Our first night in Sagada was cold. It was welcome relief to the suffocating heat of Manila and reminded me of winters back home when you struggle to get warm. Eventually we did and slept well.
The morning was welcomed by the rooster who wanders around the property. He seemed to position himself right outside our window, like he knew exactly what he was doing. Just when I thought he’d stopped, he’d start again. I decided roast rooster might be good for our next evening meal…
I got up with the children, eager to further explore our temporary home. Walking out onto the balcony to take in the view I felt the soft caress of the cool breeze. As I watched the tall pine trees sway with a beauty that was just effortless, I listened to the mystical sound of the wind blowing through their branches. The clouds were drifting low, covering the mountain tops like a blanket. It was just so perfect and my mind became quiet.
We stayed at Sagada Green Hills. Made of pine and glass, enormous windows overlooked the mountain ranges. Over our days there, I would sit at the dining room table to write but find myself staring out at the view. I would be focused on listening to the sounds of the chickens scratching around outside and the local’s who lived in the hut below the house busy themselves with their day.
Eventually we were ready to head out to explore this little town. When you arrive in Sagada you must register first at the Department of tourism. They will then provide you with a guide – which you must have, who will take you around to all the sites you are interested in visiting.
Once we had registered we went off to find a café for some breakfast and coffee. Sagada is gorgeous. It has narrow winding steep streets that curl around and the buildings have such character. There is colour in the walls, in the surrounds, and there are giant limestone rocks jutting out of the earth creating a snug, almost secretive town built in and around the landscape. Buildings are narrow and there are small laneways heading off into secret corners, and stairwells you feel inclined to follow to see what hidden treasure lays at the end.
After breakfast we went back to the tourist department to get ourselves a guide. Ralphy is a native of Sagada. With a voice like a soothing lullaby, he is full of knowledge with a great personality. He was excellent.
The first stop on Ralphy’s map was to look at the Sumaging Big Cave. We only walked down the steep decline to see into the opening as it was slippery and not suitable for the children.
Ralphy told us the story of this cave. Many years ago the native Igorots in these mountains were into head hunting. One day a pregnant woman named Bistang went near the cave to pick sweet potatoes. Men from a neighboring village came to attack but found the woman’s village empty. They started walking towards the giant cave where Bistang was, and a dog whose name was Gundayon saw the men. He pulled at Bistang’s skirts until she looked up and saw the men coming. She took a stick and lit the end, then the dog led her into the cave and they escaped, coming out the other side at the Lumiang Burial Cave.
After the cave, we drove back up the road until our guide suddenly ordered I-Bug to stop. Our next site was that of the Lumiang Burial Cave. A small pathway between Sari-Sari’s was so inconspicuous you would never know it was there. The walk down into the valley is long and mostly smooth, just steep at times. Closer to the cave you find steep steps and uneven ground. The freshness of the air and the peaceful sounds of nature lull you into a meditative state as you find your step downwards. We finally found ourselves at the mouth of the incredible Lumiang Burial Cave. Here we found old coffins stacked one on top of the other, wedged into the rock face.
Some of them are several hundred years old. The coffins are made of pine and the limestone in the cave preserves them. They are small in size because the traditional burial method was to have the corpse put in the fetal position. The tradition for burial back in the day was that the whole village was expected to be a part of the ritual. In the morning the coffin would be put in place, and in the afternoon the villagers would form a progression from the village to the cave and the body would be wrapped in a blanket and tied in a robe. Then it would be passed along the progression all the way to the cave where the body was placed in the awaiting coffin. There weren’t really any embalming processes years ago, and then they started to use hot water and vinegar. Sometimes incense would be burned to hide the smell. I read somewhere that if someone got bodily fluids from the corpse on them it was considered good luck. Ewwaall…Ralphy didn’t mention that though. Throughout this time I was trying to teach the children to be respectful by being quiet and not jumping and running around, whinging, crying, complaining…you know how it is with small children. Later in the day BB asked me why they had to ‘be quiet where the dead bodies were?’ I told him it was because the spirits might come out and say ‘SHHH we are trying to rest!’ Ralphy burst into laughter. Now BB tells people this story.
Whether it was real or just my mind playing with me, this town had such a spiritual presence about it. Walking through the forest, around these caves, and then later for All Souls Day, I just felt like we were experiencing something that little bit more than special.
We soon left the coffins and found ourselves stopping roadside again. This time between houses. Our guide led us into the driveway of a house to look out over another limestone valley and to the far side where we could see some hanging coffins. These were the Sugong Hanging Coffins. I found it incredible that people lived and farmed this land spending every day with these coffins in plain sight. They just fit into the landscape. It’s like you can’t imagine that there would be anything different in their place.
Finally we headed towards Echo Valley to the Hanging Coffins. This is the place I was most looking forward to. We parked outside the Sagada Cemetery and walked through. Families were gathering graveside to prepare the graves for All Souls Day, which was to be celebrated on the following day. Tombs were being cleaned up, repainted and the gardening was being done. Family’s picnicked sitting on top of family tombs. It was quite a sight.
