THERE’S something about Kiangan that usually hits first time visitors: it isn’t ethnic enough as the rest of the Cordilleras. This was how I felt when I first visited it in 1998. I was travelling to Sagada when a group of friends invited me to come with them to Kiangan. I had no idea where Kiangan was, but I was expecting that it would be as interesting as Sagada. However, when we arrived there I saw no native houses, no rice terraces and no one wearing G-Strings. Instead, I saw modern houses and people in cowboy outfits. And the rice terraces that I saw there were from the pictures at the museum.
Fast forward many years later to 2012 – I was forced to make a stopover in Kiangan as driving under heavy rains made it difficult for me to continue to Banaue. That sudden detour turned out to be the passage to rediscovering Kiangan. I stayed there for two days eventually skipping Banaue. After that sojourn, I was hooked on Kiangan.
Kiangan’s place in Philippine history may be that victorious day in September 2, 1945 when General Tomoyuki Yamashita surrendered to the elements of the 6th US Army. But Kiangan’s place in Philippine history is much earlier than that. On the westbank of the Ibulao River, the first settlement in Ifugao started as the village called Kiyangan. Hence, Kiangan is considered the oldest and most historic town in Ifugao.
The people of Kiangan are said to be Indo-Malay migrants who brought with them their skills in building terraces from mountain slopes. From Kiangan, following the mighty Ibaloi River, they moved up north finally settling in Lagawe, Banaue and Mayoyao.
While Spain succeeded in subjugating most parts of the Philippines from 1565, it failed to dent the resistance of the people in the Cordillera region. It took the Spaniards more than 200 years before finally attempting to enter Ifugao via Kiangan. During the 1800s, many expeditions were launched from Nueva Vizcaya but most of them ended with the Spaniards losing many men because the people of Kiangan fought hard to keep their independence. Until finally a Commandancia was established in 1889, but it didn’t last long as Spain had to relinquish its rule in the Philippines. When the Americans came, they offered Kiangan the gift of education, health and sanitation, and the mission was established there to launch expeditions to the rest of Ifugao.
Traces of American influence still remain in today’s Kiangan. The Protestant Church, the Ifugao Academy and the many mission houses remain standing as a reminder to the era when the Americans stayed in Kiangan.
How to get there
Kiangan is about 318 kilometers from Manila if travelling direct via the northern highway. However, in order to avoid the traffic along the roads of Bulacan and Nueva Ecija, it is best to drive via the North Luzon Expressway and Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway, exit to Tarlac City, and drive to La Paz and Zaragoza before finally re-joining the northern highway at Talavera. From there, it is all flat lands before climbing up to the zigzag roads of Dalton Pass before finally descending to Santa Fe in Nueva Vizcaya. Continue driving until Bagabag and head straight to Ifugao. Continue driving to Lamut before finally entering Kiangan. After the view point at Ibulao River, turn left and drive about eight kilometers to the town center. This whole route takes about 345 kilometers from Manila or eight hours of driving.
For those going by public transportation, the Ohayami Bus departs from Sampaloc, Manila every day at around 9:00 pm and arrives in Kiangan the next day at 6:00 pm. Another alternative is to take any bus going to Isabela or Cagayan, alight in Solano, Nueva Vizcaya, then take a jeepney bound for Kiangan.
The road from Kabayan to Kiangan via the mountain road of Tinoc is being completed. Soon, this will serve as an alternative route from Baguio to Kiangan that will avoid the longer route via Halsema Highway.
What to see, what to do
Kiangan is the location of the least known rice terraces included in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage sites. This is the Nagacadan Rice Terraces where two rows of ascending terraces are dissected by a river. Kiangan’s local tourism office offers a tour with a guide fee of P500 to explore the terraces in what they call an “Open Air Museum” tour.
Kiangan’s other natural attractions are the Bae Rice Terraces, the Rock of Pumbakhayon and the giant Imbuliklik Rock. Four kilometers north of the town center is highland Lake of Ambuwaya. Its name was derived from the reptilian creatures that used to populate the lake. Kiangan also boasts of the largest cave systems in Ifugao: the Panganggawan Caves, which has eight known caves that are habitats to four local bat species.
A giant steel-and-concrete structure Kiangan War Memorial Shrine was built in 1974 to commemorate the end of World War II in the Philippines, fittingly in a place where the last battles of the war was fought. At the Home Economics Building at the nearby school is where Yamashita surrendered. Located inside the Shrine compound is the Ifugao Museum.
The mission houses, churches and school-buildings built by the American still stand in Kiangan. They are worth visiting as they played a vital role in the development of the people of Kiangan.
Two distinct festivals are celebrated yearly, one of which is the Gotad ad Kiangan that is held every May 1. It is a festival of merrymaking where local dances, songs and games like chicken fight, wrestling and tug of war are performed. The other festival is the Bakle ad Kiangan that is celebrated during harvest time with abundant binakle (rice cakes) and baya (rice wine) offered to express heartfelt gratitude for a bountiful harvest.
Dormitory-style lodgings are available at the Kiangan Hostel, WWII Memorial Shrine Guest House, Senior Citizen’s Center and Save the Terraces Movement Guest House. Lodging fee in all these centers is P150 per person.
There are no fast food restaurants in Kiangan but visitors can try the local versions of fried chicken, spaghetti and pansit at KFC or the Kiangan Food Center. There is a no-name carinderia at the back of the municipal hall that serves inexpensive but tasty local dishes on red rice all day long. At the public market, visitors can get snacks made from banana and local root crops.
But the food that Kiangan is best known for is the binakle, the local rice cake wrapped in banana leaf. Outside, it looks unassuming and ordinary. But once you open it and taste its sticky flavor, you will surely find it simply delightful. The binakle and Kiangan are similar, because both are discovered from the inside and savored at every moment.