Journey to Meet the Last MASTER Mambabatok of Buscalan, Kalinga

Apo Whang-od, the last master mambabatok, in action

for the last 3 yrs, i have celebrated my birthday by traveling solo to a local destination. and all two of my previous birthday were a surfing trips. yes, my affinity for the sea was strong. i am actually considering that i came from the ocean as a dolphin in my past life. LOL

for my 4th solo trip for my birthday, i was supposed to embark on another solo trip to Real, Quezon, but plans were changed.

wondering why?

it was because of the last master mambabatok or traditional tattoo artist of Buscalan, Kalinga.

for some weird chance, i came across Ms. Kara David’s documentary in YouTube of Whang-od, the last mambabatok of the Butbut tribe in Buscalan, Kalinga. She was, at that time, about 92 yrs old and the only traditional tattoo artist still living. To tattoo, she mixes water and soot from under a cooking pan and uses the mixture as her ink. She then stencils the design using a blade of grass on to your skin. To embed ink in skin, she makes use of two bamboo sticks, one with a thorn and the other used to tap the thorn through the skin. it looked painful as hell with some accounts of people fainting from the pain.

when i finished watching the video, i knew i had to scratch my surfing trip to Real. and i was hell bound on meeting Whang-od and getting my first ever tattoo the “batok” way. it was in my bucket list to do so and i just had to make it happen. and come on, who would want to be tattooed the traditional way and by a LEGEND at that? Huh?

so after reading what i can gather from the internet which was really few might i add, i decided to embark on a journey, a pilgrimage if you may, to see Whang-od, the last master mambabatok.

 since there are few references on the net, am writing this blog post about my experience so that if you would like to embark on the same journey, you would be able to do so, even solo.

the first thing that you would need to do is to get a guide. i was able to research Francis Pa-in’s (he is the most famous guide) number online and get him to be my guide but at the last minute, he referred me to his brother in law, Kuya Romy. You can contact him through the following means:

mobile: 09164031208

email: romievaldevaron@yahoo.com

it is best to reach him through mobile phone so that you can communicate instantaneously. if in case he does not reply, he might be in Buscalan guiding guests (there are no mobile reception in the village). but if he is available he will reply automatically. just text him about your expected day or arrival in Tabuk or in Tinglayan or in Bugnay junction. He will be able to help you out. The advantage of having a guide is he can arrange for your accommodation. plus he knows the trail and can interpret for you. If you are traveling solo, you can ask your guide a lot of information about anything you would like to know about the tribe.

second thing that you need to bring are food to be shared with your host family for the duration of your stay. two canned goods would be ok for a meal. the woman who owned the homestay where i stayed liked Century Tuna over corned beef. also opt to bring candies for kids. they will be asking for it as other visitors before gave them. if you decide to bring, give them out individually. if you ask them to share, they would fight over the goodies. matches can also be shared to the elders. they won’t ask but you can offer them.

on the day of my trip, i went under time on May 12 and left our office in Makati City at around 4:00 pm and hailed a taxi to take me to Victory Liner in Earnshaw, Sampaloc. It was a bit early but i factored in traffic. The first bus bound to Tabuk, is set to leave by 7:00 pm followed by an 8:00 pm one then a 10:00 pm. i took the earliest and i was targeting to arrive in Buscalan at around lunch time. I got to the terminal at about 5:45-ish and the 7pm bus was almost full. I got a seat and waited for bus departure.

If you are kind of religious, you can walk on over to two churches a few meters from the terminal and pray for a safe journey. they say that if it is your first time in a church, you get 1 wish. luckily for you, these are two churches side by side. LOL.

once on the bus, it was an 11 to 12 hrs bus ride to Tabuk. There are about three stopovers during the entire trip so you have plenty of time to stretch your legs unless you have already dozed off for the entire duration. Prepare about php 5 for toilet use for each stop over

we arrived in Tabuk, Kalinga at around 7:00 in the morning. You know when you are there then you see the White Carabao landmark and the Cathedral (I forgot the name). You can actually get off the bus there as it is just a short distance away from where you can ride jeeps which they call the “paradahan” (literally means area where public transport are parked while waiting for passengers). There are no land marks to identify it but you will know it because the jeeps and buses will be there.

based on the blogs i read, from you can take the jeepney going to BONTOC but alight at the BUGNAY JUNCTION where you can begin the 2 hour trek to get to the Turning Point. After the Turning Point, it would be an hour more to get to Buscalan.

