One of the best cultural experiences you can have in the Philippines is getting a tribal tattoo from Apo Whang-Od. Apo Whang-Od is an indigenous tribeswoman considered to be the last “mambabatok” (hand-tapped tattoo artist) in Butbut Tribe in Kalinga.
Here’s my experience in getting a tattoo from Apo Whang-Od, including a guide on how you can get here too.
- My trip to Buscalan Village for a tribal tattoo
- How to get to Buscalan, Kalinga
- About the ButBut Tribe and Tattooing
- What to Know About Getting a Tribal Tattoo
- Important Tattoo Care
- 2 Days Itinerary to Buscalan
- Things to do in Buscalan Village, Kalinga
- Budget and expenses
- Travel Tips
- What to read next:
My trip to Buscalan Village for a tribal tattoo
In the summer of 2015, I went to Kalinga for an outreach drive with friends. Visiting Kalinga was something I’d been looking forward for so long. There is something profound in immersing yourself in a culture that may eventually be lost in time. Our country has so much stories that are slowly fading a way, and to be inked by the oldest mambabatok in Kalinga is a way to preserve those stories.
From Manila, we drove to the mountains in Kalinga Province, located north of the Philippines. About 14 hours later, we arrived in Tinglayan, the hometown of Apo Whang-Od. On our way, we had stopovers to see the popular rice terraces in the area.
We trekked across a cemented walkway and then had a stopover in a waterfall.
Finally, we arrived at Buscalan Village in Kalinga. We were greeted by the villagers and given coffee, which were as good as the brews in Batangas. One thing that I noticed in the village is that black pigs were freely roaming around. For someone like me who grew up in the city, this was an uncommon sight to see.
We settled our bags in the homestay prepared for us and then gathered at the tattoo site. Once Apo Whang-Od arrived, everyone in there was in awe. We wanted to capture the smiles and laughs she greeted us with.
The tattoo session began. Only one person was tattooed by Apo Whang-Od that day. It was a birthday person in our group who chose to have a centipede design. The centipede tattoo means protection and represents a spiritual guide, which is fitting for someone celebrating another year of life.
The next morning, some of my companions went to the outreach site, while I went to see Apo Whang-Od. There was already a long line of people waiting.
Apo Whang-Od’s niece, Grace, was the first to start tattooing the visitors. After a while, another niece named Eliang joined in. The organizer for the session formed a loop that included one person from each visotor group so that everyone would have the chance to be tattooed.
I was third in line to be tattooed by the legendary Apo Whang-Od. While waiting, I browsed through the book about Kalinga tattoos. Initially, I was interested in the tattoo for “kidlat” (thunder).Then I learned that this design was derived from “karayan” (river), which means influence or to influence. Eventually I decided to get the karayan design on my left arm.
Before my turn, Apo Whang-Od had lunch. It was already a half day of waiting. I didn’t mind although I did miss the outreach event, and when she was back, the session began.
The hand tapping was painful. After a while, the skin began to numb and the pain lessened, but whenever the needle hit the bone, especially the nerve, I would jerk in pain. I took pictures while being tattooed, and Apo did not mind.
We were tattooed in a hut with pictures of a lot of visitors glued or taped on the wood just below the roof. The view was a bliss. We were surrounded by greenery, and the only noise were the giggles and laughter of the other visitors. It was quite an experience.
After my tattoo was done, Apo Whang-Od spread coconut oil on the fresh wound. Coconut oil changes when it stays longer in the cold. I hugged Apo Whang-Od after the session and took a picture with her.
I was happy about my tattoo, although I’ve only learned a little about the history of the tribe on my visit. I haven’t had the chance to talk to Apo Whang-Od to ask about the history of the traditional tattooing in their tribe and other stories due to language barrier. Instead, what I learned I read from the tattoo book.
We packed our things and were thankful for the safe and wonderful experience.
Update: Hali had his tattoo done by Apo Whang-Od in 2015. He initially wanted to have the design go around his arm, but Apo Whang-Od got tired so it was only done at the front. The design healed well, but there were permanent small holes on the skin. Regardless, Hali is happy about his tattoo since he considers it an important cultural mark.
How to get to Buscalan, Kalinga
From Manila, it will take you around 12-14 hours to reach Buscalan Village in Kalinga Province.
Bus terminals can be found in Cubao and Quezon City.
- From Cubao, ride a Coda Lines bus bound for Bontoc. Travel time is 10 hours, fare is P725 per person.
- (Option 1): From Bontoc, ride a jeepney to the jump-off point to Buscalan Village. Travel time is 2 hours, fare is P100 per person.
- (Option 2): Alternatively, you can also ride a bus bound for Tabuk and get off at Bugnay Village in Tinglayan. Travel time is 1.5 hour, fare is P70 per person. From there, ride a motorcycle to the jump-off point to Buscalan Village.
From Quezon City
- From Kamias in Quezon City, ride a Victory Liner bus bound for Tabuk and get off at St. Williams Cathedral in the city. Travel time is 10 hours, fare is P800 per person.
- From Tabuk, ride a bus or jeepney bound for Bontoc and get off at Bugnay Village in Tinglayan. Travel time is 2 hours, fare is P200 per person. From there, ride a motorcycle to the jump-off point to Buscalan Village.
