Wednesday, 30 November 2011

9. Wonder: The Banaue Rice Terraces

For the Banaue Rice Terraces preview, please click here.

Some of the Wonders on my list have been assembled with cutting edge technology and large-scale mobilisation of a workforce. Others have taken a visionary genius able to marry the best of art and engineering. And others have been driven by obsession, whether to appease the gods, protect the realm, honour the dead, or simply to glorify themselves. The Banaue Rice Terraces are none of these. As the name suggests, the Rice Terraces were built for one thing: rice. And when on a mountain, without the luxury of large flat plains to build rice paddies, you need to get the shovels out, get dirty, and build some terraces if you want to have some rice to go with your Chicken Tikka Masala or Dim Sum dishes. [note: these meals may not form part of the traditional cuisine of the traditional farming community of Banaue.]

Where to start with the Banaue Rice Terraces? Indeed, as they curve around the landscape like wonky steps cut into the mountains, there seems to be no beginning or end. It’s widely claimed they are 2000-years-old, but this seems to be based upon a lot of supposition; really, they are timeless, as they have existed in the same form for all that time, but being a living, growing entity are always changing.  They are the centrepiece in the province of Ifugao in the north of Luzon, the Philippines’ largest island, which is a province full of rice terraces, as much natural as they are man-made. And man-made they certainly are;  upon alighting from the overnight bus from Manila, they create an immediate and unusual geometric irregularity in an otherwise pretty-but-standard hill vista. This was not a series of hills we were looking at, as we arrived on the morning of my birthday, it was a vast display of agricultural sculpture.

Our hotel was the very conveniently located (directly uphill from the small bus station) Banaue View Inn. As the name suggests, it offers a pretty good view of Banaue, both of the town and the terraces. Banaue the town, with a population of a few thousand, is not much to look at. Burness simply thought it messy and unattractive; I personally thought it had a ramshackle charm, albeit one the corrugated iron roofs didn’t do much to assist. UNESCO side with Burness on this one though; within the province of Ifugao, there are numerous rice terraces listed as World Heritage sites. Banaue itself is not one: the “modern” concrete and corrugated iron buildings that cling to the slopes are regarded as spoiling the view. Nonetheless, the Banaue Rice Terraces can still lay claim to being the biggest, and are popularly acclaimed in the Philippines as being the Eighth Wonder of the World, and if they were laid end to end would go halfway round the Earth.

Biggest maybe, but not the best. As a few days in the area was to easily highlight.

I don’t wish to denigrate the Banaue Rice Terraces, for standing on the balcony at the Banaue View Inn, the spread-out hill scenery west of the town was pretty spectacular. The main town of Banaue is situated in a narrow groove in the land, with steep slopes all around. Across these steep slopes are the rice terraces, looking weirdly like physical contours, as though an Ordnance Survey map was being taken literally. They are attractive, but for much of the area around the town are patchier than I expected. Photos had led me to imagine uninterrupted terraces as far as the eye can see, but this may have been an unreasonable expectation. But the view to the west was more in alignment with this image. And walking within the terraces, as we did later that day, gave us another new perspective on the sight. The rice terraces are more than just a view, of course, they are multiple plots of farmland, and there is absolute freedom to wander within them. The walls that frame the pools of water that the rice grows in can be used to carefully walk along, and the views of the terraces change as you do so, whether looking up, down or across at them.

Still, as pretty as the Banaue terraces are, it doesn’t take much to find some that are prettier. We arranged with tourist information for a guide the following day, to take us on a three-day trek around the area. It was the best thing we could have done.

Perhaps we were a little lucky. Getting a guide is a bit like meeting a blind date for a meal, and having a guide for three days is like taking that blind date for a short holiday with only a double bed available. But we got lucky and it turned out to be holiday romance all the way. Our guide was a young, diminutive, mild fellow called Johnson, born and bred in Banaue. He’d briefly studied computers in the nearby university city of Baguio but had decided he didn’t like computers very much, and preferred being in the mountains, among the terraces, doing manual labour. He had even helped build rice terraces as a youth, when his family had spent three years building fifteen new ones into the hillside. He was very pleasant company with a genuine passion for the environment around him, and his face lit up whenever I questioned him about the rice terraces. He was the perfect guide for the occasion.

Our three day trek took in three different towns, called Pula, Cambulo, and Batad, each with their own set of rice terraces. The first day took us through Pula, where we ate lunch watched by a few fascinated young children (Pula only sees a couple of hundred tourists a year) and finished in Cambulo. Cambulo is a small, remote town – though village would more accurately describe it  – with every sense of being cut off from the world. There are no roads going into the town – a four hour walk along tiny, treacherous paths the only means in and out. Electricity is not in abundance: some solar panels exist to give some, but on cloudy days such as ours, this is merely enough to light a few bulbs for a few hours in the evening.

