Apo Whang-Od tattoo
Kalinga

Getting a tattoo from Apo Whang-Od (My Story + Travel Guide)

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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.

Getting a tribal tatoo from Apo Whang-Od

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.

Tinglayan rice terraces
The view of rice terraces from Tinglayan.
Pulley used in Kalinga
A pulley used to carry heavy items to the village.

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.

Waterfalls in Kalinga
Small waterfalls in Kalinga.

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.

Black pigs in Kalinga
Black pigs in the village.
View of rice terraces in Buscalan Village, Kalinga
View of rice terraces in Buscalan Village.

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.

Tattoo artist Apo Whang-od
Apo Whang-Od.

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.

Apo Whang-Od
Apo Whang-Od at 97 years old.

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.

Apo Whang-Od needle for tattoing
Wooden needle for tattooing.
Tattooing by Apo Whang-od
This is me getting tattooed by Apo Whang-od.

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.

Souvenir photos of visitors of Apo Whang-od
Photos of previous visitors.

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.

Apo Whang-Od tattoo design
Traveler tattoo.
Traditional centipede tattoo
Centipede tattoo.
Apo Whang-Od tattoo design
Another tattoo design.

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.

Sunset in Kalinga, Mountain Province
Goodbye Kalinga.

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

  • 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.

History & culture of the tattoos

Here are the things you should know about traditional tattooing in Buscalan Village:

  • The tribal tattoos are part of the culture of the ButbutTribe. It was previously given to tribal warriors and regular women for decoration. It’s considered a sacred art and a “property” of the whole indigenous 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

Tribal tattooing in Buscalan Village, Kalinga

Here are the things you need to know if you plan on getting a tribal 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.
  • Apo Whang-Od is welcoming to visitors. Take note that she does not speak English or Filipino, but there are helpers that can translate for proper communication.
  • 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 08PM Departure from Manila to Buscalan
Day 17 – 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 27AM 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. Both locals and foreigners are welcome to get a tattoo.
  • 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 backpacker and adventure junkie. He's a photographer, videographer, graphic artist and animator rolled into one. He claims to have a personal army of ants.

7 Comments

  • Jhanz

    This looks nothing but AMAZING! I’ve always wanted to visit Kalinga but never got the chance… yet. I hope to go here sometime soon! 🙂

  • alison

    This is so interesting. I have read about others going to have Apo Whang give tattoos and I am in awe. This was the first time I saw the instruments that they used for the tattoo. I am not sure if I would be brave enough but since it seems like a great honor you would really want to have it done. What a beautiful trip you had!

  • Marge Gavan

    He drank alcohol before the tattoo? That’s actually discouraged before the proceed because it tends to make the blood thin, therefore, it would be more bloody? So was his tattoo session bloody?

    I got my Apo Whang-Od mark in 2014 and I remember feeling starstruck the first time I laid eyes on her. The batok was really painful but I endured it because I wanted Apo to do it even when they said Grace does it gently.

    • Kat

      No, but other people did. I guess alcohol being a blood thinner isn’t that known. Anyway, yes he still bled. 🙂

  • ROBERT LEE

    Ang galing ng experience ninyo. 🙂 You saw some really scenic views and to ba tattooed the traditional way… gosh, looking at the photos already is enough for me to feel the pain, and yes, I also have a tattoo I got way back when I lived in Boracay. The pain… and yes, gin is recommended.

    • Kat

      Thanks, Kuya Robert. Sayang wasn’t able to come with Hali, I was in a beach trip during this time. Want to get a tattoo as well, but Apo Whang-od only has limited designs, which she gets from a book, and I want a different design sana. 🙂

  • jendialouise

    oh gosh.. it does really look painful. But seeing that kind of art is just so amazing. There are a lot of fascinating places and culture in our country that needs to be discovered. You’re so lucky enough to witness such beauty and talent of Apo Whang.

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