Never have I imagined myself getting a tattoo, but I did! I told myself before that if ever I am to get one, it should be something special, it should mean a lot to me and it should be worth the pain (heck! I am afraid of injections). And I guess I met all the criteria when I decided to have my first tattoo by the one and only master tattoo artist Apo Whang-od herself.
The travel to Barangay Buscalan is no walk in the park and the long wait and queue to be marked by Apo is another thing. Truly, nothing worth having comes easy and this is especially true with Whang-od’s precious batok (tattoo).
If you are planning to go to Buscalan anytime soon, here are few things you need to know before getting a tattoo from the Oldest Mambabatok (traditional Kalinga tattooist) and National Living Treasure in the mountain of Kalinga.
1. Prepare yourself emotionally and physically.
a. It’s a tattoo, it’s permanent, so ask yourself a hundred times if you really want to get one. Once you are inked, there’s no more turning back. Also, many people say (those who have experienced machine tattoos already) that a batok or Apo Whang-od’s traditional way of tattooing is more painful than machine tattoos so you also have to consider that. I guess this also depends on the pain tolerance of a person because others say otherwise.
b. The trek to Barangay Buscalan can be considered as an initiation already. The uphill and downhill climb to the small barangay of the Butbut Kalinga tribe will take an average of 1-1.5 hours depending on one’s pace. It took us exactly 1 hour with 3 very brief stops to rest and catch our breaths. Having said that, if you plan to see Apo, take lots of cardio and leg exercises before your trip. I really mean it!
2. Plan your trip during weekdays. There’s no off-peak season for Apo Whang-od. People from all over the world visit Buscalan all year round just to get a tattoo from the master so plan your trip accordingly. People from Buscalan say that it is advisable to go during weekdays as there are less people lining up. It would also help if you join the Facebook Group “Tattooed by Apo Whang-od” if you have further questions before going up or if you can join a group tour going to Buscalan so you can save more. Bear in mind that there are very limited trips going to Buscalan so be mindful of the bus schedule lest you want to spend a night in Bontoc or Tinglayan.
a. How to get to Buscalan (my way):
I. Ride a Victory Liner bus from Kamias station to Tabuk. Fare is Php700. (There’s 7PM and 8PM trips. I suggest you
take the 7PM.)
II. Ask the driver to drop you off at St. William’s Cathedral in Tabuk.
III. Walk few meters, past the police station , and look for a jeepney (Php60) or van (Php150) to take you to the turning point in Tinglayan. They are usually parked across Mister Donut.
IV. Meet your tour guide at the turning point in Tinglayan and start your trek to the village of Buscalan. (make sure you advise your guide when you’re in Tabuk already so he can estimate your ETA because there’s no phone signal at the Tinglayan turning point)
3. Get a tour guide. Getting a tour guide is REQUIRED because once you reach the registration area come souvenir shop (at the top of the mountain) of Barangay Buscalan, you will be asked if you plan to get a tattoo and the name of your tour guide. This is also for the protection of the tourists so please heed their advise. Also, in my opinion, this helps the Butbut Tribe earn a living, get a tour guide who is a native of Buscalan or from Butbut Tribe and not from anywhere else.
At the registration area, you will be asked to pay for an environmental fee of Php75.00 per head, the date and time of arrival and the number of people who plan to have a tattoo in your group will also be listed down in a small piece of paper. Your group will then be assigned a number based on your arrival. Your group’s number is very crucial as this will be your sort of foothold if who goes before or after you in the long list of of people waiting to be tattooed.
Also, since Apo Whang-od is not very fluent or has very limited tagalog or english vocabulary, your guide will also serve as your interpreter, he will also be the one to talk to Whang-od, Grace or Elyang (Apo Whang-od’s grand daughters whom she also trained to be mambabatok) if it’s already your turn to be tattooed. Some people cut the line so be sure to tell or remind your guide to be vigilant as well. Hahaha!
Some Recommended Buscalan Tour Guides:
Christian Sagmayao– +63920-710-5885 (he was our tour guide)
Santi So-Ang – +63920-265-5536 and +63919-318-3773 (we stayed in their house and he said he’s also a tour guide)
Benjie Pacion- +63948-077-4818
P.S. Rate of tour guide is Php1,000 per day (max of 5 pax. There’s an extra fee if you exceed 5). This includes your ascend to the village, your whole stay in Buscalan (so maximize your guide as much as possible, ask him to tour you around the village, falls or terraces) and your descend from the mountain.
