The Palawan Tau’t Bato of Singnapan Valley

Palawan, Philippines

Singnapan Valley in southern Palawan is a place I have wanted to visit for a long time now. It was a couple of years ago that I came across some images online of the Tau’t Bato tribe and it has intrigued me ever since. The remoteness of Singnapan valley is what first caught my attention and then the interesting stories that the people there live in large caves during the rainy season. Thus, their name Tau’t Bato – Dwellers of the rock. There are a handful of travel blogs and some videos online of other foreigners and Filipinos making the trek to Singnapan. This area is also home to Mount Mantalingahan, the highest peak in Palawan and an occasional destination for hardcore mountaineers. I am always somewhat skeptical of visiting a place when I see this, as I always want to try and visit new places with new faces. However, from what I gathered there are really very few individuals who travel here and that was confirmed when we arrived and talked with our guide. We were only the second visitors to the area this year. Likewise, for the Katutubong Filipino Project this was an area we needed to visit so it was destined that we would make the long journey into the jungle to visit the Tau’t Bato.

Our friend, Tumihay, a native Pala'wan Tau't Bato of southern Palawan.

The Tau’t Bato (Tao’t Bato, Taaw’t Bato) are really just a subgroup of the larger Pala’wan indigenous group. They speak the native Pala’wan language and practice many of the same beliefs of the Pala’wan. The only difference being this particular community, those living in the area of Singnapan valley, take shelter in the large nearby caves during the rainy season. Because of the heavy rains and flooding within the valley during the wet months taking shelter within the caves is their best protection. During the dry season each family has its own land and house within the valley. The name Tau’t Bato was given to these people by President Marcos back in the 70’s because of their cave existence.

It was during this time that President Marcos made multiple visits to Singnapan valley to explore the area. Our guide, Buano and our host, Tumihay, who was just a little boy at the time remembers the helicopters flying into the valley with Marcos and Imelda on-board. Tumihay said President Marcos only stayed for 30 minutes in fear that the people may attack him. The helicopters brought in clothes, rice and some other provisions to distribute to the tribe. This is the first time Tumihay remembers getting western style clothes. However, the reason Marcos was so interested in this area was because of the riches it held. For many months Marco’s team raided all the caves in the area (the burial sites for the Tau’t Bato) and collected all the gold and other valuables on the bodies. Buano also said that it’s possible they found Japanese treasure as well in the caves, because many of the caves Marco’s team explored were caves the Tau’t Bato never went into. Years later there were many stories that Marcos hid a lot of his wealth in the caves of Singnapan. In the 80’s and 90’s this area saw numerous visitors from all over the world searching for Marco’s hidden wealth. However, the reality was, Marcos was there to take the wealth from the natives not leave hidden treasure of his own.

Our guide, Buano, and Tumihay eating kamoting kahoy by a gas light while telling stories. Although a native Tau't Bato, Buano moved away from Singnapan many years ago and built a small home down the mountain closer to the barangay center. He told us he was 87 years old, but like most other Tau't Bato they do not know their age, not even the children. I suspect he was a little younger than 87, but he hiked the trails like he was in his 20's and went barefoot the whole way.

Getting to Singnapan valley was no easy task. From the capital of Palawan, Puerto Princesa it’s a good day travel on a not so comfortable bus. Once in Rizal, it’s another day trek by foot up the mountain into Singnapan. The trail was rugged, slippery and the air was as thick as one could imagine hot jungle air to be. Every ten minutes or so I had to ring my shirt out from the sweat it collected. Our bags were soaked with sweat by the time we arrived and our bodies on the verge of collapsing. We did have our guide, Buano with us and two of his grandsons as porters. Having quite a bit of gear and all of our provisions for four days it was necessary (we had about 15 kilos of rice alone). Once we arrived we were welcomed by our host Tumihay and his family who were the most gracious people. Their home sits in a small clearing within the valley surrounded by forest, a serene location.

Tumihay's home the evening we arrived into Singnapan valley.

A Tau't Daram man burning grass to help keep mosquitoes away from his home. Malaria is a still a huge concern for the natives of Singnapan Valley and taking preventative measures is a must. Tau't Daram is another subgroup of Pala'wan people near Singnapan valley. There are also the Tau't Arib in the area, but as we were told all of the groups mix with each other now. They are all still Pala'wan.

