A Filipino Farewell

So that’s it. Home tomorrow via a few days in Hong Kong. Sadly, two and a bit weeks in The Philippines has come to an end. Am sitting in the shade with mango juice in hand, looking out over an ivory beach with turquoise blue sea and white surf hissing up the the sands, reflecting on the trip. I have really enjoyed these wonderful islands and these lovely people.

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My lasting memories will be the smiles on open.friendly faces, the welcome at every stop, their politeness and respect. I have been addressed as ‘sir’ on every occasion, in every situation, on the street or in restaurants and hotels where you’d expect it maybe, by a cheerful, seemingly happy Filipino. Yet most of these guys earn a pittance, 30% of the population is below the poverty line, with an average income of 2 dollars a day. If they can keep a smile of their faces all the time why can’t we?

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The scenery, upland to lowland, is also rather special. Sunshine, ivory sanded beaches, green jungle foliage, pine stretching ridges, river carved ravines and gorges, patterns of emerald rice terraces contribute to a rich textured tapestry outside the brieze blocked, cemented, corrugated ironed towns and villages.

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The signature image is that of rice terrace. Rice production is evident through out the countryside – terraces, paddy fields, irrigation, planting, harvesting, threshing, drying, bagging. In the highlands they manage one harvest a year, in lowlands up to three harvests.

Towns are a dumbledore of dwellings, shops, tangles of electricity cables, lines of uniformed school kids, exhausting jeepnies, motorbikes, zooped up motor trikes. The most impressive buildings in every town and village is always the large Catholic churches. That’s not to say that Ameicanisarion has not hit this place hard. In every town at least one McDonald’s, Jollibee (the Philippines’ KFC whose speciality is the Yum Burger), 7 Eleven, Starbucks, Maxs-The House That Fried Chicken Built, Subway stand bright and shiny in amongst the local businesses and stores.

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Food, hmmmm. Lots of rice and more rice, with chicken or pork. It can be quite tasty. I spotted chicken and sweet potato chips on the menu. The chicken was lovely and crispy. Potato chips arrived with a sachet of sugar – literally, sweet potato chips!

The whole country is so youthful and full of laughter and smiles. The place has a gentle, friendly buzz with youngsters giggling their way to school or hanging out together, families sitting around or choring together, men rocking in the shade and chewing the cud, shopkeepers quietly anticipating customers under dusty, shaded awnings, convoys of bike trikes with teeth gleaming riders and oustretched hands of greeting. I loved the whole experience. Try and get here if you can.

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Outrigging it off Alona Beach on Bohol Island

Sorry about this bit, guys. A short flight from Manila brings me to Bohol Island and the resort of Alona Beach. It’s not quite what I expected in so far as it is a beautiful coral sand beach but it is in the early stages of developmen and there are signs that its days of quiet, retro charm are limited. It reminds me of those beautiful Thai beaches, ten years ago before full on tourism and buckets of cocktails and full moon parties changed paradise forever. So still unspoilt but newer, larger hotels are being built to cater for the increased numbers of westerners and Koreans that a new airport will bring to the island.

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So for now take advantage of Alona Beach while it is quiet with only a handful of hotels and hostels. The beach is still quiet with tons of space to find chill out time in the shade of leaning pesos or to bar-b-que the tan out in the full glaze and, boy, are there some tans that have been nurtured for weeks! There are two obvious groups who strut their stuff, parading up and down the beach – young western backpackers showing of their pecks or bikinis and young Koreans showing of their beach garb to stay as covered up as possible even when swimming.

The main entertainment, after sun bathing, is going out in one of the hundreds of outriggers that ply their trade from the beach. Aloma Beach is a diving and snorkeling centre but I joined Capt. Gabriel and his passengers to visit nearby islands. It was great to get away from baking Alaska on the beach and to smack through the waves, with the wind cursing in my hair accompanied by the smell and noise of an ancient diesel engine. Other outriggers kept us company like crabs scuttling sideways across the ocean. The boats collect together along the coral white beaches of the islands and unload their human cargo of travellers who trot off to snorkle a line of buoys or drop off bigger crabs to dive deeper reefs or dash to the shaded to drink coke or eat grilled Jackfish or maybe wander through the blitzing sun taking in the array of craft before joining fellow travellers in the shade.