4. Pack light. Did I say the trek was not easy? That being said, pack light unless you want to spend 2 hours or more trekking because of too many stops. Your tour guide would be happy to carry your bags but please be easy, after all, he only has two hands. Shorts, leggings, few shirts (depending on the length of your stay) and one reliable jacket or shawl would do. Bring a bottle of water to keep you hydrated but please don’t drink too much while trekking to avoid overhydrating or hyponatremia due to too much water intake. Hyponatremia can dilute your body’s sodium level, thus, causing weakness, nausea, vomiting and confusion. Just drink enough water to avoid dehydration. Heat of the sun can also be unbearable so bring a cap and put on some sunblock for protection.
5. Wear your most comfortable and sturdy shoes. The hike to Barangay Buscalan and trek back to the Tinglayan turning point is a little dangerous, especially with the small rocks and stones along the way so make sure you have sturdy and comfortable shoes that won’t let you down or literally fall down. I initially want to wear Sandugo sandals but was glad I opted to wear rubber shoes instead.
6. Prepare to be disconnected. There’s no phone signal in Buscalan, all the more data signal. Thus, your smart phone is good for nothing except for taking photos and videos. This is also one of the beauty when going to Buscalan, perfect time to detach from the stressful world below. Villagers say you can get a phone signal if you’re using an old model phone and when you hang it outside the window. Haven’t tried it though. 🙂
7. Don’t be too finicky or ‘maselan’. There are no hostels nor guesthouses in Buscalan and the only accommodation they can offer is a homestay. Expect to live under one roof with a local family. Don’t worry, the Butbut tribe of Buscalan is very nice.Your tour guide will arrange the accommodation for you. Cost of homestay is Php250.00 per head for a one night stay, inclusive of unlimited rice and coffee. The Kalinga coffee in Buscalan is VERY GOOD so make sure to take home some. You may opt to bring your own canned goods, noodles, etc. but you can also buy from some of the sari-sari stores in Buscalan (a little bit pricey than the usual but I actually prefer this option so they can have additional income). We stayed at Kuya Santi’s Homestay and they have a sari-sari store so buying food is not a problem for us. Their house is located just beside Buscalan Elementary School.
8. Patience is a virtue. Waiting for the most coveted batok from Apo Whang-od can really test your patience especially if you only have one or two days to spare. However, please also understand that having the traditional tattoo, especially by Apo Whang-od, is really worth the wait and should not be rushed. Some people only spend a night in Buscalan and actually expect to be tattooed on the same day of their arrival. Others get lucky but it’s not always the case. Others only end up getting a signature from Whang-od, usually early in the morning at around 7:00am-8:00am before going back to Tinglayan Point. Some people just opt to be tattooed by Grace, Elyang (grand daughters of Apo), Reinalyn and Emily (not sure if they are related to Apo, I guess they are grand daughters too) then just have Whang-od’s famous “3-dot” signature.
Update (as of 2022 or even pre-pandemic): Apo Whang Od doesn’t do full tattoo anymore. She only does her signature tattoo, which is the three dots.
We arrived at the registration area of Buscalan, Friday, 11:30am and we only had the chance to be tattooed the following day, Saturday, at 2:00pm. Upon our arrival at Santi’s Homestay, we rested a bit then headed to the place where Apo Whang-od does her tattoo session. We did not left the place until her last session because we want to know if how many people are still on queue before our turn. Apo stopped tattoing at almost 6:00pm (it was summer so sunset was late). The next day, we returned at Grace’s house (this is where Apo performs her tattoo session), excited to have our tattoos (there were only 3 people left on queue before we can have ours) but were disappointed upon learning that a lot of people were lined up to have Apo’s signature tattoo. We believed they just arrived the previous day and we obviously arrived first, but then again, since they just want Apo’s signature, we can’t do anything but give way. But hey, even though it’s just 3 dots, it still eats a lot of time especially if many people are lined up for her signature.
So, please, pretty please, if you really want to get tattooed by Apo Whang-od, I hope you stay at least 2-3 nights in Buscalan just to be fair to other people who have waited long (did not make singit or cut the line) for Apo. And I would like to stress the posted guideline on their wall…“If you cannot wait, then you do not deserve this rare work of art.”
