Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Banaue Bound Part 5 - Our Bangaan Moment

Since I was very young, I had been reading about the Banaue Rice Terraces, they were included in our social studies and Philippine history textbooks.  Billed as one of the "seven wonders of the world"  I always wished that I could see them one day.  Somehow I never quite got around to doing that -- until a few months ago.

After our visit to Batad, our guide John had another surprise waiting for us.  Instead of heading  back to Banaue, he brought us to Bangaan Rice Terraces, a few kilometers away.   Like Batad, it is one of the five terraces designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  
Our jeep stopped by the roadside and we spilled out to see this fantastic view. 

A cluster of native huts lies at the foot of Bangaan terraces.  You can trek down to the small village via a staircase (the area I have encircled in red).  This view was postcard picture perfect.  
We spent some time taking photos until John told us that he had an ever better vantage point  from which to see the terraces, just a few hundred meters away (the area encircled in yellow). 

From this point, we could see what was not visible from the other side of the road -- a cascade of terraces layered between the Cordillera mountains -- not as symmetrical  as the Batad "amphitheatre", Bangaan's  terraces look as if some giant hand had strewn them down from the sky. 
The small cluster of huts in the midst of the terraces enhanced rather than marred the scenery.
I cannot say the same though for the electric wires that were right in my line of sight.

It was hard to tear oneself away from this extraordinary sight -- after all that I had seen on this short trip to Banaue I now understand why these terraces are called one of the "wonders of the world". 
Long may they continue to exist. 

Monday, July 2, 2018

Banaue Bound Part 4 - Batad Rice Terraces -- from a distance.

Batad Rice Terraces have been called the best by many who have seen it.  From my research I knew that unlike low and sweeping Hapao,  Batad's rice paddies were planted way up high. 
These terraces also seem to be the most photographed and visited by tourists -- I read countless
blogs where travellers boasted of trekking up to the highest point and looking down on some truly amazing scenery.
But I am nothing if not practical and definitely self aware so I told our guide John that I had no illusions (and delusions)  of walking along Batad's tall terraces -- to see them from afar would be  enough for me. 

We reserved the trip to Batad for our second and last day in Banaue as our guide John  said it would take the most part of a day.  It was bright and sunny when we set out,  and it was certainly going to be a hot day for walking. 

Our first stop was one of the various Banaue Viewpoints -- one of the few vantage spots where you can appreciate the grandeur of the rice terraces.   Some have become quite commercialised --there are vendors hawking trinkets and locals dressed in native attire who will gladly pose for photos, for a fee of course.  

A few years ago, visitors to Batad had to walk over 4 kilometers of dirt road to reach the mountain path that would take them to the village.   Progress does have its perks -- today a wide paved road takes you right to the edge of the mountain, where the trail into the village begins. 

The trail starts as a jumble of loose rocks and stones, a very narrow footpath on the edge of the mountain.  It is quite a long drop below and I doubt that even the treetops could break a fall.

I wonder how I can possibly traverse that stretch.  John says that I have only to stay close to the mountain and not look down and that this seemingly perilous part is only a few meters long.  
I wait a bit and watch as others traipse through -- I finally gritted my teeth and with John hovering  at my elbow, I tentatively made my way down.

I survived!  It was heartening to see a few others who were as slow as I was but I also took note of the younger tourists -- particularly the foreigners who bounded down like long legged gazelles.  
Not to mention the locals -- children, old men and women, who walked past us carrying all sorts of stuff - pieces of hollow blocks, sacks of cement and animal feeds, 5 gallon water containers ... it was just amazing. 

The trail to Batad is just a 30 minute trek carved out of the mountainside.   I'm glad that it hadn't rained the past days as it would have been harder if the path was muddy.

I see my old friends from the Kumano Kodo, the kino ne (tree roots) so naturally, we have to take a selfie together.

Batad reminds me of the age old conundrum -- how to preserve ancient and historic sites yet make them accessible to those would should appreciate them.  
In this case, developing the road to Batad has increased tourism in the area, so much so that homestays, pension houses and restaurants have mushroomed.   This is definitely not a good example of sustainable  tourism. 

This sign marks the official boundary of the barangay of Batad.  As the faded signpost declares this is one of the five terraces that have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.  The others are Bangaan, Hungduan, Mayoyao and Nagacadan

We walked a little farther on, on a paved footpath this time.  Tall reeds called cane grass make up most of the shrubbery.  John said that these are used as roofing material, in making roll-up window shades, and other various handicrafts.

