Sagada, Philippines…Chilled out Sagada in the North Luzon region of the Philippines has a reputation for being a hip backpackers’ hangout, with the abundance of foreign-friendly shops, guest houses and eating joints certainly bearing testament to this fact. For me, its easy-going atmosphere was something that was easy to fall in love with, despite the proliferation of outlets pandering to tourism.
Sagada’s location isn’t quite as dramatic as the rice terrace clad Banaue a little further south, but it remains strikingly scenic nonetheless, with the aptly named Echo Valley – where fingers of riven rock slash through the lush green hillocks at periodic intervals – providing the most impressive scenery of all. It’s here that you can find the hanging coffins, an iconic symbol of the town’s identity in more ways than one.
These days you’re required to have a guide to take you to Sagada’s main attractions, the coffins being no exception. My guide, Ellis, did an excellent job of giving me some historical context en route. The newer ones in Echo Valley (the older ones at Sugong are a lot more inaccessible) date back across 50 years or so, whilst the older ones go as far back as 500 years.
The coffins are a sacred resting place, and one is only eligible for burial here (most opt for the cemetery in the nearby church) if you are an upstanding citizen of the community who is deemed to have contributed to its overall development. In the new section there are 19 coffins in all, with the most recent dating from 2006, and ‘more will be added’, according to Ellis.
Both the bigger and smaller ones are a sight to behold – the bodies in the latter are buried in the foetal position, the idea being you are carried in the womb that way, and should go out as such – and impressive indeed for their ingenuity in being secured so high up the side of the overhanging cliff. Sure it may be a step down in terms of splendour compared to bombastic mausoleums such as the Pyramids, but giddily perched as they are from the craggy cliff face, they do exude a different sort of grandeur all of their own.
As I stood and marvelled at the coffins, Ellis content to drag on a cigarette as he sat on a nearby rock, the still and eerie silence of the valley was punctured by the noise of people shouting from above us. Ellis visibly winced. ‘That is why they call this place Echo Valley,’ he explained. ‘But for me, they shouldn’t do this, because this is a sacred place, and they should respect that.’
Not that I was contemplating shouting into the valley, but I could see where he was coming from. He went on to recount a few stories of people falling to their deaths in the days before compulsory guides and railings alongside the walkways: the tale of the European tourist who walked back over the precipice while trying to capture a photograph brought a wry grin to my face. Sure you might have died in the sacred valley, but as an outsider, a burial in a hanging coffin isn’t an option.
I was surprised to hear from Ellis that many visitors tend to seek out the high octane caving activities in Sagada rather than the Hanging Coffins. I can confirm that the caves – Sumaging, in particular, has interesting rock formations – are worth seeing, but there are caves in just about every country, whereas the Hanging Coffins are the sort of unique and special attraction that linger long in the memory after you have witnessed them.