Kalinga Ink Adventure Part 1: Traveling to Buscalan and Getting to Whang-Od

So you want to get a batok tat? Prepare your body for the trip to the mountains of Kalinga.

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So you’ve decided you want to get a batok, a Kalinga traditional tattoo?

Well, it’s something that brave headhunters and women earned back in the day, and it’s somehow still something earned by people today who really want it. Only difference is, you don’t need to behead enemies or defend your land to get one, but rest assured, your journey towards getting a Kalinga traditional tattoo will still be quite the challenge.

Fact is, just getting there will be arduous. The trip would be long and grueling, both to the mind and body, but once you do get your batok, you’ll feel like the reward is totally worth it, like you’re the most deserving person on the planet right at that moment.

If you’re dead set on taking the trip to Buscalan, home to the oldest-surviving Kalinga traditional tattoo artist and living cultural treasure Whang-Od and her apprentices, here’s a guide you might just need for your exciting tattoo adventure in Kalinga.

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How to get to Buscalan

Buscalan is accessible in several ways, depending on where you’re coming from and the itinerary you’ve set for your trip.

Assuming you’re coming from Manila, take a Tabuk-bound bus. Victory Liner-Kamias has two nightly trips to Tabuk (about PHP700): One leaves at 7:00 P.M. and the other at 8:00 P.M. Travel time is nine to 13 hours, so you’ll arrive at Tabuk at around 5 A.M. on the average. Get off the bus at the stop in front of St. William’s Cathedral.

Take a Bontoc-bound bus (PHP150) or jeepney (PHP130) that traverses Tinglayan—the town where Buscalan belongs—at Dangwa Station, which is located a short distance across from where the bus dropped you off. First few trips arrive at around 6:30-7:00 AM, and the ride usually takes three to five hours. Feeling adventurous? Ride top load!

There will be a couple of stops along the way for dropping and picking-up passengers but get off at Barangay Bugnay in Tinglayan. This is where your two-hour hike begins. However, if you’re too beat from your trip, you can take a habal-habal up to the turning point for PHP100, but once you reach the drop-off, there’s no other way to reach Buscalan but to trek your way up.

Windowseat Travel Tip: You might need to kill some time while waiting for the Bontoc-bound buses, jeepneys, and vans, so go and enjoy a nice cup of freshly-brewed Kalinga coffee at Audrey’s Store across St. William’s Cathedral. Feel free to chit-chat with the locals and fellow travelers.

The best time to go

The best time to visit Buscalan is during the summer months, especially May, when the village holds a series of festivities. The mountain gets really muddy during the monsoon season, so it’s best to avoid scheduling a trip around that time. Also, if you can, go on a weekday. There will be less tourists and more time for you to take in the sights and experience the atmosphere of the place.

You’ll need a guide

Having a guide accompany you is actually required now when visiting Buscalan. If you’re worried that it might just add up to your travel expenses, don’t be. Having a guide will actually make things a lot easier for you. That’s because guides in Buscalan won’t just lead you to your destination; they will also do all the translating for you, especially if you want to mingle with the locals—including Apo Whang-Od—who has an extremely limited to no grasp of Tagalog. Moreover, your guide will run all the interference you need and arrange for your accommodations during your stay.

Guides normally give out their phone numbers to their clients to share with anyone who wishes to go to Buscalan and book a guide in advance. Oliver (+639397741477) and Gilbert and Rustom (+639084792012) are highly-recommended guides you can contact before your trip. However, with the unreliable mobile reception in Buscalan, you might have some trouble reaching your guide on the days leading to your trip. This is why some travelers prefer to get their guide at the jumping point in Buscalan, where you will also register and pay for an environmental fee (PHP75). Guide fee is priced at PHP1,000 per day for a group of one to five.

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Choosing the tattoo artist

The answer to “Can I choose my own tattoo artist?” heavily depends on the number of tourists in Buscalan during your visit.

Currently, there are three tattooists in Buscalan: Whang-Od, her 20-year-old grandniece and long-time apprentice Grace, and her other grandniece Elyang (who recently took up traditional tattooing). While you can inform any of the three about your preference as to who you’d like to work on you, don’t expect them to follow your wishes. Buscalan can get pretty busy and each artist can only accommodate so much in a day.

There’s no denying everyone who visits Buscalan for a tattoo wants to get inked by the legendary Apo Whang-Od, but if you’re going there for the same reason, don’t make it your goal to be tattooed by her. Please do consider that, at 97-years old, she needs to take a break every once in a while. She easily gets tired and irritable now, and her eyesight isn’t as good as it was during her prime.

Windowseat Travel Tip: Don’t be disheartened if one of Whang-Od’s apprentices inks you. Getting a batok from them instead of Apo won’t make your trip any less worth-taking. Whang-Od’s grandniece, Grace, has inherited her skill, attention to detail, and she can do lines that are finer and a lot cleaner, too. Elyang, also another grandniece, though new, is learning quickly, so expect her to give you a beautiful tattoo as well.

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Finding the design you want

A piece of wood carved with various tattoo designs is on display in the shop. Don’t hesitate to ask your guide or your tattooist the meaning behind each one. If you want to find out more about the tattoos and the tradition in general, you can flip through a book written by an anthropologist who studied the Kalinga tattoo. It used to serve as the main catalog along with another book—which was reportedly stolen by tourists (hey, don’t be that kind of visitor!)—before the wood board was made.

Yes, you can certainly choose the design and placement of your tattoo. If you’re having trouble deciding on a design, you can ask your guide or, better yet, the tattooists for suggestions. They can tell you the kind of tattoo you might need based on your personality and lifestyle, since each Kalinga tattoo has its own meaning and purpose.

Up next in Part Two: the batok process, tattoo aftercare, and staying in Buscalan. Stay tuned, and post your thoughts or tips in the comments!

About the Author

Andy Flores

Andy Flores is a pathological penny pincher with impulse shopping and binge-eating tendencies. She’s constantly saving up for new adventures, so she dabbles in writing jobs here and there. Her not-so-secret dream is to be an extra in a big Bollywood movie.