During our stay we had to be very careful of mosquito bites as this area is still very much invested with Malaria. In 2005, three journalists from Manila died of malaria while making a documentary about the effects of malaria on the Tau’t Bato. During their stay Reyster Langit and his team all came down with cerebral malaria. Reyster died while being treated in California and his two companions also died of complications from the disease, one in Manila and one in Puerto Princesa. We asked Tumihay about the three journalist that died and he said he wasn’t sure if it was malaria or not. Apparently, the journalist were not listening to the Tau’t Bato and doing forbidden acts such as defecating in the river during their stay. Upon being asked not to do these things, they continued to do so. Perhaps some of the tribe members put a spell or something on the journalists and that is what killed them. At least that is the response that seems to be circulating anytime you mention the incident. It was also suggested that the doctors really didn’t know if it was actually malaria the three had or not. That being said, Tumihay admits that he has had malaria in the past and one of his daughters babies died at a young age because of the disease. It is certainly present and we proceeded with caution during our stay.

Panglima, a chief mediator of the Tau't Bato. We met Panglima while hiking around the valley one day. Although blowguns were traditionally used to hunt in the forest, shotguns are now the more practical means for the Tau't Bato. Blowguns are still used on occasion, but shotguns are now the weapon of choice for hunting in the forest.

Mariam, one of Tumihay's eight children, making a bat catcher that will be used later in the evening to catch dinner. The spines on the edges of the branches are very sharp and clasp to anything that touches them.

Tumihay is one of those guys I could see myself hanging out very often. Easy going, highly motivated and the nicest person one could meet. He didn’t mind at all that I was right at his side while he was doing everything throughout the day. Not to mention his family opened their house for us during our stay and offered us what little food they had. Our second day there I ask him if he could show me around some of the caves and without any hesitation he said, lets go hunting and I’ll show you the caves. It’s like he knew exactly what it was I wanted to photograph. Because it was dry season none of the families from the valley were staying in the cave. Tumihay wanted to show me the large cave where they stay during these months, but the ladder to reach the opening was broken. Instead, we explored some of the other more accessible caves. I may have to make a trip back during the rainy season to see how life is within the cave.

Tumihay in one of the cave structures looking for birds to hunt with his blowgun.

Tumihay walking along the entrance to a large cave looking for birds and other prey to hunt.

One morning Buano took me up the mountain to another small clearing in hopes to meet an older man named Oki. One of the main differences with the Tau’t Bato and other Philippine indigenous communities we have visited is the distance between their homes. Anywhere we wanted to go within Singnapan valley required somewhat of a hike to get to. Oki was still out collecting tobacco leaves when we arrived, so we ended up talking to another family for a couple of hours. During this visit we met a young man who had a huge slash on his foot and could barely walk. Apparently, he fell a couple of weeks prior and sliced open his foot on a rock. Without any access to medical treatment his whole leg swelled up and his foot looked like something out of a horror film. I will spare you all from posting a photo of it here. I told Buano that if his wife wanted to hike back with us to town in a couple of days I would be happy to buy antibiotics and cream for the wound. She gave it some thought, but told us she would be afraid to hike back alone. The good sign was the swelling of his leg had started to come down.

Oki, an elder Tau't Bato man having a smoke of tobacco in his home. Many of the Tau't Bato men and women heavily smoke tobacco leaves. During the thirty minutes we spent with Oki in his home he had three smokes.

Oki walking back home on a path through the forest.

The women woke up early to start their work in the valley. I noticed that all the able bodied people of Tumihay’s family pulled their share of work. It takes a lot of time to plant crops, maintain the fields, harvest, prepare the kamoteng kahoy and cook for the family. The children take care of the other children and everyone stays busy. If the family is able to make a little money, Tumihay and his wife will hike into town to buy necessary goods such as salt, oil, and sometimes fresh fish.

Ernisa, Tumihays wife, cooking their version of what they call pancakes, a sweet treat prepared from crushed rice, sugar and oil. Ernisa spent all morning crushing the rice into a fine power and most of the afternoon cooking the yummy fried cakes. I must say it tasted very good and she was able to sell all of them to neighboring families.

Two of Tumihays daughters head up the river bed to a trail that will lead them to a small clearing to harvest kamoteng kahoy.

Tumihay's eldest daughter sorting through their harvested kamoteng kahoy while her daughter is eating fresh sugar cane.

Melmel making sounds with a leaf to pass time.

