Apo Whang-Od – a living treasure hidden in Buscalan

In all forms of media, from TV to internet and magazines, Apo Whang-Od is making noise and has gained popularity over the time. From local celebrities to journalists and travelers from all-over the world. People from different places come to visit and have their skin marked by Apo Whang-od.

Apo Whang-Od Oggay is known as the last mambabatok (traditional Kalinga tattooist). She belongs to the Butbut tribe and is living in Brgy. Buscalan of Tinglayan, Kalinga. According to tradition, the skills of being a mambabatok can only be inherited through lineage, and since Apo Whang-Od has been widowed young with no children, it has been worried that the tradition might not continue. Despite that, Whang-Od trained her grand neice Grace in the art of traditional tattoing. Though it was rumoured that due to modernization, Grace has no interest in continuing the tradition, but instead wanted to pursue further education.

Traditionally, a tattoo is a sign of courage and bravery for men, and beauty for the women. Tribe warriors and hunters can only get a tattoo once they were able to kill an enemy tribe’s warrior. As modernization progresses, tribal wars has faded then follows the real essence of tattoing. Now, tattoo serves as a form of art and emblem of spiritual belief for the people.

Brgy. Buscalan is a small village located on a mountain in Tinglayan. One must trek uphill on foot to reach the village. The village is self sustaining. They have their own rice fields and livestocks. Their water came naturally from the top of the mountain. Electricity has already reached the village, though telecommunication signals are intermittent to none.

How to get there:

  • One must start from Bontoc to get to Buscalan.
  • There are GL Trans buses that departs from Baguio to Bontoc. Fare is around 200php and travel is around 6hrs. I am not sure of the scheduling though.
  • There’s a jeepney that departs from Bontoc to Buscalan at 9AM and 2PM only. Fare is around 100php
  • Another route is to ride a jeepney bound for Tinglayan that departs from Bontoc by 9AM and 1PM only. Then disembark by the intersection to Brgy. Buscalan and ride a motorcycle to get you up to Brgy. Buscalan. Fare is around 80PHP for the jeepney and around 100php for the motorcycle.
  • Travel time is around 2hrs.

How we got there:

  • As this is just part of our whole trip, we first came from Sagada and then rode a jeepney to Bontoc for 45-50mins. fare is around 40php.
  • From Bontoc, we rode the jeepney bound directly for Brgy. Buscalan.

Where to stay:

  • There are villagers that offer visitors homestay accomodations, but please do not be picky about the accomodations since the village is a very rural area.
  • We stayed in Vista Guest House, contact Jonel or wife Jocel: 0998-479-7760. Tell them you were referred by John (from Cebu) and they’ll charge you 250/head per day with free unlimited rice and use of their utensils and stove for cooking and eating. Their place is just a few steps away from Apo Whang-od’s house and facing the rice terraces and the mountains.

What to expect:

  • The village is quite small.
  • No mobile phone signal available.
  • Rest assured, you’ll get your dose of fresh air and beautiful sceneries.
  • No filtered water. Their water are naturally clean and from the mountains.
  • Children love sweets, candies and such from the city.
  • There is a registration form and fee and those who wants to get tattooed will be given a priority number.
  • Tour guide costs around 1000php for a group of 5.
  • There is a small store on the village where you can buy canned goods.

Walking from the jeepney stop to the village proper is no joke. You have to walk on foot with cliff trails and ever challenging uphill assaults. This is because the village is strategically located for a look-out against enemy tribes.

The people on the village are very welcoming. We came across some visitors who descended their way back from the village with fresh tattoos on their skin. When we got on the village, Apo Whang-od has already stopped her tattoo session. Because of her old age, she can get exhausted very easily, thus, those who were unable to get their tattoo have to wait for the next day’s session. Apo Whang-od does not have any particular tattoo time and schedule, she just comes and leaves depending on her mood and what she feels to do.

As we arrived, I was able to get a glimpse of Apo Whang-od squatting and resting at her house’s terrace while talking with the other villagers. I was star strucked as she smiled back when I politely waved and bowed as I passed her house.

Early morning the following day, we went to the place where Apo Whang-Od holds her tattoo session. Luckily there was only one visitor having her tattoo. Next in line and the last visitors would be us. It was not crowded that day. There is a board and a brochure where you can pick your tattoo designs with their corresponding meanings. Apo Whang-od charges her tattoo according to how complicated it is and also, depending on her mood. Rates may go as low as 300php or less and as high as 2000php or more.

I personally got excited and at the same time anxious since it will be my first time to get a tattoo. Apo Whang-Od fixed a pomelo thorn and mixed some charcoal powder with water. My other friend is not a virgin when it comes to tattoo so she decided to go first. As the session started I asked for her assessment. She said that the process is quite painful. Next in line was me. As Apo Whang-Od started to lay-out my tattoo design, I can’t help but get more anxious as I waited for the first strike of the pomelo thorn against my skin. Indeed it was quite painful, but I find it tolerable. The session lasted around 20 minutes. Apo Whang-Od charged me 500php for my tattoo.

After we had our skin inked. We then hurried and immediately descended back to the highway to catch the 11AM jeepney bound for Bontoc. There are jeepneys that depart from Buscalan to Bontoc every 9AM and 12PM only. If you can’t catch those jeepneys you can hire a motorcycle (100php) to get you to the highway to catch the 11AM jeepney and bus bound from Tinglayan to Bontoc (80php). You have to take whatever comes first or wait for several hours for the next trip, in which there will be no assurance. Do not be picky. If you have to go top-load, then you have to. From Bontoc, you can catch a bus bound for Baguio that departs by 1PM.

There is no regret getting my skin inked by one of the last frontiers of the Kalinga tradition. The tattoo somehow becomes an evidence of the life and culture of the old Kalinga tribes.


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