storage hut – a pretty traditional house. We slept under drying rice plus (we will find out in the middle of the night) a small mouse colony that can make a surprisingly large amount of noise in the wee hours of the morning.

 

traditional houses banaue

Traditional houses not far from Spiderweb

local in hapao

Very fashionable loca: barefoot but never without her handbag

Spiderweb

One of the days we headed out on a walk with our guide and host in Hapao, Uncle Victor, toward the Spiderweb (a network of terraces) and a bit of disappointment … we should have taken a tuktuk and spent the time walking amongst the fields! It was a long road under construction to get there, with lots of aggressive dogs barking at us and then there was the rain. It’s true it was interesting to meet a lot of Victor’s  friends (who turned out to be nearly all related) on the way but in the end we struggled to see the spiderweb too as it revealed itself to us for a few minutes  …perhaps better seen from a plane!

 

hapao

The uncle of our guide for the day

batad banaue views

First view of batad

Batad

We leave Hapao , the largest area of rice terraces for THE most famous rice terraces. If you have received a postcard from this region of the world, it highly likely showed a view of Batad and the rice terrace amphitheater.  But hand in hand with rice terrace postcards come many tourists, their lodgings, high prices …. basically what we try to avoid… but the view is definitely WOW and not to be missed. For us, as it was low season there was also the added bonus of hardly anyone else being there and it wasn’t raining (which it normally does in November… alot). Note that it takes 30 minutes to descend to the amphitheater from the road and of course you need to go back up after the visit but Batad offered us in return for this bit of a hike and some perilous terrace wall balancing, the best views of our trip.

 

And voila, we now can (loosely) claim to be rice terrace specialists. We have spent time amongst the terraces of Guilin, Bali and now those of Banaue …but we still have to get to southern Yunnan province to see what is on offer there but that might take time given all the other places we plan to visit first!

 

hapao banaue

Hapao Rice terraces

Voyagista’s Tips

  •  I recommend you take a flight to Clark rather than Manila, which will save you several hours drive. The road is long and it takes between 7 and 8 hours by private car to Banaue . Be careful, there are often accidents on the small road before Santa Fe so you should give yourself some breathing room if you have a plane to catch on the way back.

  • In Banaue, it is either the faded Hotel Banaue with not particularly friendly staff for those who want a luxury (for Banaue) hotel or one of the many small backpacker places… therefore don’t expect anything too great in Banaue and we preferred sleeping amongst the rice fields in a Homestay style accomodation (despite the mice)!

  • The best season to see the green paddy fields and for the weather is April. However, we went in early November dodging typhoons and saw the rice fields in water, which was very beautiful.

  • If you want to hike a bit more seriously, you can go from village to village in the district of Batang and if you want a guide try Joel, an Ifugao who speaks very good English and is very friendly. His email is barzillaio@yahoo.com

  • If you are considering a souvenir, have a look at the wooden sculptures. We took one of Bulul, who is the god of rice and seeds, and seen often in the rice fields. There are some stores that sell statues in Banaue .

 

What are the most beautiful rice fields that you have seen? Any recommendations?

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