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Northern Philippines • Echoes of the Hanging Coffins

I was a bit confused when our bus dropped us off right at the town entrance, where the post office was. Turns out there was a whole side of the place we had not been to yet, hidden in plain sight!

So we start walking across the street like we’re going to the post office, but the guide steers us into a park with kids playing ball while their mothers gossip in benches. There’s a church by the end and we take the road on its left side moving past it and into the cemetery behind. This is were people are being buried nowadays.

As we walk through the cemetery, I can’t help but notice the names on the tombstones along the way. Most of these names and surnames are Spanish, much like names in Latin America: Aquilino, Gomez, Zamora and yes, even Landero. Yet another reassurance that the world is indeed much smaller than I thought.

We keep walking until we reach the edge of a huge cliff and suddenly we’re standing in the entrance to Echo Valley. On the left side there’s a camping ground full of tents that serves as a school for both experienced and novice rock climbers, but on the right side there’s a winding road that leads to our destination: The Hanging Coffins.

The Sunken Valley

See, the whole valley used to be sunken underwater about a billion years ago, and over time this led to really smooth lime walls in the valley cliffs. This is where families in Sagada and the region have been taking their dead for well over 2,000 years.

Just minutes after starting on the right path and sure enough, a few hundred meters away the coffins begin to appear and they look just like the ones in the Lumiang Cave, except these are brightly colored and perched in hard-to-reach locations up the walls of the cliffs. The higher up the wall, the closer the soul inside is to their spirit in the sky.

You’ll also notice that there are wooden chairs hanging by some of the coffins. These are called sangadil and the dead are placed and tied to them using vines and rope in a ceremony which takes place before the body is placed in its final resting place. Once in the chair, the body is then covered with a white blanket and placed in the entrance of his or her home so people can offer their condolences.

The departed’s vigil can last several days, so to avoid the smell of decomposing, the body is smoked. Eventually a procession takes place and the body is carried to the cliffs, where its coffin awaits, either nailed or hammered into the stone wall.

On the way, the helpers try to be careful while carrying the body while at the same time getting as closely in contact with it as possible, since they believe that by touching the deceased’s blood they can absorb the skills the person had in life.

The practice of hanging coffins is slowly being pushed aside as new generations adopt the ways of Christianity. Currently there are only one or two burials of this type every year.

Northern Philippines • Echoes of the Hanging Coffins

At the End of the Day

Echo Valley itself is beautiful and it owes it’s name to the fact you can scream to your hearts content and the echo will resonate loudly through it. Nothing short of spectacular, but for all the noise that runs through the place, it was a quiet moment of peace that really drew me into it, as I sat at the edge of the cliff with nothing to keep me from falling over. Over time I would come to feel this way often in South East Asia; the feeling of being overwhelmingly, helplessly small and inconsequential in the big picture of things.

As I’ve grown older I’ve sadly become scared of heights and prone to vertigo, but even that can’t stop me from looking down and peering over the edge of tall buildings every now and then. I’d very much like to do that in Echo Valley again some day.

Northern Philippines • Echoes of the Hanging Coffins

The sun finished setting down as the valley bathed in moonlight and by the time we were back in town, the starlit sky made Sagada look even more stunning.

We say our thanks and goodbyes to our guide, and Xopau decides to head back to the hostel while Stef and I look for something to eat. Stef is a non-strict vegetarian who can break the rules every now and then for the sake of cultural enlightenment, yet another sign of an awesome person in my book.

We found a family house with a small restaurant (actually just one table in their kitchen) where we stayed to eat and watch their son play with a dog twice his size. If felt really nice to be in the company of locals and enjoy their food, which was not only delicious, but also super cheap.

Northern Philippines • Echoes of the Hanging Coffins

Afterwards, we headed to the hostel to take turns in the shower and while I waited outside the bathroom for Stef to be done, I figured we’d take it slow the next morning seeing at all the stuff we got done in just one day.

But nope, The Terminator wasn’t through with us just yet.

Photos by Xopau Mendoza. Editing by Luis Landero.

Welcome to The Big Journey. Where a Panamanian roams the Earth in search for purpose, adventure and answers. Part of the Pateando Calle series, find the archive here. Thank you for tagging along.