I recently returned from a two week adventure in the Philippines. Some friends and I flew over to the mountain city of Baguio to attend and celebrate the wedding of some lovely friends. None of us had been over there before so for the first week our excitement was palpable.
There are so many stories I would love to tell you all about, but I thought I’d start with our most daring adventure.
Before embarking on our journey I suggested that we do a little research to see what places/things we’d like to see while over there. I knew nothing about what to expect so thought it prudent to get some idea of what was possible. Gemma suggested we visit the ‘skull caves’ and sent over some images from Google of a cave full of bones. I was blown away and agreed we should definitely try that.
After our first week of being in the mountains and gaining confidence in the public transport and a feel for our new surroundings we decided to investigate how to get to these caves. A couple of pots of tea and an extensive search using the hotel wifi later we could only garner information from other travellers blogs, there was no official tourist site.
It turns out skeletal and mummified remains have been found across the country at more than 80 locations, but only a few are public knowledge. The impression we got was the government was trying to protect these amazing finds.
Cross referencing the articles we found (that weren’t written a decade ago) we pin pointed a reachable city that was mentioned a few times. There was allegedly a cave in the city of Kabayan, which we could reach by coach.
Coach stations were scattered throughout our city as a regular means of transport for locals. Our research told us to go to a particular depot, Dangwa Tranco, to
look for a certain bus liner, A Liner, that had one service leaving daily at 10am which would take us on our four hour journey to Kabayan – and hopefully there would be a museum or a sign post pointing us to the cave’s location.
Taking a taxi to that depot my heart sank. We didn’t see any mention of the liner we were after and there appeared to be only one ticket window for the whole station. The queue looked about an hour long and we arrived at about 9am. We were also put off by the evidence of what appeared to be blood and vomit on the dusty ground around the queue. Bag clutching commenced.
As we lurked at the end of the long line we were joined by an Italian, who said we were the first non-Filipinos he’d seen in his time in Baguio. Equally perturbed by the bodily fluids on the ground and abundance of strangers giving us odd looks he was telling us how he found it easier to navigate his way around Sri Lanka than the Philippines. At that point I think our little trio breathed a collective sigh of relief that we were indeed finding this difficult, especially compared to London – but not insurmountable.
The queue suddenly dissolved and we found ourselves near the ticket window within ten minutes. Order descended into chaos to have a word in as the system to reach the ticket window suddenly became quickest and ‘bargiest’ elbow first. The man behind the thick glass told us ‘they’ did not offer a service to Kabayan but were sent to another ticket office on a hidden corner to the right.
Thinking we were making progress we traipsed across the uneven parking lot. Our new Italian friend was also sent over and he arrived a minute after us. Again at this second window, which was much less congested, we were told by a very pretty lady they did not offer a service to Kabayan but we were referred to yet another bus depot across town. The language barrier proving to be a problem in providing details we asked her to write the name down.
Bidding a final farewell to our Italian (who had to return to the depot at 5am the next day to get on his desired bus) we jumped into another taxi and asked him to take us to the ominously titled ‘Slaughter Compound’.
Hoping this wasn’t going to be an enactment of ‘Taken’ we arrived at the depot, which seems to gain it’s name from the concentration of abattoirs and animal auction yards in the road. Seeing a long queue across the depot I started asking if this was the line for Kabayan. All I got was giggles from surprised locals so we gave up on that idea.
As we circled the lot we saw the very bus liner we were looking for. Turns out the service is called ‘NA Liner’ and a time check revealed it was 9:55am.
Dashing to what looked like the ticket window we were told you paid on the bus and then literally ran to jump on the bus. Shane and I scoured the seats, but the bus was full. I got a sudden sinking feeling, I wasn’t keen on standing in the middle aisle knowing the journey was four hours long over winding mountain roads in an undetermined condition.
Feeling we’d come so close yet so far I let out a sigh. This was immediately followed by a woman standing by the bus stairs looking at us and saying ‘Kabayan? Take a van’ and pointing across the road to what looked like a minivan depot. As we climbed out the bus we repeated ‘van to Kabayan?’ to her and she said ‘yes, I take one too’. We were back in the game.
Escorting us over we were told that once the van was full it would leave and there were also vans returning from Kabayan to Baguio. Our concerns alleviated, about 16 of us were crammed into a minivan and charged 150 pesos each which works out less than £2.50.
Delighted to be on the move, we made our way through the city traffic and into the beautiful mountains. By this point it felt almost irrelevant that we found these caves – we had found a route to the city and this felt like a major achievement in itself.
An example of a landslide taken out of the van’s rear window
Snaking through the mountain roads, the view was breathtaking. We spent the entire journey winding up and down steep gradients – some parts of the road were tarred, some had half the road blocked off by huge landslides which mean the two lanes had been reduced to one with no notification or sign posts.
Two hours in we stopped at a little ‘rest stop’ for a bite to eat and ablutions. Sanitation in Baguio city left a lot to be desired so a mountain side public loo was unsurprisingly dire. One hole in the ground and half a tube of hand sanitizer later we opted for snacks in sealed bags as opposed to the buffet of hot food on offer.
Back on the van we continued our cramped journey. The winding road was making me feel slightly queasy, but proved to be too much for a small child sitting in front of us with his dad. Eau de vom does not a good travel companion make…
As other passengers were dropped off along the route we were the last three travellers remaining. When we reached our destination the driver kindly offered to drop us off wherever we wanted to go. Asking him about the ‘bone caves’ he looked a little confused and pointed behind us. We then asked to be dropped off where we could catch a return van so even if our mission was unsuccessful we could return. We were told the last van left around 3pm, and it was 1:50pm.
Kabayan is a very small town – town being a generous word. There is a large church, a police station, a lodge (which seemed to more dogs than guests) and small makeshift cottage type houses with ambitious half-finished dwellings construction. Being directed to the lodge for directions we were told to head for the church and ask there.
We saw inspiring messages written into the wall running alongside the (only) main road through the settlement with profound statements like ‘In nature there are only reasons or consequences’. Passing the church and keeping an eye on the time we asked a woman sitting outside a shop where the caves were. She pointed us to a side road into the houses and said to just follow the path. No signs or real pattern we walked along the sloping concrete path in between residences.
Another woman suddenly appeared in front of us as if by magic and appeared to be leading us saying ‘follow the path’ and motoring down the lanes. We followed her until she turned into someone’s garden and disappeared behind a house. Thinking we were to continue we did until the road forked and lead to houses either side.
A young man walking toward us was roped in to help and he kindly led us back to the house our previous mystery guide had ducked behind. Sure enough, there were three women (and about five dogs) sitting in the back porch. Thanking our guide the next words we heard were ‘buy a t-shirt’. We knew we had found the right place.
After making a 20 peso donation each we were told to ‘go down the stairs (passed a suspiciously red eyed snoozing dog) and open the gate’. Shane asked if the animals were friendly, and the answer he got was ‘yes, no sir’. We kept the widest possible berth.
Again, hoping this wasn’t turning into ‘Taken’ we descended the aforementioned flight of stairs to find a green gate, with a plaque painted on the wall saying these bones were carbon dated by Tokyo University and found to be between 50 and 1000 years old. That was it though, no history, no idea what this mass grave was all about. Was it a family mausoleum, were they soldiers or villagers, victims of a conflict?
Feeling rather ‘Indiana Jones’ like we opened the suitably creaky gate and walked toward the pile of skulls staring back at us as we gasped.
Through the gates
The rest of the tale is coming up in Part 2.