Slipping and tripping down a steep hill, Martin asked “are you sure you want to go down here? It’s going to be hell to get back up”. Yes it would be, but I wanted to see the coffin caves. Ever since I’d read about the coffins in the outdated, battered version of the Lonely Planet that we were carrying with us, I knew I had to visit Sagada.
Reaching the cave at the bottom, we saw them; hundreds of wooden coffins stacked up. It’s a traditional practice reserved for only those who have been married and have grandchildren. We found out that often the occupiers of the coffins would have carved them themselves before their deaths. It was an eery, fascinating snapshot of traditional Filipino practices and made me feel a world away from the big city of Manila we’d been in just days ago.
Walking back into the town, we kept an eye out for the other coffins – the hanging coffins. We found them after scanning the cliff sides for a while. They were hanging in groups of two or three – the dead are hung near their relatives. A few reasons have been offered as to why Sagadians hang their coffins instead of burying them; to keep decomposing corpses away from wildlife is one, to lay their relatives to rest closer to heaven is another. Whatever the reason, seeing them hanging there gives you a rather mystical feeling.
In fact, Sagada as a whole was quite mystical from our arrival in the mist to underground caves (a guided tour is recommended but we just had a quick peek at the opening of one) and the rice terraces surrounded by lush green mountains.
The province continually surprised us; who expects to see pine trees in the Philippines?
As Sagada had been marketed as a ‘mountainous hippy town’, I was expecting it to be something like Pai in North Thailand but in actual fact it was a quiet, cultural, spiritual place that delighted us. Perhaps it was because we were there in off season and missed the other tourists and party-goers, I don’t know, but I was grateful for the lack of westerners. Like so many of the places we visited in the Philippines it was non-commercial and unspoiled.
On our final night we heard drums banging and people shouting. Hypnotized, I followed the sounds down the road and up some steps carved out of the rock. As I got to the top of the stairs there was an area bathed in light with teenagers in tribal dress dancing around a bonfire. It was a traditional performance for parents by children from a local school. A genuine celebration of Igorot culture, the boys wore just white cloths and the girls beautiful woven skirts. They moved to the beat of the drum and I sat there with a massive grin on my face. Unfortunately in my rush to follow the music I’d forgotten my camera, but sometimes it’s best that way.