Contributed by Chasing Culprit
It was in the year 2010 when I learned of Apo Whang Od through Discovery Channel, and since then, it has always been on my bucket list to meet her and have my first tattoo by her. I’ve waited years to finally have it happened. It is a perfect gift I have given myself for my birthday.
Meeting the last “mambabatok” is quite easy if you look at it. That is, if you are, like me, who loves reading and doing research over the internet. My encounter with Apo Whang Od was made possible by all the Filipino blogs who’ve written guides on going to her place. My deepest gratitude to all. But not all blogs have the complete details nor will I claim my post or this post to be complete as well, for every trip is unique in their own. But let me guide you through my experience going to Buscalan, the home of the last mambabatok.
Also read: Best Places to Get a Tattoo in Asia
What is Mambabatok?
“Mambabatok” as what the Butbut tribe people called it is actually traditional kalinga tattooist.
Who is Apo Whand Od?
Apo Whang Od is considered as the oldest living tattooist in the Philippines at the age of 103. It was passed on to her by her father who taught her the way of traditional tattooing. She then passed it on to her grandniece, Grace Palicas, who has been to Dutdutan, the country’s biggest and grandest tattoo exposition held annually.
How she does it
The traditional tattooing is different from the modern tattooing. Apo, uses a bamboo stick and a pomelo thorn that will be tapped on your skin with charcoal as the ink. Don’t worry, she uses different thorns to each of her clients and you can ask her to keep the thorn as your remembrance. She also uses wet wipes on the tattoo during the session. Afterwards, there is a special ointment, an oil, to be put all over the finished tattoo and that’s it.
How long does it take for one tattoo to be done?
Normally, 30 minutes to 1 hour. It will depend on the design. Mine took about 30 minutes for a 2×2 tattoo design.
Again, it will depend on the design, my chest tattoo is ₱300 only and the one at my back is ₱500. But during our stay at the tattoo shop, some designs cost ₱1,000 to ₱1,500. It will really depend on the design and how complicated it is. It was Apo who will decide the price of your tattoo after she is finished with it. Same goes if you want to have your tattoo by Grace, you will need to ask Apo for the price.
If you haven’t decided what design you will have, it’s perfectly okay. They have this “almanac”, as what they call it, which is a book with different designs and meaning to choose from. They also have this wood board that is full of designs and you can ask your guide for the meaning of each. If your guide doesn’t know the meaning behind it, the other guides at the tattoo shop will be more than happy to help you understand it. Don’t worry, the tattoo shop is always full of kind people.
If you bring your own design and want Apo to have it tattooed on you, it’s impossible, even for Grace. Honestly, when this trip is in planning stage, my friends and I already have our design we want. But when we got there, everything changed. Apo is not doing any customised design so it’s not really possible. If you insist, you can try Grace and have your guide do the talking, but this is not 100 percent sure. It will always depend on Grace’s approval.
As for us, the chance of going there and have a tattoo that has meaning and holds so many stories behind is a pleasure for us, so we took it as an opportunity and chose from the wide variety of designs that they have.
You can also ask Grace to design something for you. After all, she knows it better than us. My friend Bella had a tattoo design made by Grace, which I will be having for my next tattoo by her on my next visit.
Is it safe?
Yes. So far, no reports were made about being infected by Apo’s tattooing. But if you want to make sure you can always have anti-tetanus vaccine before going there.
How long will it take to heal? After tattoo care
I am no expert to this, as for our tattoos, it is still healing as we speak (01/31/2016), and every tattoo and skin is unique depending on your skin reaction. So if you have a sensitive skin, just ask your doctor’s advice first.
After you are done with yours, make sure to keep it dry at all times. Take a bath first before having your tattoo. Don’t cover it afterwards. My two friends have it covered when we descended, and upon reaching Benguet they exclaimed that their tattoo got “nana” and is swollen more than us. Swelling is normal. Don’t overreact to that. It’s like getting a wound, actually. Mine and my other friends’ tattoo were normal and didn’t ache anymore when we reached Baguio.
If it is swelling after two days or so, you may take antibiotic as per our guides’ instructions. But if it’s not healing, he suggested on going back to Apo Whang Od and she will be the one to take care of it. I really don’t know how it was done. Again, this is the worst case scenario only. The three of us are already healed and peeling now.
Again, keep it dry.
Required? Yes. The fact that they have their own dialect is enough reason for you to have one. Plus, your life will be much easier when you have one. They will do the talking on the tattoo shop since Apo doesn’t understand Tagalog at all.
They are requiring a guide when you go to Buscalan for they will fetch you at your agreed meetup place. From there, your guide will serve as your companion for the rest of your trip, giving you information about everything you need to know.
Don’t worry if you’re a solo backpacker; the people there are very hospitable and kind.
As for us, our guide was Oliver. Trust me, he is one of the best guides there. He knows how to speak and understand Tagalog and English language and is very accommodating. His contact number is 09397741477. Guide is ₱1,000 per day.
Where to stay
This will depend on your guide. As for us, Oliver did all the Buscalan work for us. I messaged him four days before our trip and asked him about everything and he provide the rest for us. He let us stay at his cousin’s house and that is ₱250 per night each with unlimited rice and coffee. Again, unlimited rice. HAHA! You will eat a lot of rice there, they have loads, believe me. Though I am not a fan of coffee, but my friends are, and they were asking for coffee every now and then, not just because it’s freezing out there but because their coffee tastes really good. Well, they were exclaiming how great the taste is everytime they are drinking it, so yeah I believe so.