Before we could even say "eureka" or "voila", we turned a corner and there it was -- the famous rice terraces of Batad.  We stood at a vantage point where we could best appreciate the overall grandeur of these amphitheatre style terraces.  
From where we stood, John pointed out three options for a better view of the terraces ...
1. The topmost part, encircled in red is where the fit and the brave walk to.  From there, John said that you get the best view of the terraces down below;
2. The middle part, encircled in yellow would take another 45 minute walk down to a cluster of houses where you can venture off and walk on the pilapil to enjoy a mid-level view and finally;
3. The green roof, encircled in purple is a restaurant where you can get a closer view of the terraces without having to balance along the heights.  John said they also serve a decent lunch.  
That clinched it ... we all voted  for option #3. 

The walk down to our destination took about fifteen minutes over uneven and sometimes tall steps.  Believe me, descents are always harder than ascents. Only the thought of a cold drink and some food at the end kept me plodding along.

Batad Pension House and Restaurant gives visitors this marvellous view -- the entire breadth, length and width of Batad terraces are arrayed right before you.   While quite stunning, I also felt that some portions of the terraces were no longer as well maintained and preserved.   Still, if you look past the crumbling walls and the paddies overrun with grass and vegetation, you can probably imagine how glorious Batad must have looked many many years ago. 

The owner of Batad Pension is an accomplished woodworker.  The furniture and the decor are all done by him.  The wooden benches were so interesting but how would I have lugged them out of here?   If you want to see smaller pieces, his studio is right below the pension.

The pension is in the midst of a renovation -- a large deck has been built, jutting out into space and giving guests a more unencumbered view of the terraces and the mountains that surround it.
It was too hot to stay outside but on a cool and cloudy day, this spot and a cold beer would have been perfection itself. 

We ordered a tuna flat bread -- not to be confused with a pizza.  The dough was thicker and reminded me of a dense, crispy naan -- decidedly more middle eastern than Italian.

This friendly pooch walked in and kept me company -- was it my dog charmer skills or was it the crumbs from the tuna flatbread that fell non-accidentally on the floor.

We lingered for as long as we could until John finally herded us all out of the pension for the trudge back.  Time to say good bye to the terraces behind us and climb up these dirt paths ... 

... and climb up some more.  As usual, the walk back to where we had left the jeep was a little bit faster than the walk into the village. 

We can rightfully say we had our  Batad "adventure" even if we did not experience walking on its seemingly sky high terraces. Admiring the breathtaking vistas from a distance was grace enough 
for me.  And the short but at times challenging trek was definitely a good walk ...  unspoiled. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Banaue Bound Part 3 - Hiking along the Hapao Rice Terraces

Whether it is a month long once-in-a-lifetime vacation, a trip of just a week or two, a week-end road trip or even just a day trip to a nearby destination, it always helps to do your research before you go.
Since it was my first trip to Banaue, I made sure to read up on how to best enjoy the short two days that we would spend there. 

Research led me to this valuable travelers' tip -- if you're short on time, it's best to hire a local guide and private transportation.  
Public transport between the towns (and terraces) of Banaue are few and far in between so save yourself  the long wait for a ride that may never come and just simply hire your own.  
The local guide we contacted (thank you internet,  for the topnotch recommendation!) took care of hiring a jeep for our two day excursions into the delights of Banaue.  
We could have opted for a van but who wants to sit in an air conditioned cocoon when you can inhale the fresh mountain breeze (and a few diesel fumes) from a jeep's open windows.

My research also led me to making up my own itinerary for the two whole days that we would be there.  I decided that on our very first day, we would head to Hapao Rice Terraces in Hungduan town.  I had learned that exploring the terraces would take about 3 to 4 hours, certainly doable in one afternoon.  
Hapao is less than an hour's drive from Banaue, and when we reached a certain vantage point in the snaky mountain roads, the driver stopped so we could enjoy this view of the roads down below.  

The local governments have an efficient system for assisting tourists and visitors.
Everyone is asked to register at the Information Center of each municipality upon arrival.
The town of Hungduan,  frequented by local and foreign tourists alike has a very good program involving local residents.  If you are heading for the terraces and the hot springs at its end (as we were), you are asked to hire a local guide to take you on the trek.  
I think it's a beneficial program for the residents and more importantly,  helps them realise that
they are important stakeholders in maintaining and preserving the integrity of the rice terraces.

A few hundred meters from the Information Center is a look out point where you have a sweeping panoramic view of Hapao.  The young man in lavender is our excellent local guide from Banaue, John Bodah and the lady in yellow is Elisa, our local Hapao guide.  

