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Spending Christmas in the Philippines: It's not home, but it's magical

The image of a rusted, squeaky old bus on a foggy mountain road can hardly be listed among the most festive. Yet there we sat, my friend Chris and I, on Christmas Eve.

The bus careened blindly around hairpin turns, laboured up steep mountain roads and flirted with the edges of a perilous foggy abyss as we sought to reach the remote Banaue Rice Terraces, deep in the highlands of the Philippine island of Luzon.

In my 27 years I had spent every other Christmas in the rather more convivial setting of a New England colonial house in snowy northwestern Connecticut, more often than not beside a roaring fire, with the smell of a nearly finished ham drifting in from the kitchen and mingling with the tang of a freshly cut Douglas fir. As our bus strained and jolted through every inch of rough terrain I had plenty of time to consider that a different path might have led to a cozy evening with my girlfriend in my arm, a glass of strong ale in my hand, and a home-cooked meal in my stomach.

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As private-school teachers spending the year working in South Korea, Chris and I faced the reality of a Christmas without family, trees, presents or campy 1960s TV specials. Without these deep-seated traditions, Christmas simply didn't seem possible.

Our chief objective was not how to find or embrace the festive spirit in some remote region of the Philippines, but how to forget that it was Christmas at all. We planned to lay low among the quiet splendour of the rice terraces, ignore the holiday entirely and re-emerge some time shy of the New Year.

A series of increasingly dilapidated buses and tricycle rickshaws had carried us to Baguio City from Manila, up to the town of Bontoc, and finally through to Banaue, where we were left standing alone at a muddy trailhead Christmas morning.

According to our map, this footpath wound up through the mountainous cloud forest to the farming village of Batad, where the most picturesque of the rice terraces are located. We hiked slowly, cursing our lack of preparedness for rain and mud. Our only thoughts were of hot showers, generous food and dry clothes. Emerging from the trees above the village, we beheld a narrow and lonely outcrop fixed like an island in a sea of fog. Atop it were a few wooden structures, seemingly deserted. A rooster crowed from somewhere far off in the mist.

We were gazing out indifferently, wondering what to do next, when the curtain of white abruptly drew away from us, revealing the terraces. The sight was like a Dr. Seuss illustration brought to reality. The terraces clung to the sheer sides of the mountains, looking like an enormous amphitheatre sporting an infinite number of levels. Built by hand more than 2,000 years ago, each row of the terraces held a shallow pool of water, fed by an ingenious and ancient irrigation system leading down from the mountains.

Some terraces were green with sprouting rice plants, some brown and forlorn awaiting planting. Others had been abandoned to weeds. Between these colossal structures, smaller stone stairs wound upward or stood perilously in the air beside dizzying drop-offs. At the base of it all sat tiny Batad village with its houses perched on the cliffsides, some sprouting at odd angles from the near vertical incline of the mountain.

Awestruck, we hadn't even raised our cameras before a boy emerged from a building, regarded us silently, and disappeared back inside. He re-emerged with his father, Freddie, who offered us the amenities of his inn and his services as a guide – despite it being a few hours before his Christmas dinner.

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With the sun setting rapidly, we hired Freddie on the spot and left our bags. We thanked him, apologized for inconveniencing him and made sure that the price of his services was more than generous before embarking on our trek through what Filipinos have dubbed the "eighth wonder of the world."

Freddie was a fascinating man, well aware of the opportunities existing beyond his mountain home, but content to raise his family quietly in his small slice of paradise. He had inherited two rice paddies from his parents upon marrying, but made his income serving as a guide and as owner of a newly opened guesthouse located high above the village.

With Freddie leading the way, we navigated a labyrinth of terraces, footpaths and secret shortcuts. The trail was full of character. There were no straight lines or easy ambles: Every turn, fork or path seemed to hold the promise of a hundred possible destinations. Yet Freddie could have walked it blindfolded. Without his guidance we likely would have spent our afternoon floundering about in the muck and walking in endless circles – doubtless to the great amusement of the locals.

