Exploring the Culture and Landscape of Buscalan: A Journey to the Heart of Kalinga

For years, my wife and I have wanted to meet Apo Whang Od - the last traditional mambabatok (tattoo artist) of the Kalinga tribe here in the Philippines. Her work passed down through generations, is a cultural treasure and an art form that has fascinated us.

We finally found the opportunity to meet her thanks to my wife, who discovered a group on Facebook called "Tribong Panhik." The group regularly organizes trips for interested individuals who want to meet Apo Whang Od, and we decided to join one of their trips last January 11, 2023. The price per head was Php 4000 (please check with them for the current tour package), including transportation, meals, and a homestay. In short, all you need to do is to enjoy the trip. 

With the legendary mababatok, Apo Whang-Od.

Preparing for the Trip

During my initial research,  I heard there would be a 30-minute uphill walk to Apo Whang Od's village. Being someone who is always in pain due to my knee and lower back issues, this 30-minute walk was doable. However, the information could have been more accurate. 

A YouTube video mentioned that the uphill walk was closer to 1.5 hours for tourists, not 30 minutes, and the trek was peppered with many stairs, rocky terrain, and steep, slippery inclines. 

I became apprehensive when I discovered this and wanted to back out. I was worried about my physical condition, and the thought of the long walk was daunting. But we already paid the deposit, and I couldn't back out now.

To prepare for the trip, we packed light clothes for two days, water, food, a towel, etc. I made sure to have a comfortable and sturdy pair of trekking sandals. My wife and daughter packed two days prior, but I only packed two hours before the trip. Knowing the walk would be challenging, I brought my pain meds, a first aid kit, and a flashlight. I wanted to get a trekking pole, but I felt it was overkill, so I had a last-minute change of mind. I was mentally prepared for the long journey and the physical challenges it would bring.

The Hardship of the Journey

As we waited for Tribong Panhik to arrive in Cabanatuan, I couldn't shake off the feeling of unease. I had heard stories of vans being used for kidnappings, and I couldn't help but think, here we were, voluntarily riding with strangers in a white van to a place we had never been before. LOL. I tried to push the disturbing thoughts aside and focus on the journey ahead.

The trip was uncomfortable, as I was seated in a stow-and-go chair, which angered my back pain. The roads were rough and bumpy, making it hard to find a comfortable position to close my eyes and rest. We made rest stops along the way, including one in Banaue, Ifugao province. 

We arrived at around 4 am. It was cold and dark. We stayed for almost an hour beside the 'Welcome to Banaue' arch, but it was too dark to take photos. The stop could have been better, as there were no restrooms, and we had to answer nature's call near the makeshift souvenir shops. Under the moon's shadow, I could see we were atop a mountain. I saw the outlines of nearby mountains below and what looked like a sea of clouds.

At this point, my knees and back were painful, but despite the discomfort, I was eager to push on and reach Apo Whang Od's village to meet her and experience the traditional tattooing firsthand. The pain and discomfort were temporary, and the reward of reaching our destination was worth it. 
The rising of the sun began to unravel the beauty of the mountains. 
The Sea of Clouds


As we journeyed deeper into the mountains, the roads became increasingly treacherous. We were traveling along winding and steep streets, with the danger of landslides from previous typhoons looming on one side and treacherous cliffs on the other. The road conditions were harsh and often unstable, and there were moments when I couldn't help but hold my breath as we passed by sections where the road was precariously perched on the edge of the cliffs.



(GoPro screengrab courtesy of Ms Riza Garcia)

One of the most challenging sections of the journey was near Buscalan, where the road was literally at the mercy of the mountain, and it looked like it would cave in at any moment. Despite the danger, our driver, Yoshi, a Filipino-Japanese, navigated the roads with skill and precision. He knew the twists and turns like the back of his hand and handled the van with great care and efficiency. Despite his expertise, I couldn't help but feel a knot of anxiety in my stomach as we passed the dangerous road sections in Kalinga.

