Philippines Travel

Buscalan: Inked by the legendary Apo Whang-od

Philippines, May 2015 – Nervousness battled with excitement as I rode on top of a full jeepney along the mountains of Cordillera. It was my first time to ride top load style. With goods surrounding us, we tried our best to hold on lest we fall into the river or cliffs below. We were strangers starting out on a journey to reach Buscalan. What’s in there you ask? Not what, but who. No other than Apo Whang-od, said to be the last mambabatok.

Let’s backtrack a bit.

As early as high school, I knew I’ve always wanted to get inked – maybe it’s the rebel in me. Having an inclination towards the arts, I’ve long dreamed that I would be wearing a permanent and profound symbol of my choosing. What that image was yet unknown.

It started out with butterflies and stars and eventually evolved into something related to travel in the later years.
When I heard of Apo Whang-od during university days, I knew then that my first ink would have to come from the oldest living master of batek.

It is an ancient tradition carried out by the Butbut tribe in Tinglayan, Kalinga. Over the years, the small village was featured in various documentaries and publications because of the backhand tap tattoo unique to the Kalingas. Tourists braved the long and tiring travel just to be tattooed by the then 97-year old living legend.

going to buscalan

The journey: Manila to Buscalan

That dream finally came to fruition in April this year –  with strangers no less. See, I have never traveled solo with strangers before this. I had no clue how it was going to turn out. The fact that I have a low threshold for pain and needles was burning at the back of my mind.

The journey started in Ohayami Trans that brought us to Banaue. After an arctic 10-hour bus ride, a side trip to the famous Banaue Rice Terraces was in order. From there, we took a van to Bontoc to meet up with Will, The Broke Backpacker, who was to join us to meet the famous traditional tattoo master.

After arming ourselves with provisions (we brought candies and bread, as advised by friends) and a hearty lunch, our party of four searched for the jeepney heading to Tabuk. But luck was on our side and we stumbled upon the jeepney that heads to Buscalan instead.

Our party of four soon turned into a fellowship of seven. Seven strangers all aiming to be inked with a tattoo previously reserved for the headhunters and women of the Butbut tribe.
With the Chico River below and the Cordillera mountains on the other side, we bid adieu to Bontoc. The party was only getting started.

READ: Travel Guide to Buscalan, Kalinga

going to buscalan 2

chico river

I couldn’t recall now how many times I held my breath and prayed every time we had to pass by a narrow road. One miscalculation and we’d all be tumbling down the river and rocky cliffs.

Afraid of heights, I begged to be seated in the middle of them all. With the wind whipping our hair and the strong summer sun bearing down on us, there was no other choice but to enjoy the ride. The saving grace, of course, was the scenic view of endless mountains, valleys, rice paddies, and the fresh air that you won’t get in the concrete jungle.

We finally got to sit inside the jeepney when we arrived in the town of Bugnay. The fun part was getting to see and chase the native pigs running around in the middle road as if they were like dogs playing with each other or scratching their itch by the cement.

The other fun part? Sharing the jeepney with a native sickly chicken ill-fated to become dinner later.


bugnay 2

tattoo pilgrims

tattoo pilgrims 2

group photos courtesy of Valerie Bautista

tattoo pilgrims 3

Tattoo pilgrims usually trek from the road up to the turning point. But since we got lucky, we bypassed that and alighted right in front of the end of the road. Although most of the path is already cemented, one wrong foot placement and you could be plunging to your demise. I had to take extra care with my jelly legs and fear of heights.

Around the mountains and the rice paddies, we marched on in a single pile, eager to reach the village before sunset. Finally, by 5 PM, we stopped for a dip in the waterfalls. Well, they swam. I was content to rest and watch them enjoy themselves.

Deciding not to take the time to dry themselves up, we continued the rest of our journey. Up, up we go, climbing the concrete stairs towards Buscalan.

to buscalan


rice paddies

The Destination: Buscalan, Kalinga

We all breathed one huge sigh of relief when we laid eyes on the village that was to be our home for a night.

Besides the children running up and down the mountain, one of the first few who greeted us was Apo herself. It was a surreal moment. Her body is a real work of art, with her arms showcasing the tribal designs. Tongue-tied because I was too star-struck to utter anything intelligible other than a good afternoon in Tagalog.

After a round of brewed Kalinga coffee, the rain came pouring in. And that was our cue to head towards Kuya Charlie’s house. We ended the night with a dinner of local food and pancit canton, mingling with the locals under the new moon.

