When I first began to plan my trip to The Philippines (by collecting images on Pinterest but not doing any actual planning, of course), I spotted images with grand, yet picturesque views of mountainous rice fields, and being European, I decided I definitely wanted to see this stereotypically Asian sight in real life.
I had one more week left in The Philippines and had just spent a leisurely week in Bohol, unwinding from the madness, the constant failure to find food and the change of lifestyle. I had been considering taking the ferry to Cebu, and visiting some remote islands, but it seemed like a lot of travel and not really enough time to make the most of it. So I researched the rice fields of Luzon, north of Manila, to see if I should continue my inland adventure.
To my dismay, all the blogs I read described an arduous journey. A nine hour night bus from Manila was the only way in and once in Banaue, it was the small and remote village of Batad that was, apparently, the place to go. But that was another journey in itself, and it involved quite a few hours and a high cost for jeepneys or tricycles. I had no idea if it would be worth it and all the accounts reported something that just screamed ‘Hell’ in my mind: a long, difficult journey. One blogger even recalled the murder of a solo female traveller from years ago, suddenly making it all seem very dangerous and possibly lethal. But the most annoying thing was that I couldn’t even figure out in what village I would arrive. I assumed Banaue was a greater area, and most guesthouses were, reportedly, not on the Internet. The ones that were, didn’t really specify in what village they were situated, or so I thought, and I had no idea where the drop off point for the bus actually was. So I couldn’t book any accommodation, but as I didn’t have any suitable alternative destinations, I decided to go anyways, and see what would happen. It felt like a complete wild card. I had no hopes or expectations and was basically anticipating a dreadful journey with minimal result.
I had no idea how wrong I would be.
There are two bus companies that journey to Banaue and I planned on getting a ticket from the slightly cheaper one, Ohayami. When I arrived at Manila airport I had set my mind on taking public transport to the bus terminal, instead of the alternative: taking a taxi or booking an über. I had just spent three weeks in the provinces and had managed to get around there using all sorts of public transport, so I figured I should be able to do it in Manila too. I felt empowered.
GoogleMaps told me to walk for about twenty minutes upon exiting the airport and I would be able to take a local bus from there. When I stepped outside, it was hot and sticky, my back soon drenched from carrying my backpack. Nevertheless, I walked. I walked for what seemed like a lot more than twenty minutes. When I got to the bus stop, it was nothing more than a wide road, or large shoulder, next to the highway, beaming in the exposed sun with a market right next to it. It was busy and it was hot. There was no signage but endless jeepneys drove in and out, lacking any sort of order and I had no idea which one I was supposed to take. I was absolutely despairing. Was anything ever going to stop going wrong? The last thing I wanted to do was ask someone. I needed to get out of this 40°C+ heat and decided to just give up. I’d had enough. I put my backpack on the side of the road and ordered an über for the same price that was quoted to me from the airport terminal. Another attempt, another fail.
The air-conditioned vehicle slowly took me to the shabby bus terminal and I quickly bought a ticket for that night, happy they were still available. I found a desert cafe nearby and stayed for as long as I could, splurging on waffles, waiting for the hours to pass so I could board the bus and escape the heat and pollution of Manila.
The journey to Banaue went surprisingly well. After a short wait at the bus terminal, which was like an open garage overflown with people, I boarded my bus and found my aisle seat. I managed to sleep well enough, despite the air con being on full blast and almost freezing to utter death. I’m not sure how I still slept and felt rested enough on the other end, but in the end I was so desperate from the cold that I wrapped my satin sleeping bag liner around me in an attempt to lightly reduce the very real possibility of dying from the cold (in fact on the way back I used a long dress as a scarf). Despite this, I was happy there were enough toilet breaks (not enough toilet breaks just make you need the toilet a lot more than you would otherwise.) We arrived and I felt alive. It was 8 in the morning.
ARRIVING AT BANAUE: Bursting the bubble
I immediately knew that these recent ‘off the beaten path accounts’ had already become archaic. The moment the bus stopped in Banaue (it was a town, a town! Not an area!) someone hopped on the bus and called out to all the tourists. Those who had booked lodgings already, had people waiting to pick them up. Everybody else was put on another bus and taken to a nearby tourist centre, which was in fact just a large guesthouse run by surprisingly disinterested and unhappy people, a first in The Philippines. We were quickly explained several tours available, and if interested, we would depart within the next hour. I was unprepared for such a big touristic approach, but was quite relieved to be getting thrown into all this, not having to go around and wasting time figuring out how to get to Batad and hiking around aimlessly by myself. Some people had other plans, they only had one day to spend in the area and wanted to get to Batad straight away, but the remaining ones ended up in small groups. There was a two-day and an extended three-day hike to Batad. I was quite interested in three days, as I still had a week until my flight to Hong Kong and didn’t want to spent more than a few days in hot and polluted Manila. Another solo French girl also seemed up for three days, but the others, an Israeli couple and two French women signed up for two days. The third day was basically an additional trek after the first two days so the the French girl and myself gave each other nod and decided to go for it. Three days. Why not.