But as we continued our journey, I slowly relaxed and appreciated the breathtaking scenery. I realized that our driver, Yoshi, knew precisely what he was doing and that we were in good hands. Despite the challenges and discomfort of the journey, we finally arrived at the foot of Apo Whang Od's village, ready to meet the legendary tattoo artist and experience her most sought-after traditional tattooing firsthand.

The obligatory selfie. 

The Trolley of Buscalan Village

We were welcomed by the sight of a strange yet useful means of transportation when we arrived at the foot of the mountain directly below the settlement. The locals had ingeniously constructed a system of two tall posts, one perched atop the mountain and the other rooted at its base, connected by a thin, sturdy cable as thick as my thumb. The cable was powered by a modified pickup truck permanently stationed at the foot of the mountain, ready to pull the trolley to and fro. 

The Buscalan Trolley.

The other side of the trolley is on the outskirts of the village.

The repurposed pickup truck that powers the trolley. (Photo courtesy of Huwakin_).


The trolley was a rustic yet resilient contraption crafted from metal angle bars and wooden planks, sturdy enough to bear the weight of passengers and their belongings. At first, we were told that the trolley was only meant for bags, but we soon learned that it could accommodate one person per trip. I was tempted to hop on for the ride, but something about completing the climb and descent on foot seemed like an integral part of the experience. Now that I have experienced the ascent and descent on foot, on my return to Buscalan, I will definitely try riding the trolley. One of my groupmates, however, decided to take the trolley ride for the experience, and according to her, it felt safe and exhilarating. Bags were charged 50 pesos per ride, while a person had to pay 200.

The intrepid Ms Rita rode the trolley en route to the village. 

The trolley was a thrilling addition to our journey, and we couldn't help but marvel at the ingenuity of the locals in finding a way to transport people and goods up and down the mountain. It was a unique and unforgettable experience, a testament to the resourcefulness of the people of Buscalan Village.

The Challenging Climb to Buscalan Village

The climb to Buscalan Village was an epic and tiring journey that pushed us to our physical and mental limits. The path ahead was a steep, winding set of cement staircases, interrupted by makeshift and unstable steps from rocks placed precariously on the mud. Each step tested balance and strength, and the climb was treacherous.

Slippery slope. 

Stairs! More Stairs! Photo courtesy of Huwakin_


As we set off on our ascent, our guide, Weaver, and his wife, Regina, greeted us. My wife, daughter (15), her cousin Gelo (21), and I were the last to begin the climb, and Weaver hung back, ready to assist us at any moment. He was probably told that there was someone who joined the group with a knee problem and would likely need assistance. 

We were grateful to our tour guide, Weaver, who hung back to ensure we could manage the climb.

The climb was a test of endurance, and the stairs seemed to tower above us, each step daunting. The stairs were unevenly spaced, making it even more difficult to ascend. My wife, daughter, and I were out of breath and had to take several breaks. Gelo also needed occasional rests. The locals, however, easily breeze up and down the stairs.

My unica hija is laughing her exhaustion off. 

Even my energetic wife needed a breather. 

As we climbed higher and higher, the landscape around us transformed into a breathtaking panorama of lush green mountains, but the climb was far from over. 

The village sat on top of one mountain, and the road we came from was in the middle of another mountain, meaning we had to go down to the bottom where there was a brook, and then we had to go up again to the top of the other mountain that sits the village.

The view when you reach the top of the stairs

With every step, my body ached, and my determination grew. My daughter, unused to the climb, struggled on, but with her cousin Gelo's encouragement, we pushed on. The pain reminded us of the challenge ahead, but we were determined to reach the village and witness the ancient tattooing tradition.
As we reached the summit and the village came into view, we knew all the pain and hardship were worth it.

The Village of Buscalan

As we entered the village of Buscalan, we were struck by the stark contrast between the rugged terrain we had just traversed and the town's modernity. Gone were the traditional huts made of bamboo and other natural materials, replaced by cement structures, GI sheets, and other modern building materials. How did they transport all the construction materials before installing the trolley system?

