In all of my infinite wisdom I booked us a super early flight from Singapore to Manila, the method in the madness being that we’d get to spend a whole day in Singapore then head to the airport and not have to fork out for a night’s accommodation but it turned out there is more madness than method in this theory. Not quite enough madness to have me committed which is a shame really because at least I’d have gotten some sleep in a padded cell, just the quantity of madness which comes with a spot of casual sleep deprivation. So here’s how to get from Manila airport to Sagada without having a complete nervous breakdown.
1. You’ll need to get to Taft Avenue MRT and metered taxi is probably the easiest way to do this if you’re into a spot of pre-caffeine arguing. We loaded our bags, jumped in and straight away he switched the meter off.
“So MRT is ₱250 only,” he told us. Ha, fuck off, mate. We insisted on the meter and to his credit he didn’t argue, though he did try to take us the long way around until I pointed out that I had GPS and knew exactly what he was doing. Do not try and dick with me when I’ve only had three hours sleep, it takes at least seven hours of quality shut-eye before my British politeness kicks in. Turned out it was only ₱100 from the airport to Taft Avenue MRT.
2. Show the MRT staff where you want to go on your phone because apparently “Araneta Center” is impossible to say when you’re so shattered you barely know your own name, we parted with ₱24 each and boarded the train, and eventually the other passengers let us know when we’d arrived because we were doing that noddy drooly sleep thing you do in public transport when you’re so fucking tired that you need your eyelids stapling to your forehead.
3. We located the Codalines office which opened at 9am. They run two night buses to Sagada; the 9pm bus is big and shiny and has a toilet and, at ₱980, is slightly more expensive. The 8pm bus would do just fine though, it still has AC and stops enough for piss breaks so unless you have the bladder of a small child then for ₱720 it’ll suffice. The problem now being that we had eleven looooong hours ahead of us.
4. Go find a convenience store to hang out in. I’m not shitting you, this is a thing. We found a Mini-Stop with chairs and tables and noticed that people were just chilling. We spent several hours in the air conditioned comfort, periodically buying stuff to warrant us never actually leaving. They seemed cool with it. I think Filipinos are a super polite bunch of humans though, they probably wouldn’t have told us to piss off even if they wanted us to.
5. There’s only so much convenience store food you can eat before your digestive system starts to seize up and you worry that it’s just going to sit and congeal in your stomach forever and you’ll never shit again. We needed a proper feed before getting on this bus, the problem being that Quezon City is a big, noisy, dirty, hectic place, especially when you’ve just come from the relative clean calm of Singapore and sleep is something that only happens to other people right now. We strode past the street food because I’m not putting intestines in my mouth, I don’t care how nicely arranged on a stick they are, and went straight to Jollibees, a Filipino chain restaurant similar to KFC. I regret nothing.
6. Board your bus whilst jealously eyeing up the posher, later bus you turned down, recline your seat and get some whatever passes for sleep on a long distance bus.
Sagada though, it’s instantly likeable. It looked like only Salt & Pepper was open at 7am so that’s where we went and I made up for the previous day’s chain store indulgence by ordering tocsilog, which is rice and egg and some manner of sweet bacon type stuff. I think silog is a combination of two words meaning fried egg and rice and it’s usually breakfast food. The “toc” bit refers to the bacon stuff, tocino, but you can put anything with it, like longsilog which, according to Google, is longganisa (a type of sausage), rice and egg. I looked forward to working my way through all of the silogs.
I also ordered something called mountain tea which, it turned out, is an odd, bitter drink made from locally grown green leaves but from what tree I’ve no bastard clue. It tastes exactly like you’d expect leaves to taste too until you add honey to it and it becomes the nectar of the gods. Literally no one knows what it is. You can buy bags of it in shops and even they don’t know. The usual answer is, “It is a tree that grows here. Up in the mountains. We just call it mountain tea.” Good. Well I’ll be applying that to my facehole regularly for the next few days.
The accommodation around here all seems to be a similar price so we made that decision based on whichever one let us check in immediately and faceplant a pillow. My feet had swollen like balloons an’ all, but creepy disgusting balloons that you could scare small children with. I’m not even shitting you, they were a parody of feet. We caught a bit of kip and waited for our feet to resemble something more fitting of feet so it probably around middayish when we finally rocked up to Tourist Information to part with our ₱35 each environmental fee. They’ll give you a sheet of paper listing all the shit you can do along with the fixed prices, and they’ll keep giving it to you every time you get caught in the rain thus soaking yourself and the entire contents of your pockets. There’s a metric fuck tonne of ways to part with your money and all of requires a guide. It’s compulsory but to fair the prices are very fair, especially if there’s more than one of you, prices are per guide, not per human. If you’re billy no mates though then it’s all a bit shit.
