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My Travels

Buscalan | My Experience in Getting a Traditional Tattoo

Buscalan is not for the fainthearted.

No wonder why millennials take pride of one’s journey to Buscalan. I see those who have traveled to get inked by the living legend, Apo Whang-Od, post their pictures in Facebook and Instagram as if one is now officially considered a brave hunter of the tribe. And for an artist like me and a lover of all forms of art, it was a dream to get there and get inked as well.

A photo of Apo Whang-Od at Buscalan, Kalinga
A photo of Apo Whang-Od

They say it is just an hour trek. Yes it is. It can be a 45 minute trek depending on the pacing. They say it is just located in a mountain. Sure it is but I never imagined it was a long and challenging journey. Again, Buscalan is not for the fainthearted. I am not scaring those who have not yet been there or just planning to get inked there as well, but they have been warned. 😛

The Long Drive

My officemates and friends decided to go last January 20 – 22, 2019 (Sunday – Tuesday). We looked for a tour and found scheduled on our desired date, organized by K&K Adventures. They offer tours to Sagada and Baguio as well and Ate Kharla, our orgnizer, is a very good cook, I promise. Going back, it is better to go on weekdays cause a lot of tourists visit during weekends – you all know how it is during weekends and holidays.

So, as usual, the first stop is of course, the Banaue Rice Terraces.

The Eight Wonder of the World, Banaue Rice Terraces
Banaue Rice Terraces

The Hagdan-hagdang Palayan

I’ve been to Banaue many times but this was the only time I had a decent picture of the view. Many times I’ve been here, it’s not the terraces you see but people arms up-stretched, taking pictures. However, that Monday morning, we had all view for ourselves. Yahoo!

Considered as the Eight Wonder of the World, Banaue Rice Terraces
Banaue Rice Terraces

Considered as the Eight Wonder of the World, Banaue Rice Terraces

At view point of Banaue Rice Terraces
A decent photo with you at last!
Posing for a pic in Banaue Rice Terraces
Rice Gods guarding the Banaue Rice Terraces
Rice God

We’re delayed in our departure (around 10:30 pm) so we arrived at Banaue behind our sched as well, around 8:30 am. We had breakfast and start again another 4 hours to Buscalan, if I can remember the time estimates right.

Stop-over at Bontoc

We arrived at Bontoc around 11 am, I think and had a short stay while waiting for Kharla who went to the market to buy all the food we need for our stay in Buscalan.

A street sign in Bontoc to Banaue, Baguio and Kalinga
Stairs at Bontoc open field and plaza
A statue of Dr. Jose Rizal in the middle of a plaza in Bontoc
Gat Jose Rizal
A circle pattern in a plaza in Bontoc
A busy street of Bontoc province with tricycles as main transportation
Busy street of Bontoc

“Almost There, Almost Dead” way to Buscalan

I am paranoid when it comes to road trips. I’ve been in a vehicular accident before so whenever I travel, I don’t go to sleep that much. So, in that almost 14 hour road travel, I just took a nap, maybe twice.

Never-ending views of the mountain and cliffs keeps me awake. Murmuring prayers along the way haha. We arrived at jump-off point, I guess around 12 noon and met our local guide, Ate Bitang. And I was amazed by her strength.

A bulldozer making roads in the mountains of Kalinga while trekking

The trail to Buscalan.

The One Hour Trek

We started our trek under the blazing heat of the noon sun. First part of the trek, we’re greeted by a bulldozer, making a new path from the fresh and untouched mountain. The cliff on your right, a probable landslide on your left – choose your own adventure. One wrong step, and you’ll fall. And even if you’re looking straight ahead, or on your every step, your peripheral view would sometimes betray you.

The narrow trail going to Buscalan with a cliff on your right.
The trail to Apo Whang-Od!
Start of the trail to Buscalan, part of a landslide prone area.
Happy lang!

At last, we made it down the first trail to the stream. The next challenge was the steep trail up to their community. Though the trail was concrete, your feet will feel sore and your knees will shake from fatigue after going through all the steep steps up the trail.