Overlooking the village and the residence of Apo Whang-Od below. Photo courtesy of James Santos

Despite the modernization, the village still retained its natural beauty. The village had electricity and an unlimited water supply from a spring above the mountain. As someone with an irritable stomach and a sensitivity to anything dirty, I was relieved that the water was clean, cold, and safe to drink. I couldn't help but wonder why most of the houses let the water run all the time, but as I learned, it was necessary to avoid damaging the reservoir as the water coming from the spring was limitless.

The village also had two stores that offered wifi at 50 pesos per hour, although the connection could have been better, so I could not finish the whole hour I had paid for. The Kalinga coffee and rice were unlimited and delicious. 

As soon as we stepped inside the village, I realized we were in a virtual community with a rich culture and tradition that needed to be respected and honored. As we toured the village, I noticed the people were very receptive, gentle, and respectful. Out of respect, I practiced the old Filipino habit of greeting the house's owner and asking permission as you pass by someone else's home.

This an appropriate reminder to visitors not to be a prima donna. 

The village of Buscalan was a place of contrasts - a blend of the traditional and the modern. It was a place where the people lived in harmony with nature and each other. It was a place where culture and tradition were honored and respected. It was a place where the beauty of nature and the warmth of the people made it an unforgettable experience.

During my stay in Buscalan, I had the opportunity to speak with a local who shared the unique culture of the village. He told me about their strong sense of Bayanihan, where the community comes together to help each other. For example, when someone needs to harvest crops, they invite others to help, and out of their generosity and kindness, they help the harvester without asking for payment. He also mentioned that when a village member fell ill and needed to be brought to the hospital, men from the village would line up on the stairs from top to bottom, passing the patient from one to another until they reached the road. This process usually only takes 5 minutes, and the patient is quickly ready for transport to the hospital. This spirit of communal unity and cooperation is still very much alive in the village of Buscalan and highlights the strength and resilience of the Kalinga culture.

Apo Whang-Od

As we settled into our homestay, we were delighted to find it was just a few steps away from Apo Whang Od's tattoo sanctuary. 


Being neighbors, we had the opportunity to greet her on several occasions. She was always gracious, and despite her age, she had a beautiful smile that lit up her face. Upon our arrival, we took the opportunity to visit her sanctuary, even though she wasn't there at the time. We were simply curious to see where she practiced her craft. But, as we were admiring the surroundings, she stepped out to hang something by a tree, and we were all star-struck and couldn't help but yelp in surprise and delight. It was a moment that we will always cherish.


Meeting Apo Whang Od, touted as the last Mambabatok of the Butbut tribe, was one of the highlights of my visit to Buscalan. She is a living legend and a cultural treasure. At over 100 years old, she still practices traditional tattooing using thorns and charcoal. Her tiny frame belies her strength and skill as a tattoo artist. She has been tattooing for over 80 years and has passed on her knowledge to the younger generation.

The Three Dots - Apo Whang-Od, Gracia, and Ilyang.

Sitting down for a tattoo with Apo Whang Od was a surreal experience. Her hands were steady as she worked, and her eyes sparkled with a mischievous twinkle. She occasionally stopped to rest, but she never once complained about working too long or having a long line of people who wanted to meet her. She is a true master of her craft and a living embodiment of the Kalinga culture.


As I ventured into the heart of the Kalinga culture, I couldn't help but ponder the significance of ink on skin. For years, I had abstained from the practice, believing that a tattoo should hold a profound meaning, a tale to be told. But as I stood before Apo Whang Od, the last Mambabatok of the Butbut Tribe, I knew it was time to embrace the tradition. 


I yearned for the arrowhead tattoo (usually 8 arrowheads), symbolizing my journey to Buscalan. With Apo Whang-Od's poor eyesight, she could only offer me four. Nevertheless, I accepted her offer, knowing it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 

The "sait" thorn, attached to a short bamboo stick, is the tool of choice for Apo Whang-od, Grace, and Ilyang, as they skillfully hand-tap tattoos.

The only tattoo my daughter is allowed to have. 

My daughter, at 15, had never considered getting a tattoo before, but I couldn't deny her the chance to be inked by the legendary Apo Whang-Od. And so, she received the signature of three dots and a story to be passed down through generations. My wife and her cousin Gelo followed suit, each receiving the meaningful three dots, forever connecting us to the Kalinga culture. As the calamansi thorn punctured our skin, we felt a sense of belonging, a connection to something greater than ourselves. The pain was fleeting, but the meaning was eternal.

