The Hanging Coffins Of Sagada


Everything happens early in Banawe. The local people start their workdays by 5:00 or 6:00 AM and often do not quit till 8:00 or 9:00 PM. We had breakfast at 6:20 and were on the road to Sagada by 7:00. We ate at the People's lodge restaurant and the owner arranged our jeepney ride for the day while cooking. The ride cost P1500 and took 3.5 to 4 hours. There was only the three of us, which left plenty of extra room in the back of the jeepney. We attempted to get a Canadian couple to go with us, but they decided it was too expensive. Our jeepney was pulling out of Banaue when two employees of the French Embassy in Tokyo came running after us. They were staying in our hotel and the owner of the restaurant told them we had just left. With the addition of the two additional passengers the trip cost only P300 each or $12.00.

The road out of Banaue rose quickly into the mountains and soon turned from concrete to rough dirt with large rocks which had to be avoided. Fortunately, this road was wide enough for passing oncoming vehicles. Just a few miles into the journey we came across two Filipino army soldiers walking alongside the road. The driver stopped and they crawled up on top of the truck and off we went again. This worried Lani, while Kurt and I thought it was just a part of the adventure. The driver had related that several years ago, the NPA (National People's Army - then unrecognized communist party in the Philippines) had attacked several jeepneys and killed the army personnel right on this road. When the Philippine government finally recognized and started working with the communist party, bloody confrontation between the two had been rare. The next stop was a small creek where the driver filled a jug and poured it into a small tank on top of the truck. This tank supplied extra cooling water to the engine during slow uphill climbs. We made another quick photo stop near the top of the mountain looking down on large spread of rice terraces.

At the summit we stopped at a military installation and our two army passengers hopped off. The driver filled out some paperwork an officer handed him and four different soldiers climbed on top after tossing several empty five gallon water containers on board. Gravity seems to be the favored Filipino method for moving water from place to place. Since this military installation is at the top of the mountain, the nearest stream is some distance down the hill. The only method this military base had for getting water was carrying it from the nearby stream. It further amazed me that the soldiers had to hop a ride on a non-military vehicle. I would think that surely a military base could spare a truck, jeep, tank, or some sort of vehicle to go get something as vital as water. We took the soldiers down the far side of the mountain pass about two kilometers to the creek. Once there, we left them to fill their containers and walk back up the hill to the base.

No more than five kilometers after we dropped off the soldiers, we came across a jeepney broken down on the side of the road. Its hood was open, and its two occupants were bent over the lifeless engine. Our driver chatted with them in Tagalog for several minutes and then one of them hopped in the back of the truck with us. Once on the road again a ten to twelve year old native boy hopped on back and hung on for several minutes. I got the idea this boy would make an interesting photo so I raised my camera and focused. The boy was apparently opposed to photography and leapt from the moving vehicle and rolled. As we rounded the bend and the boy fell out of sight, we watched him get up, dust himself off to await a less demanding form of free transportation.

After nearly three hours on the road, we arrived in the town of Bontoc. We made a quick rest room stop and our broken jeepney passenger hopped out and headed for the parts store. Bontoc was a surprisingly large town seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Once outside of the town, the remainder of the trip to Sagada was relatively uneventful.

Upon arrival in Sagada, our first matter of business was locating a local guide. The driver stopped several people on the street and asked them questions in Tagalog. Before we really knew what was going on, he had two 18-year-old male guides. They climbed aboard and took us to our first stop, the fabled hanging coffins of Sagada.

On a distant cliff (visible only at a distance) were four or five coffins suspended on the steep cliff wall. Some 200+ years ago, the people of Sagada came up with a ceremonial burial ritual which involved placing the dead into hollowed-out logs and entombing the coffins in caves. These hanging coffins were an extension of this tradition. Through what must have been an impressive feat of engineering for the ancient morticians, these coffins were lofted into seemingly impossible locations and suspended on the cliff's face.

The next stop was a small cave located just a few minutes drive from the hanging coffins. A hike of two or three hundred yards took us to the entrance of the cave. Here, located just inside the mouth of the cave were upwards of a hundred coffins stacked up on its walls. Our guide claimed that there were no rules governing the place. Tourists can pretty much do as they pleased. We opened several of the coffins and viewed the contents. Most of the skulls were missing as some tourists prefer to take them home for a souvenir. Most of the other parts remained although they seemed to be in a great deal of disarray as if they had been dug through quite extensively. Smaller bones could also be found on the ground along the way to the coffins.

We walked back to the jeepney only to find a rather irrate female tour guide who argued in Tagalog with our guides for several minutes. As Kurt and I stood helplessly by, Lani went over and got into the conversation. The gist of the story was that the tour guides we hired were not registered with the city of Sagada and should not have been giving us a tour. We also should have registered at the city hall first. Since our guides were not registered, they neglected to tell us all this vital information. No wonder they were cheaper than what the guide book said they should have been! Registration with the city hall is also something new since the last publication of The Lonely Planet. Anyway, this left us with a tough decision. What should we do with our two non-registered guides? Should we pay them off and get rid of them or keep them and ignore the complaints of the registered guide? While we were deliberating this point we went to the town hall to register. While there, our dilemma solved itself. The two guys with us from the French embassy in Tokyo met two Japanese foreign exchange students from the University of the Philippines! They were looking for a group to go with and were glad to see us come along, especially since one of the French guys spoke fluent Japanese. This brought our group size up to seven. A group larger than five people is required to have two guides and two lanterns. We hired both of the guides and headed for the Sumaging cave. The total cost for the guides worked out to P50 per person, $2.00 US, and another P80 for the lantern.