Reaching the Destination

I don’t know, but it is the hardest climb I’ve ever done. Maybe because I haven’t climb mountains in a while? My last climb was to Mt. Maculot and that was over a year ago! Alas! Almost out of breath and too tired. Finally, we arrived.

Welcome sign at Buscalan
A souvenir shop in Buscalan where native necklace, bracelets and earrings are bought.
Souvenir Shop

A souvenir shop in Buscalan where native necklace, bracelets and earrings are bought.

A mountain view from an early foggy morning in Buscalan.
Our view from our homestay.

The Mambabatok

We decided to start the tattoo session the next day so we can rest. Two from our group chose to get tattooed that same day though by the youngest of the mambabatok, Princess, age 12.

Princess, the youngest mambabatok, tattooing a tourist.
Princess, the youngest mambabatok.
Traditional Tattoo of Kalinga, a mambabatok drawing a pattern for the tattoo.

We are the first in line early the next morning for Apo Whang-Od. Less people are waiting in line but as the day progresses, more and more people lined up.

Apo Whang-Od, tattooing a tourist.
Apo Whang-Od
Apo Whang-Od inking her signature.
Inking her signature.
Apo Whang-Od inking her signature.
Apo Whang-Od inking her signature.

A woman getting a tattoo from Apo Whang-Od scream in pain.
It is painful.

Who Said it Wasn’t Painful?

And geez! It was painful! Sometimes I think it was my bone she was hitting Haha! I just had her signature (P100 fixed including a photo, a photo with her, without a tattoo is P50. If Apo’s in the mood, she can do designs and price varies as well, P300 at least). Elyang, did my tattoo. I chose the design symbolizing ‘prayer’. It was originally, 4 triangles but I asked just to put three to mean, the Holy Trinity. (Each triangle cost P100).

A traditional tattoo at the back with prayer meaning and Apo WhanOd's signature.
Three dots: Apo Whang-Od’s signature Triangles symbol meaning: Prayer (I made it to three to represent The Holy Trinity)
Elyang, one of the mambabatok and Apo Whang-Od's successor of the traditional tattoo
Elyang and I.
Elyang, one of the mambabatok inking a tourist.
Elyang and I.

Tattoo session of our group finished around 11:30 am. After that, we headed home before lunch. The short stay was worth it. It was the experience that is so fulfilling. Had few photos to share (though I have already shared a lot!) below:

A npa hut filled with tourists' photos, IDs and ATM cards as remembrance in Buscalan.
People leave photos, IDs and even ATMs.

A woman inked by Apo Whang-Od in Buscalan

Tourist pose at a mural wall of Apo Whang-Od in Buscalan

Apo Whang-Od's house filled with paintings.
Apong’s house.
A view of a rice terraces in Buscalan.
The view in Buscalan.
A tourist posing for a pic for blog post.
The making
A woman drinking coffee in a cold mountainside.
Ang Pijah – masarap na kape ng Kalinga.
A woman drinking coffee in a cold mountainside.
Pijah – ang masarap na kape ng Kalinga

Three ladies newly tattoed by Apo Whang-Od in Buscalan

Three ladies newly tattoed by Apo Whang-Od in Buscalan posing for a jab pose.

Bamboo sticks with pomelo thorns used in traditional tattooing of mambabatok in Buscalan.
Bamboo sticks with pomelo thorns used as needles

A memorable and permanent experience.

Yes, I can now proudly say as well that we conquered Buscalan. Certainly, it was not an easy trip but the journey and experience was all worth it. I was glad and fulfilled to experience this culture and to be part of preserving this art of traditional tattooing. Yes, it is that deep for me. On the other hand, some people will not understand and judge, but just three words – So. Be. It. Haha.

She’s a traveler, a frustrated accountant. An artist and a writer at heart. Unpredictable and spontaneous. A little weird and a little mysterious. So chase her and run with her. You’ll never get bored and you’ll never regret it.

I would like to know your thoughts. Please leave a comment.


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