Kuya Romy, being the awesome guide that he is, told me that there is a van from Tabuk that can take me to the Turning Point and spare me the 2 hours walking in the sun. He gave me the number of the driver called Dal-oy so i can contact him when i get to Tabuk. I found Dal-oy a few minutes after arriving in Tabuk but found out that we had to wait for the van to fill before we left. The fare costs PHP 150.00/person. I said yes that i can wait but it took us about 2 hours to fill up the van. I almost decided to get on a jeep to get to Bugnay Junction instead but the thought of walking under the sun in the middle of the day was just too much daunting so, i decided to wait. And it spelled SKIN CANCER! Duh?

Majority of the people in the van are from Tinglayan, a nearby town and Buscalan. And they have with them supplies for their family or the town. I was riding at the front of the van with Moises, from the neighboring village and was chatting with him about things here and there.

I learned from chatting with them that they all belonged to the Butbut tribe and that they were the most wide spread tribe in the province of Kalinga. From our driver, Dal-oy, i learned that the van that we were riding actually belong to Whang-od. I guess her artform had help her and her village a lot. I couldn’t help but ask the men whom i was speaking with this question: why they were not tattooed? Moises answered, that for them getting a tattoo would mean they would not be hired for work because of an unfair misconception of people who have tattoos. Moises explained that he was studying to become a teacher and he would not be hired if he had tattoos, I blame media for this really, because tattooed men and women are depicted as drug addicts or ex-convicts. I found this really sad as I was more than willing to travel 12 hrs just to get tattooed but they, who just live nearby choose not to. Well, to each their own.

The road to Buscalan was really a long and winding one but the views are nice. The trees are all green. Rice terraces here and there. The view were stunning! Plus you get to hear the forest sing. Yep, sing because of the insects that make this high pitched buzzing sound. But landslides sites are also present. Primarily because a storm passed by the area a week before my trip. Fortunately, the local goverment acts fast to clear them up. what i am trying to say is, it was such a nice difference to seeing tall buildings, polluted air and traffic jams. I believe, I was entering paradise.

We arrived in Tinglayan, the last major town, at past 12 nn. This is the last place where you will get mobile phone reception so would recommend, letting people from back home know you are almost there. We got dropped off a small restaurant that served local food. I was famished and got lunch together with the other passengers. I had a soup dish called “tinola” with a helping of rice for about php 60 which is really cheap already. This is where i met Kuya Romy in person.

Kuya Romy turned out to be cool. He was originally from Pangasinan and was a former police officer who got assigned in Tinglayan decades ago. He found the love of his life there and he never left. Hi started guiding guests to Buscalan some years ago. His brother in law Francis, got him into the business to help him financially. Now, I asked Kuya Romy if he had a tattoo from Whang-od also. Then he showed me his centipede tattoo on his arm. Based on what I read online, the centipede is considered a mythical guide for the Butbut tribe. He also had some tattoo with fern design. The tattoo was sponsored by one of his guests who wanted to see how batok was done but didn’t want to get one. I knew right then and there, I was with good company.

I got excited as we boarded the van again for the final stretch of the journey. We reached Bugnay Junction then we had turn to a rough road. Based from Dal-oy, there is a plan to have the road to the Turning Point paved but they are having difficulties getting the equipments as the road is narrow and the have to start from the top.

When we got to the Turning Point, at about 2:30pm, we got off the van and had to go on foot not after smoking a few stick (yes, a quick nicotine fix is a must!). I just had to prepare a bit as it is my first time to trek. I was excited but was a bit anxious of the things that i read about the trail being difficult and that one miss step would end up in disaster. I had to see it for myself and just thought that i was already so near that I couldn’t bail now, eh?

