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On Board: The Philippines with Maxby Chan

This article appeared in DigitalSLR Photography magazine and Aperture Magazine on the month of September 2014. This article is reproduced in whole with the consent of DigitalSLR Photography and Aperture Magazines.

A tribal dance

A tribal dance

This month’s haven is defined by its emerald rice fields, an elderly tattoo artist and happy-go-lucky tribesmen, so come along as we discover the Philippines together through our camera lenses…

 

ON BOARD

Once again, our travel guide Maxby Chan has outdone himself by presenting to us shutterbugs another destination that’s worth visiting! The Philippines sits land apart from mainland Southeast Asia with a rich history in Catholicism as a result of 350 years of Spanish rule. In fact, this colony of islands make up for Asia’s only country that predominantly Christian.

One of the many woman from the hill tribe village that decorate their bodies with tattoos crafted specially by Fang Od

One of the many woman from the hill tribe village that decorate their bodies with tattoos crafted specially by Fang Od

The journey starts in Manila, the country’s capital and second largest city where jeepneys, tricycles (motorised sidecars) and pedicabs fill the streets up to the brim. It’s not going to be a hassle to fly here as there are eight flights daily direct to Manila from Kuala Lumpur with choices like Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia or Cebu Pacific Airlines.

Our exclusive photo guide recommends photographers to find their way to Banaue once they reach Manila — despite it being an extra 12-hour drive from the airport, this is where landscape lovers will get trigger-happy as the famous rice-terraced clusters will give them a fantastic view for photographs. What’s more, these world-famous terraces are now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Inscription.

The houses in the village are stilted

The houses in the village are stilted

Thereafter, do yourself a favour by making the next stop at Sagada, which is also a 12-hour ride away from Banaue. “It is a long journey, no doubt, but the incredible, breathtaking scenery awaits photographers on this tranquil mountain-top town,” Maxby said.

The villagers of Buscalan are Catholics. This is the church that serves them

The villagers of Buscalan are Catholics. This is the church that serves them

Another place that you might want to include in your list for photography is a small Kalinga village called Buscalan. “It is no small feat to get here — you have to travel three hours deep into Cordilleras, followed by a two hour-long steep hike up to the village that is quietly tucked near the summit of the 2500 metre-high mountain,” Maxby pointed out.

Some of the playful children of Buscalan Village

Some of the playful children of Buscalan Village

WAY OF LIFE

According to Maxby, village life around Buscalan is a sight to behold, especially for most city folks like ourselves. “When I was there, I was surprised to find pigs and chickens uncaged, running freely around the village. Even so, the compound was not dirty or filled with animal droppings — the reason behind this peculiar situation was that the villagers had trained these animals to ‘behave’. For example, an errant pig would remain restrained with a wooden triangular contraption and would only be allowed to roam freely until it behaves.”

The famous 94 year-old tattoo artist Fang Od is one of the last tattoo artists practising the traditional Kalinga art form that uses pomelo thorns as needles. Presently she is training her niece to take over this traditional craft.

The famous 94 year-old tattoo artist Fang Od is one of the last tattoo artists practising the traditional Kalinga art form that uses pomelo thorns as needles. Presently she is training her niece to take over this traditional craft.

Besotted by their simple way of life, Maxby decided to spend one night in the village as there was no better way to experience their life. “The villagers were very accommodating and hosted us in their homes. They even vacated their bedrooms, allowing us to sleep there for the night,” Maxby added.

Breaking away from the majestic landscape shots at Banaue, the types of photos that photographers will have the chance to snap in Buscalan would mostly be portraitures or documentary. In addition to that, you’ll get to see tattooed women and men within the tribe. “Tattoos are a tradition among the people of Kalinga in the mountainous Cordillera region. They’re quite remarkable as their bodies are extensively tattooed — the tattoos on men symbolise their prowess as a hunter while the women wear it for body decoration,” Maxby added.