My family is a recipient of Apo Whang-Od's sought-after three-dot signature. 


Conquering the Challenges of Buscalan: Pain, Cold, and the Great Climb

Buscalan Tour, January 11, 2023, organized by Earn Trinidad and Yoshi Takahashi of Tribong Panhik.

Embarking on a journey to meet Apo Whang-od, the legendary Mambabatok of the Butbut Tribe, is not for the faint of heart. Three challenges await those who seek to conquer the rugged terrain of Kalinga. 

Photo courtesy of Huwakin_

The first is the steep climb and descent, a endurance test for even the most seasoned traveler. The second is the piercing pain of the traditional tattoo, a rite of passage for those seeking to carry a piece of Kalinga's rich culture on their skin. And lastly, the icy chill of the morning water, a test of willpower for those daring enough to bathe in its icy embrace. 

But for those who brave these challenges, the rewards are bountiful. The tattoo, crafted with the utmost care and precision by Apo Whang-od, symbolizes one's connection to the ancient traditions of Kalinga. And the cold morning water, a reminder of the resilience and fortitude of the Butbut people. A true journey to Kalinga is only complete once one has conquered all three.

Conquered all three challenges. Woohoo!

Etched in Ink: Reflecting on the Cultural Significance of Apo Whang Od's Tattoos

The cultural significance of Apo Whang Od's tattoo is rooted in the ancient tradition of the Butbut tribe. In the past, tattooing was reserved for warriors who had proven their bravery in battle. These tattoos served as a symbol of their prowess and a mark of honor within their community.

As the last Mambabatok of the Butbut tribe, Apo Whang-Od carries on this rich tradition. Her tattoos are designs etched on her skin and represent her people's history and cultural heritage. They are a link to the past and a reminder of the tribe's rich history and traditions.

Apo Whang Od's role in preserving this tradition is limited to the tattoos she creates and the apprenticeship she provides to the younger generation. She trained two young ladies, Ilyang and Gracia, to carry on the tattooing tradition. With their training, tattooing in the Butbut tribe will continue for many years.

However, with time and the influence of modern society, tattooing has evolved. It is no longer limited to warriors and has become a form of self-expression for many people. However, the cultural significance of Apo Whang Od's tattoo remains unchanged. It symbolizes the connection to one's heritage and reminds of the tribe's rich cultural history.

Planning Your Next Adventure: Discovering Buscalan and Beyond. 

If you're looking for an off-the-beaten-path experience in the Philippines, look no further than Buscalan, the remote village of the Butbut tribe and home of the renowned mambabatok, Apo Whang-Od. 

To make the most of your visit, consider contacting Tribong Panhik, a team of experienced guides and organizers led by Earn Trinidad. They will ensure a smooth and safe journey to Buscalan and introduce you to other hidden gems in the Philippines, such as the breathtaking rice terraces of Batad and the world-renowned surf spot of Siargao. 

Let Tribong Panhik guide you as you immerse yourself in the Philippines' rich culture and natural beauty. Contact them on Facebook or via 09772836438 for more information and to plan your next adventure.

We conquered Buscalan. January 12, 2023. (Thank you, guys.)


Conclusion

My expedition to Buscalan remains a vivid and cherished memory. The arduous ascent to the village tested my physical endurance and mental resolve. However, the challenge was dwarfed by the profound beauty and significance of the tattoo tradition I experienced there.

More than just the tattoo or the picturesque village, it was the entirety of the journey that left a deep impact. The early morning view of Banaue, the daunting roads skirting the cliffs, and witnessing the Bayanihan spirit of the Kalinga people were all experiences that enriched my soul.

I wholeheartedly encourage a visit to Buscalan and the Philippines for anyone seeking adventure and cultural immersion. The trip is a journey through breathtaking landscapes and an exploration into the heart of rich cultural traditions. From the heartwarming hospitality of the locals to the awe-inspiring mountain vistas, this adventure is one that I will hold dear for a lifetime.






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