Jump-off point to Buscalan Village
From the jump-off point, trek for 30 minutes to 1 hour to reach the village.
About the ButBut Tribe and Tattooing
Here’s a little background about the ButBut Tribe in Buscalan Village in Kalinga and the history and culture of tattooing.
The ButBut Tribe is one of the 30+ ethnic groups in the region. They live in a simple community, raising farm animals and tending to the rice terraces. In fact, the Tinglayan Rice Terraces is one of the most scenic landscapes in the Cordillera Region. The tribe also makes their own Arabica coffee.
The tribal tattoos are part of the culture of the ButBut Tribe. It was previously given to tribal warriors and regular women for decoration. The new indigenous laws indicate that the tattoo is a property of the whole community.
The tattooing method is called “Batok.” It uses pomelo plant thorn as needle and powdered charcoal and water as ink. It is said to be more painful than modern tattoos done with a machine.
Apo Whang-Od is considered the last mambabatok (tattoo artist in the village). Traditionally, this skill is only passed down to lineage, but since she is childless, she has taught her nieces and other women in the village to do it as well.
What to Know About Getting a Tribal Tattoo
Here are the things you need to know if you plan on getting a tribal tattoo:
- Both local and foreigner visitors are welcome to get a tattoo.
- You’ll be given a book of tattoo designs with their meanings or associations, from which you can choose which one to get.
- As of this writing (2022), Apo Whang-Od is over 100 years old so she no longer tattoos large designs. Instead, she only does her signature tattoo (the three dots). Moreover, there is usually a long line of tourists especially on weekends, so having a tattoo with Apo Whang-Od is not always guaranteed. Apo Whang-Od only speaks the local dialect (not Filipino or English), but her family can help translate between the two of you so you can communicate properly.
Important Tattoo Care
If it’s your first time to have a tattoo, make sure to read up on tattoo care. The tattoo is a “wound” that needs to be taken cared of, to avoid scarring or infections.
Here are basic tattoo care you should know:
- Avoid getting the tattoo dirty especially after the session.
- Wash it with soap and water in the morning and at night.
- Apply coconut oil or petroleum jelly to speed up the healing process.
- Let the tattoo heal naturally. Do not scratch it even if it gets itchy.
- If you start to see signs of infection, consult a doctor immediately.
2 Days Itinerary to Buscalan
Here’s a sample 2 days itinerary to Buscalan Village, Kalinga. This is ideal for weekend trips.
|Day 0||8PM Departure from Manila to Buscalan|
|Day 1||7 – 7:30AM Breakfast|
10AM Arrival at jump-off point
10 – 11AM Trek to Buscalan Village
11AM Lunch / settle into homestay
2 – 5PM Tattoo session
6PM Dinner and socials with locals
|Day 2||7AM Breakfast|
8 – 10AM Continuation of tattoo session
10AM Pack up / start of trek back to jump-off point
11AM – 11PM Travel back to Manila
11PM ETA Manila
Generally, it’s recommended to spend at least 3 days here so you have more time for cultural immersion with locals.
Things to do in Buscalan Village, Kalinga
Aside from getting a tribal tattoo, here are other things you can do in Buscalan Village.
- See the surrounding rice terraces and waterfall.
- Explore the wall paintings within the village.
- Taste local dishes such as etag (cured pork) and locally brewed coffee.
- Check out the souvenir items, including necklaces and ref magnets.
- For those looking for side trips, Banaue and Sagada are close destinations.
Budget and expenses
Here are the current rates for your trip to Kalinga (Updated as of 2022):
|Environmental fee||P75 per person|
|Eco-cultural tourism fee||P75 per person|
|Guide fee||P1000 day tour / P1500 overnight (good up to 5 people)|
|Homestay||P350 overnight per person|
|Tattoos||Regular tattoos range from P300 to P1500 depending on design|
– Apo Whang-Od’s signature tattoo (three dots) costs P100
– One of the best designs, the Sun and Moon costs P1200-1500
– A full-sleeve tattoo costs P50,000
Some things to note:
- Aside from the usual registration fees above, guide fee is also required. Guides are posted at the jump-off point and they are required to enter the village.
- Currently, homestays are the only available accommodation in the village. The rate includes unlimited rice and coffee. You may also bring your own food or buy canned goods at the store and have your host cook it for you for a small additional fee.
And here are important reminders and tips before your trip!
- Be respectful to the indigenous community.
- Bring enough cash. There are no ATMs in the village.
- There is no signal or wifi connection in the village. Be prepared to disconnect during your stay.
- Feel free to take photos of the tattooing session, as well as the surrounding community (with locals’ persmission) and terraces. However, take note that use of drones is not allowed.
- It’s best to go here on weekdays to avoid the crowd. Reservation is not required, but it’s recommended especially if you decide to go on weekends or holidays.
- Occasionally, the tattoo artists in Buscalan Village join tattoo events in Metro Manila or other nearby locations. If you do not want the hassle of going to Kalinga, this might be an option for you.
Has this guide to getting a tribal tattoo in Buscalan Village in Kalinga been helpful to you? If you have questions, let us know in the comments section below!
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Hali Navarro is a freelance 2D and 3D animator. He likes backpacking and adventure activities like cliff jumping. He claims to have a personal army of ants.