In reality, the trail had two parts, one through and down one part of the mountain and the other is an uphill climb to the village. The 1st part of the trek is easy. There are walkways about a foot and a half wide that are cemented. You won’t be able to notice that you are walking alongside a cliff because of the plant life on the edge. Just focus on where you are walking and it is not bad to hold on to the wall face. The trail ends at the foot of the mountain which has a bridge as there is a waterfalls nearby. If you do want to take a bath at the falls you could do so. Just tell your guide. The second part is the tough part for me. Being a smoker I easily to get winded and out of breath. It is about 200 to 300 steps to get to the village and thank fully, majority of it was cemented. But did I mention it was uphill? There are no big trees to block out the sun but there are portions of the uphill climb where there is shade. Remember that you walk in your own pace. It would be OK to take a break. Did I mention it was uphill? Yes, I had to repeat that for emphasis! LOL. Now your enemies here would be definitely be the sun as it can really scorch. Fortunately, the “ready” traveler that I am, I have my trusty umbrella with me. So for this part of the trail, I opened my umbrella. No shame here as the shade made the climb a wee tad more bearable!

So after what about almost 2 hours of walking, Kuya Romy and I reached the town of Buscalan. Fronting the town is the school for primary education. Then comes the houses. You would be greeted by two friendly dogs who will sniff. Also you would be eyed by the people since it is obvious that you are a visitor. I was directed by Kuya Romy to Grace’s house. Grace is the grand niece of Apo Whang-od and she has been her apprentice for years. She has actually made a name for herself already as a batok practitioner. When I arrived at her house, I actually saw Apo Whang-od sleeping on their couch made of bamboo. I was awestruck and resisted the urge to take a picture of her! Her fragile frame was sleeping peacefully but the aura around her was just indescribable! You will know what I mean when you meet her in person.

I was taken to the tattooing hut which was specifically made so to be the area for tattoing. I was presented with a cup of coffee. I was never a fan of coffee and prefer tea actually but I could not refuse. I took a sip and it was SO good that I finished the cup! The coffee was made in the village from the trees along the edge of the hut. It was really nice that they produce their own and with my unexperienced coffee palate, I believe their coffee can rival that of Starbucks (heck ye! LOL)! The hut was a nice place to stay as it was a good vantage point to the trail and the mountains and the terraces. I was greeted by Grace’s parents and was asked where I was from and other pleasantries. They actually told me that they already saw me walking down the trail but they thought that Kuya Romy’s guest was female because of the umbrella. I just smiled and kept my thoughts to myself together with my giggles. I was then shown the room above the house where I will be staying the night. So I dumped my backpack and stuff. I haven’t bathed yet since I travelled directly from the office so I took a bath first. That long travel plus the heat plus sweat from all the walking made me really smelly already.

After the bath and a change of clothers, I went to the hut again to find Apo Whang-od awake and tattooing another person. They were a group of 3 from Laguna. Two have been finished with their tattoos already and the friend had to wait a bit as Apo Whang-od needed to rest. It was initially discussed that I would be tattoo the following morning but Kuya Romy said that I can have the tattoo done after. They told me that for the day, I would be the eight person to get inked. There is a queue actually depending on your arrival in the village. The longest one was a 4 day waiting period. I was shocked that it was that long! But may be because of the documentaries done about traditional tattooing, the village became famous but still pretty much off the beaten path. Which was fine by me as the actual charm of the village was that it was not part of normal tourist trade. I hope it would be kept that way for cultural preservation.

The guy before me was getting the scorpion on his thigh. He mentioned that the pain was managable. I was actually nervous at this point as this was going my first tattoo. I had no idea how it would hurt but I didn’t want the travel to go to waste of just me taking pictures of people being tatttoed. I was like, screw it! Even if it would be an issue with my parent, I didn’t care. I had to do it for myself. I was chatting up with Che, a friend of the person being tattooed on the pain levels. She also said it was managable. She actually got an eagle design tattoo below her collar bones and it was bad ass! They showed me two books of traditional tattoo designs and asked me to pick what I wanted.

I already knew that I wanted to get: the malu, or crab design. It was a symbol for a traveler. But looking through the book, the interesting designs were the hawk, meaning overseer, lightning, centipede. You can also read up on placements as it had meanings also. I wanted to get the malu on the left chest or rather boob (I’m kinda chubby LOL) as traveling is a passion for me. I know it is a common passion for almost everyone but by placing it on my left side would mean an increase for travels based on what I read from the book. I actually made a budget of PHP 1000 and was considering to get two tattoos done (I was debating to also get the hawk and another circular design) but thought that I would just go back and get one from Grace some other time.