Something I was looking forward to on our last night was seeing how Tumihay hunted for bats. After seeing the unique contraption his daughter made to harvest the flying mammals I was thinking this could be a great activity to photograph. Unfortunately, Tumihay asked me to stay back because he said the trail was dangerous and we would have to walk back down in the dark. I didn’t want to push things too much, so I followed him and his wife for a short while into the forest before they went ahead up the mountain. About a hour later he returned with four bats in his trap all still alive. Ernisa took the bats and started to prepare everything to cook them.

Tumihay and his wife heading out at dusk up the mountain to hunt for bats.

Tumihay removing live bats from the bat catcher after arriving home from their hunt.

Ernisa cooking freshly caught bat over an open fire. After the bat is slightly charred over the fire it is cut up and fried in oil. I was given a small piece to try, but I politely declined as the only thought going through my head was 'bats carry rabies, right?' In hindsight, I should have tried it.

Life in the valley is simple from our perspective, but families have everything they need. Food to eat, a roof over their head and their families. We certainly felt the family bondage and love during our stay there, although it took a little time for the children to warm up to us. They were incredibly shy, but some of the most beautiful children I have come across. I could have photographed Tumihay’s children all day long as their faces were simply beautiful. There are certainly similarities between the Tau’t Bato and other groups we have visited, arranged marriages being one of them. Like in Bukidnon, there is a dowry of sorts given to the women’s family in order to marry. Couples are arranged at a young age, although no one in the valley knows their age as they do not keep track. I asked Tumihay how old he was when he was married. He pointed to his daughter (who looked to be around 10 years old) and he said around that age. Because the women are in a sense ‘bought’ by the man, they are generally the ones carrying the heavy loads when hiking.

The children enjoyed playing with whatever insects or critters made their way into their home. During our stay there the children tied up locusts, chased praying mantis, and even had some fun with the live bats before they were cooked. This was a great reminder to me that children are really a product of their environment and that their connection to the forest begins when they are small.

A Tau't Bato man pulling weeds from his rice in a slash-and-burn field (kaingin) along the route to Singnapan valley. This method of farming is common among the people here as it provides needed space to grow their necessary crops.

Tumihay's children helping and watching their father collect honey from the forest after the queen bee has been smoked out. Almost anything that can be found or harvested from the forest is used by the Tau't Bato.

A Tau't Bato family transporting kamoteng kahoy in Singnapan valley. Occasionally we would run into other families hiking along a path or in the forest. With homes being a good distance away from each other most of our time was spent with Tumihay and his family.

As the Katutubong Filipino Project moves ahead, we are honored to meet people like Tumihay and his family. It is a great privilege to be able to share life with these special people, even if just for a short period of time. It is my hope that at the end of this year long journey we may be able to bring together key people we meet along the way to gather and meet each other. I think that would be inspirational for those who could join and perhaps a way to bring this all together near the end. Just a thought.

Our friend, Tumihay, taking a rest while hunting for birds in the forest.

Share on Pinterest
Share with your friends










Submit
588
Shares

Tagged: asia, documentary, indigenous people, Palawan, philippines, photography, Tau't Bato, Travel, tribe,
Posted on: May 3, 2012


  • great photos, great blog sir!

  • Christopher Gregerson

    Really amazing. I am glad you did all the work to raise the money, travel and get access, and take these memorable and important images. I’m curious about the different ways photos like this will be useful over time.

  • Thanks for sharing Jacobito

  • Solid work here !

  • thanks for sharing…

  • Jenny Castro

    I ran out of words. What you had captured are STORIES, not just plain images. Your perspective..really!! I mean, just let those above photos do the talking. Thank you so much for sharing it. Kudos!! The next generations would really appreciate your hardwork as I am now. (=

  • Thanks Chris for following the project so closely, it’s great to have people who are interested in this as it also keeps my motivation up. Yeah, I am hopeful the photos will be able to be used for the greater good of promoting awareness about the indigenous peoples here. Time will tell.

    Jenny, thanks for taking a look at the blog and for your feedback. πŸ™‚

  • Beautiful work, thank you for bringing our tribal families to awareness. We are all One Tribe..All tribes are our families so just as it means a lot to have photos of our loved ones who are far away, your photos allow us who cannot travel there to think of them with love and blessings..Each of us brings to these photos what we have in our heart so as more people remember that we are all family, then these photos strengthen family ties. This is what I feel when I see your honest sensitive beautiful photos…With this spirit, i will pass your photos on to people who do care and who will send loving thoughts to family…May you and your work continue to be blessed!

