Banaue, Philippines: The Imbayah Festival

Ifugao men compete in the tug of war at the Imbayah Festival in Banaue, Philippines. Photos by Mike Smith, Asia Photo Stock
Ifugao men compete in the tug of war at the Imbayah Festival in Banaue, Philippines. Photos by Mike Smith, Asia Photo Sto

Banaue Imbayah Festival is All About the Ifugao Culture

By Mike Smith

The US government advises caution when traveling in the Philippines. Banaue is generally safe with few tourists reporting problems but in the event of illness, accidents etc it’s a long way back by road to Manila.

Accepting the risks I decided to visit the world famous UNESCO rice terraces during the three-day Ifugao tribal gathering known as the Imbayah festival in April.

The air conditioning seemed like it was set to freezing on the nine-hour overnight bus ride from the capital Manila to Banaue in northern Luzon. Thank goodness I had a thick sweater on and had my MP3 player as it was almost impossible to sleep.

The steep climb and hairpin bends made the journey more interesting as we approached Banaue. Arriving at the mountain resort in a light cloud and a hint of drizzle at 7 am a group of tricycles and a couple of minibusses were waiting to try and get passengers to tour the rice terraces.

I decided to dump my case and sort out my camera gear first, so I checked into the Wonder Lodge Hotel. It was clean, friendly and very cheap at less than $5 a night. It was basic as you would imagine at that price. There were no mirrors in the bedroom but on the plus side, there were a small table and power points to charge my camera and portable hard disks.

There was a communal shower with cold water and a toilet down the corridor. Wonder Lodge? – It was a wonder it was still going!

The rice terraces in Banaue are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The rice terraces in Banaue are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

After a shower and quick breakfast, I succumbed to the sales pitch of my guide and headed straight to Batad, a famous rice terrace village. It was almost two hours by a motorbike powered tricycle along an unsealed “dancing road.”

The journey was very tough on the back and my head hit the roof when we went into some of the larger potholes.

At the junction, we took a ten-minute jeepney (van with bench seats each side at the back) ride then started walking. It was a long way down! Over an hour of knee-jarring, steep, slippery mud steps – but the views were great.

Arriving drenched with sweat at Batad we pre-ordered lunch at one of several coffee shops and started walking on the stone rice terraces. An old lady who was weeding and an old man in tribal gear, who worked against the Japanese in World War II, were great photo subjects with the mountains as background.

Balancing carefully as we strolled along the stone edges of the terraces we saw birds, small fish, tadpoles and frogs in the wet rice paddies.

The opening ceremony at the Banaue Imbayah festival in the Philippines.
The opening ceremony at the Banaue Imbayah festival in the Philippines.

After a hearty lunch and a cold beer, the climb back up was tough in the 90-degree heat. We stopped regularly at the drinks stalls to rehydrate. Definitely only a hike for the fit and healthy!

And of course the return journey was just as bumpy and uncomfortable but all part of the adventure!

Imbayah Festival Celebrates Ifugao Culture

The Imbayah festival which celebrates Ifugao culture, rice planting and the harvest and rice wine was scheduled for the next day.

I took it easy the next day as my legs were aching from the Batad trip. The festival started at 5:30 pm with a low-key opening ceremony with just a few spectators.

A huge, black, boar, tied to bamboo poles in front of a traditional hut in Banaue Plaza, lay on the ground. The tribesmen made mock attacks with a spear as they danced around it before sacrificing the animal by cutting around its middle.

A chicken fight at the Imbayah festival.
A chicken fight at the Imbayah festival

Within 10-20 seconds it was dead and the tribal folk chanted, tapped the boar with sticks before singeing its hair off on a fire.
It was then butchered on the spot and distributed. Although this seemed cruel and gruesome to me, it was apparently quite normal and acceptable in Banaue.

This was followed by the first dance, which was very casual. Children, adults, and elders took part in their national dance in tribal gear while members of the public, in shorts and tee shirts, mingled too.

The dance involved everyone moving like chickens as they danced around in a circle and had great fun; the crowd grew quickly as the music and laughter got louder.

The main street parade was scheduled to start at 7 am the next morning, so I got to the assembly point at a local school at 6 am to take pictures. That was a good decision. Participants practiced their dances representing harvesting and planting or tuned up on native instruments.

A chief of the Ifuago
A chief of the Ifuago

As the parade started I got a position at the bottom of hill to watch it go past. Taking a short cut, I crossed a swinging suspension bridge to watch the few hundred participants arrive at the plaza to dance, perform and have fun.

The tribal children had great headdresses, though politically incorrect to a westerner, with beaks of hornbills, monkey skulls and civets. They mimicked the opening ceremony but with a wooden pig and then took part in various dance and gong competitions throughout the day.

After a cold refreshing shower I was ready for dinner. The liveliest restaurant cum bar in town was Vegas where the owner strummed a guitar and sang folk music. I had an excellent dinner of chicken adobo there and I left at 10:15 pm.

To my surprise the Wonder Hotel was locked up and dark. There was a 10 pm curfew in town in that I didn’t know about, but a few loud bangs on the windows got me back in with a friendly warning about being out so late!

An armwrestling match
An armwrestling match

I walked the 100 yards to the plaza for a theoretical 8 am start the next morning. Things actually got going at 9:30 am as no judges had turned up to mark the competitive events. Hey, go with the flow – everything is flexible in the Philippines.

The competitions included gong playing, arm wrestling and leg wrestling for both adults and youths. The leg wrestling was particularly amusing with contestants lying on their backs, interlocking legs and trying to roll over their opponent.

This was followed by more dance competitions after which I had to make an idiot of myself doing the chicken dance as it was time for all the photographers to participate!

The afternoon started off with one of the highlights of the festival, which was a homemade wooden scooter race from Banaue Point downhill for three miles to the Plaza. It was chaos but great fun.

I was looking at the race from the back of a tricycle, hanging on tightly and shooting through the grill of the back window.

The wooden scooter race
The wooden scooter race

The camera was shaking all over the place and a police car was between me and the scooters trying to keep the road clear. Its siren was blaring, its occupants gesticulating wildly with their arms, laughing and shouting at us through megaphones to get out of the way. We stayed 30 yards ahead and just kept snapping away.

The late afternoon was a little less stressful for me but no less entertaining with a rice pounding competition, a weaving race and carving of the best wooden eagle from a piece of tree trunk.

The rice pounding was a real endurance and team work test for the competing couples. They were given bundles of rice and had to separate the grains by pounding the stalks with large heavy sticks and then sieve and bag the product. It’s hard to believe that this process, albeit at a slower pace, still takes place in many small family enterprises throughout the Philippines.

The relay race on stilts
The relay race on stilts

This was followed by a high-speed stilts relay race, piggyback racing and volley ball. It was all exciting and highly competitive. The stilts were not children’s toys but made for the event. The teams of six youngsters each completed the 40 yards circuit in a time faster than I could have run it.

I was tired just watching — the competitors must have been really exhausted — but at least it helped me get a really good night sleep.

The rice terraces are fantastic, but apart from Banaue itself you need to travel on unsealed roads in basic transport to get to the best locations.

I opted to stroll up to Banaue Point and get my tribal people posed shots at great locations by paying a small fee. All too soon my final day had ended and I headed back to Manila with fond memories and a good selection of photos.


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