The ink for their tattoos is made from a mixture of water and residual soot from charred bottoms of pots and is applied on the skin by using two sticks. One has a thorn from a pomelo tree which acts as the needle, while the other is used as a hammer to drive the thorn and ink into the skin. From what Maxby observed, the tribesmen mostly wore designs ranging from snakes to mountains and crops.

Since the process of penetrating the ‘needle’ into the skin is called pambabatok, traditional tattoo artists like Fang Od are known as mambabatok. As a matter of fact, the highlight of Maxby’s visit to Buscalan was meeting Fang Od herself. “The Kalinga tattoos are traditionally reserved for members of the tribe, but Fang Od was the first tattoo master to break out of that tradition by agreeing to work it on outsiders. Her tattoos are much sought after by people around the world and many have made the tough journey to Buscalan just to get tattooed by her! One of our friends was brave enough to have his arm tattooed by Fang Od during our trip, too,” Maxby recalled.

A little girl of Buscalan's hill tribe quietly having her breakfast in the corner of the kitchen

A little girl of Buscalan’s hill tribe quietly having her breakfast in the corner of the kitchen

 

NOT TO BE MISSED

On the other hand, if you ever find yourself in Sagada, be sure to see the hanging coffins firsthand — it is an ancient funeral ritual where coffins are hung from mountain cliffs and is still practised by some minorities in the mountainous provinces.

“In some caves, hundreds of coffins are hung in the air like wind chimes; if you plan to visit these caves, make sure to hire a guide as some of the caves are well hidden and the roads can be tricky to navigate,” Maxby advised.

As told by the locals, this unique burial ritual involves a meticulous preparation of a hollowed out log, of which the dead relative’s body will be placed in. These coffins are carved by the elderly before they pass on, but if they are too ill or weak, the son or other close relatives will do it for them.The ritual also involves pushing the body into the tight spaces of the coffin, and so often bones are cracked and broken after the process.

After that the coffins are brought to the caves where they will join the coffins of their ancestors. After having cultivated the ritual for more than 2,000 years, the Sagada people still prefer to be buried in the cliffs rather than the ground, “The people believe that suspending the casket from the mountain rocks brings the deceased closer to heaven,” Maxby explained.

DOs & DONTs

  • DO get a travel guide to lead you around these destinations
  • DO check if you need a permit to visit any of these places
  • DO give food or medicinal supplies to the hill tribe villagers, especially if you spend the night at their residences
  • DO bring a sleeping bag along if you’re considering staying in Buscalan
  • DO get a backpack if you do the two-hour hike to the village
  • DO make sure that your bag is waterproof as it can rain unexpectedly
  • DON’T forget to bring along your tripod as there’s a possibility for star trail shooting in Buscalan if skies are clear
  • DON’T leave your hiking shoes behind as you need to rough it out during the jungle trek on the way to Buscalan
  • DON’T sleep in; wake up early and wander around the village and enjoy the early morning chilly weather
  • DON’T leave canned food and dry rations out of the list — you’re pretty much on your own in Buscalan
  • DON’T forget to pack CPL and GND filters for landscape photography
  • DON’T overestimate the living conditions in Buscalan, so remember your torch light and have some matches with you

Photographer’s Tip

  • Make friends with the local villagers, you will get more invites to their houses and get intimate shots.
  • Bring some small gifts for the children – sweets, pencils, note books, small toys etc.
  • For adults, bring small pieces of soap.
  • A wide and ultra wide angle lens are good to capture intimate shots.
  • A telephoto lens will be useful for capturing the hanging coffins at Sagada.
  • Bring spare batteries, chargers, universal plugs and lots of memory cards.
  • A spare camera body or a backup camera is essential for long travels.
DigitalSLR_sept2014

This article was published in the September 2014 issues of DigitalSLR Photography and Aperture magazines.

NEXT DESTINATION

A mysterious Buddhist kingdom locked away in the Himalayas awaits us, so stay tuned for next month’s destination, Tibet, which is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable places to visit in Asia. With fabulous monastery sights, breathtaking high-altitude treks and stunning views of the world’s highest mountains, your photos can never go wrong.

Tibetan Plateau

Tibetan Plateau

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