Even with Freddie it was not easy. Some steps were nothing more than nubs of stone protruding from the face of the rock, and it was difficult to put my faith in my size 12 feet, knowing that one slip would mean a long fall into the next rice terrace further down. Chris and I entertained visions of unfit day trippers, fresh from the Manila express overnight bus, pulling rice seedlings from their mouths, wringing the water from their fanny packs and cursing the place as impossible to get around. Freddie overheard us, chuckled and remarked that people do indeed fall into the paddies with some regularity.

As the sun disappeared behind the mountains and dinnertime crept closer, we were strolling back up to our inn when Freddie asked whether we minded taking the long way back through the village so that he could wish all a merry Christmas and introduce us to his friends.

And so Chris and I found ourselves following a man who had so recently been a complete stranger, shaking hands and offering seasons greetings to the people of Batad, and receiving sincere and genial holiday wishes in return. From a window high above, a Filipino waved a half empty bottle at me and shouted, "Hey Joe! Merry Christmas!" Any thoughts of skipping Christmas evaporated instantly amid the holiday music and the detonation of crude fireworks.

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Across Batad lights blinked on, one by one until the town's form could be seen gleaming white, green and red in the twilight. Acquaintances hailed each other in voices that soared over the terraces and echoed faintly in the hills before anonymous greetings drifted back over the shadowy gulf from the opposite side. Old men sat drinking rice wine and San Miguel beer. Families rushed to prepare chickens or pigs for cooking.

In small clearings young people set up large communal fires and lay aside bottles of alcohol for the night ahead. A group of teens gathered around a guitar and sang carols. In the midst of such bustle, we sat down on a log with Freddie, who offered us handfuls of soft pulpy mush from a jar of fermenting rice wine. As we sat and talked, slowly chewing the sticky globs and spitting out the fibres, I reflected on what had brought us here. And how foolish I had been to ever think that Christmas away from home would be unfulfilling.

If you go

Batad village is home to about 1,500 people. The famed rice terraces are thought to be around 2,000 years old. They were carved, largely by hand, into the mountains by the ancestors of the region's Ifugao people. The best time to visit is in late spring and early summer, when the rice seedlings have grown into their greenest splendor.

How to get to Banaue

The easy, more expensive way: Have a tour agency charter a coach on the direct Manila-Banaue route. These often go overnight direct to Banaue with no stops.

The hard, cheaper way: Take a coach bus to Baguio from Manila. From there, hire a series of taxis, Jeepneys (a Jeep/bus hybrid) or chicken buses (the nickname for the dilapidated local buses that often transport more than people) to the towns of Banaue or Bontoc. From these towns you can access the myriad tourist sites of the region. This way is not recommended if you only have a few days to travel.

How to get to the Batad Rice Terraces

Once in Banaue, you can hire Jeepneys or tricycle motorbikes with sidecars to explore. (We paid a tricycle driver to return to the trailhead in two days to pick us up.) If you desire comfort and a guide, hire a van.

A muddy trail leads up to a saddle and then down to the village of Batad and its breathtaking panorama. The trek takes a few hours on foot and can be arduous if the trail is muddy. ATVs may be available for hire . From the saddle, it is another 40-minute trek down to the village.

Where to stay

If you are looking for a nice hotel, your best bet is to stay in Banaue. In Batad, you'll find a number of small guesthouses and inns scattered over the hillside. For the best views and menus featuring good food, check out Ramon's Homestay, Rita's, Simon's, Batad Pension or the Hillside Inn. Ask around and someone will point the way. Expect to pay between $4 to $7 a night for lodging. (Meals generally cost between $1 to $3.50). Each guesthouse will know how you can hire a guide. The terraces are privately owned, and only with a guide (about $10 a day) can you avoid stumbling over someone's property.

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