READ: The Legendary Mambabatok of Kalinga Apo Whang-od


kuya charlie

The legend and the ink

Come morning, we made our way towards the small hut perched on the mountainside. This is where the magic happened. A few people were already eagerly waiting for Apo and Grace’s arrival. Since Apo has no children of our own, she passed down the knowledge to her sister’s granddaughter, Grace Palicas.

Another addition to Apo and Grace was Ilyang, who’s also presently training to preserve the art of batek. For a small design, I was lucky to be worked on by all three, from the master to the new trainees. Ilyang did the stencil, Grace started the tapping and of course Apo took it halfway to the end. It was an efficient system because sometimes there were 2 or 3 people currently being inked at the same time.

In the olden times, there are foods not allowed to be eaten by the tribe members after they were tattooed. Foods that can cause itchiness and irritation to the wounds like chili, taro, sticky glutinous rice, and salt. Application of an ointment or cream was also discouraged back then.


grace tattoo

The needle, in this case, is a lemon thorn stuck on a bamboo stick. The ink is charcoal and is tattooed on the skin by tapping the bamboo stick with another.

Hands clammy with cold sweat, I tried to even my breathing. This anxiety won’t help with the whole experience, I thought. The first few taps weren’t painful but as it went on, the sting manifested. I tried hard to lose myself in the rhythm of the tapping. I tried hard not to let all that blood bother me. Soon my skin started to swell. With the charcoal ink now embedded inside it.

So this is what it felt like. My fears of fainting and crying were unfounded. Soon enough I was numb with the occasional bouts of pain when Apo tapped it harder than normal. All too soon, it was over. Apo wiped it with a wet tissue for the last time before applying oil over the new tattoo.

READ: Indelible Moments with Whang-od, a living legend

apo whang od

apo whang od

apo whang od

apo whang od

To be sure that we catch the last bus going back to Bontoc, we had to immediately go down the mountain after getting our tattoos. We had a tight schedule to work with. It was no easy feat walking along the sides of the rice terraces with a leg tattoo. It definitely made everything challenging. It almost made me feel regretful that I chose that location.

As much as we, Potpot, Jindra, and I, want to stay longer, luck was not on our side this time. Maybe when I go back, my heavy heart will be no more.


And in the middle of that cramped, cliff-hanging but scenic bus ride, I realized one thing. That not even getting a backhand tap tattoo from a living legend trumps the pain of getting your heart broken.

This physical pain, though it hurt like hell, can never compare with emotional pain. Like getting your heart broken. Or maybe I shouldn’t even compare them at all. But still, unlike emotional pain, the physical hurt goes away after the ordeal. You are only left with a scar or in this case, a mark. Getting your heart broken, you carry with you the pain even after everything is said and done.

Buscalan Travel Guide

How to get to Buscalan via Bontoc:

Take the Coda Lines bus bound for Bontoc. Their bus station is in Cubao, Quezon City. You can check updated fare and book online here or here. Bus leaves at 2200H and travel time is around 10 to 11 hours.

From Bontoc, ask around for the terminal of the jeep bound for Tinglayan. There is also a minibus or van.

Where to stay in Buscalan:

There are plenty of homestays and usually, your guide can arrange it for you. A guide is now required when traveling to Buscalan. You can either get a guide when you arrive in Bugnay, but preferably, arrange for a guide beforehand as the mobile signal in Buscalan is little to none. Our guide during our trip is Kuya Charlie.

Travel tips:

  • Bring a jacket for the bus aircon and the cold nights in the mountains.
  • Bring wet wipes for when you get tattooed.
  • As always, take note of the Leave No Trace principles and travel responsibly!
  • You can opt to bring your own food and just have it cooked in your homestay. You can also opt to bring “pasalubong food”/grocery items for your guide and/or the other villagers.
  • You can buy coffee from Buscalan. It is dark and strong and definitely should be taken black.
  • Wait for Apo Whang-od to tell you the price of the tattoo after the session. But please, don’t haggle.
  • If possible, ask your guide to schedule you in the morning to be tattooed.

Whang Od Tattoo Designs

These are the usual tribal/traditional tattoo designs. Should you want a different design, it is up to Apo Whang Od or the other tattoo masters if they want to do it.

paper showing traditional filipino tribal tattoo designs

sample of tattoo designs done by apo whang od from buscalan kalinga philippines


What do you think about getting a traditional tattoo? 

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  • cathy
    October 31, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    “This physical pain, though it hurt like hell, can never compare with emotional pain. Like getting your heart broken”

    – talaga ba sis? hahaha walang pwedeng maikompara sa pagiging heart broken hahaha
    love it..
    woot. I just read your post. I can’t wait to get inked by wang od too! X