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I suppose I shouldn’t complain about the blazing sun, the feel of the sun on the body, the crust of salt on the skin from cooling down in the clear waters of the South China Sea, the smell of grilled fish on the bar-b. It is lovely showering off the day, lotioning up, stretching out on a bed under the air con, anticipating a beer and bite later. After all, this will be all over in a day or two and I’ll be back home with you and it will all be just a lovely warm memory. Enjoy it with me while you can.



Village life in Luzon Province

So now it’s back down though the cloud and mist and grey to the lowlands on the way to Manila to grab a flight south to the beach. First is a drop off in a small settlement called Sta. Juliana, a one street village in the middle of a military firing range. Most of the locals are either farmers or earn a living in their 4x4s driving tourists up to the start of a trail up to the crater of their local volcano, Mount Pinatubo. I’ve put this collection of images together to show what village life is all about – from cool dudes with machetes to kids with catapults to mums with amazing babies to dads  in carts pulled by caraboue to even cooler cowboy dudes. I you get a sense of timelessness and peace and calm and the inevitability of this life.


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Exploring Banaue’s famous rice terraces in a jeepny

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These mountain towns have a character all of their own. Banaue is no exception. The first impression is slab like buildings created using blocks, planking and cement and then covered with corrugated iron to keep out the elements. It doesn’t help that the cloud is low, a polite way to say it is raining, and everything is seen through a gloom.


Jeepnies are more substantial to deal with the gradients and are enclosed to keep the passengers dry and warm. That does not mean they enjoy any modern mechanics. Most are held together with wire and any concept of an MOT passed them by years, nay decades ago.


There are thousands more rice terraces around the town which, if unravelled and placed end to end, would stretch halfway around the planet. On a grey morning the bashed up jeepny roars out dollops of grey exhaust and struggles out of town and up and over to the surrounding valleys leaving the grey structures of Banaue behind us in the mist.

Eventually the cloud has swirled away enough to spy in the gloom the patterns of three rice terraces around their respective villages.

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And here are a few of the locals.

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The Hapau River Rice Terraces

The drive through the highlands from Sagada is dramatic. This is real mountain territory with high sharp peaks and forested ridges cut apart by dry cobbled river beds wishing for the monsoon rains to top up their levels. The road follows the same meanders as the rivers although clinging right up on the sides of the ravines, peering down to the bottom as it rises through high trunks that cling into the rocky ground for dear life. There are so many giants around here. The backs of their hands positioned side by side on a table and their huge arthritic, gnarled hands and knuckles and veins are a challenge for all but the most competent of drivers. The rivers have cut deep into the mountains forming deep canyons, sharp ravines and rocky gorges.


Wherever the river flattens out for a short while, terraces rise from both banks and follow the line of the tumbling waters as it stretches up the valley keeping the river company, way below us.


Crawling up to the ridge top, engine grinding all the way up the gradient and then ahead there is nothing above us, no sharp ridge, no tall timber, just blue sky. So then, with a huge last desperate roar, it’s up and over and down into the neighbouring valley with a huge gasp of exhaust  and engine relief (did you like the way I did that?). 

Then down, down, approaching the crossing point at the bottom, through the corrugated iron that makes up the village or town there, over the rickety rackety bridge and then it starts all over again, grinding our way up the other side.

Along the road and along the rivers every space possible is terraced up to enable the locals to carry out their family farming. Valley sides and valley bottoms host the flattening effects of terraces where rice, in particular, and vegetables are grown in contour hugging collections of shape and size and colour and texture.

If you get a chance check out a guy called Masferre. He was a Spanish Filipino photographer who took some wonderful images of tribesmen and village life in the Bontoc of region. Truely stunning. I think I have a fair bit to go.

The Hapao Rice Terraces, just outside the town of Banue, are the main man when it comes to rice terraces.

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They have been here for over 2000 years and were the prototype for all terraces in the Philippines. Some are created with mud walls, which can collapse after heavy rain, and others, the stronger ones, with stones and boulders. All are irrigated efficiently and have clear water trickling through or beside them in narrow channels with simple weirs to control the flow.


The hanging coffins of Sagada

Today is a long drive southeast to the rising hills of the highlands. The road passes through emerald green and harvested brown paddy fields, squares of sun drying yellow corn and white flecked rice, chomping, humped, white cattle, cash crops of maize or onions. Hamlets, villages then towns line the route. Construction tends to be the same – concrete blocks with the omnipresent corrugated iron roof. In the county there tends to be simpler, bamboo shacks mixed in and in the towns, multi-storied houses with balconies and chrome bling add variety and indicate greater wealth.

