A lot of people visit Buscalan Village in Kalinga Province to get a traditional tribal tattoo from Apo Whang-Od, a centenarian tribeswoman who is considered the last “mambabatok” of their tribe. Here’s our experience + guide to getting a tattoo from Apo Whang-Od.
- My trip to Buscalan Village + getting a tribal tattoo
- How to get to Buscalan, Kalinga
- About the ButBut Tribe and tattooing
- What you need to know about getting a tribal tattoo
- 2 Days Itinerary to Buscalan
- Budget and expenses
- Reminders and Tips
- What to read next:
My trip to Buscalan Village + getting a tribal tattoo
How does one’s summer end? Is it the first hint of rain or the sign of morning sun that can wake one’s good sleep?
Visiting Kalinga was something I’ve been looking forward to for so long. There’s something profound in experiencing an aspect of a culture that could be lost in time. This country has so much history that is slowly dying. We focus on our own lives and have forgotten the weaves of history.
To be inked by the oldest mambabatok in Bontoc is a way to be reminded of an old culture, a mark of what used to be.
In the summer of 2015, a friend informed me that they would be having an outreach for the kids in Buscalan Village in Kalinga on the last weekend of May and I was invited to join in. I invited some friends and coworkers to tag along.
From Manila, we traveled to the mountains in Kalinga Province, located north of the Philippines. Fourteen or so hours later, we arrived in Tinglayan, a fourth class municipality in the province of Kalinga and home to Apo Whang-Od. Split into four groups and four vans, we had stopovers to see rice terraces that were once only seen in the pages of history books.
We trekked across a cemented walkway. The view there brought ease to our senses. At the tiniest gap between the road is a clear waterway that I think may be a water system for the rice terraces in the distance.
After half an hour or so, we heard a sound of water rushing and we turned excited at the thought of seeing a waterfall that you can bathe or drink in. The waterfall did not disappoint.
We arrived at the village. Black pigs could be seen roaming around. For someone like me who grew up in a city, this was a rare sight to experience. The pigs acted like household cats, minding their own business and strolling around.
Just then it started to rain. We were greeted by the villagers with smiles and coffee, the latter tasting like the good brews in Batangas. We put our bags inside a house that the villagers prepared for the visitors.
We gathered at the site where Apo Whang-Od conducts the tattoo session. Once she arrived, everyone was in awe and just wanted to capture the smile or laugh this old lady greeted us with.
The tattooing began. A birthday celebrant in our group got a centipede tattoo on his back. He drank some gin before being tattooed. The centipede tattoo means protection and represents a spiritual guide, which is fitting for someone celebrating another year of life.
The rain started pouring. Only one person was tattooed by Apo Whang-Od.
I still haven’t had the chance to get a tattoo. We went back to our rooms to stay the night. Our rooms were simple, but there were electricity to charge phones and comfort rooms with running water from the mountains. We spent the night playing cards and goofing around. Others cooked sinigang for our dinner. The rain continued past midnight
The next morning, we had coffee and a good chat wit the locals. Some of my companions prepared for the outreach, while I went to see Apo Whang-Od. There were a lot of people in line to be tattooed.
Grace, Whang-Od’s niece, was the first to start tattooing the visitors. After a while, Eliang, a younger niece, eventually 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 wanted my tattoo to be “kidlat” (thunder). I learned that this design was derived from “karayan” (river), which means influence or to influence. Eventually I decided to get the karayan design instead on my left arm.
I waited and thought that there would be enough time to catch up with the on-going outreach where my friends were. However, before my turn, Apo Whang-Od had lunch. It was almost half a day of waiting. I didn’t mind, and when she was back, the session began.
The tattooing process 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 cringed 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. Just then, my friends came back. It turned out I missed the outreach. I hugged Apo Whang-Od after the session and took a picture.
We packed our things and were thankful for the safe and wonderful experience. It was sunny and another long walk back to our vans. Some of our group went for a swim to a nearby falls.
I’ve learned only a little about the tattoos and the history of the tribe. A lot of people visit and look for cultural souvenirs such as tattoos, but most do not ask what the tattoos mean. 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.
What information I have came from a book in the village. My tattoo is an Ilokano term for river, “karayan”. Though I’m marked — and so are other people, I wonder if this alone can preserve a culture.
As we travel back, we witnessed a great sunset and I took a picture of a sighting of some sea of clouds and great sky hues pointing towards the sun.
This was the last day of May. Kat and I celebrated in different places. A month ago, I got my first tattoo and my pasalubong to Kat was this story. The end of summer.
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 you need 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.
- As of this writing (2021), Apo Whang-Od is over 100 years old so she rarely does the tattoos personally anymore. Moreover, there is usually a long line of tourists especially on weekends, so you may be assigned to other local tattooists instead. A lot of people consider it to be a pride to be tattooed by Apo herself. Take note that she 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.
- 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 heal well and you need to avoid getting it infected.
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 resulting small holes on the skin. Regardless, Hali is happy about his tattoo since he considers it an important cultural mark.
2 Days Itinerary to Buscalan
Here’s a sample 2 days itinerary to Buscalan Village, Kalinga. This is meant for those who want to utilize the weekends.
|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 to experience culture immersion with the locals.
There are other nearby destinations you can visit, including Banaue and Sagada.
Budget and expenses
Here are the current rates for your trip to Kalinga (Updated as of 2021):
- Registration fee for visitors is P75 per person.
- Guides are required to enter the village. They are posted at the jump-off point. Rate is P1000 for 5 people, per day.
- You can find overnight accommodation in homestays. Rate is P300 per person, including 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.
- Tattoo prices: There are no standard rates for the tattoos. The rates start from P400 to P1000 depending on the design. One of the best designs, the sun and moon costs P1200-1500.
Reminders and Tips
And here are important reminders and tips before your trip!
- Bring enough cash. There are no ATMs in the village.
- 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.
- Be respectful to the indigenous community.
- 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 tattoo in Buscalan Village in Kalinga been helpful to you? If you have questions, let us know in the comments section below!
P.S. If you’re looking for another resource on getting a tattoo from Apo Whang-Od, check out this post from The Broke Backpacker.
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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.