Travel: Jeepneys and phosphorescence in South-east Asia

In the dramatic interior of the island of Luzon, Philip Sweeney marvels at the rice terraces that Filipinos call the eighth wonder of the world
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The Independent Travel
The one excursion that Manilans invariably recommend to visitors is Baguio: the so-called summer capital of the Philippines. Spread over pine-covered hillsides north of the capital, Baguio is an average of eight degrees cooler than sultry Manila. It contains an old Victorian- style park, a rambling complex of wooden ex-US Army recreational buildings, a 1930s cathedral, and a warren of walkways with names like Celery Alley.

A few tips on Baguio street cred: Firstly, this is the heart of Northern Philippine rice production - not the place to wander up to a stall and say: "I'd like some rice, please." Ask for Aroma Milagros Fancy, or Bordagul Premium Well-Milled, or Malagkit, or Wag Wag Grade 1 or 2, or any of the 25 other types, depending on the use you have in mind.

Also, beware of "pet" stalls. The answer to the query "how much is that doggy in the window?" is probably 70 pesos a kilo. The Mountain Region is one of the last centres of the officially disapproved-of habit of dog- eating. Cooked in a stew with garlic and onions, man's best friend, regarded as conducive to spiritual health, is his favourite dish here.

Finally, keep anti-establishment remarks to yourself, unless you want to make enemies of some powerful people, and their Magnum-toting goons. Baguio is the top holiday destination of the Manila oligarchy.

A day or two in Baguio should be enough for most visitors, however. The town's real interest is as a gateway to the mountainous interior of the island of Luzon and some of the most important remnants of the indigenous tribal cultures. The most spectacular are the Ifugao rice terraces, a system of hundreds of sculpted hillside paddies up to 2,000 years old, called the eighth wonder of the world by Filipinos with such persistence that the phrase was actually printed on my map.

The drive north from Baguio begins gently through wide foothill slopes, with the first sign of terracing, layers of stone-walled vegetable fields. Festoons of black cables run down the hillsides, which you realise, noticing the leaks, are hoses tapped into springs. Slogan-covered jeepneys, lorries and buses - Boy and Irene Vegetable Dealers, The Spirit of Heavy Duty, D'Rising Sun Transport - chug up the road. By the big arch announcing Mountain Province, we looked down at distant Baguio in a gigantic valley with clouds pouring like special effects over the mountain top opposite.

From here until Bontoc, the little provincial capital, you ride the Halsema Highway, carved out for mining vehicles in the 1920s by the engineer EJ Halsema, but never finished. You're not likely to forget a trip on the Halsema, from its blind one-vehicle-width bends blasted out of the side of 1,000ft rock faces, to its rubble tracks across vertiginous shale-slides, with plenty of hair-raising stretches visible in miniature far ahead to allow the maximum palm-sweating anticipation. A trip up the Halsema really makes you appreciate a table in the Pines Kitchenette in Bontoc for a dinner of lechon kawali (suckling pig) and a night in one of the rudimentary rooms.

Bontoc's little museum, run by Belgian nuns, provides an excellent introduction to the region's tribal lore. This includes coffins, leather shields, clay rice-store guardian-idols, and interesting sepia photographs, many by a Catalan photographer named Eduardo Masferre.

The tribes buried their dead in small deep coffins, stacked and crammed into caves throughout the region. Many caches are concentrated in the gorges around the pretty wooded township of Sagada, a two-hour drive from Bontoc. Sagada is a little haven for hippie-ish travellers, where the concrete extensions and parabolic aerials on the houses of the marijuana dealers seem to be the only modification in decades.

For lunch, the gourmet's choice is the Masferre Inn, run by the late photographer's daughter, who also manufactures a delicacy quintessentially Filipino in its 1950s Reader's Digest Home Entertainer's Cookbook way - the Chocolate Crinkle.

Laden with jars of Crinkles, we pressed on towards the eighth wonder. The town of Banaue, in the territory of the Ifugao, is the centre of the most spectacular rice terraces. Heading south-east out of Bontoc, the terraces are planted with manioc in spirals as well as rice. The rice fields are beautiful whether flooded or not: layer upon layer of mirror surfaces dotted with viridian shoots, or mature, a hundred vibrant greens and yellows. The roadsides are carpeted with drying rice. Women crouch plucking in the fields, men with stun prods poke the paddies, catching fish. The harvest is not restricted to rice and fish: snails and frogs are also farmed. And, up in the hills, small birds.

Banaue is a cross between a Wild West frontier town and a ski resort. Tourists wander through the small centre, dodging the motor tricycles and jeepneys. Mountain farmers bustle around the barbershops, eating houses, market stalls and video rental shops. The barn-like government-run Banaue Hotel provides the only tourist accommodation, its cracked concrete balconies looking out over a stunning landscape of sculpted hillsides touched with mist.

But the Ifugao live in precarious coexistence with tourism. After dinner, tribespeople in loincloths and feathers perform dances in the hotel. This is not pure pantomime. The dancers tell me the rituals are still used periodically, but the performers put on jeans to go home, as do the wrinkled Ifugao elders in full regalia who materialise ready to be photographed for a peso. There are also souvenir huts selling crude wood carvings that the Ifugao produce in such quantities that they are now exported, and the rice terraces crumble while the young churn them out.

From Banaue, I took a jeepney with the local midwife, a box of chickens and kids hanging on to the outside, to the village of Bangan. Like every hamlet in the Philippines, it has a tiny church and an earth basketball pitch. Its thatched houses on stilts are shaded by palm-trees, and lurking among them are half a dozen locked wooden cases. When tourists arrive, these are opened to reveal the familiar trinket collection. There's no pressure to buy, and the women and old men are happy to accept candy, a soft drink or a cigarette, and talk.

"The tourist trade is good for us, we use the money to buy soap, salt and sugar," a young woman told me.

Don't you think the hills will be spoilt by too many visitors? I asked, but she would only shrug and giggle, and then accepted another round from the sweet jar. At the eighth wonder of the world, Chocolate Crinkles speak louder than words.

MALAYSIA AND THE PHILIPPINES

GETTING THERE

Sabah: Malaysian Airlines (tel: 0171-341 2020) offers return flights from Heathrow to Kota Kinabalu via Kuala Lumpur for pounds 403 if you book before 15 November. Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3939) offers return flights via Brunei for pounds 539 if you depart before 9 December.

A two-day trip to see the Green Turtles costs about pounds 40 per person, including return ferry crossings from Sandikan to Pulau Selingan, one night's accommodation and food. You must book in advance through the Sabah Parks office (tel: 00 6 088 211 881). There is plenty of reasonable accommodation available in Sandikan itself if you need to stop over for a night there.

The Philippines: Return flights with British Airways from Heathrow to Manila with Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3939) costs from pounds 600. Alternatively, it offers return flights via Kuwait City in November for pounds 379.

WHEN TO GO

The main time to see the Green Turtles is during our summertime, but sightings at other times of year are possible. The weather in both Sabah and the Philippines is warm and humid year round.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Sabah Tourism Promotion Corporation (tel: 00 6 088 212 121; fax: 00 6 088 212075; web-site: http://www.jaring. my/sabah). Embassy of Philippines Tourism and Cultural office (tel: 0171-835 1100).

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