Sunday, 10 April 2011

Have I mentioned before how much I dislike steps?? Exploring the rice terraces of Banaue and Batad

For our first stop in the Philippines, we decided to head to the North of Luzon, to see what has been dubbed ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ (although trying not to be cynical, I wonder how many other ‘eighth wonders’ there are!), the 2000 year old rice terraces of Banaue and Batad. The only (affordable for us) way to make the nine hour journey was by overnight bus, which, in retrospect, barely a day after getting off a plane, wasn’t the most sensible plan.

The bus, although perfectly nice and clean, was uncomfortable. The air con was set to what I can only describe as a perfect imitation of the arctic, and even with continuous shifting throughout the night every part of my body ached upon arrival. We hadn’t had any sleep, but there was no time to waste – we only had time for a couple of days in and around Banaue and we were determined to see as many rice terraces as possible to justify the journey!

We spent the afternoon locally, heading up to a viewpoint high above the town, revealing a stunning landscape stretching out below. There are two different types of terraces – those around Banaue are mud built, as opposed to Batad’s which use stone to line their walls. They are incredible, dotting the surrounding hills with vivid green pools of rice plants partially submerged in chocolately water. Climbing down steps, we were able to take a closer look at the perfectly spaced shoots, and walk along the terrace walls, taking care not to fall in.

After a well-needed night’s sleep, we found some fellow travellers and hired a jeepney and guide for the day to take us to the stone-walled terraces in nearby Batad. The jeepney is a common mode of transport in the Philippines, and is exactly as it sounds – an old jeep stripped out and used to hold anywhere between about 9 and 100 people (not including those hanging off the back…). Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but they can fit an awful lot. Actually, many of the jeepneys you see around are not original, but aluminium replicas, but either way, they are a cheap and reliable means of getting around.

The ride was bone-jarring – the jeepney bouncing through mud and half-built roads, all precariously close to sheer drops as we climbed higher still and tried to avoid vehicles coming in the opposite direction. Grateful for the small amount of padding inside (both on the seats and ceiling!), we jumped out at the end of the track and looked out over miles of mountainous landscape, gorgeously decorated with steps of terraces.

We began our descent to Batad village, where there was further opportunity to walk along the stone walls. The way down was steep and filled with knee-destroying steps (oh steps, how I despise you!). The day became warmer, and we were soon sweating, the downwards momentum carrying us on. The terraces were well worth a closer inspection, watching chickens take their fill of the rice grains, and children running deftly along the narrow walls.

We couldn’t spend too long – the light fades at about 5.30pm, and without the guiding sun the jeepney would find it next to impossible to negotiate the roads back. The path we had taken was the only one out of the area, so unfortunately what came down had to go back up. Up the steep steps between terraces under the full glare of the sun. Up the winding gravel track. Up yet more steps near the top. No flats, no breaks. Just up, up and up again. I was seriously beginning to regret devouring the mountains of Belgium chocolate we’d brought back a few weeks ago... When we’d booked the guide, we had asked about the demands of the day (a long flight and an immediate overnight bus don’t do much good for the legs) and been assured it was ‘a bit of walking. Maybe a couple of hours. Really nice’. Hummm. Eventually we made it back, comforted by a cold drink from a small stall, before the return journey and a deserved night’s rest.

Oh, except the good night’s rest part isn’t true. For naturally we had booked the bus ride back to Manila for that night…

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