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Moma, Shamans & Cliff Coffins - The Mysteries Of North Luzon
Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor
Views to die for in Batad
This week we are running a series of features on the Philippines. Our theatre and travel man, Phil Hopkins, has been on an amazing three-week adventure to the other side of the world, and here recounts his journey to this country of more than 7,000 islands. Today it is the turn of Banaue and the areas of North Luzon.

When you are in North Luzon - home to some of the most spectacular rice terraces in the world at Banaue - the last thing you do is scrape away your excess lunch into the bin for in this part of the Philippines, rice is considered the sweat and blood of the land and your actions would be an insult to those who farmed it.

Rice as far as the eye can see!
Equally when the local shaman weaves his magic and summons up the spirits of his dead ancestors to ensure your safe journey home, somehow it would seem inappropriate to say anything less than 'hanaman', the ultimate thank you in local tribal lingo!

Perhaps it is these two examples that best sum up the Philippines, this country of contrasts.

Further south there is the chaos of Manila where you can sample the culture of historic Intramuros or a two-mile car journey that can take an hour, whilst in North Luzon - five hours north of the capital by car - there is the dual culture of rural Catholicism interspersed with the old ways of Ifugao tribal culture.

And that is the area's fascination.

Tiny Sagada is like a Southeast Asian backpacker mecca - not unlike the border town between Kathmandu in Nepal, and China - full of hiking trails and adrenalin-pumping adventure in the depths of its caves.

Sagada main street and its environs!
Often described as the Shangri-La of the North, it is one of those places that seems to have everything behind its shanty exterior, where large vehicles vie for supremacy on the narrow, extended high street, and large coaches stake their claim by squeezing down main street like an overly plump, middle aged man trying to slip into his teenage jodhpurs!

We are decanted into a two bedroom boarding house on a steep hillside, and our bandana clad guide, Mark Gaston, ensures we are all settled before inviting us to partake of the ultimate fruit smoothie at one of the high street's myriad of backpacker restaurants.

Our fascinating guide in Sagada and Banue, Mark Gaston left
He's a fascinating character, his family's eldest son and a member the Tuwali tribe, one of three to be found in the Ifugao Province including the Ayangans and the Kalanguya.

"We were originally head-hunters but all that ended in the 1960's," he says. I breathe a sigh of relief! Nevertheless, many of the tribal traditions continue to this day. Grandfather was still the tribe's shaman and there was a village celebration the following day to mark the birth of a new child into the extended family. Would we like to attend? Of course, what an opportunity!

First there were two amazing sights to take in, the Sumaging Cave and the hanging coffins of Echo Valley.

The amazing Sumaging Cave
Sumaging is the most popular of Sagada's caves with its immense chambers and amazing rock formations, with such fanciful names as 'the King's curtain' or 'the Cauliflower'. One of our three guides, each carrying a paraffin lamp to light the way, grins and points to another formation. "Look," he says, "it is a woman giving birth!". Everyone poses for a photo!

The caves are spectacular and, if I were a guessing man, entry would simply not be allowed if they were in the UK. They house bats, have rock formations to die for and offer a wet, slippery, caving experience rarely to be seen or enjoyed anywhere in the developed world, without a plethora of permits, harnesses and health and safety clearances!

Not far from the caves you can take in one of Sagada's most popular attractions, the hanging coffins of Echo Valley.

The hanging coffins of Echo Valley, Sagada
Some are centuries old, some relatively modern, but all have one thing in common; they are mounted high up on the side of a sheer rock face leaving you wondering how on earth they got there in the first place!

It's a short half hour trek to reach the coffins via the overgrown trail which starts at the rear of St Mary's Episcopal church, and runs alongside the Sagada cemetery. Whilst a guide is always recommended, it is difficult to get lost at the height of summer, simply follow the hordes of people making their way down to the Echo Valley Lookout or coffin viewing area!

Interestingly there are a couple of wooden chairs attached to the rock face alongside the coffins, said to be the original funereal chairs that some bodies were strapped to as part of a traditional burial; a seasoned guide grins: "For the visiting spirits to rest on!" he says and moves on.

Mark Gaston is a fascinating chap, seeming to know everyone, everywhere we went! And if it was Liza Minnelli that originally urged her audience to 'don't tell Mama' when she appeared in the hit musical Cabaret, then surely it is local officials in Sagada that now urge people not to 'Spit Moma!"

