The hanging coffins of Sagada

Our shortest travel day, it only took 2 hours to drive the 60km of hill bends to Sagada.

On the way Alfredo asked if we wanted to go to Bontoc Museum. We didn’t know what was there but said yes anyway. It turned out to be a cool little museum about local culture including old photos of head hunters and burial rights. Bizarrely it also turned out to be in a school yard. We parked in the middle as the children were lined up doing singing practice of Christmas carols.

We arrived at our homestay in Sagada in the late afternoon. A big wooden house on 2 levels a couple of kilometres out of town, it was lovely and quiet and the family very friendly. With sunset being early we wanted to head out for a walk before it got dark so dumped our stuff off and headed out with directions for dinner at a cafe 200m down the road. We found it and carried on, also finding a memorial, a shop and a church on the outskirts of town before stomachs rumbling from missing lunch we turned back.

The cafe turned out to be in one of the other guesthouses. A cute wooden place it had a very impressive Christmas decoration arrangement. Serving mainly western fare we opted for a pizza. It was surprisingly good.

Given we had to walk back in the dark we were glad the road was quiet. We got back to find a bonfire in full swing with a group of 4 young Filipinos and their very drunk and funny guide. We were invited to join them and did for a while until the fire smoke got to us. It seems to be the thing you do for entertainment in the mountains, light a bonfire and sit round it drinking.

Another mountain town Sagada is famous for Echo Valley and it’s hanging coffins. This is what we’d come to see. The guidebook warns that while only a short walk it is easy to get lost and you need a guide. This had been confirmed when we arrived at our digs and they had said they would arrange one for us. We agreed 8am and had a great breakfast of pancakes, fruit and yoghurt with tea made from plants in the garden. We’re not sure what was in the tea but it was good and the yoghurt even more so.

When at 8:15 there was no sign of our guide and with Filipinos being so punctual Emma went to find out if we had one coming or not. Our suspicions were confirmed when it turned out not despite us checking it had been arranged when we got back the evening before. Not an issue as they can be arranged at the tourist information centre. Alfredo offered to drive us there as with a long drive ahead he was keen get done and on the road.

In less than 10 minutes we’d paid the registration fee, which enabled us to speak to the guy organising guides, and one had been whistled across the road for us.

Our guide Darren was both very knowledgeable and a real joker so we learnt a lot and had a lot of fun.

A member of the local Applai tribe he explained he had 2 names, Darren and an indigenous name that sounds like ‘thank-you’. In his early 30’s. His knowledge had been passed down from his father and while unmarried he said he would pass it down to his children if he had any. He only guides when he wants to as he is also a farmer and, like many people in the area, a maker of wooden furniture. As a result he was happy to take it slow as he wasn’t rushing back to pick up his next set of tourists (to earn more money).

To get there you pass a church, pay another small conservation fee and then walk through the church’s cemetry. Darren explained some of the customs they practice, like lighting bonfires in the cemetery on 1st November (same of the Mexican day of the dead) to keep the spirits warm.

Then it was onto the Valley. Given it has much history and is full of legend and ancient rituals what he could share in the time we had was only a small part of it but here is some  –

Echo valley has its name for a reason, local legend has it that if you shout your first name across the valley your surname will come back to you. The guidebook says that you hear the shouting point before you reach the valley but there was no one there and Darren told us that the elders stopped the practice a month ago when someone shouted their name and the spirits shouted back. A couple of days later he got sick and the elders had to perform a ritual to make him well again. It was obvious from his tone this pleased him as he clearly didn’t agree with the practice, he was very much of the view that this is a place of spirits and people should be respectful and leave them in peace.

On our way down the steep valley side Darren took us a few steps off the path to see a burial cave. He told us we could go right up to them and stand on the rock at the side and peer over into it and see some human skulls. It was pretty cool and went farther back than we realised, just stacked with old coffins. Darren also pointed out another burial cave across the valley high up the cliff.

Once on the valley floor you cross it and go up slightly and you’ve arrived at the hanging coffins. We were stoked to be the only ones there. Darren took a seat on the rocks at the side while he explained to us. It was calm and peaceful and had one of those feels about it that makes you believe all the local legends and beliefs are true.

From a practical perspective in part some height is to stop animals eating the body.

The normal sized coffins and crosses are where the modern ways of Catholicism have been blended with the traditional, as the last person to be buried here was in 2010.

The chairs also attached to the cliff with the coffins are the traditional funeral chairs. When someone dies they are strapped to the chair and people come and pay their respects for 3 days. The bodies are not laid out on their back as this is seen as sleeping whereas a motionless body in a sitting position is clearly deceased. The bodies are then carried to the valley very early in the morning. The body is passed from person to person as tradition has it that it is lucky to get bodily fluids on you (as Darren said he went to school and they now know from science this passes diseases but still continue the practice ). Someone holding a torch leads the way and this is the time that shouting should take place as they shout to the spirits to ask them not to be angry and accept the deceased.

On arrival at the cliff traditionally the body is wrapped in cloth in the foetal position (presumably assisted by days in the chair) as they believe you exit the earth in the same way you enter it, and then placed in a small coffin (which sometimes involved some squishing) before being lifted onto the cliff.

Not everyone can be ‘buried’ in this way and it requires everyone in the family to agree to it, if one disagrees it doesn’t go ahead.

There are many hanging coffins in the Valley but you only see one set which the elders have asked the spirits for permission to allow the public to view them. Most are not visited and the valley floor has been left to be reclaimed by the undergrowth.

The set of hanging coffins you view are not too far from the ground, but many in the Valley are so high up the cliffs it is said to be impossible to imagine how they were put there.

As we headed back out of the Valley we passed a few large groups going down. We’d got lucky in having the chance to enjoy this fascinating place peacefully, as it should be.

Click on any photo to enlarge and scroll through


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