To get to Echo Valley, the place of the Hanging Coffins, you walk down along the side of the cemetery and then deeper into the valley. The walk is long and challenging with steep rocky declines and hilly terrain. Yet once again being in this place that has such a spiritual connection, you feel peaceful, calm, and just a little bit special. Like you are privy to a secret, despite walking past other tourists who maybe feeling that same way.
At last we found it and the sight is as breathtaking as you think it would be when you see pictures in magazines. Rows of old pine coffins hang, carefully placed, down the Cliffside. Some have names, there is a bit of colour. Otherwise these coffins fit into the rockface like there is nowhere else they would rather be. A chair is hanging for the soul to sit on to watch their own burial, and the ritual for burial is the same as the burial caves. In the morning the metal poles are put into the rock face and the coffin put in place. In the afternoon a procession is formed by the villagers and the body, wrapped in a blanket and tied in a robe is handed along the procession for each villager to pass along. In the earlier days the body was fetal. It was with the introduction of Christianity into the mountains by missionaries that bodies started being laid out flat, traditions changed and burial in the earth became a new way.
The traditional religion in the mountain areas is Animalism. It is very nature focused and about being one with the earth. Everything has a soul, all living and non living entities. So from the trees to the rocks to the animals and humans, we are all connected through our souls and through nature. Souls walk the earth alongside the living. The symbolism of burying a body fetal style, is that is represents the way one is born, in the fetal position. It is a return to the earth. Circle of life if you like. The idea of hanging off the side of a cliff is about freedom, letting the soul be free. Being buried is a feeling of being trapped. These days, people choose how they wish to be buried. The ritual of the hanging coffins is so sacred it is kept secret and only the locals are allowed in the places where this practice currently occurs. The ritual is not even allowed to be spoken about with outsiders. Depending on your ancestors, you may choose to be buried in the ground, or placed in a hanging coffin. I spoke to Ralphy about his thoughts on it all and he said while he could choose do the opposite to his ancestors without retribution, he will follow his families tradition as he wanted to be with them. I really love that there is an acceptance of these two different faiths. Both are accepted in the community and decisions are not judged.
Once back at the car we went to The Yoghurt House for lunch. This is one of the top places to eat and is famous for its fresh made yoghurt. I have to say it was delicious. Thick, creamy and slightly sweet, we shared a bowl with fresh organic runny honey and it was sublime. The four of us almost licked the bowl clean. As we enjoyed this delight and elderly lady sat at a small table next to us with a giant basket of fresh garlic cloves, peeling each one with her small knife. A contented smile on her face as she watched the younger girls working the café.
After a rest back at the lodge, we set off again, this time to the see the Bokong Falls. This is a small fall in the middle of rice fields, which has a natural pool in which you can swim. After another long steep walk, at times treacherous, we found ourselves feeling the cool spray of water on our cheeks. Local boys were swimming and jumping off the top of the falls into the pool below. This pool is a lovely pale blue colour which is native to the mountains in this area, and is said to be fifteen feet deep! FB proved to be our little mountaineer on these walks, which did surprise us. It was BB who was complaining and Ralphy ended up giving a lot of piggy-backs to him.
It was getting later in the afternoon and thankfully the climbing and hiking was finished for the day. We stopped of at Sagada Weaving to watch the ladies in the small workshop busily weaving away. The speed of the shuttle, the clutter of the frame, is so soothing. It was very similar to the weaving in Baguio. Ralphy told us how it was the Chinese who introduced weaving to the country. I commented how I loved that the elderly women in the village were often wearing traditional dress with these fabrics. I guess it was just one of those little nuances that make this town such a delight. A delicate blend of the ancient traditions with modern day, and it just works. The two marry together like they were always meant to be. It is so hard to capture in words, but it just felt so good to be in this environment. I felt so content.
The next stop was Sagada Pottery where the children got to have a go at turning clay. They loved it but were quite miffed that the potter was trying to help. In the end she sat back and let them run their hands over the wet clay. When asked, the kids said it was wet and gooey. They were so proud of the plate that they made.
Our last stop for the day was to watch the sunset over the rice fields at Danum Lake. We climbed to the top of a hill, set a short distance from the view. Along with a number of other visitors we relaxed, chatted and stopped the children sliding back down the hill, as we waited and then watched the sun slowly set over the mountains. It was a lovely end to our day of sightseeing.
Now it was time for dinner so we drove back down into the town and went for dinner at Bana’s, another place recommended online. Tucked away it can be a bit tricky to find but the food was ok. The chicken curry and stir fried vegetables were delicious.
As we drove back to the lodge I was struck by how dark it was. Without streetlights or the lights from buildings and cars, surrounded by trees and a few cows sleeping roadside, we were in complete darkness. It felt like midnight we were so exhausted, but it was only 6.30pm. We got the kids showered and put to bed; I made a cup of tea, had my shower and put myself to bed too. I was asleep by 8.30, totally satiated by our adventures that day, and feeling the buzz of what was yet to come – All Souls Day. This was the whole reason we were in Sagada at this moment in time.