Our accommodation that night was a small guesthouse, with basic but comfortable enough rooms. By 6pm it was dark, and a single bulb hanging in the communal porch was just enough to light the only entertainment myself and Burness could find: Scrabble. But as we argued over various words – “meds” and “fa” I now concede are real words, but Burness too now understands that “X-ray” has a hyphen, and “ka” is a legitimate word of ancient Egyptian origin – children started pouring into the porch. I assumed that was just the natural order of things, that the town’s solitary light bulb had the local youth swarming like moths, but the hostel lady then informed us, as though we’d known it all along, that the “program” was to begin. The evening’s entertainment was now on – children singing for us.

There then followed a very surreal, amateur, and appealing hour of songs ranging from local music to modern love ballads to “The Wheels On The Bus Go Round And Round”, all sung by children under 11-years-old, with varying degrees of enthusiasm but unvarying levels of childlike tunelessness. It was awful and wonderful. Near the end, a child started playing drums – rather well, I should say – in a tribal manner, and six children in traditional dress emerged to show us the dances of yesteryear. Burness thought this part quite tacky, but I found it quite interesting. Not in the dance, per se, as I’d barely be able to distinguish it from the Macarena, but in the reasons behind it. Once this would have been an important piece of their culture, likely performed at various key parts of the year or someone’s life, and a unique piece of the Ifugao identity. Now, and like so many local customs around the world have become over the last few generations, it has become a novelty for tourists, in this case performed by children. Perhaps the Ifugao people do still perform these ceremonies, but I doubt it, or I doubt it will continue for long. As even Johnson later admitted, the local culture is changing now, a lot and quickly. And with the rice terraces and their history tied-in with the local culture, any change must put them at risk.

What won’t be at risk is Scottish musical culture overwhelming the northern Philippines. After the children’s epic performance, they all – over twenty of them – began a loud and rehearsed chant – “SING FOR US! SING FOR US!” Oh dear. Including myself and Burness, there were only five tourists present, so there was no escape. Two French girls began with something passable, before one of them followed it up with “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” which went down an absolute storm. How to follow that, Burness groaned  – but we tried. The only song we could think of was our national anthem, “Flower Of Scotland”. We belted it out as tunefully as we could. The children looked stunned. We didn’t do an encore.

That day had been a seven hour plus day of trekking, but the following was a mere couple of hours, to the small town of Batad, together with its rice terraces. The Lonely Planet described these as the world's most striking and certainly, upon reaching the top of a hill and suddenly seeing them, was a pretty big “wow” moment. This is what we saw.

Wow indeed.

We stayed for the rest of the day in a charming little guesthouse, not unlike the Cambulo one but with an amazing panorama across the awfully appealing Batad Rice Terraces. Really, all of the places we’ve stayed in, this £3 a night shabby little guesthouse had one of the most spectacular views we’ve enjoyed so far in these travels. Batad’s rice terraces may not be as big as Banaue’s, but they are still large. They dominate one hillside especially, looking like large watery stairs climbing from the bottom, where the bulk of the village is, to near the top. They curve around as though an amphitheatre, each terrace being a row of seating, and the village the performance. It is a compact, single view, unlike Banaue, and due to much of Batad doing two rice plantings a year (Banaue, due to the higher altitude and weather conditions, can only do one) had many of the terraces bright green with fresh rice. It was very pretty, and Burness and I had no difficulty in agreeing that it was better than Banaue. Less interrupted, less patchy, more unified, more appealing to the eye. Both share the same history and backstory. Banaue might be bigger and more famous, but Batad was better.

But not as good as the Cambulo Rice Terraces.

What I didn’t anticipate before these travels was becoming a connoisseur of rice terraces. There’s still some way to go before I reach that level, and I now wish I’d visited the terraces at Sapa in north Vietnam when the option was available, but I don’t think anyone could strongly disagree with me that Batad and Cambulo are nicer than Banaue. The difference between Batad and Cambulo is tighter, as Batad has a single hillside focus that is as appealing as it is dramatic and steep. However, to my eyes, the Cambulo terraces had it all. It seemed bigger than the Banaue ones for a start, or certainly the terraces immediately surrounding the town of Banaue (many terraces further afield are attributed to Banaue, thus making it the official largest). But it was far less patchy, with large areas of rice terraces running up and down hillsides into a valley, along which a river ran. The small town of Cambulo wasn’t sprawling or messy like Banaue, and became a scenic addition. The same could also be said for Batad. I suppose that Cambulo had the size of Banaue but the focus of Batad. But both were terrific, both were beautiful, and both were absolutely worth the days of effort to visit.