We were here for the hanging coffins because I have a somewhat morbid fascination with death and funeral rites. I’d heard about these coffins many years ago and when we made the decision to visit the Philippines we decided to bolt straight up here. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that Sagada might be utterly badass with lots of ways to upset your entire lower body. You can just go straight to the coffins and back or you can hike there then through a cave with an underground stream to a small waterfall. We opted for that because why not when sleep was starting to feel like a myth and it was hit and miss as to whether your basic motor functions were going to behave? We’d be crossing streams and walking through aforementioned underground river so we were directed to the market where we could pick up some rubber shoes because I didn’t want to get my own footwear wet. Nothing more miserable than wet shoes.
So we met our human and off we shuffled to the church of St Mary the Virgin. He didn’t seem keen on stopping and there’s not much to do but snap a couple of photos and try not to incur the wrath of the lord so we carried on. If you were thinking of going it alone without a guide here’s where your cunning plan would be thwarted. You have to pass a check point where you register, show your environmental fee receipt and part with a small entrance fee and they won’t let you past unless you have a guide in tow. Or he has you in tow. Whatever. He led us through the Anglican cemetery, past some impressive limestone formations and to the famous hanging coffins of Sagada.
They’re really small! Our guide told us that the dead are buried in the foetal position because that’s how you are in the womb. It’s all very symbolic. Apparently being interred the same way were born helps you return to the spirits or some shit. They’re hung on the cliffs so the dead are closer to the spirits, but also because it reduces the chance of desecration, and during the pre-burial ritual the deceased is tied to a chair fixed to cliff face. I asked him why and he just shrugged and said, “It makes them easier to fold.” Hmm. I have trust issues with guides since one told me that earthquakes were caused by waves. I’m not going to tout this snippet of information as fact but if folks are willing to climb up cliffs to shove dead people into tiny coffins so their grave is harder to rob then I won’t underestimate their flair for the practical.
We were led onwards through some gorgeous scenery which involved a lot of steps, steep hills and narrow footpaths that bordered steep slopes. He quickly identified me as a bit shit and broke off a branch for me to use as a walking pole as I reminisced about my comfort zone and wondered if I’d ever see it again. Eventually we stopped and changed into our sexy rubber shoes ready to cross some streams. We’d come out in our hiking shoes because we weren’t sure how grippy our new fashion statements would be, we tied our shoes around our necks with the laces and carried on towards the underground steam, clambering over rocks and sliding down slopes. Juuuust as we got to the cave it started to rain. Not a lot, just a bit. By the time we’d waded through the calf deep water to the other end of the cave it was fucking torrential. Basically we’d done exactly what we did in Dieng whereby we went to a small mountain town and attempted activities in the afternoon. There was no way we could have done anything in the morning though, if we were any more knackered we’d have been legally brain dead.
It’s was the kind of tropical rain that turns steps into waterfalls and footpaths into rivers. If I thought it was scary before it was terrifying now the ground was made of slush and misery. My shoes, still slung around my neck, quickly filled with water and not just a little bit, they were fucking flooded. You could breed frogs in them. I’m not even shitting you. We trudged along because trudging is the only forward movement possible when you’re this drenched and your waterproofs are nothing of the sort until we came to the little waterfall. Our guide looked at us.
“So. You want to swim?” he asked. Now usually I’d jump at the chance of a dip in a waterfall but there was enough damn water falling from the sky and I’d not had enough sleep to have a sense of humour about it. Tarrant wasn’t keen on the idea either. We politely declined and he led us back to the town where we shuffled back to our guesthouse and spent the evening laying our sodden possessions out over every available even remotely dry surface.
Fortunately, the Philippines does beer gooood. It’s San Miguel, Jim, but not as we know it. Actually it’s probably exactly the same as the stuff we get in Europe. It’s cold and fizzy and makes everything okay when you’ve been caught in the kind of rain even ducks would look at whilst clutching a cup of tea and telling the mrs it was good weather for terrapins.
Sagada, Mountain Province, Luzon, Philippines
Stayed at: Residential Lodge