We were told the first day of the trek was going to be the most intense one. We would hike for about five hours, and spend the night in a local village. The second day we would commence to Batad. It would only take a few hours of hiking. We would visit a famed local waterfall on the same day. Those trekking for two days would then get transport back to Banaue, but we would stay the night, and visit a few other local villages, mainly by tricycle.
Once we decided what trek to embark on, we quickly got everything we needed for the coming few days out of our bags, aiming to trek with a daybag only and leave our backpacks at the guesthouse. It was a bigger ordeal than I’d imagined. None of us were expecting to sign up to a trek the moment we got off a long night bus, and deciding what you need for a few days’ trek was trickier than you’d think. The only place we could change was a dodgy bathroom on the balcony of the guesthouse we were at, which had no sink or soap but somehow, don’t ask me how, I managed to put on some different clothes and brush my teeth, and somehow I also managed to wash my hands. It was a huge relief. I ordered some food and a drink, despite really not wanting to eat at that guesthouse, as the food looked horrible and the people behaved very unlike those I had met in other parts of The Philippines, there was no friendliness and they most certainly didn’t care about providing the least kind of service, even if we gave them so much work. But there was no time to go elsewhere so I put in my order and waited, while time was inching forward. When we were all ready to go, I still hadn’t received my food, which evolved into the following mind-numbing sequence of: complaining about not having received my food, getting something I didn’t order, questioning the food I received which I hadn’t ordered, being told the other dish would take too long, quickly eating the dish I hadn’t ordered, realising the food wasn’t very good but eating it anyways, seeing we had a long hike ahead of us, and later on realising I never received the drink I ordered and paid for, and not being happy about it in the least. But in the end, it was time to commence on the trek. We left our bags at the guesthouse and huddled into a small car. We had no idea what was going to happen, but we were on our way.
After a drive going further and further outside of Banaue, we stopped at the start of a dirt road. It was the trailhead that would slowly lead us to Batad. It was later on in the morning and it was getting hot, yet we were lucky that our days of hiking were relatively cloudy ones, making it easier on our European physiques. Our guide was a young local, who spoke English well enough to have small chats, but not enough to actually tell us anything about the rice fields, the history of the area or the communities we were entering. He spit moma constantly, chewing leaves and leaving red marks wherever we walked. His sidekick remained in the back (making it hard for me to disappear and have little photoshoots with myself and trees) and didn’t really speak any English at all. He kind of stayed quiet until a few hours in, when he started playing rock music through his Bluetooth speakers, ruining the serenity of the landscape and the hike. Needless to say, it bothered me endlessly. I hadn’t paid money to listen to someone else’s shitty soundtrack to this hike. I told him to turn it off and he did. The Israeli guy thanked me later. I ended up doing the same with the main guide the next day. I couldn’t really fathom why they thought we would want to listen to their questionable taste in music while surrounded by such beauty.
Nevertheless, my scepticism towards coming to Banaue was quickly overturned and I even said it out loud: the trek was absolutely stunning. I was really, really happy I had decided to come out and do this.
The first day was the most beautiful one. We hiked for hours, through thin trails and tropical, leafy parts of mountain ranges, until we were granted our first view onto the local rice fields. It was nothing but utterly picturesque. The layers of shiny water, dissected by thin intense green grass-like rice plants. Our guide didn’t offer much useful information, so I’m still not entirely sure how rice is actually grown, but it did make for a pretty visual. We walked through the paddies, balancing ourselves on the stone edges, trying not to plummet into the planes on either side, which at times was more than a few metres down.
That first night we ended up at a local village, where we ate and stayed the night. The accommodation was simple, but good enough. The food took its time. We had a menu to order our dinner, breakfast and lunch to take away for the next day. They were all the basic Filipino dishes, and I expected simple, yet good food. But once we received our dinner, I realised it was borderline inedible. There wasn’t much to it and it was genuinely distasteful. Half expecting the local rice to at least be like the prime of rice, it wasn’t. It was just rice. I was worried for the next day but there wasn’t much to do about it. We were eating at the only place in the village, and the nearby area for that matter, that was able to provide a meal.
The next day came and we were all feeling a lot more rested and ready for another hike, finally getting to our destination of Batad. We were supposed to leave at a decent time, but instead we were waiting for our breakfast, and no-one appeared in a hurry to provide it to us. When we headed out at last, there were only a few more hours until we got to the famed, panoramic viewpoint of Batad, which I now recognise in all those Pinterest images. And it was beautiful. A small village huddled among the oldest rice fields in the area, the paddies all surrounded by stone walls, created hunderds of years ago. But before descending into the village, we took a slight detour to admire the waterfall.