Every town has an imposing church lording it over the skyline. The Spanish friars certainly did their job well. The buildings themselves20160213233835_IMG_4734

date from different times, ancient and modern, but all were established in the 16th century when the conquistadors first arrived. 


The domination of the church of Santa Maria over the hearts and minds of the faithful is complete. Dating from 1810 and constructed in brick its faded glory stretches along the ridge for 90 metres. The fact that it’s Sunday and mass is taking place just adds to its peace and harmony, not just of spirit but also of ambiance as beautiful singing nightingales out of the open doors from the packed congregation who express their delights and celebrations over the surrounding scene.


Then the bus starts to climb. Within a few moments the road is wiggling and winding up through jungle foliage and palms and stretching branches. Then it is into the sharp, taloned chicken feet of forested high valleys and ridges, carved and dissected by water into a scenery of gnarled fingers and arthritic knuckles on a tapestry of hands.

My destination is Sagada. Sagada is a small scruffy little town, full of corrugated iron and wooden panels, high up in the highlands and a favorite, for some reason, with the young couples celebrating Valentine’s Day. Being at 1400 metres the air is fresh and even chilly at night. The locals dress up in fleeces and woolly hats to keep out the cold that they seem to feel.



The town is renowned for a truly remarkable practice. The locals have been air burying their dead in coffins perched high on cliff faces for over 2000 years. Why? It could be to keep the preserved bodies away from wild predators or they may have believed it took their loved ones that much closer too heaven. Whatever the reason, it’s all a bit macabre. Thoughts of falling skeletons from worm rotten coffins comes to mind but it is reassuring to know this rarely happens due to the hardness of the wood. It is still done today with the latest body buried in this way in 2010. There are several cliff faces for this use.

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At least the Spanish introduced cemeteries and underground burials even though gravestones and slabs are not so picturesque as hanging coffins.

I had lunch in  the hills just outside town in a stilted cafe overlooking the houses and paddy fields. I love this image.


The charming, cobbled streets of Hispanic Vigan

Vigan has a charm all of its own which is felt immediately you wander through the narrow streets, avoiding the buzzing motor bike/sidecar tuktuks, whose body work, here, resembles Roman legionnaires, and the loud clip clopping nags pulling their elegant, two wheeled tourist carriages, into the gentle hubbub of the plaza. It is one of the few Hispanic towns left in the Philippines and a reminder of the arrival of the Spanish searching for spices for their dishes and souls for their church. 

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The plaza, as with all Spanish towns home and abroad, is the centre of town life. Vigan is no exception and has a few unique features. The traditional eateries are common, as are the families and groups sitting around passing the time together. The skate boarders trying out their skills are slightly more unusual. But what about these guys?

And this is a first. The only ice skating rink in the Philippines. I really had to pinch myself and chuckled out loud at the sight and particularly the plastic polar bear aids. The queue to get in was phenomenal. They have no idea what snow is like, they’ve never seen it. They now think it is white plastic stuff which is really hard to fall on and that polar bears are less than a metre high.

The grid ironed streets are lined with elegant colonial houses with carved wooden facades to the upper stories and torn plaster covered brickwork at ground floor level. Although tatty and run down the place still oozes atmosphere throughout it’s shady, overgrown centre. The Spanish conquistadors, the Chinese before them and the local Filipinos have all had an influence on the architecture and layout of the town.

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Nighttime is quite magical. The old street lights give a warm glow to the wood and the broken plaster. Restaurants and bars seem doubly welcoming as the streets are taken over by tables and tat shops open up to the souvenir hunters. The old tourist carriages negotiate a path through.

In daylight the tourist trail is a bit arbitrary. It covers the cathedral, where two funerals are taking place at the same time, three museums, a pottery, a weavers, a garden centre for lunch (they’ve copied the UK’s diversification from plants into meals although it was nice and shady), and a farm with the young workers putting on a cultural show. See if you can match these images with the activities.

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The best bit was the day spent in the carriages clip clopping between all these places both in town and a bit further out in the country, passing through villages and hamlets, through fields of maize. It felt a bit like royalty passing as we waved and smiled back at waving and smiling locals.

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We did get into trouble though. The mayor saw our convoy of 8 carriages with their skinny nags and the main man of the drivers was called to account in his office for speeding. Some chance.