Lucban's Pahiyas – Best Philippines Festival for Older Travellers

Lucban's Pahiyas – Best Philippines Festival for Older Travellers

The Philippines is a land of colourful festivals. Cebu’s Sinulog festival, Iloilo’s Dinagyang festival and the Ati-Atihan festival held in Aklan, near Boracay, can rightly claim to be world famous. And there are dozens of smaller festivals that are held throughout the archipelago. 

The parades and street parties that are a feature of these festivals attract thousands of tourists from overseas every year. They also attract hundreds of thousands of locals as well. It is estimated that between one and two million people attend the Sinulog festival annually.

Whilst the crowds and noise of these events enhance their festive atmosphere, many older travellers find the experience overpowering. The added difficulty of finding accommodation nearby during festival periods results in many seniors staying away.

However there is one festival that is not so crowded, and can be visited on a day trip from Manila – so finding accommodation is not an issue. It’s the Pahiyas festival held in Lucban, Quezon province, every 15th of May.

A performer prepares for the Pahiyas Grand Parade. Image: © Michael Pine

It’s a harvest festival that commemorates the patron saint of farmers, San Isidro de Labrador, and features an early morning parade after a church service, a bazaar selling native handcrafts and local foodstuffs (look for the signs to the ‘Tiangge’), a Grand Parade in the afternoon with floats and marching bands, and evening entertainment.

But the main feature of the Pahiyas festival – and what sets this one apart from other festivals in the Philippines – are the houses decorated in colourful ‘kiping’, plants, fruits and vegetables.

From a distance. kiping looks like semi-translucent plastic, but it’s actually made from rice paste (so is edible) molded in the shape of leaves and coloured with food dyes. The creation of floral decorations from kiping is what Lucban is famous for – although it is said to be a dying art because few young people are interested in carrying on the tradition.

Tourists snap photos along the decorated streets. Image: © David Astley

The most elaborate house decorations will often feature a chandelier-like arrangement of layers of kiping known as ‘arangya’. Others will use the kiping to create large or small flowers in different colours to cover the facades of their residences.

The efforts of the residents are judged (hence the entry numbers pinned on the houses) and prizes awarded for the best house decorations.

Red arangya and fresh produce on a house façade. Image: © David Astley

The decorations are installed on the night of the 14th and taken down on the night of the 15th, so can only be seen for one day.

It’s a relaxing experience to wander the streets of the town early in the morning, before the sun gets too hot, admiring the exquisite house decorations.  As the crowds start to build up during the course of the morning, the most spectacular will invariably attract large numbers of Filipino visitors taking their obligatory selfies in front of the houses.

Many of the decorations have a religious theme. Image: © David Astley

Chatting with the local residents is another way to spend the morning before the big parade. The festival atmosphere creates camaraderie between locals and visitors that is even warmer than the usual Filipino friendly demeanour towards tourists.

Many residents set up stalls around lunchtime selling drinks and local delicacies such as pancit ‘hab-hab’ (rice noodles that are eaten out of a banana leaf without using any utensils) and Lucban longganisa (a local sausage). There are a number of small eating-places around the town centre too, but these get very crowded from mid-morning onwards.

Home-made Lucban longganisa for sale. Image: © David Astley

Unless you are used to eating street food in Asian countries, visitors from overseas may prefer to bring a packed lunch because there are no restaurants in Lucban offering western food.

In the afternoon the Grand Parade sets off from the church plaza around 2.00 pm. The route through the town varies from year to year, but the locals will be able to advise which streets the parade will pass through.

Staying through the afternoon for the evening entertainment may make it too long a day for some older visitors, but the lights on the houses after dark provide a new perspective to many of the house decorations, and it is less crowded in the evening because many people head home after the parade.

Getting there

Lucban is about 2-3 hours drive from Manila depending on traffic. Hiring a car with a driver is the best way to get there, and is not an expensive option in the Philippines. The first part of the journey will be on the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX), which is relatively free of traffic in the southbound direction early in the morning.

After leaving the SLEX at Calamba, the road to Lucban takes visitors through the hot springs region at the southern end of Laguna de Bay, past Mt Makiling and through rice fields and coconut plantations on the way to the small rural towns of Liliw and Majayjay on the northern flanks of Mt Banahaw.

Liliw is a shoe-making town, and worth a stop to browse the many shoe shops on Gat-tayaw Street. There are two good restaurants in Liliw. The White House bistro, on the same street as the shoe shops, has a good reputation for Filipino food.

Nearby on Rizal Street, in the block behind the White House, is Arabela, an excellent Italian restaurant that seems almost out of place in such a small provincial town. The meals and desserts are as good as you’ll find in any Italian restaurant in the more upmarket areas of Metro Manila.

Both Liliw and Majayjay have old churches that are worth visiting for those interested in 17th century architecture. The Liliw church was completed in 1646 and was built in a baroque style using adobe and red bricks. The Majayjay church was completed three years later using adobe and stone in a Romanesque style. It is designated as a National Cultural Treasure. The interiors of both churches are very photogenic.

The entrance to Liliw’s 17th century church. Image: © David Astley

There is an alternative route to Liliw and Majayay via Santo Tomas and San Pablo City that avoids the inevitable traffic congestion in Los Banos, but sometimes that route involves heavy traffic too, so check a navigation app like Waze to determine the best option.

From Majayjay, it’s little more than half an hour’s drive to Lucban through some picturesque rural scenery.  On the day of the Pahiyas festival, the roads through the town are closed off, and parking areas are created on the outskirts of the town. 

Parking wardens will direct cars to the nearest available parking area, and from there visitors can take a tricycle into the town centre. The fare will depend on the distance, but for those who get there early and are able to park close to the outskirts, the fare should not be more than 50 pesos for 2-4 people.

Vehicles arriving later in the day will have to park further away, and by early afternoon the parking areas may be up to 2 km away.

Do remember to ask the tricycle driver the name of the place or street where your vehicle is parked. There have been many instances of visitors being unable to find their cars after the festival because they forgot to ask about where it was parked.

Although the Pahiyas festival can be easily visited in a day trip from Manila, keen photographers who may wish to photograph the decorated buildings without crowds of visitors in front of them will need to arrive before 7.00 am. This will mean a very early departure from Manila or alternatively securing overnight accommodation nearby.

There is some excellent accommodation at the Samkara Garden Resort on the Majayjay to Lucban road, about 10 minutes away from Lucban, but that usually gets booked out months in advance of the Pahiyas festival.

The Samkara Garden Resort near Lucban. Image: © David Astley

There are a few Airbnbs around Mt Banahaw, but apart from those the nearest accommodation is at Pagsanjan, or along the Calamba to Los Banos road. None of those are of a particularly high standard, but they are fine for those who wish to get to Lucban early without driving all the way from Manila, and for those who wish to stay for the street parties on the night of the festival.

The restaurant at the nearby Samkara resort is a good option for dinner. For those who might be considering stopping at Liliw for a meal on the way back from Lucban, be aware that Arabela closes at 7pm.  

The next best options for dinner on the return journey are in Los Banos. There are several very good restaurants on Lopez Street, which leads to the main entrance of the Los Banos campus of the University of the Philippines. There is a Starbucks too, right outside the main gate.

Other than that, there are numerous eating-places at the rest stops on the SLEX on the way back to Manila. Those are all open until very late.

It will be a long day getting to Lucban early and staying on for both the 2pm parade and the evening entertainment, but it provides a relatively hassle-free way to see one of the Philippines’ most colourful rural festivals, and most older travellers will find it a more relaxing experience than the other more crowded festivals.

Header image: © David Astley

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