Mountain people: The Bataks of Palawan

Henson Wongaiham

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The Batak is the smallest among the different tribes in Palawan. Sadly, their tribe is also disintegrating. In the early 1900s, there were around 600 of them. During the 70s, there were almost 400 of them. Now they're down to about 300.

PALAWAN, Philippines – If you’re looking for something offbeat to include in your Puerto Princesa itinerary, try spending a few hours with the Batak tribe in Kalakwasan in Sitio Tanabag. Learn about their lives, practices, and how you can be of help.

The Batak, the smallest tribe in Palawan, live up in the mountains. With just 49 families left – that’s more or less 300 people – they’re slowly disappearing.

From what I read, the word “Batak” in Cuyonon means “mountain people.” While the Batak’s origins haven’t been determined, it’s inferred that they are of Aeta descent because of their physical attributes — dark skin, kinky hair, and small but well-defined bodies.

TRADITIONAL COSTUMES. The Batak people used to wear these colorful costumes. Photo by Henson Wongaiham

The Batak is the smallest among the different tribes in Palawan. Sadly, their tribe is also disintegrating. In the early 1900s, there were around 600 of them. During the 70s, there were almost 400 of them. Now they’re down to about 300.

NEAR THE VILLAGE. You know you're near when you start seeing huts and Batak tribe members walking around. Photo by Henson Wongaiham

ROAD TO THE BATAKS. The trip involves crossing 12 rivers. Photo by Henson Wongaiham

It takes around 4 hours to reach the Bataks from Rizal Avenue in Puerto Princesa City. The trip involves crossing 12 rivers over a two-hour trek. For more details, click here.

FAVORITE SPORT. The Batak boys love to play basketball. Photo by Henson Wongaiham

In general, the Bataks are an introverted bunch. Even among themselves, they’re pretty quiet – not unless the boys are playing basketball.

Another interesting thing about the Bataks is that many women are topless.

BATAK WOMEN. Traditionally, Batak women do not cover their upper torso. Photo by Henson Wongaiham

Here are a few people I saw and talked to:

COURTESY AND RESPECT. Batak chieftain During Villanueva greets visitors upon arrival. As a way of showing courtesy and respect, visitors give food items for the tribe. Photo by Henson Wongaiham


FUN PASTIME. Removing lice from each other's hair seems like a fun pastime! Photo by Henson Wongaiham

NGANGA. This indigenous woman has reddish teeth from chewing nganga (betel nut)

BATAK BOY'S DREAM. Gilbert, 10, loves to play basketball. He also likes girls with straight hair. One of his dreams is to study. Photo by Henson Wongaiham

MOTHER AND SON. 18-year old Gay-gay with her 4-month-old baby. Photo by Henson Wongaiham

KAPITAN. Marcelito Dancil is the Kapitan of Sitio Tanabag. The Batak members contact him if they need to be hospitalized. Photo by Henson Wongaiham


The Bataks seldom go down the mountains. Some go to town twice a week; others once a month. Some even less – if not to buy non-perishable food or what-not, it’s to perform traditional dances for tourists.

There, I learned about some of their problems:
1. Lack of a steady source of income
2. Health – LBM and malnutrition
3. Education – Poor literacy rate
4. Lack of a permanent teacher for schooling and farming

OFF TO SELL WOOD. Lack of a steady income is a problem for the Batak. Photo by Henson Wongaiham

How do they earn money? 

The average family earns around P5,000 a month. This depends on the season and weather conditions. The male’s sources of income include selling rattan wood, honey, or almaciga sap.

SOURCE OF INCOME. Sap from the almaciga tree is sold, which will be used for varnish. Photo from

LIVELIHOOD THREAT. Tirso, 29, has three kids. He earns around Php 2,000 a month selling almaciga sap for Php 14 per kilogram.  Because of the strong rains that make rivers impassable, he hasn't earned anything in 2 months. Photo by Henson Wongaiham

Women earn money through handicrafts they make: woven items, flower pots, or beaded necklaces. Despite the excellent quality, they don’t have regular buyers.

If only they had a steady source of income, they said.

ACCESSORIES. Batak women make beautiful beaded necklaces. Photo by Henson Wongaiham

INDIGENOUS ITEMS FOR SALE. Some of the stuff the tribe members sell. Wooden Top (Php 30); Bark (Php 50); Basket (Php 60); Necklace (Php 100). Photo by Henson Wongaiham

See what artists can do with the tree bark here!

What do they eat?

They usually eat rice that they’ve harvested (or sometimes the ones bought from town), kamoteng kahoy (cassava), and native plants. Sometimes, they hunt for the occasional baboy damo (wild pig) or flying squirrel. When we were there, the Batak ate pancit bihon prepared by an NGO.