Why, we asked Johnson, was Banaue the most celebrated? Although a Banaue boy himself, Johnson’s analysis was very straightforward and unbiased. It was the first terrace to be discovered by tourism, and was by far the most accessible. Many people arrive there in the morning on the overnight bus to Manila and take the overnight bus back that evening. Banaue’s terraces were the first to open to tourism back in the 1960s, and word of mouth had spread since then. Cambulo, barely with electricity and without a road leading to it, never had a look in. Batad at least has had electricity for six years now, and in summer is within an hour trekking of a driveable track; hence it sees a great deal more tourism than obscure Cambulo. Perhaps, and this is my analysis now, if the world paid as much attention to rice terraces as they do ancient temples then Cambulo would have a growing recognition as the real gem, but for now most people are happy just seeing one sprawling set of terraces and Banaue’s are by far the most convenient.

Johnson was a mine of quiet opinion and calm analysis, but unlike me was not into playing favourites, though he conceded that Banaue maybe enjoyed the lion’s share of the hype. But he had a much deeper mine of information when it came to the building and maintenance of the rice terraces themselves, whichever town they surrounded. Over the course of the three days, he built up a picture of how they came to be.

Rice terraces really are a masterpiece of engineering ingenuity at its simplest. For rice to grow, water is needed, and a continuous supply of it. Plant rice in a still pool of water and it will rot. Slowly running water is needed: irrigation. For the terraces in a mountain, a river is needed. If the terrace can be built just next to a river, then ideal. But often, Johnson said, the river would often be a long way away, and so elaborate canals would have to be dug to divert the river or stream the way of the terrace.

The easiest way though was just to build the new terrace underneath an existing one. Hence why, although the terraces would all belong to different people and family, they were all clumped together. Look closely at the walls of the terraces, and small waterfalls can be seen at the sides. Usually, these are at opposing sides from the terrace below or above, to encourage the flow of water. Put a bottletop in the top terrace, and eventually it should bob along and down into the bottom one. One stream flowing into one terrace could feed another ten or twenty terraces below, and the more terraces, the more people responsible for the maintenance of the waterway. After the bottom-most terrace, the water simply drains into a valley river.

For two thousand years, these principles have remained the same, and the materials required to build and maintain them have remained likewise. Although there are a few concrete-ringed terraces these days, and a number of concrete steps and paths in the area, Johnson affirmed that the sturdiest terraces were still built from mud. Banaue Rice Terraces are the prime example of this. Other terraces – Cambulo and Batat included – make use of rocks too for the terrace walls, but these are still less stable than the pure mud ones, which are rammed hard together and have less chance of leaking or breaking when built well.

And how do you begin to even build a terrace. It’s pretty simple – get a spade and start digging. Dig a section out of the hillside and use the material, whether stone or mud, to build a wall round the newly-formed terrace. As I mentioned, Johnson knew this from first-hand experience, when his family had built fifteen of the things. It’s best to work in the rain, he said, as it was easier to pack the mud and dispose of the rest of the material down the hillside. It was, as you might imagine, very hard work. But worth it, as Banaue now sports fifteen new terraces courtesy of Johnson and his family.

And that’s the thing – the rice terraces are old and new. Some may still be in place from 2000 years ago – it’s very possible as it’s far easier to rebuild an old terrace than it is to build an entirely new one. Banaue Rice Terraces and all its neighbours are ancient in their origins but continue to change. They are man-made but natural, and growing and evolving all the time. And sadly, declining. Official studies in 2000 claimed that 30% of the terraces had been abandoned, although it seems like UNESCO and the Filipino government may have arrested this decline, but Johnson also talked of seeing an old black-and-white photo of Banaue from around a hundred years ago – before any official figures were being noted – and observed that the terraces were far more spread out, impressive and well-maintained than they are today. Back then they were necessary for survival, these days the terraces don’t even provide enough rice for the community – rice from elsewhere needs to be imported. For most farmers, it’s part-time work.

My candidate Wonder of choice was of course the Banaue Rice Terraces, and it is these terraces I will be rating. However, in the same breath I might as well rate Cambulo or Batad – take your pick, all share a common origin and purpose, the only difference is size and location. Banaue has the fame, Cambulo and Batad have the unspoilt, visual appeal and greater drama. The trek through all three was unlike any other trek I’ve done before, as I balanced along narrow terrace walls, and clambered the steep steps up and down between the terraces. The landscape formed by these step-like terraces, cut like multiple custom-built paddling pools into the mountain, is like God got fed up with his usual mountain design so tried doodling some weird shapes into the sides. The beauty created by the stacks of rice terraces, side-by-side and top-to-bottom – especially in Cambulo or Batad – is one of the happy accidents that occur when man messes with nature, and nature agrees.