P.S. Bringing a book will also help kill boredom while waiting for your turn to be tattooed. 🙂
9. Stick to the available tattoo designs. You can choose from several traditional designs on the wooden boards provided. You may alter it a little but if I may suggest, just stick to the original designs, especially if you want to be tattooed by Apo. If I’m not mistaken, she doesn’t do customized designs. If you really want a customized tat (a mix of several traditional designs available), you may want to consider having Grace or Elyang to do your tattoo, though it’s not always 100% sure that they would agree to do it.
10. Bring something for the kids. Kids in Buscalan are very used to visitors offering them treats like candies, chocolates, etc. Thus, whenever they see guests, they never fail to say “candies”. They are not persistent but the happiness you see whenever you hand them little treats is just priceless. So go ahead and be generous. Little things mean a lot. However, instead of giving them candies (bad for their teeth), go for breads, fruits or even toys and school supplies if you can.
11. Healing takes time. Those who had their batok in Buscalan say that it usually takes a month or so before their tattoos get completely healed. Mine healed after a month. There are lots of tattoo aftercare suggestions on the group “Tattooed by Apo Whang-od” that it’s actually confusing already. In my experience, I just put Bactroban Anti-bacterial ointment the night after having my tattoo. Used it for 2 consecutive days. Stopped after I saw that the tattoo is dry already. After a week, I washed my tattoo using Dove Body Wash and put unscented moisturizer to keep it from being too dry.
Also, please be reminded that going to the beach or swimming in pools are not allowed until your tattoo is completely healed (exposing your tattoo to the sun and water for a long period of time might affect the final look of the tattoo) . With that, if you have any plans to hit the beach anytime soon, take into consideration the healing time needed.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:
Q. How much budget is needed?
A: Depends on the length of your stay. Our budget for a 2-night stay is Php5,000 (splurge budget already) per head inclusive of transportation, food, souvenirs, tattoo, guide fees and tips. There were three of us by the way.
Q: How much is the cost of the tattoo?
A: Depends on how big the design is. Starting price is usually Php300-Php500 and up. Standard price of Apo Whang-od’s signature is Php100. My traveler tattoo costs Php500 but I gave Apo Whang-od a Php500 tip.
Q: Does traditional tattooing hurt?
A: I can only speak for myself because I believe each person’s pain threshold varies. Also, I would be a hypocrite If I say that it doesn’t hurt because it really does. It just depends on your pain tolerance. Yes, it’s manageable because I did not cry (hahaha) but for me it hurts and I bled a lot. They say Grace and Elyang’s hands are more gentle than Apo’s so the batok doesn’t hurt and bleed that much. Below are the steps being done to get your batok. Be the judge. ^_^
I. A pattern will be drawn on your skin using a thin grass stalk.
II. Whang-od will start tapping along the lines using a pomelo thorn, bamboo sticks and pine soot as ink.
III. Apo will make two or more passes or finishing touches on the already pierced skin (for me that’s the part thatreally hurts) to make sure that pattern has been engraved properly and ink was fully absorbed by your skin.
IV. You’ll know it’s almost done when Apo Whang-od starts imprinting her signature “3 dots”.
V. Apo Whang-od applies virgin coconut oil on your tattoo and that’s it. Ask your tour guide to ask if how much is the price of your tattoo and…PICTURE! PICTURE with Apo!
WATCH PARTS 2 and 3 on YouTube
P.S. This is not mandatory but small gifts will be highly appreciated by Apo. In our case, we gave her a lipstick (I read she loves ’em), big pack of wet wipes and Lemon Square cupcakes. Other guests also said Apo loves chocolates and anything Coco Martin. Hahaha. Fruits and Sustagen Premium are nice ideas too.
Q: How long does it take?
A. Again, it depends on how big the design is and how easy your skin can absorb the pine tree soot (ink). It actually depends on your skin. Apo would sometimes comment during or after each of her session “balat kalabaw” (in Butbut Kalinga dialect) if your skin takes too long to absorb the ink. ^_^
Q: Apo Whang-od uses unsterilized materials for tattooing, is it safe?
A: It is safe. Just make sure to tell your tour guide to help Apo change the water and remind her to use a new pomelo thorn before the session. You can also provide your own bamboo stick (Php100) and thorn just to be sure. It can be bought in Buscalan, just ask your guide to buy one for you.
As for the wet wipes, make sure to make every ply accessible to Apo so she will use it to wipe the ink and blood from your skin. Don’t expect her to open the wet wipes and pull each ply as she’s very focused and busy on your tattoo, tendency is, she’ll just use the easily available wet wipes near her. Just make the wet wipes ply available on her sight, don’t push her to get it. She will get it if she wants.