Mountains Of Rice

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
Trip End Oct 06, 2013

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Flag of Philippines  ,
Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Two years ago we were in the Philippines with every intention of visiting the very famous rice terraces in the north of the country. At the time, however, this part of the country was in the middle of a very severe drought and everything was either dead or dying. The normally stunning visuals would have been impacted but more importantly the hard working people of the area were suffering greatly and didn't need another overfed tourist wandering around complaining that his photo's were ruined because of the drought.

As a result, the terraces were a top priority for this go around. Road transport is really the only option for getting to the north of Luzon and that used to be a real chore but Gloria Arroyo, a recent Philippino president, was somewhat committed to infrastructure improvements (vs robbing the country blind like so many others). There's also an approaching election in the Philippines which has accelerated the building programs since sponsoring politicians get their name in lights (buying voters with their own money- perfected in Canada but a work in progress here). The good news is that it will soon be a relatively painless process to visit the north but the bad news is that, in the here and now, we were subjected to never-ending traffic construction chaos that the Toronto Works Crews could only dream of creating (although to be fair, unlike Toronto, most of the Philippino crews actually seemed to be working and they would do their best to squeeze you through which often times meant very tricky mountainside balancing acts with excavators holding their buckets high over you like a heavy machinery guillotine). Along the way I renewed my love affair with the quintessential Filipino vehicle- the Jeepney. When American troops began to leave the Philippines at the end of WWII, hundreds of surplus jeeps were sold or given to the Filipinos; they stripped them down and altered or customized the jeeps to accommodate more passengers, added metal roofs for shade, and decorated the vehicles with vibrant colors and bright chrome hood ornaments. The jeepney rapidly emerged as a popular and creative way to re-establish inexpensive public transportation, which had been virtually destroyed during WWII.

At one time people were choosey about which vehicle they would ride in and the drivers had to be very competitive with their decorations- now, in places like Manila, they look very run down but on our drive north the eye-catching, pimped out, shiny Jeepneys I remembered from our last trip here started showing up all around us.  DH gives me a hard time for all the photos I take of these home-made machines but you will only find Jeepneys in The Philippines (having done away with luxury items like air bags, seat belts, meaningful brakes, apparently they won't pass the safety tests of any potential export market). Having seen the magnetic draw of things like car and boat shows, I am amazed that the tourism authorities in the Philippines don't do more with these works of art. And I don't think I took that many pictures...yet.

We survived our first day, somewhat shaken and stirred, and were spending the night at an eco lodge near Banaue- the rooms were all individual huts built in the manner of ancient native Ifugao cottages and the entire complex had great views of the surrounding Hapao rice terraces. A very unique place to stay that will certainly be a top choice once the access road if fixed- although DH was very concerned that an Eco lodge would keep a caged monkey by the front entrance and I was even more concerned that they needed to put a sign in the men's toilet that read "Please Don't Urinate On The Floor"? 

The 2000 year old Banaue rice terraces are a UNESCO World Heritage site (those UNESCO boys do get around), and while many are still in use today, the outer rims are showing signs of deterioration. They were created by the Ifugao (local native people), in a massive engineering project to cover the sides of the valleys (probably 200 meters from floor to rim) for several miles, irrigated by means of mountain streams and springs that have been tapped and channelled into canals that run downhill through the rice terraces. There's actually a plaque at one of the viewpoints from an American-Filipinno engineering society that recognized just how incredible an engineering feat these terraces were.

Despite good intentions, you could really see evidence of neglect which supported the UNESCO concerns that many of the younger Filippino population in the area were choosing far less laborious careers and the terraces are starting to deteriorate. Surprisingly some of the worst neglect seemed to be within the immediate viewing areas of Banaue. If you've ever woken in a cold sweat in the middle of the night thinking that your life might not be complete without seeing mountains of rice, you might want to make near term travel plans for the Philippines. As the Asian economic boom starts to lift the Philippines I can't imagine the rice terrace situation improving. It is extraordinarily hard work with a very limited financial reward to both maintain the terraces as well as growing and harvesting the rice itself. All of the older locals almost invariably walked with a dramatic stoop- the result of years of back breaking labour.

On day two of our visit we went to see the Batad Rice Terraces. While the rice terraces of Banaue are mud-walled, those of Batad are stone-walled. They form an amphitheatre and are an impressive sight. To get there DH decided that we needed to do a long trek which meant lots of uphill and at an altitude of 5,000 ft with humidity in the 1,000% range, I was glistening pretty good in no time (DH has replaced her 'runners high' with a 'trekkers high' so if the Princess wants to hike, we hike). After leaving our jeepney driver safely wrapped in his hammock, it was a relatively uneventful hike except for dodging just about everyone else who decided to drive the dirt path up to Saddle Point before a 40 minute downhill saunter. As you climb down to the tiny village of Batad, it really stretches the imagination to think that the inhabitants continue to live and work in this picturesque setting in much the same manner as they have for thousands of years.
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Carol on

Amazing photos of an absolutely stunning place. Please keep them coming as you are educating all of us. What a tough job, planting rice. We don't appreciate what it takes for us to have and eat a wonderful food!

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