  • Thank you for the Story Telling & Photography. You are doing amazing work, it inspires me & touches my heart. Well wishes to you & your wife.

  • Brian Mueller Thanks for the words of encouragement Brian. πŸ™‚

  • Carmela EspaΓ±ola

    Great photo essay, Jake! And another great adventure! Btw, the bat catcher is made out of rattan–the spiny organ it uses for climbing, and the second to the last photo shows bundles of cassava (kamoteng kahoy) planting material and not rattan which is in the caption. It’s interesting that the bats are all insectivores. I’d think that fruit-eating bats are meatier and much more worth the effort to catch. They must have caught the bats outside a roosting cave at dusk. Also, there have been no documented rabid bats in the country so far but it’s not impossible. I look forward to your next post! Safe travels to you and Nahoma!

    • Hi Lala…Thanks for reading through this one. It’s good to know that these are insectivore bats, which makes sense I guess for eating. Yeah, the piece of meat offered to me was fairly good size and it looked good. I guess I’m just not too adventurous when it comes to eating exotic food though. It’s good that there are no rabies in case I find myself back there. I will try it next time. πŸ™‚ They told us that sometimes they go to the entrance of a cave at dusk, but it’s often hard to catch bats there. Instead they went up the mountain to a small pass I believe where the bats fly through. Apparently it’s easier to catch them there. I was wondering what that spiny organ was they were using for the bat catcher. Ingenious really! Hope all is well with you and your adventurous life. πŸ™‚

  • Ved

    great photos and blog. thanks for sharing! πŸ™‚

  • Geraldine Dangan

    I have been in Singnpan too during my college years and I’m so thankful for your photos. I get a chance to look over the place once again and see how Tumihay and his family nowadays. Ernisa’s still young when we visited the place. I’m younger too during those times πŸ™‚ And I am amazed that Maman Buano is still strong and healthy. We are forbidden to take much photos before and our cameras are not that good. Thank you so much again.

  • Itravelcorp_may

    I am based in Puerto Princesa City but not raised here. I often heard from Travel Industry about this Palawan Tau’t Bato but no idea at all.We had inquiries sometimes from different Travel Agencies around but could not figure it out what’s in there!! Thanks to your blog..very informative..and hey, nice photos too!

    • Maranol_0322

      I have been Signapan for several times, all for a documentary program for forieng networks. I am so happy to see tumihay and his family here. They have no idea how famous they are in the outside world. They are extremely shy people, and with a very good heart. Its one heck of an adventure. I always remember the faces.

      • Emmanuel Buenviaje

        How did you find a guide in there? And what municipality connect the Signapan Valley? Thank you very much…

      • Barbara Krajewski

        I’m very interested to visit the people at Signapan Valley. Can you give me a contact person who could gide me to Tumihay house.
        Barbara

  • catmanjohn

    Hello Jacob. You really do great work. I am a fellow photographer who first went to the PH in 2009, in order to document the croc hunting in Mindanao. Crocodile photography is my specialty, (www.crocphotos.com). I came across the Mamanwan People, also called the Kong Kings, who are probably tribal ancestors to the Agta and Dumagat People of Luzon. I have taken up the cause of the poor and down trodden, for I have seen the toll the negligence of corrupt politicians have taken on the people, forced evacuations, poor health and sanitary conditions, poor education and job training, despair, etc. I go thru Cebu at almost every occasion when I head for Mindanao. I would like to share some insights with you, and visa versa, about bat catching and the next possible pandemic (Hot Zone), other tribes and folklore, etc. Please keep me posted. All the best. John

  • kharst

    I have watched a special documentation about tau’t-bato and since then I got interested with them. I admire their dedication and despite the hardship, they still continue to live a life full of happiness and dedication. They inspire me much as I think what happen to those people who got fat bank account, rather than helping these people. This is just the right example that people can live the harmony of life without having so much. They were the people who can never think to do cruel things or outsmart other because of the contentment they feels towards of what they were doing. I been wishing to come to this place, perhaps soon when I have enough saving. they just made me cry and I salute them for their bravery of treasuring what they have.

