It took this writer several years to finally visit Batad, and it wasn’t just the UNESCO-cited Rice Terraces that made the trip worth it, but the journey
Written and Photographed by Mohammed Sam Shoushi
They say that the most wonderful things happen when you least expect it. I learned this from my trip to Batad.
One misty morning I found myself having breakfast in a random hostel: Ifugao Coffee with otap, the flaky puff pastry that has become my signature travel snack. I was conversing in Japanese, Tagalog, and English with my travel companion and the owner of the hostel. Every now and then, I would go back to reading my book of Spanish poetry by Octavio Paz. The mixture of languages and cultures made me feel as if I was traveling the world from my old wooden chair. But the sun finally came out and the mist disappeared. The view in front of me was now clear and it brought me back to where I was. I recalled a verse I had just read:
un caminar de río que se curva, _avanza, retrocede, da un rodeo _y llega siempre
(a course of a river that turns, moves on,
doubles back, and comes full circle,
Like the ever-winding river that Paz describes, there were lines that endlessly weaved through the valley in front of my eyes. Some of these lines were calm streams of water while the others were outlines of infinite layers of rice terraces. It was a spectacular view: a grand green amphitheater perfectly presented by Mother Nature. I remembered where I was. I was no longer in Manila. I wasn’t in Japan, nor was I in Mexico either. I was in Batad.
I am one of those Filipinos who have lived most of their years abroad, who have traveled the world but have not been any further than Manila or their home province. I realized this two years ago and decided to move back and reconnect with home. I traveled around the Philippines but before I could visit Batad, I got accepted to graduate school abroad. I sadly realized that I wouldn’t be able to see the famous rice terraces.
A week before I left, I was in a crowded white van on my way back to Manila from a beach trip and I asked the other travelers what their favorite place was in the Philippines. Many included Batad in their top destinations. When I told them that I had been meaning to go, my friend asked, “Why don’t you go tomorrow?” I hesitated, as I only had a few more days left before leaving the country, but when she asked me again, I realized, why not?
A New Friend
The overnight bus from Manila to Banaue was cold as a freezer. Sitting next to me was a small frail figure bundled up in layers of blankets and jackets. The figure emerged from its cloth fortress. He was a Japanese guy called Hikaru. I decided to practice my rusty Japanese. He was shocked when I uttered my first few words in Japanese, and told me I sounded like I
was fluent. (He was lying.) He asked whether I was going to Banaue as well, and I told him that I was, but my final destination was a small secluded town nearby called Batad. Hikaru asked whether he could come along. “Mochiron,” I said, of course.
We arrived in Banaue before sunrise. The air was fresh (a welcome change after Manila) and as the sky brightened, the light revealed the valley in the background. It was verdant green and furnished with rice terraces. Ignoring the crowd of tourists shuffling around the bus, Hikaru and I gazed at scenery. He was already impressed, but I told him that he should wait until he sees Batad.
Getting to Batad
There are many ways to get to Batad from Banaue. Some spend the day in Banaue before moving on to Batad, while others wait for a jeepney or rent one to go immediately. An old man with red teeth (from years of chewing betel nut) approached us, and said that he could take us to Batad by tricycle at a discounted rate, but after a little negotiation, he agreed to bring the price even lower.
The tricycle ride took around 45 minutes. The scenery was unfolding in front of my eyes: green mountains, rice terraces, small villages, happy children, and awkward little chickens running to avoid the tricycle. I took a deep breath of the crisp air and raised my arms, surrendering to the wind—the feeling was beyond liberating.
The tricycle driver dropped us off at the “Junction.” Batad was about a couple of hours up the hill, but the road was too steep and rocky for the tricycle. I didn’t mind the hike, nor did Hikaru. From the Junction we hiked up to the “Saddle,” another crossroad on the way to Batad. We took our time, absorbing the vast Cordillera Mountains surrounding us. Every now and then he would utter out “Kirei!” (beautiful) or “Subarashii!” (wonderful). It was true, and it made me proud to belong to one of the most beautiful countries on earth.
A Beautiful Town
We were finally approaching Batad. Signs started to appear more often, indicating the hostels and cafés to be found a few meters ahead. There were also people hiking towards the opposite direction: friendly backpackers telling us that their experience was great, and friendlier locals welcoming us to their hometown. Walking through the woods and meeting strangers who talked about this mysterious, enchanting town ahead was like being in Tolkien story.