The Sumaging cave has no coffins inside but offers an interesting climb down into an undeveloped cave. The cave entrance was wide and a very short walk from the road. Once inside, the guides lit the two lanterns and we started our descent. The cave quickly became very damp and the rocks were very slippery and potentially dangerous. The two Japanese girls started chanting something in Japanese and Tagalog about being too young to die! This chanting continued throughout the journey. As the decent got steeper, the guides strung ropes for us to hold onto during our descent. One of the guides wound the rope into a hat and wore it on his head when not in use. Soon we took a rest break and the guides informed us to take off our shoes because we were going to get wet. One guide brought a backpack in which many of our shoes were put. Kurt and I tied our boots together and hung them around our necks.

If you are considering taking this trip, my advise to you is to pack light. I learned this the hard way. I had a fanny pack with everything in the world in it, a water bottle, my good 35mm camera and now my hiking boots hung from my neck. This all proved to be very awkward. One passage we had to climb through was less than two feet across and I had to take some of the stuff off or move it around a lot. Hiking boots also seemed to be the wrong apparel for this cave as well. They afforded less traction than tennis shoes and were far too heavy and cumbersome to take off and carry. The guides wore only sandals and they were able to walk circles around the rest of us. A small flashlight is a good idea as is wearing a swim suit and short, shorts. We were all wearing jeans which got very wet and never fully dried. A watertight plastic bag for valuables would not have been a bad idea either.

The next treacherous passage was a deep water-filled hole. Water covered the entire floor of the passage. The guides strung rope along the side of the wall and instructed us to climb along the wall by leaning on the rope and walking on the side of the wall. Kurt was holding Lani's camcorder and had been shooting when there was enough light to record. Up to this point he had been doing a great job. However, in mid crossing he decided to mess with the camcorder with one hand. He lost his footing and fell straight into the watery hole up to his neck. Fortunately, he had the sense to hold the camcorder in the air above his head. Miraculously enough, his 35mm camera in his backpack went underwater but the plastic grocery bag he had wrapped it in kept it dry for the few seconds it was immersed in the water.

I had a close call at this juncture as well. After crossing via the rope I stepped down into the water on the other side of the hole contacting a sharp rock with tender arch of my foot. In my desire to locate more suitably footing I nearly fell backwards into the watery pit, catching myself only at the last moment. Not only would I have damaged my good camera, I would have immersed all my notes for the entire trip. This event made me rethink the wisdom of taking everything I own with me everywhere I go.

The final narrow trek was through a passage waist-high in water. This passage opened up into a large cavern with a deep pool off to one side. A gentle arch served as the entrance to the natural pool bounded by stalactites and stalagmites. The water looked deep, calm and inviting. The two Frenchmen elected to go for a swim. The rest of us preceded to take pictures. One of the guides accidentally hit his lantern on the rocks coming out of the pool cavern and damaged it's mantel. They spent ten minutes attempting to put on a new mantel but failed. This left us with only one lantern for the ascent. We took a slightly different path on the way out. Climbing up the slippery rocks was easier than climbing down them. Again, the guides strung ropes to assist us in the climb.

Once outside the cave we said goodbye to our guides, tipped them, and asked our driver to take us somewhere to eat. He took us to the Rocky Valley Inn in Sagada. We ordered our food and ventured to another set of caves near the restaurant while our order was being prepared. This cave was very narrow and confining. Coffins were strewn way back up into the cave and poked randomly into every little crevice. I was glad to have a flashlight with me because it was essential since we no longer had the aid of our guide's lantern.

I found it sad and strange to see that little care was taken protect the caves. The guides allowed people to smoke and throw the cigarette butts in the caves. We were also free to climb on any of the stalactite formations we wished. I won't even go into the subject of the guide relieving himself twice inside the cave. One of the other caves in the area Crystal has already been closed to visitors due to the environmental damage inflicted upon it. How much longer will Sumaging last if this abuse continues?

I was equally saddened to see little care taken to protect the coffins in the caves. Anyone was apparently allowed access to the caves with little or no supervision. The coffins were in much disarray. We found bones and bits of ancient clothing scattered on the cave floor were grave robbers had haphazardly thrown them. These caves attract vacationing tourists and their money to this otherwise common little town. It is a shame to see this valuable resource treated as expendable.

The trip back to Banawe started at 5:30pm and sunset occurred about 6:00pm. Most of the trip was made in darkness and the road seemed even rougher at night. The high mountain pass we went through was cold, especially when riding in an open-backed jeepney at night. Without a jacket, after having been soaking wet in a cave just two hours earlier, it was very, very, very cold! Kurt was the wettest of all of us and quickly disappeared up front with the driver and Lani. The Frenchmen were better prepared than I and pulled jackets with hoods out of their backpack and bundled up. Two hours into the trip Lani heard my teeth chattering all the way from the drivers compartment and handed me her long sleeved shirt and bandanna. The shirt was five sizes to small, but I wrapped myself up in it the best I could, wore the bandanna to help eliminate the dust, and sat back and endured the remainder of the ride.

One very interesting item - incredibly sad and unnerving! - about traveling through this mountainous region at night is the abundance of red, fiery glows. They were beautiful streaks of red that pierced the darkness of the mountain and the sky. I thought they were from the inhabitants' wooden stoves until Lani told me what was happening. I had just witnessed several incidents of illegal deforestration!!! Apparently, this 'kaingin system' as it is known has been used for hundreds of years for quick monetary gain. The practice was outlawed by the government many decades ago. Deep in the mountain region, nobody seemed able to do anything... it would have been better if my theory was right.

Even at night we proceeded to pick up passengers. During a water stop, a passing jeepney deposited its single passenger with us and headed back towards Bontok. Another mile or two down the road we came across two native women walking with loads on their heads. We picked them up! All the passengers were deposited several more miles down the road. We arrived back in Banawe at around 9:00pm - cold, dusty, exhausted, and ready for bed.

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