The scorpion tattoo was finished in about an hour. Then, it was my turn.

I told Apo Whang-od what I wanted through Kuya Romy and she immediately set to work. She already had a new thorn ready and have mixed soot and water to be her ink. She used a blade of grass that was pre folded already so that she can make a stencil of the design. Mine was like a diamond shape so she started with the outer diamond. Then she took the thorn and applied more ink to it, then place the thorn over the stencil then started tapping. The first few taps sent shivers down my spine and had my nervous system on alert because of the shot stabbing pain caused by the process. For those who were wondering, on a scale of 1 to 10, the pain level for me was at 4. Just imagine getting your blood drawn but in rapid succession. That was what it was like. However, the rhythmic tapping actually helps on managing the pain. I imagined it being like a drum beating. So the process had to be repeated countless of times to get the ink in. I kinda bled a bit but nothing to worry about.

She was quite the whole time entirely focused on what she was doing. Each of the lines were passed on twice I guess to get the ink deeper into my skin. I could not help but look at her while she was tattooing her. Her focused eyes, her delicate hands and her arms adorned by tattoos also. I was in awe of this 96yr old tattooing legend, a cultural emblem of the art of tattoo, the last master mambabatok. I could come up with more title but these three pretty much sums it all up.

She then dropped her tools and looked at her work. The tattoo was already done. I was too busy observing her to notice that she was done. She wiped it with water and put some coconut oil over it. I thanked her and asked how much does it cost. She made a 5 with her hand and I paid her 500. After the session, I had to get a photo me and her as a remembrance and Apo Whang-od went to rest.

In a span of an hour, I became a “pintado” meaning tattooed person.

it was about 5pm when we finished so i had a bit of time to explore around the village. The houses were built close to each other with pathways located in between. There were kids playing on the free spaces as pigs and some dogs walked around in their own pace. Yes, the pigs roam free here. The old houses were made of wood while the new ones were made of concrete and galvanized aluminum. Some were adorned by dream catchers others has water buffalo horns. I walked around together with Che and we found her friends drinking beer with their guide. We joined them but i skipped the alcohol. i didn’t think it would go well with my new tattoo wounds so i just smoked near small satellite dishes for their cable t.v. Yes, i was surprised also! how come there’s no mobile reception in the entire village but they have cable tv?? LOL. But from that area, we have a clear view of the surrounding mountains. Our group was asking the local if it is possible for an outsider to buy property in the area. They said that we would have to get approval from the elders first then we have to go with the legalities of owning a land. I would have been nice to buy land there and build up a hut. The place is really gorgeous. We chatted a little bit more but when I noticed it was getting dark already, I bid everyone good bye and when back to my host family’s house.

When I got back in the house, they were watching a movie on the cable TV and preparing our dinner from the canned goods that I shared with the family. I hanged out at the hut again and was joined by Kuya Romy as well as three other men from the Butbut tribe and we began a discussion on what it mean to be part of the tribe. Based on customs, once you have been welcomed in the house of the your host, you are already considered as a member of the tribe. So I guess that makes me an honorary member. They also discussed how to government has reached them and how they would like to stick to their own tribal rules. We also discussed about the head hunting and inter tribe peace pact and the peace makers (particularly on how expensive it is and how hard of a job it is). They also discussed how they celebrate birthdays (since they were expecting me to stay for my actual birthday). They also answered my questions as to why there were carabao horns on the walls of some houses. It meant that there is an old person who is living or who lived there. I learned that the oldest person who lived in the village lived to be 126 yrs old. In all honesty, I really appreciate their points of views and ideas. I am honestly in awe of how they have managed to marry their customs with the government legalities. I hope they would be able to keep their traditions despite the outside pressure.

We burned a lot of topics as well as cigarettes. Although it would have been nice to have beer but we haven’t had dinner yet.

