Batad Rice Terraces, Banaue, The Philippines
It’s probably not the best day to be at the Batad Rice Terraces. It’s December and this is the wet season here in the Philippines. Some days can be nice but there’s a typhoon in the country right now so much of the island of Luzon is rainy – including the mountain region where I am.
On top of that, the end of the rice season has just passed so the terraces, rather than being filled with green shoots, are a brown muddy colour and mostly empty of any crops.
Still, I’m not complaining. This is a spectacular place at any time of the year and I soak up the views… as well as a fair amount of water.
The rice terraces here at Batad were originally built 2000 years ago and have stone walls, unlike others in the region that have mud walls. For centuries, farmers have worked these fields, using pretty much the same methods now as they did when they were first constructed. It’s quite incredible to see the continuity in the farming practices over such a long period. And it’s amazing to think that something their ancestors built so long ago is still paying dividends now. An impressive inheritance for scores of generations.
There is a village at Batad that has a few accommodation options but most people stay in the nearby town of Banaue and travel to Batad for the day. I look at a map and decide that I can walk there and back. Perhaps foolishly. Pretty much everyone else uses one of the many tricycle drivers in Banaue to get them there. The drivers have a bit of a cartel going on, though, and charge much more than they should – about 1000 pesos (US$20) for the round trip. It’s not a huge amount in the grand scheme of things and isn’t what compels me to walk – just a contributing factor. I’m actually more interested in seeing the scenery along the way and getting some exercise.
It ends up being about two and a half hours each way by foot. Going there is fine because all the views are new and the weather is cool but not wet. It’s only the return journey, when there’s consistent rain, that I think about whether I should have gone with a tricycle. A few jeepneys – the local transportation – do stop and the drivers ask if I want a lift but I keep walking because now it’s become a mission I want to accomplish.
But, anyway, enough about the walking. Back to Batad. At the end of the road, there’s a narrow mud track that everyone needs to walk down, regardless of how they got there. This brings you to the village. There are quite a few signs that this is now a tourist spot – the shops selling Coke; the mandatory ‘heritage fee’ to get in; the restaurants with Western menus. But there is still plenty of rural life going on – children running amongst chickens; dogs running amongst everything; washing hanging in windows; locals bent over with sacks of rice on their back.
You get a great view from the village of the rice terraces. What makes these ones at Batad so spectacular is the way they are laid out. A natural amphitheatre in the hills has been used as the base for their construction so they curve in long layers all around the valley. I don’t have a chance to count them but there must be hundreds of levels from the top all the way down to the bottom. You can’t look at them all at once without turning your head in every direction.
From the village, there’s a path down to the terraces that you can take, sometimes through the yards of houses, until you reach one of the levels. From here you can walk all the way across to the other side, occasionally climbing up or down a layer or two to a better path. Even then, there are some parts that are quite narrow and, with the rain, slippery. A couple of times I lose my balance but thankfully don’t slip into the mud, unlike the poor woman in front of me.
The view from a distance is great but there’s something special about seeing the terraces close up. You can see how well the stone walls were constructed, understand how it all fits together, and see some people working. Although, as I said, the season is over, some young rice has been planted in a few of the terraces – they’ll be used to spread the crop to others.
From the town of Banaue, there are options to do treks for two or three days that take you through some different rice fields in the region and then end up at Batad. Part of me wishes I had been a bit more organised and left enough time to do one of them. It’s enjoyable being amongst it, seeing things close up, navigating through the agricultural amphitheatre.
Banaue is not the easiest place to get to. From the capital, Manila, there are direct buses but they only go overnight and take about 10 hours. Coming from any other direction, though (as I did), you need to take multiple forms of transport, often transferring to another jeepney or van taxi in a small random town, and having to wait an hour or two until it’s full enough to leave. The good news, though, is that the mountain towns here (Banaue, Batad, Sagada, even Bontoc) are all quite pleasant places where you can spend a few days amongst nature at very low prices (the guesthouse I stay at costs 250 pesos (US$5) a night). So the journey is not simply to see one site and then leave again.
I do hope you get a chance to see the Batad Rice Terraces for yourself one day. Visually, they are stunning and you can look at them from different angles for hours. But it’s also impressive to think about their history and the amount of food they have provided the people here, all from a system developed 2000 years ago.
I just hope you get better weather and get to see the terraces in full green. That would be the cherry on the rice cake.
For accommodation, I suggest the Batad Transient House.