Don't Spit Moma!

Red puddles adorn most market squares and the crimson smiles of Cordillera men, might lead you to believe that locals have a penchant for cannibalism! Betel -nut chewing is a long standing tradition among mountain tribes in these parts.

Although mouth cancer is said to be a side effect - hence government attempts to reduce the practice - men typically chew the nut wrapped in mint leaves, with an added pinch of lime powder to create 'Moma'. The effect is mild euphoria, increased stamina, a sense of well-being and a population that continually spits red puddles across the landscape!

Next day at the baby's head wetting - more a gathering of a huge extended family for food and conversation - lunch is preceded with Catholic prayers. Yards away sits the funeral Nipa hut - or Lubuan - containing the mummified bodies and bones of family ancestors, sent to their next life with tribal ritual, often by the same people now saying their weekly Hail Marys!

The mummified remains of our guide, Michael Gaston's ancestors
Mark Gaston introduces us to his grandfather. "How old is grandad?" I ask. "We don't know," is the reply. "In the Tuwali tribe we celebrate the birth of a child at seven to eleven days of age, and the next celebration is when they die. That is when we honour a life well lived. There is nothing in between," he adds in his matter-of-fact voice.

Grandfather casts a spell in our honour, summons up the spirits of his dead ancestors and assures us that the omens are good for our safe journey home. Acting on Mark Gaston's advice I close my eyes and silently think the words: "Phil Hopkins you are leaving here" to ensure that my spirit returns to the UK with me and that I will not have nightmares, the result of leaving my spirit behind; I advise my co-travellers to do the same. Better to be safe than sorry!

Michael Gaston's grandfather, the village Shaman casts a spell in our honour
In this part of the world so-called 'rich' families often determine the start of the rice planting season. A bullock is slaughtered in honour of the rice gods and, if the omens are good, planting starts and poorer families follow the lead of their rich neighbours, believing their land to have also been blessed.

We give our humble thanks and leave for the Banaue rice terraces, another three hour drive from Sagada.

Banaue Hotel, Banaue, Ifugao Province
The Banaue Hotel provides us with respite and two key benefits - momentary luxury in which to recover from our caving extravaganza, and a parking spot, something quite hard to find in Banaue! As well as excellent dining, rooms and weekly cultural shows, this hotel offers both up market accommodation as well as backpacker-type rooms starting at less than £5 a night.

Before long it is not hard to understand where the word 'breath-taking' must have had its origins!

Members of Tuwali Tribe of Ifuago Province - workers in rice fields
Hemmed in on all sides by dramatic rice terraces, Banaue, is a sea of emerald green rice fields, completely stunning and totally worthy of their World Heritage status. Undoubtedly they are at their best one to two months before harvest, when they become bright green before gradually turning gold.

They can be viewed in both Banaue and Batad, which has two plantings a year.

North Luzon is rich in tribal culture, stories, spectacular, scenic views and, of course, wonderful people, as always the Philippines' chief tourist attraction with their eternal hospitality and open smiles! It is as different from Manila as London is from Leeds but, rest assured, you will not leave this amazing area feeling disappointed. A little drained from the heat, yes, and with, perhaps, a few mosquito bites, but prepare yourself for a cultural experience second to none.

Here it is not always about fine hotels, more often about trekking, ploughing through undergrowth, savouring ancient cultures and battling with hot water nozzles on dodgy showers! But one thing is for sure, North Luzon will send you to your grave a richer person long after your legs have failed, and all you have left is your memories or the opportunity to count the cash you failed to spend on personal enrichment!


Go to North Luzon and the Banaue rice terraces before you die!
Carry a small back pack with you in your suitcase. Ideal for day trips and far easier to carry on your back when crossing rugged terrain.
Take some local currency with you to buy drinks and food. Credit cards might not be useable in some of the mountainous areas.
Don't take photos of locals without permission. Some will either want money or consider that you are stealing their 'spirit'. They may get upset.
If in doubt drink bottled water so as to avoid tummy upsets. Always carry a bottle with you when out for the day.

(in-country travel agency / nationwide city guides / Travel & Hotel Bookings)

Moma, Shamans & Cliff Coffins - The Mysteries Of North Luzon, 23rd May 2016, 14:00 PM