Critera then.

Size: As big as a mountain. Or mountains. However, it should be mentioned that although at around 1500 metres, the altitude of Banaue the town is over 1000 metres, so from the spectator’s view, these are hills not soaring mountains. Nonetheless, they are over a large area.
Engineering: Find a mountain and a water supply not too far off, and grab yourself a spade. With a big of effort and knowhow, and some rice, you’ve got the raw materials for a rice terrace. It’s the same now as it was 2000 years ago.
Artistry:  It’s an accident, but it turns out that carving lots of flat spaces into the mountain and filling them with water and rice looks great. This is probably the most accidental of all the Wonders I’ll visit, in terms of aesthetics at least. The cohesiveness of Cambulo and Batad are more visually striking than Banaue.
Age/Durability: 2000 years old, it is thought. But for most of these years, not much changed and the focus in life was growing rice and survival. The modern world is changing things, and it remains to be seen if concerted efforts by UNESCO and the Filipino government are enough to keep the locals enthused about what is basically subsistence farming. If Banaue and the surrounding towns can have more people like Johnson, then their future is secured. But it just takes one or two careless generations to lead the terraces to ruin.
Fame/Iconicity: Maybe in rice terrace circles, Banaue is the big boy, but despite the Philippines claiming it as the Eighth Wonder of the World (join the gang), the Banaue Rice Terraces is not a globally recognised “structure”. Batad and especially Cambulo are even more obscure.
Context: Terraces carved into a mountain landscape. Even though Banaue town isn’t so scenic, the terraces form part of a great natural landscape. Cambulo and Batad moreso.
Back Story: 2000 years of continuous existence, utilising ancient and basic technologies and the foundation of a distinct culture and identity of the Ifugao people: there’s loads of history, though sadly the lack of a written history means most of it is long forgotten.
Originality: Agricultural terraces have been around for thousands of years, the Banaue Rice Terraces simply found a whole bunch of mountains to apply the concept to. There are a lot of similar, if smaller and less attractive, terraces around Asia, and the world.

Comparing a natural Wonder to a man-made Wonder, I have said in the past, is more or less impossible. They are too different. The Banaue Rice Terraces may be man-made but they are about as natural as a man-made Wonder can get. Like planting a bunch of flowers very precisely in a garden, there is a big blurring between the natural and the artificial appeal. As such, I have found the Rice Terraces pretty difficult to compare against the more obviously man-made monuments I have seen to date. But compare I will. The Banaue Rice Terraces are impressive in their overall scope and age, and there is a strong appeal about just how simple it all is, albeit with much hard work and time involved. I also love the fact that the appeal is so accidental – they are designed simply to grow rice, and it’s just chance that this takes an attractive form. However, it’s also fair to say that Banaue's terraces didn’t  blow me away. They were too patchy and the individual terraces a little too messy (though in fairness, this was the “cleaning” part of the season – the terraces look best in the summer). The overall picture is one of human endeavour rather than human genius. And so with that in mind, I think it’s safe to say that I don’t feel that the Banaue Rice Terraces are one of the Seven Wonders, or even “the Eighth”. Probably I’d nestle it somewhere just below the Shwedagon Pagoda in my overall consideration. The added scenic beauty of its neighbours in Cambulo and Batad might just nudge ahead of Shwedagon, if also compared.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Angkor Wat
2. Sydney Opera House
3. Borobudur
4. Petronas Towers
5. Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
6. Shwedagon Pagoda
7. Banaue Rice Terraces

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands


  1. Your article is one of the countless typical over-urbanized White Man's opinion I've read. typical British. Too straight forward,90% negative, 10% positive (being too straight forward in this country is not always the proper thing to do. You'll find yourself in trouble real soon). Sorry man, I don't know what you were trying to look for in the famed mountain rice paddies (perfection?faults? one-sided com parison, I guess?). You're not a rice-dependent person so I guess, you can't just appreciate the simplicity of the whole agricultural mountain and everything in this simple country. Your article is also reeking a slight scent of being biased. If you don't like it, go to Malaysia or India and eat your chicken tikka masala there.

  2. while researching aboutPhilippines tourism and about banaue, I seen this article in first page. I really thought Banaue rice terraces deserves to be listed in wonders of the world . It is not even worth comparing. It needs more development to receive that title. However, for a rice terraces, It is a Masterpiece. You are right about this article and its not a biased opinion. Honestly, even in other places, that THEY call a tourist spot did not really look like a tourist spot and it is disappointing to lure tourists to tourist destination that do not look interesting at all.


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