The first image above is the most striking shot I took in the Philippines – a photo of a photo of a headhunter holding up a severed head in the Bontoc Museum.
The headhunting tribes live in the Cordillera, a rugged mountainous region in north Luzon island. According to my guide on a trek to some of the tribal villages, the last head was hunted in the early years of this century. Now when they fight, they use guns.
The Cordillera was undoubtedly the highlight of my three weeks in the Philippines and included rides on top of buses through stunning natural scenery, tough treks leading to gorgeous waterfalls that you can plunge into and super friendly people.
I took an overnight bus from Manila to Banaue, which was a bizarre experience in itself. Although the temperature outside was pleasantly warm, the driver insisted on blasting the aircon at full power, creating icy conditions inside. I believe this may be a torture technique used in Guantanamo Bay, but the Filipinos on board were prepared and had brought hooded kagouls and woolly hats. I was freezing and at the first stop bought a blanket that cost as much as the bus ticket.
Banaue is famous for its fantastic 2,000-year-old rice terraces. I took a couple of treks through them, the first a long march through the Ifugao terraces to a big waterfall. On my return, the local villagers were having a party to celebrate someone’s birthday and invited me to have some meat and rice with them. Some serious boozing was going on but thankfully I wasn’t asked to join in. The second trek was to a hot spring in Hapao. Half the fun was finding my way there across the many paths crisscrossing the terraces.
I sat on the roof of the jeepney from Banaue to Bontoc, which for me was both a real throwback to my gap year days in Indonesia in 1994-5 and also a sense of joyous liberation from the obsession with ‘anquan’ – roughly, health and safety – that prevails in the developed parts of China.
I spent a couple of days in Sagada, a lovely hill station with cool air, glorious flowers and some great activities, including treks to waterfalls, one small one that you could jump into and one very big one at Bomod-Ok that was impossible to get near, such was the force of the water being pushed away from it and the wind generated by the impact. I stumped the old ladies at the local visitor centre because I didn’t have quite enough money on me to pay for the mandatory guide. I said I would go alone but they gave me to understand that that would be opposed by the local people. Then there was a discussion – should they take the three-quarters of the fee that I had or forfeit the money and send me away. The oldest woman wanted the latter course of action because she was worried that I would go away and tell all my friends that they could get away with paying less than the full fee, which itself was a laughably small amount to anyone who could afford a flight into the country, but a nice chatty woman agreed to guide me anyway.
Sagada also offers some really intense Indiana Jones-style potholing. The cave-to-cave route, for which you most definitely do need a guide with a paraffin lamp, was full of what looked like very dangerous manouevres that turned out to be quite straightforward once you actually took them on. I came out feeling like a champion and also feeling pretty sorry for the guide responsible for a group of chubby girls that we overtook along the way.
Back in Bontoc, things got interesting on top of the bus to Tabuk, which had to be able to deal with landslides and churned up mud on the not yet fully paved road. It’s pretty alarming to be high on the roof as the bus lurches outwards over a ravine as it rounds a unevenly-surfaced corner. I loved that stuff when I was 18 because it made me feel as though I was really living, now I’m (rightly) a lot more risk-averse.
In Tinglayen (about halfway between Bontoc and Tabuk) I hooked up with Francis Pa-in, a local guide whose phone number is in the Lonely Planet, and set out on a two-day trek through the tribal villages in the mountains nearby. From the first village, sat about halfway up a steep slope on one side of the valley, we could see the rival village on the other side. The villages seemed pretty small, just a few hundred inhabitants, but these were the communities hunting each others’ heads during disputes. Now they have guns and can take potshots at each other without leaving their homes, Francis said. During disputes, men who have married into the opposing tribe are sent to negotiate peace deals.
The village had electricity and the kids were wearing modern t-shirts, but everything else was like a throwback to the stone age. Thatched huts with pigs lying in the shade beneath them, wrinkled old women handling beans, girls bashing away with a pestle and mortar. They all wanted matches but I had forgotten to bring any. We pressed on to a hot spring in the valley and then went up the other side to the other village, where we had some food in a pitch black house without windows. A small girl served the food and was then dispatched to do some more work. An ancient woman came in and was introduced as being over 100 years old. She was pretty friendly and I gave her a cigarette lighter I had with a laser light.
This was actually the end of the trek – it turned out that we had been striding along the various paths and hopping up and down the stone staircases and walkways connecting the paddy fields much faster than the average group of visitors. Francis suggested another village and we walked over the crest of the valley into what almost felt like an alpine environment. Rain began to lash down, I fell over and we took shelter once we arrived in the village, watching as torrents flowed down the neatly-built system of drainage gutters and pipes.
As we walked down the slopes towards the road to Tinglayen, wind chased away the cloud below us, unveiling the valley below. Youngsters in flip-flops bounded up in the other direction carrying improbably large loads of water and other supplies. There was a nice moment as we walked along the road to Tinglayen: as a couple of schoolgirls approached Francis said something to them, presumably something a bit cheeky, and both girls said something like ‘Oe-ohhh’ in unison before collapsing in giggles. To the city-dweller (or to me, at least), moments like that are a direct hit of an idealised (or perhaps real, how would I know?) rural sweetness, a mix of strong community in which everyone knows everyone, the good feeling of being in nature and having space and a sudden reminder that the lack of urban materialism doesn’t mean that people are any less witty, sexy or flirtatious – quite the opposite.
Francis himself was still a bachelor in his 40s, an unusual situation anywhere in the Philippines. He liked his freedom, he said, and wouldn’t be able to work as a tourist guide if he had a family. His Lonely Planet mention means he gets a steady stream of text messages from tourists en route to Tinglayen and he also does longer treks, hunting trips etc. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I think he was looking for a woman over 30 and under 40, so if you’re interested get in touch on +63(0)9157690843. There’s more about Francis on this page.
Francis tried to get me interested in a 100-year-old tattooed woman but I’d had enough for the day and went back to the hotel, where the owner said his sister had been working in the UK as a carer in an old people’s home for a few years but was coming home because the high cost of living meant she spent everything she earned and hadn’t saved any money. A few local women were practising a dance routine for a party the next day and their good-humoured attempts to get it right were amusing to watch. Francis and a young guy showed up with some gin and we began drinking. One of the older women came over and took a deep swig. I was on something of a high and drank enthusiastically until I realised I was hammered. I spent the night chundering and pathetically promising an audience of no one never to drink again.
The bus ride to Tabuk was the most spectacular yet but also the most terrifying and I was too afraid to let go of my handholds in order to get my camera out. We passed a convoy of jeeps going in the other direction, including one jeep with lots of heavily-armed men in the back. That was the local governor, a guy on the bus roof said. The guns were necessary because there were apparently still anti-government rebels operating in the area. I passed various army checkpoints in the Cordillera and Sagada actually had a curfew in place after trouble involving off-duty soldiers.
After some thrills, but thankfully no spills, the road quality improved and then sloped down towards Tabuk. All we on the roof had to worry about was the occasional low-hanging branch.
In Tabuk the Cordillera seemed to recede instantly. The town was hot and flat. I bought a burger, a girl in the phone recharge shop began texting me incessantly asking for my Facebook address. I got a seat on the luxury limousine liner to Manila. By about midnight we were rolling along the big ring road past the busy Cubao interchanges, all concrete pillars, lifestyle advertisements, people waiting on plastic seats. After a day or two I headed to Boracay – the country’s premier paradise island destination – for a look. The island was nice, the tourism infrastructure functional, I bet it’s a good party in the winter high season. But for a deeper experience, head north to the Cordillera.