LUNCH. Pancit Bihon was served for lunch by an NGO. Photo by Henson Wongaiham

Health problems

While the Bataks still practice traditional herbal medicine, the help of Western medicine is sometimes needed to prevent death – most especially for LBM and malnutrition. While health is gradually improving as missionaries have started helping, doctors and medicine are still needed.

We met the oldest member of the Bataks, who happens to be the quack doctor. He mentioned the different herbs used to heal the common cold or fever.

BABAYLAN. 75-year-old Rogelio Sibido is the Batak tribe's babaylan (quack doctor). Photo by Henson Wongaiham

Of childbirth, he boasted of balingasag na balat that women drink to lessen the bleeding. He proudly shared that nothing tears in the process and that stitches aren’t required!

ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE. Students from Palawan State University interviewing the quack doctor for their thesis on alternative medicine. Photo by Henson Wongaiham


The highest education level attained by a Batak is Grade 6.

With the help of NGOs like Heaven’s Eyes and through their Alternative Learning System (ALS), they hope that the literacy of the Batak children will slowly improve and will be at par with lowlanders.

ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION. Batak children take the Alternative Learning System (ALS) because formal education is not accesible in the village. Photo by

According to Bing Pedolin, a partner of Heaven’s Eyes, they are in the process of building a classroom where individual tutorials in Filipino, English and reading will be conducted. She mentioned that 3 full-time Filipino teachers will be staying with the Bataks.

NEW HOPE. Foundations of the new school to help raise the literacy level of the Batak children. Photo by Henson Wongaiham

VOLUNTEER. Bing Pedolin, one of the community volunteers amuse the kids with her iPad. Photo by Henson Wongaiham

It was mentioned that the lack of a permanent teacher was a problem. According to our guide, this not only applied to schooling but farming as well. Apparently, the Batak need to be guided and supervised to make sure they’re doing everything correctly.

COMMUNITY MEETING. Heaven's Eyes, the group that brought an alternative learning experience to the Batak people, facilitates a community meeting. Photo by Henson Wongaiham

Despite the presence of missionaries and NGOs, the Batak tribe is still in need of help.

How can you help?

1. If you’re up to it, immerse yourself in the community. Stay for the afternoon or a few days.
2. Donate vitamins and medicine, especially for LBM and fever.
3. If you want, bring non-perishable food items like uncooked rice, noodles, or coffee.
4. Donate children’s books for the new classroom being built.
5. Be a volunteer teacher or doctor.
6. Find organizations that can source materials from the Batak.
7. Scout for other NGO’s that can help.
8. Donate money to organizations that are currently helping like Heaven’s Eyes.
9. Share their stories.

TELL THEIR STORY. Help the Batak community by volunteering, donating, and sharing the story of their plight. Photo by Henson Wongaiham

There was just so little time for me there. I wanted to talk to so many more people and there were so many issues I wanted to learn about:

  • The Batak’s concept of love, courtship, and relationships. Is it true that parents can buy a wife for their sons? Is it true that virgins are of smaller value?
  • High ranking Batak’s abuse of power in the past. Is it true that a past chieftain used religion to get women to sleep with him? 
  • Ang hindi marunong magsinungaling, gutom.” (Hungry are those who don’t know how to lie.) Is there truth to this?

Such juicy topics! Will you find these out for me? Pretty please?

Code of conduct

Finally, I’d like to share something that I came across in the Batak Visitor Center. It’s the code of conduct for visiting ethnic villages. I think that all visitors should read these friendly reminders before spending time with indigenous people. In summary:

  • Treat the tribes as your equal.
  • Observe and learn about the tribe’s way of life and be open-minded.
  • Be friendly as you mingle. Avoid showing extreme emotions. 
  • Ask permission before taking photos and avoid portraying them in a different light. 
  • Buy the stuff that they make. You help them in more ways than one.
  • If you feel that it’s necessary to give gifts to the tribe, choose the items wisely.
  • Respect the tribe’s environment. Leave it the way that you found it. 
  • Minimize modern influences so that their ethnic identity won’t be lost. 
  • Bring everything that you’ll need. Tribes don’t have much to share.
  • Be sensitive to how they respond to you.

HENSON WONGAIHAM. The author blogs at He says that wherever he goes, he tends to wander off, explore and just take pictures. He shares his trip to the Batak tribe in time with the celebration of the national indigenous peoples' month of October. This picture was taken in 2009 in a trip to Ifugao, where he first met indigenous peoples.

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