Bring your own, especially your preferred dish. The rice is no problem, as I’ve mentioned, they have plenty of it. My friends and I brought canned goods only and we ran out of it. There are mini stores there that you can buy but is very limited to corned beef, tuna, and sardines. They also sell noodles, eggs and few vegetables. We were only able to buy cabbage on our last day. Expect the high prices of course — it’s their only source of income.
We are the one cooking our dish, the place where we stayed at has a gas stove, so if you prefer to cook and share it with the family you will be staying, you may do so. When we go back, we actually plan to cook sopas and spaghetti and will share it with the Family.
Yes, there is electricity, but too bad, during our stay, there was no electricity for almost a week. Just to be sure, bring powerbanks with you and charge your gadgets before going there. With or without gadgets, you will never be bored there. The company of the tribe and your friends are enough. Plus, the weather is cold enough, perfect to have a few drinks with the locals while learning their ways and their history.
Oh, no. Before leaving, make sure to inform your families and friends where you are going. Also, inform them if ever you will be extending your trip. From our experience, there was no electricity and the only cell phone that has signal was from our guide. We extended for one more night but our guide’s phone ran out of battery so I wasn’t able to message my older sister. She panicked when I haven’t arrived on the day I told her of our arrival. She almost went to the police to report that I was missing. So yeah, make sure to inform your relatives and friends about your plan and the status of the place you are going to.
What to wear
Wear anything comfy which will keep you warm at night. It’s freezing there especially at night.
Best time to go there
Weekdays. There will be loads of people during the weekend especially holidays and long weekends. So to secure you will have your tattoo, go on weekdays. But for us, we left on Saturday from Manila and arrived at Buscalan on Sunday afternoon. Few people were on the line at the tattoo shop.
This is not required, but you may do so. Since this trip served as my birthday outreach too, we brought school supplies for the kids and medicines like biogesic and paracetamol. We also brought candles and matches. You can bring gifts for Apo too and Grace, they will be very happy especially wet wipes for they are using them on tattooing. I suggest not bringing any candies for kids, our guide is not up for that too. You may bring school supplies or any healthy food to share with them. But again, this is not required.
How to get there
If you are coming from Manila, you may take the bus from Victory Liner Kamias. They have daily trips going to Tabuk at 7.00pm and 8.00pm sharp. Yep, they leave on time. They also offer seat reservation but physical presence is required for you will be paying already. We tried calling them the day before but reservation is done over the counter only. The seats may run out pretty fast so make sure to reserve yours as early as possible especially if you are planning to go on holidays or long weekends. Travel time takes about 10 hrs. We arrived at 4:30am.
Before slumbering yourself to sleep, remind the driver/conductor to drop you at Saint Williams Cathedral at Tabuk so you will not be going back there like us. We were fast asleep so we reached the terminal of the Victory Liner at Tabuk, and had to pay ₱50 each for a tricycle ride going back to the Cathedral.
From the Cathedral, walk on the opposite side going to the Police station. From there, you will see a karenderia (eatery) where you can wait for the van or jeepney going to Buscalan. The van arrives at 7.00am but leaves at 8:30am. They will wait for the van to be occupied so take that time to eat breakfast or you can visit the Cathedral.
Make sure to ride a vehicle going to Buscalan, otherwise you will be transferring from one to another. We planned to take a jeepney ride so we can try top loading but it’s the van which came first. Van from Tabuk to Buscalan takes about 3 to 4 hrs. We arrived at Buscalan at 12 noon and we hopped on a single motorbike to go to the foot of Buscalan. From there, there will be another 1-hour trek going to their village. By 1pm, we were at the village.
How to go home
This is the content I am not seeing in any post which I am very particular. We planned to leave as soon as possible because we all have our work the following day. So let me share with you how we did it.
From Buscalan, there will be a jeepney or van waiting, bound for Tabuk and Bontoc, the last trip is 1pm. But if you are many or really need to go back to Manila, you can always ask your guide to help you secure a van going to Bontoc, the last trip will be 3pm. They are not accepting any trip later than that because the road is zigzag to blind curves and can be very dangerous at night. Don’t put yourself in danger.
We took the Bontoc trip because we were going to Baguio first. From Bontoc, there are buses going to Baguio; the last trip is 1pm. Travel time may take up to 6 hrs.
From Baguio, you can take Victory Liner going back to Manila. Travel time may take up to 6 hrs also.
If you prefer to take the Tabuk trip, you may do so but the daily trip going back to Manila is 5:30pm only.
Break down of expenses
- Bus from Manila to Tabuk (Victory Liner) – ₱705 as of January 2016
- Tricycle Tabuk Victory Liner to Cathedral – ₱200, ₱50 each
- Van from Tabuk to Buscalan – ₱100
- Single Motorbike from Buscalan to accent to village – ₱50
- Homestay – ₱250 per night | ₱500 for 2 nights
- Guide – ₱1,000 per day | (we stayed for 3 days 2 nights) ₱2,000/4 – ₱500 each
- Tattoo – I got two tattoos one is ₱300 and the other is ₱500 – ₱800
- Single Motorbike going to Buscalan – ₱50
- Jeepney from Buscalan to Bontoc – ₱100
- Bus from Bontoc to Baguio – ₱212
- Bus from Baguio (Victory Liner) to Manila – ₱455
- Food – ₱500 each for the whole stay
TOTAL – ₱4,022 for 3 days 2 nights
Will be telling the whole adventures and mishaps on my next post.