That Thing Called Final Destination

Sagada, Mountain Province, the Philippines

March 1, 2015

That indie romcom That Thing Called Tadhana – Tagalog for destiny – inspired me to trek the mountains of Sagada (sorry, not sorry to the recent “spare Sagada” online movement). As our group emerged from the rock art-adorned Latang Underground River, the guide pointed at a vertical wall of limestone we would be scaling up. Wooden coffins protruded out of niches seemingly beyond reach from any direction. It left to the imagination how the Applai tribe had hauled unwieldy log coffins up steep rock faces to inter them into narrow crevices.

Coffin in a Cliff @ Sagada

Rock Art and Artists @ Latang Underground River, Sagada

We died and went to heaven. So to speak. The hike up the craggy trail was a killer. Our quads were not used to stretching across boulders, our glutes to sliding down ravines. After the longest half an hour, we were at the shadow of the famous hanging coffins. These hollow logs, called kuong, defied gravity and vied with stalactites for space on the rock face. Some had been suspended there for centuries, others only a couple of years.

Hanging Coffins @ Echo Valley, Sagada
Hanging Coffins @ Echo Valley, Sagada
Kuong (hollow log coffin) and Sangadil (death chair) @ Sagada Hanging Coffins

It was an unusual resting place for the dead. Not underground but above ground. This way, our guide explained, the dead were closer to heaven. Still breathless from the arduous hike from Echo Valley, we certainly felt the proximity to the firmament.

Only elders from prominent families were interred in these coffins, as they were believed to watch over their families, perhaps literally, in the afterlife. The corpses were said to be fitted into the coffins in fetal position. Their knees had already been bent as they were made to sit on a chair, the sangadil which were sometimes hung beside the coffin, during the pre-burial ritual. I imagined these hanging death chairs were truly a vantage point from whence the departed could keep watch over the living.

Cross and Coffins @ Sagada Hanging Coffins
Hanging Around Hanging Coffins @ Echo Valley, Sagada

Cliff and cave burials had been practiced by mountain tribes in Sagada for about 2,000 years. Hanging coffins were scattered throughout this part of the Cordilleras.

With feet heavy and shoulders collapsed like the walking dead, we clambered out of the wilderness into a clearing. It was another place of death, a more familiar kind of cemetery. White and grey headstones of Calvary Cemetery dotted the gentle slopes of Calvary Hill fringed by pine trees.

Calvary Cemetery @ Calvary Hill, Sagada
A Hero’s Grave: PO3 Noel O. Golocan @ Calvary Cemetery, Sagada

Even from afar, a freshly painted headstone stood out. Obviously a recent addition to the silent community. It was the grave of one of 44 police officers massacred in Mindanao just a month before. Hailed as heroes, the Fallen 44 gave their lives in exchange of one – a Malaysian terrorist allegedly coddled by rebel groups down south.

A number of these Special Action Forces was from the Cordlilleras, a region known for the bravery of its people, one of whom was PO3 Noel Golocan. During the ambush, he reportedly sacrificed his own life for a junior officer being shot at from all directions. PO3 Golocan emerged from his cover to take the volley of bullets. He staggered up repeatedly until the rebels finished him off. The junior officer lived to tell of his colleague’s heroism. I paused for a moment of silence to honor his legacy of courage and loyalty to duty, to the state, to his fellow Filipino.

If anyone deserved a seat in the heavens, it was this hero.

A Hero’s Grave: PO3 Noel O. Golocan @ Calvary Cemetery, Sagada
Anglican Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin @ Sagada

We walked on until the Anglican Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, one of the oldest in the region, came into view. The Cordillera Autonomous Region was unique for being predominantly Protestant in this Catholic country. The sight was a relief as it meant we had reached town.

Church of St. Mary the Virgin from Davey’s Inn & Restaurant @ Sagada

Later that day, I caught a glimpse of the stone church from my window at Davey’s Inn and Restaurant. Only then it hit me: the site of the hanging coffins just beyond the back of the church was a leisurely walk from our digs! We didn’t have to suffer through, yet also amazed by, that steep and craggy terrain.

Such was death. It could be a long and strenuous journey before it reached the heavenly realm. Or it could just be around the corner, unexpectedly. Either way, it inevitably led to that thing called destiny – the final destination. The movie was spot on, after all.


15 thoughts on “That Thing Called Final Destination

Add yours

    1. Enchanting is the word. It was a difficult town to reach, but definitely worth all the aches and pains. Andale, De AnDA! 🙂

  1. Hi AJ, as usual your narratives are pleasant reads. thank you for sharing an insightful message.

    bob and i have been planning (for ages) to bring the kids to sagada, where we had our honeymoon almost thirty one years ago. imagine what fortitude we had as we rode a bus for 8 hours (from Baguio), braved the halsema highway to get there and all we had of sagada back then was a quick excerpt from the movie of then hunk Christopher de Leon with Hilda Koronel (if memory serves me right).

    it was one great adventure, it struck the travelling chords in both our hearts to strum the tunes to travel through God’s grace and provisions. we hope to return to Sagada before our final destination 🙂 thank you, AJ for your inspiration. blessings to you and your mom.

    1. Love the story in your comment. It adds another layer of meaning to my post.

      So uncanny how Pinoy movie stars figured in both of our visits to Sagada (Christopher de Leon and Hilda Koronel for you, JM de Guzman and Angelica Panganiban for me)! 🙂 Mabuhay ang pelikulang Pilipino!

      1. Yes, I agree. It was just too pricey, and they only have two routes. They should have more routes (perhaps around 20) to make the 400 worthwhile.

        But then again, rock climbing isn’t that popular in Sagada, so it might not be financially viable for now.

    1. Not much of an adventurer, actually. I was whining the whole time we were hiking, haha! You should write about your Sagada trip. Maybe I’d learn a thing or two about being a real adventurer from you, Curly.

      1. I’ll do my best to chase the musings down memory lane. I love spelunking big time! Had other remarkable ones at Underground River and Ugong Rock Cave in Palawan! 😀 You’ll prolly love to visit it and check out the vibrating rocks. LOL

    2. Vibrating rocks??? Haven’t heard of those. I guess that’ll be the only thing that can lure me down a cave again!

      1. That’s why the cave’s name is Ugong Rock, really fascinating when you bang the rocky wall of the cave with a stick/branch, you can feel that ‘ugong’, sort of vibration. 🙂 You gotta go back to Palawan.

  2. Bit haunting but still has endearing back stories about those above ground coffins. Would love to that if I ever go to Sagada. I know someone who was just there but didn’t get to the cave because Sagada got popular because of the movie and that there were so many people already got the spot to tour it before they even got there. Great post, and thanks for the tidbits!

    1. Yeah, that movie really sold Sagada. Hence the “save Sagada” movement online. Pop culture is truly effective in promoting tourism. It wasn’t so crowded yet when I went there, but we already had a hard time finding accommodations. Anyway, glad that my little post has inspired you to visit Sagada.

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