We were called by our hosts that dinner was ready. We all shared the meal (corned beef and Century Tuna) while watching The Wolverine on Star World (remember satellite dishes for cable TV? Yah?). After eating, I decided to turn in for the night as I have had a LONG day and it was already 8:30pm. It was actually my plan to wake up early to see the sun rise in the mountains and see the rice terraces. I have seen the sunrise from the sea but I think the sun rising between the mountains would also be breathtaking!

The room was a big one that was separated with two cabinets in a line to make two rooms. They had banig or hand-woven mats and insulations (about half an inch of styro with silver coating) as beddings. Pillows and blankets are also available. You have to make your own bed and pack it up afterwards.

Kuya Romy and I were up at around 5:45 am and the sun is already up but the moon is still visible in the sky. And it was even cold enough that you breath condenses when you speak! Westerners would be like, it’s nothing special but for people from the tropics, it’s a WOW moment! From the tattooing hut it was quite a sight already but I asked Kuya Romy if we can go up see the nearby terraces. He said yes and led the way. We went through the entire village and ended up on a basketball court at the very top of the village. Then went to the end to get to the rice terraces. At this point, the light has shown the terraces but the sun has not quite peaked from the mountains. I was breadth taking! And when the sun did rose, it was magical! I cannot describe it in words really but I can say this: I thought I was a “beach” person, now I know I am not.

After taking pictures and videos, we decided to head back for breakfast, and to pack our bags. I decided to just stay the night and travel to Sagada. When we got back, Apo Whang-od was already awake and approached me. Smiling this time and was motioning at my chest and spoke something to Kuya Romy. He said that she wanted to see my tattoo so I showed her and then she smiled. It was a beautiful moment but I was not quick enough to snap it. I was in awe and was just smiling back at her. Kuya Romy then mentioned that she was pleased that the tattoo was healing already and that I need to take care of it as I would any wound to avoid infection. I promised to take of it and said, “Manjamanak, Apo” meaning Thank you Apo in local dialect. She just smiled again and went her way. Talk about #honored #respect #awestrucked!

I went up my room to pack my stuff. I gave the candies that I bought for the kids and the matches for the elders to Grace’s mother so that she can distribute it when I arrived. When I was ready, I went downstairs with my backpack to find breakfast ready which is chicken noodles and rice. After finishing the meal, I bid goodbye to the my host family and thanked them for welcoming me to their home. After a last thank you with Apo Whang-od, Kuya Romy and made our way out of the village back to the Turning Point to wait for a jeep that Kuya Romy arranged for me to get to Bontoc.

It was a short stay but believe it or not, I think I made the most out of it.

Having narrated my entire experience. I have the following tips:

  • Get a guide. Kuya Romy is a really good one so I recommend giving him a call or text. There was a blog that I read where he made it to Buscalan on his own but I would not recommend it. It is better to have a local correspondent.
  • Say no to skin cancer and bring SUN BLOCK! Yes, there are trees but the sun is unforgiving. Your older self will thank you, definitely.
  • Bring canned goods. It is not necessary but your host family would appreciate it. Their rice is actually really REALLY good. Don’t bring food just for yourself. Share.
  • Don’t ask for the cost of the tattoo before getting it done. Wait after the session is finished before asking. Just budget PHP 500 to 2000 I think.
  • Perhaps the most important tip I can share are some of the local dialect that I was able to ask Kuya Romy and some of the men of Buscalan. Here they are:
  • Manjamanak – thank you (singular speaker)
  • Manjaman ami – thank you (group)
  • Fayu – maganda or beautiful
  • Fayu fikfikat – good morning
  • Fayu erkaw – good afternoon
  • Fayu lafi – good night
  • Sidga – yes
  • Faun – no
  • Piya – good food
  • Lamnaw – sweet
  • Managkulinak – I will be back

I am including these two words so as you are familiar with them:

  • Chaker utin – big dick
  • Chaker ufoy – wide vagina

There is a guide that teaches the last two phrases as a greeting. You have been forewarned. LOL!

Now, fortunately for us, the “batok” style of tattooing will not end when Apo Whang-od passes. Her grandniece and apprentice, Grace is now a full “mambabatok”. But I still believe it is a privilege to be tattooed by the master.

I was planning to make a glorious gallery of pictures that I took during my trip but unfortunately, technologiy is not working with me at the moment. So please enjoy below thumbnails!

flippin’ out!

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