The view of Hapao Terraces just about took my breath away.  
Silly me, before I came to Banaue, I did not realise that the terraces are in different towns scattered all throughout the province.  Five of the terraces are UNESCO World Heritage sites.  
While Hapao is not one of them, it is magnificent and was easily my favourite among those that I would see on this trip.
Hapao's terraces are not tall -- they cannot be called "stairways to the sky" but they are wide and expansive, stretching as far as the eye can see.  

Today's adventure would be an up close and personal exploration of Hapao.  We would trek through about 2.5 kilometers of rice terraces to get to Bogyah Hot Springs, approximately located in the area  I have encircled in red on the photo above.
Our guide John assured me it would be a leisurely stroll.
Hmm,  let me be the judge of that!

A steep ascent over paved roads is the first sign that this may not be such a leisurely stroll after all.  Our guide had brought wooden poles but Jay and I had our trusty Mont Bell hiking sticks which we try to use on every hike we've taken. 

The trail started just past the cement road.   The path winds gently through the hillsides surrounding the terraces.  Trees and foliage sometimes completely block the view.

The dirt trail ends and and it's time to walk along Hapao's rice terraces.  
To make the experience tourist friendly (and I suppose a little easier too for the locals who live here) portions of the pilapil (walkways)  have been paved. It would have been much harder to walk on uneven stones and earth which is what the terraces are really made of.  
If you suffer from a fear of heights or from vertigo, you may find walking the pilapil a bit scary as 
there is a 3 meter drop on one side.  Our guides half-jokingly told us that if we felt like falling, we should fall on the side of the rice field and not over the other side  -- better to ruin some rice plants than to break a lot of bones.  

On the paved portions, the pilapil was just about 18-inches wide.  The unpaved portions were even narrower.  At first I stepped gingerly and slowly, one careful step at a time,  but as I got the hang of it,  I got into my natural stride. 
The scenery was awe inspiring -- I felt so small and humbled walking in the midst of these majestic mountains and the seemingly unending fields of terraced greenery. 

The clear, clean and bubbling Hapao River passes through the rice terraces, an important source of irrigation for the rice fields.  

The bridge that crosses Hapao River leads to a series of steep stone steps carved along the side of the terraces.  There is a small village at the very top - the residents climb up and down these steps everyday,  most of the time carrying provisions.  We met a lady balancing two small sacks of potatoes on her head and carrying a shopping bag at the same time. 

At the top of the steps, we were rewarded with an exhilarating view, albeit marred by this man's laundry.  After a friendly nod,  he turned back to gazing at his fields, unbothered by the excited tourists taking selfies.
As a point of reference, we had walked from the spot circled in red above, just under the purple shorts. 

It would be another ten minute walk from the village to Bogyah Hot Springs. While some of the native houses still use the traditional thatched roof,  I find it sad  that more have started to use yero 
or galvanised iron sheets.  

Our first glimpse of our destination!  Bogyah Hot Springs marks the end of the trail and promises both a hot soak and a cooling dip.  

Tickets to the springs are included in the registration fee  paid at the Tourist Information Center in Hungduan.  Tourists can use the springs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. after which it is reserved for the local residents' use.

While it is called Bogyah HOT Springs, this is a bit misleading as there is a pool with cold and clear water from Hapao River.  The cold and hot waters sit side by side with each other, separated just a stone wall.  There are cairns or piles of small rocks placed on the boulders.  The lady in purple on the right side was making one just as I snapped this photo.

I did not feel like changing so I merely dipped my legs in the warm water.  It was therapeutic after that walk through the rice terraces -- I could feel my toes unclench!

Jay decided to go all in and take a refreshing soak.  While you would not say this hot spring is "onsen hot" (40C)  it was warm enough to relax tired and aching muscles. 

Rain was in the forecast for the afternoon but the travel gods were kind to us.  We enjoyed the dry and cool walk back.  Going back was much faster as we had all gotten the hang of walking through the terraces -- even on the narrower ones made of packed earth and stones such as this stretch that you see above.

We made it safely back and in one piece!  No slips and falls, thanks to the expert guidance of our local guide Elisa.  If you ever decide to visit Hapao Terraces,  ask for her at the local tourist information center.  She was kind and patient and a fount of knowledge about the terraces, the people who live there and how they go about their daily lives.  Certainly the best person to walk you through this amazing experience!  


Jay and I discovered the singular joys of hiking and trekking late in our lives.  We try to enjoy as much of it as we can, while we can ... as I don't think we have many years of hiking ahead of us. 
Walking through the centuries old rice terraces of Hapao was one of the best walks we have enjoyed. We're both grateful to have done this short but very fulfilling trek.