  • francois williams

    wow…

  • Raiza

    Wow. This is an extraordinarily great blog. πŸ™‚

  • Talak

    So sad that people like him, hidden behind projects on
    preserving indigenous cultures, are doing quite opposite. Don’t you see all
    this is just business? He pays the people to guide him and show him the caves,
    and dress and pose for his commercial photos in a kind of human zoo. However,
    money and commercialization brings inevitable destruction to this extremely
    fragile culture. I have been visiting the tribe for the past 20 years and am
    sad to see ongoing disappearance of their millennia old lifestyle by
    aculturization brought by Filipinos and insensitive tourist throwing money all
    around in search for uniqueness, which they inevitably destroy… Money and western principles devastate fine
    social fabric and drive this archaic society to cultural extinction. The most
    these people need is to be left alone, and not being sold on the net!

    • Talak, you make very bold statements and accusations without even knowing me or the work I am doing. Do your research next time before accusing me of selling out indigenous cultures.

      • Andy

        And I say Talak is just right,even without knowing you

  • Jacob

    I wanted to send you a quick message saying that I have visited the Tau’t Batu also in June of this year. It was magical. I took quite some photo’s myself but only spent one day there. Not like you moving with the family for a while witnessing more of the surroundings, meeting their neighbors and seeing some of the customs. Not in the last place, you handle the camera a bit better than me πŸ˜‰ Reading your story and seeing your pictures really adds to my coloring of the Tau’t Batu picture. Buano and Tumihay and hiss family are carved in my memory and heart. Just so you know, Tumihay has 9 kids in the meantime, another girl (so 8 girls one boy). I will send to you some of my pictures in a file share. Open it if you like.

    As for the discussion above. There is the balance between respectfully visit and making a portrait of something special. I am a western tourist and went to visit so in that sense your Talak’s point is valid. Where ever I come I always try to bring food to eat and share, not to give money or other stuff. Tumihay was asking for it though, like my flashlight he was interested in. Some other tourist must have given him a watch as there was one on his wrist. From the visitor logs I have seen for 2013 and 2014, more than 80% of the visitors were Philippine people, most of them from Palawan.

  • roberto pattarin

    Excellent work Jacob. I am an italian medical doctor working also in south sudan and I went to Palawan in 1982 looking for Taut Batos. At that time from Quezon City you had to go by boat along the cost to a cetain village (named Ransang or similar) and hike from there. Unfortunately the night before moving police came and prevented us to go in the highland as a Moro attack had occurred in the area. In the ’80 Philippines were in trouble and worse the next years. So I had no choice to come back.
    Therefore I would be glad to share some details with you. My mail is [email protected]: I would be glad if you write me.
    roberto pattarin

  • Karen Abayon

    It’s been 3 years since we’ve visited Signapan. I’ve meet Tatay Buano (Our Tour Guide) and Tumihay. It was a great experience indeed. I’m really glad to see all this photos of them.

  • LC

    Exactly my thoughts! This tribe has been reduced to just another photo collection. How is this photo op going to contribute to the welfare of the Tau’t Batos? Is this even legal? I know for a fact that this tribe has been declared off-limits to outsiders by the Philippine government. There’s no depth. Ah, man and his ego.

  • LC

    Will you outsiders just please leave them alone? These are human beings, not animals in a zoo. Are you even qualified to observe them, are you an anthropologist? Nope. You’d be the death of these people by bringing deadly diseases.

  • Jayzel Ann Oliva

    i just want to ask, what is the political system of this tribe. thank you πŸ™‚

    • Hi Jayzel, I’m not too sure of their tribal political system.

    • Rafy Chang

      Tribal

  • Rafy Chang

    I get to work with Timuhay and his family, changed my life forever https://web.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10211890123381008&set=a.10211826952001763.1073741911.1008867156&type=3&theater here is a photo of Tatay Buano now, visted him last April 29 2017. Bless your good soul for sharing these remarkable memories that we both treasure forever.

  • Rafy Chang

    Hi Manuel, from Puerto Prinsesa you can go to the Terminal market where you can ride a van going to Ransang, from there drop off to Entrance to Mt Matalingajan there is store across a school and you can just asked anyone from there to lead you to Tatay Buano and he will give you your guide and you need to register just before heading on.

  • Rafy Chang

    Hi Barbara, I am from Palawan and I will be there this November, if you want to know more message me.

Would you like to know when new stories are published here?

All I need is your name and email. Don't worry, I wont share your info with anyone.