Entry 66 - the rice terraces at Banaue & Batad

travelling coach

As we discovered just before leaving there is a quick and easy way to the northern rice terraces and that is to take a helicopter. Alas, although rich by Philippine standards, we could not stretch to a chopper. And, even if we could a girl who is scared by 747s (Jane) is hardly going to get in a whirlybird in the kind of place that just shrieks lax maintenance.

In this sense getting to the mountain province is a deeply egalitarian process: you have to take the bus. Like everyone else we pitched up at a grotty coach station somewhere in district 347 of Manila’s sprawl and discovered our coach was going to be a while. We walked around an urbscape that was a bit like low rent Bladerunner and dined at Pizza Hut which was one of my better meals. Later, we trundled back to the coach station and, mirable dictum, met some tourists who looked like they were here to see the country, as opposed to just the first syllable.

Anyhow, overnight Filipino bus journeys aren’t God awful. But they’re not very nice either. You hunker down in your seat and shiver away in the weapons grade A/C which, once you leave of Manila’s torrid precincts turns the coach into an icebox. The only real plus is that this journey is that its an overnight one. But even though it was dark, every now and then a light would give away the fact that the inky blackness concealed a mile deep drop: the guy in the hotel’s words came back to me. I’d be a footnote in a newspaper when, three or four months later, they identified me via dental records.

green and serene

It’s worth it though: you wake up in a different world. Sitting 1200 metres up in the elevated Mountain Province, the little town Banaue is a place of limpid air and cool breezes; everything grows with damp, tropical vigour. Down below, valley floors are carpeted in shocking green rice paddies which climb high up the terraced hillsides; above these jungly peaks scratch the sky. It is absolutely stunning. In fact, so overwhelmed was I that I thought there might be some good food in the offing. No such luck. Breakfast was chop suey in a bechemal sauce. While certainly not the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten, this definitely falls into a category of dishes I just don’t ‘get’. On the plus side though, the folk in these high places grow coffee – and if you ask them to make it about eight times stronger than normal, it’s pretty good.

Marvellous though it is, Banaue’s home valley is by no means the ne plus ultra of rice terracery. To see this, we had to head over to nearby Batad - a short motor-trike and hike away, as there is no road. While this relative inaccessibility has preserved Batad beautifully the walk there and back is equivalent to doing Snowdon twice in a day. The view from the top of the pass is pretty casual too. If you’ve been in Manila for a week, this superabundance of clean serene green is enough to make you want to cry.

nice rice

Once over the top and you quickly see what you’ve come for. I had been told that Batad’s terraces were in a somewhat reduced state these days – what with a plague of giant earthworms and an earthquake in the last decade - but they seemed pretty incredible to me. Mountains the size of the Pyrenees have been carved into hundreds of three metre steps forming a vast amphitheatre. Depending on the season these will either be Astroturf green with gently waving rice - or brown and flooded giving the whole a mirror-like reflectivity.

Batad’s terraces claim to be the eighth wonder of the world and for once this isn’t an empty boast. They are like a staircase of the Gods – and, fittingly, were largely constructed around the time of Christ. Remarkably, until the middle of this century much of northern Luzon (an island nearly the size of England) used to be like this. Finding our vocabularies rather taxed by the improbable beauty surrounding us, we lunched at Rita’s, a pleasant little restaurant that must have one of the best views in the world.

We wondered back via a freezing plunge pool and a weird little collection of shops selling ethnic-knacks and then even found a pretty good restaurant back in tow; it was called Las Vegas. All in all, an utterly charming day. I don’t think I even saw a sex tourist.

We spent a second day there, just hanging out and eating in Las Vegas. We hiked a little more, though, as soon becomes apparent, Banaue is a rather passive kind of place: that is, there isn’t a whole lot to do apart from stare at pretty rice terraces. Actually, you can walk around them too, but although this isn’t necessarily something you’d want to do; they’re muddy and full of bugs. Rice terraces, even the finest in the world, are best appreciated from afar.

June 20, 2004