LOOKING for a unique adventure this Undas weekend? Why not go up north to the Cordilleras and get close to a 1,000-year old mummy?
Kabayan, Benguet is one of the few areas in the world where the age-old tradition of mummification was practiced and the Ibalois living in the province was the only Philippine tribe that practiced that. Scientists believed that the Ibalois created the so-called Fire Mummies from 1200 to 1500 AD, and kept them in many caves around Benguet province.
They are called Fire Mummies because smoke was used to dry the body. The process of mummification starts immediately after a person dies. A very salty drink is poured into the mouth of the deceased, the body is washed and rubbed with herbs, and set over fire in a seated position. The smoking process may take several months until the body is completely dry. Smoke from tobacco is also blown into the mouth to dry the internal organs. Mummified bodies are then placed in pinewood coffins and finally laid to rest in caves.
It is said that only individuals from the higher societal stratum were mummified because the whole process was quite laborious and costly. The ordinary Ibalois were simply buried in caves in pinewood coffins.
The Kabayan Mummy Burial Caves has been declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as the of the world’s endangered heritage sites.
But Kabayan is not only about the Fire Mummies. This quiet town is an important base for exploring three of Luzon’s highest mountains: Pulag; Tabayoc; and Timbac. It is also the center of Ibaloi culture where many traditions and animistic beliefs are still being practiced.
How to get there
It requires about a day to reach Kabayan.
For those with high-ground clearance private vehicles, there are two ways to reach Kabayan. The first option is to drive north via NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX, exit from Urdaneta, continue driving along the National Highway and then ascend to Baguio either by Kennon Road or Marcos Highway. From Baguio, take the Ambuklao Road. At Bangao junction, turn left to Bokod, then continue driving to Kabayan.
Second option is to exit from Pura at TPLEX, and continue driving at Maharlika Highway via Guimba, then San Jose, crossing Dalton Pass. At Aritao Junction, turn left, continue driving to Kayapa, and at Bangao junction, continue to Bokod to head toward Kabayan.
Those using public transportation can take any bus heading toward Baguio. Kabayan is linked to Baguio via the Slaughterhouse Terminal. First trip leaves at 7 am and it takes four hours to reach Kabayan. One-way fare is P135.
What to see, what to do
The most famous among the Kabayan Mummies can be found in Timbac Caves. There are two ways to reach Timbac. The first one is the more rewarding and culturally-sensitive five-hour trek that starts in Kabayan and climbs up to 1,200 meters. The other way is the shortcut via Halsema Highway; alight at Kilometer 55 and trek 3.5 kilometers that takes about an hour to reach the caves. Either way, prior arrangement is necessary. An experienced guide, admission fee of P100 and the customary gin offering are required.
Other caves that require shorter trek are Pongasan and Tinongcol. Pongasan in Bangao, which is seven kilometers north of centro, is where five well-preserved mummies can be found. It can be reached by a half-hour trek from the village. Tinongcol Burial Rock, where several coffins can be found, is a one-hour trek starting from the National Museum. While footpaths leading to these caves are well established, it is still best to hire local guides as they can guide visitors on the proper conduct when entering sacred sites.
There are many more mummy caves in the area but they are presently kept closed to visitors.
But for those that do not wish to do anything strenuous like trekking, they can get a glimpse of the mummies at the local branch of the National Museum. The museum is also a good place to learn more about the customs and traditions of the Ibalois.
An interesting detour from the mummy caves is the Mass Burial Cave of Opdas. This is located at Kabayan Centro. Here, hundreds of skulls believed to be between 500 to 1,000 years old are lined up on the stone ledges.
Kabayan Centro is also a good base for exploring the surrounding mountains. The popular Mount Pulag has two jump-off points located in Kabayan: the longer and more difficult Akiki Trail; and the winding but easier Bashoy Trail. Prior registration is still required at the office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Ambangeg, Bokod when scaling Mount Pulag via the Kabayan trails.
Kabayan is also where the hidden lakes of Mount Pulag are found. The two more popular Lake Tabeo and Lake Ambulalakao both have high-altitude camping grounds.
For those scaling the lesser known Mount Timbac and Mount Tabayoc, guides can be arranged through the Kabayan Municipal office (0917-521-5830). No guide is required when exploring the rice and vegetable terraces of Kabayan.
Finally, the local community still continue the practice of textile weaving. Visit the weaving center and watch Ibaloi women weave using wooden looms. It is also a good place to buy souvenir items like bags, backpacks and even the traditional tapis (native skirt) and bahag (g-string).
Where to stay, what to eat
With many climbers preferring the Ambangeg Trail, there are less and less visitors who proceed to Kabayan to stay. This has resulted to some of the lodging houses like the popular Coop Lodge, which used to host climbers for several decades, to close down its operations.
But with the new interest to explore the mummy caves, a new lodging house was recently opened to cater to visitors who are interested in exploring the other attractions of Kabayan: the Pine Cone Lodge. This friendly guest house overlooking the river offer wood-panelled rooms and shared bathroom for P250 per person. Pine Cone Lodge also arranges guides for exploring the mountains and caves of Kabayan.
Dining places are also very limited in Kabayan. There’s the Rockwood Café that serves organically grown coffee and vegetable dishes. Palenas Eatery and Snack Haus in front of the bus station also serve rice and viands in the morning. There are also one or two carinderias (local eateries) at the market that sell fried fish (mostly tilapia from Ambulalakao, rice and vegatables.
But it is the hot drinks that Kabayan is well known for. Their organically-grown strong Arabica coffee is among the best of the upland coffees and they are available in most of the coffee shops and eateries for P10 per cup. You can even ask for a free refill.