When we headed out at last, there were only a few more hours until we got to the famed, panoramic viewpoint of Batad, which I now recognise in all those Pinterest images. And it was beautiful. A small village huddled among the oldest rice fields in the area, the paddies all surrounded by stone walls, created hunderds of years ago. But before descending into the village, we took a slight detour to admire the waterfall.
This is where some of us skidded down, and some of us started to slow down. The course to the waterfall consisted of hunderds of descending stairs. But not of the regular kind, which would be long-winded, but easy to traverse. These were all rocky, some very high and some not at all, making it difficult and very annoying to thread. Once we got down, the waterfall itself was a whole new commercial undertaking. People were selling food and even charging for a place to change into your swimming gear. I was wearing my bathing suit under my clothes already, so was ready to dip into the water. Or so I thought. Never mind all the children that were running around the water and didn’t seem bothered by anything, but one, the rocks at the bottom were all big, slippery and impossible to walk on without falling into the water, and two, it was cold. Icy, icy cold. Strangely enough, I managed to get in. The water was a strange sort of cold, because it was very fresh at the same time, and that seemed to make all the difference. After our dip we ate our lunch (I almost threw up) and at last we headed towards Batad, where most of us would head back to Banaue, and where the French girl and I would check into our accommodation.
That early evening, after bidding some of our new friends goodbye, I wandered around the small town, through tiny streets, high up and high down, and then through some of the rice fields, balancing on the age-old stone walls. Later that evening, I tried some local rice wine, enjoying the quiet. The wine tasted a little bit like port, and it was quite easy to drink, on top of being very cheap. That night, filled with drinks and chats with others who had come to Batad only for the day, I relaxed into travelling once again. The evening was topped off by a hot shower, a first in provincial Philippines and entirely unexpected. This region didn’t even have electricity until a few years back, so a warm shower was the last thing I thought I’d get.
Day Three: When a three-day trek isn’t really a three-day trek anymore
The last day of the trek began with a quick walk out of town to catch a tricycle. This is when we realised that the trek wasn’t really a trek anymore, which I had to say, was slightly disappointing. We took several tricycles and then walked down to a tiny village. Another old rice terrace, and it looked a little bit like a Middle Earth hobbit field. We then visited a river with a bunch of children playing around the dam. It was a slightly dirty and not very scenic spot to say the least, so the guide had an offer: he could take us to a resort where there was a swimming pool we could use. Clearly the trek was over. But we didn’t have any other options, so we went. It was a bit of a scam. Once we got there the entrance fee was higher than he had quoted, and the ‘resort’ was completely empty. One of the twobpools wasn’t filled and looked disgusting, and once again the people weren’t remotely polite. I realised the guide was just taking us to all the places his family seemed to own.
After some dipping and another less than satisfying lunch, it was time for us to head off. I wondered where to go. I still had three days left in The Philippines, but spending all that time in Manila would be too much. But I didn’t have many other options. In the end I decided to stay for one more day, and check out the hot springs that some people had been talking about. After arriving back in Banaue the guide took me to another one of his families’ dingy lodgings. It was room without window, two beds, a bad smell and the personnel was horrible. There was an additional charge to use the showers. I didn’t want to stay there, but I didn’t want to roam the streets for something else that may not be much better. I took it, refusing to pay the higher price the woman suddenly tried to sell it for.
THE HOT SPRINGS THAT WEREN’T ALL THAT HOT
The last day in Banaue. The only thing left to do was to visit the hot springs. Unfortunately, it involved a rather long tricycle journey that really couldn’t be done on foot. The cost was high. And soon I realised I had paid too much anyways. The guide’s English was too poor for me to understand what he meant, otherwise I probably would’ve caught him out and negotiated down. But there I was, ultimately, on my own because I refused to pay a higher price for someone to come with and guide me, left at the trailhead that would somehow lead to the hot spring, which was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. I left the tricycle to await my return, and I was told I had another 20-30 minutes to walk through some narrow paths and rice fields to find the hot springs. I had no idea where to go. Luckily I had been told by others that it wasn’t impossible to find on your own, so I asked people for directions the few times I was really confused and managed to get there, unharmed.
When I finally reached the hot spring, there was just one spring next to a river and lots of children playing around in it, which wasn’t ideal. It got in, and it was warm, but not warm enough. In fact, it smelled like people had been doing their laundry in it. I realised it was a lot less nice than the hot spring I found in Coron. I got out of the water and instead went for the river, lying on one of the many rocks, trying to elongate my time there. At one point, I even took out my soap and bathed (for free!) in the icy water. I stayed as long as I could and then headed back, towards Banaue, towards my night bus, towards the last few days in Manila and towards the end of my stay in The Philippines.