Banaue Rice Terraces, Philippines…It may smack of immodesty to say that your town is the site of the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, but for the residents of Banaue the rice terraces that rise imperiously like giant staircases up the mountainsides that surround them are a source of justified pride. I would say that they are the very best illustration of how the human hand can work with, rather than against nature, to produce something utterly beautiful.
Banaue might have been my destination, but the mountain roads that lead in to town provided a beguiling appetizer. The twisty, picturesque roads of North Luzon make for a pleasant change from the traffic-clogged highways of the capital Manila. Here, soaring mountains layered with dense foliage had their craggy peaks smudged out by morning mist. Not that we were in total rural isolation – the landscape was foregrounded by village dwellings, often fronted by a local resident or two sat out front to watch the mountain traffic go by.
Of course, impressive as all that is, Banaue itself is the true jewel in the crown. Dating back some 2000 years, the rice terraces here provide a 360-degree panorama that will make you jaw drop from whichever angle you view them. Considering how old they are, it is quite something that they ingratiate themselves into the steep gradients of the mountains as seamlessly as they do.
The very best views of the terraces come from the viewpoints to the North of the town. There are four in all, with the third view perhaps providing the best overall panorama, and the last giving you the best closeup shot of the pyramid-like structure of the terrace shelves themselves. Older folk in the traditional dress line the terraces for photo opportunities – I took my one! – and the changeable weather meant that I got to experience both the sunny and rainy sides of the terrace views!
Gazing at, wandering through and immersing yourself in the rice terraces is a great experience all by itself. However, if, like me, you appreciate a bit of context to the magnificent vista before you then I heartily recommend a visit to the Museum of Cordillera sculpture as well. For here is the place to get the full story of the Ifuago, the people responsible for the terraces.
Predominantly, the museum is given over to Ifuago woodcarvings, ranging from scarecrows and ritual items to everyday kitchen utensils and children’s toys. But the grisly implements of headhunting – complete with skulls attached to ‘trophy’ poles – provide the most morbid fascination. There are some other curios too, such as a disused Japanese rifle from the World War II occupation, a Barbie Doll among the children’s carvings and a green-faced Santa Claus replica!
For me, though, the best bit has to be the National Geographic folder with the complete, original 1912 article on the Headhunters by one Dean C. Worcester. It’s a fascinating, first-hand account of the twilight years of headhunting (although apparently, the last known incident was in 1988), and written as it is from the imperialist American point of view, certainly has the feel of the civilized person looking down on the ‘savages’. Despite this, it’s a useful and insightful account, and the near-universal hostile expressions on the faces of the photographed subjects are a sight to behold!
Of course, these wonderful terraces were built in a different time, and being over 2000 years old means they need constant maintenance. But a combination of erosion and fewer local inhabitants now relying on the terraces to earn a living has put their future in jeopardy. Will they survive the relentless charge of ‘progress’? I for one certainly hope so: if they vanish from the Philippines’ emerald slopes, the world will be more culturally impoverished as a result.