When we finally caught a glimpse of the famous rice terraces, Hikaru and I ran towards them to get a better view. Batad was a serene green valley surrounded by calm waterfalls that were actually hundreds of layers of rice paddies. I don’t know how long we stared, but it felt like time had stopped.
The hostel that my friends recommended had a friendly staff and a great view of the rice terraces. The owner told us that the native Ifugaos built these structures more than 2000 years ago through an old indigenous technique that was passed down to younger generations and is now only known to a few. Gazing at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, I couldn’t help but think how they strong and resilient it looked, but at the same time vulnerable to modernization. The owner was optimistic though that some Filipino youth groups are now volunteering to learn about the rice terraces and helping rebuild the ones that were damaged by typhoons.
We chose to stay in a native hut in the hostel instead of an ordinary room, even though it was more expensive and touristy, and as soon as we dropped our things off, we got a guide from the hostel and immediately headed towards the terraces!
Going down the base of the valley was a challenge—not because the path was difficult to traverse, but because it was hard not to look at the scenery while trying to figure out your next step on the terraces’ narrow edge. Our guide warned us to watch our step but I’m sure he knew how mesmerized everyone becomes upon seeing Batad.
We first visited the village at the center of the valley. The friendly villagers seemed to be accustomed to tourists, and they went on with their business: children scaring off chickens on their way back from school, men pounding rice grains, and an old tattooed lady weaving cloth in the native Ifugao style. In many ways it was a normal village, but it looked like it was in the middle of paradise.
Getting to Know Batad’s Beauty
The next stop was the Tappiya Waterfalls. We had to walk up the main valley and go down another one to get there, which was challenging but worth the hike. The water from the falls was cool and refreshing but a bit too cold to swim in. There was an island at the base of the waterfall with a few stone towers that made it seem like a tiny mystical town. We approached the island and sat down there, observing the tall, confident waterfall, and we took the opportunity to build a tower with seven stones, and meditate in front of them.
Next, our guide took us to one of the few viewpoints of Batad. This meant more hiking, but we were refreshed after our stop at Tappiya that we were ready to climb towards the top of the valley. After the exhausting hike, the stunning view took our breath away. The sun and the cloud above us created moving shadows and light around the landscape. The effect made it seem as if the rice terraces were also moving and vibrating with life. The guide said that we could spend a few more minutes here before moving on to another viewpoint, but we chose to stay in this one. Hikaru and I spent a couple of hours at the viewpoint, talking and staring at the scenery. We resembled two bulols, the small wooden rice gods that idly guard the crops of the Ifugao.
The clouds were getting darker, which was a signal to go back to the hostel. We were lucky that it started raining as soon as we stepped into our room. The rain fell down in buckets and washed away everything, even our footprints. It was as if Batad was ending the day and preparing itself for the new one that will come tomorrow.
Soon it was dinnertime. The weather was perfect for something warm and comforting. Hikaru wanted to try pinikpikan, a chicken soup with sayote that is similar to tinola and a specialty dish around the Cordillera region. The native chicken used for the soup is beaten so that some of the blood permeates the flesh, giving the meat a smoky flavor. I recently became a vegetarian but I still enjoyed the soup, which had lots of sayote and ginger. We had the dish with a side of red mountain rice, which probably came from the paddies nearby.
Leaving and Arriving
I had an early start the next morning. I took a bag of otap from my backpack, ordered a cup of native coffee, and went to the balcony. The rain from last night made the air moist and created a wall of mist that blocked the view. I was reading my book of poems, but a few minutes later Hikaru and the hostel owner joined. We talked until the sun came out and brought light to Batad. Hikaru and I looked at the view and reflected on how amazing yesterday was and got excited about our new adventure today. We quickly finished our breakfast and headed out to the rice terraces, this time without a guide.
There was a hint of sadness that I was going to leave this magical place soon, that I would also be leaving the Philippines again. But this trip taught me a wonderful lesson: just like the river in Paz’s poem, like the lines that drew rice terraces in Batad, and like the sun and the clouds, we all continue moving. Every step is a new destination that will teach us something new, whether we are far or close to home, for we are always beginning, and forever arriving.