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 one of the 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 has 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.
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 considered as the oldest living tattooist in the Philippines at the age of 103, it was pass on her by her father who taught her the way of traditional tattooing and pass 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 thorn to each of her client 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, 30minutes to 1 hour. It will depend on the design. Mine takes about 30 minutes for a 2x2 tattoo design.
Again, it will depend on the design, my chest tattoo is 300 pesos only and the one at my back is 500. But during our stay at the tattoo shop, some design cost 1000 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 finish with it, same goes if you want to have your tattoo by Grace, you will need to seek Apo’s for the price.
If you haven’t decided what design you will have its perfectly okay. They have this “almanac” as what they called it, it’s 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 happened to have designs brought with you and wants Apo to have it tattooed on you it’s impossible. Even for grace. Honestly, when this trip is in planning stage, me and my friends already have our design we want. But when we got there everything changes. The fact that Apo is not doing any customize design so its not really possible, but 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 if Grace will agree to it.
As for us, the chances of going there and have a tattoo that has meaning and holds so many stories behind is a pleasure for us so we take that as an opportunity and choose from the wide variety of designs that they have.
Another is you can ask Grace to design something for you, after all, she knows it better than us. That goes for my friend Bella, it’s a design not in the books and was 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 each and every tattoo and skin is unique depending on the reaction of your skin. So if you have a sensitive skin just ask your doctor’s advice first. But 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 cover when we descend and upon reaching Benguet they exclaimed that their tattoo got “nana” and is swollen more than us. Swelling is normal. Don’t over react to that, its like getting a wound, actually. Mine and my other friends tattoo is normal and doesn’t ache anymore when we reach Baguio.
If it is swelling after two days or so you may take anti-biotic as per our guides instructions. But if its not healing he suggest 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 to 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 much of tagalog dialect to none at all.
They are requiring a guide when you go to Buscalan, for they will fetch you at your agreed meetup place and from there your guide will serve as your companion for the rest of your trip, from everything you needed and things you didn’t know you needed too.
You may have someone from there to take as your guide when you got there especially if you are solo backpacker, don't worry people there are very hospitable and kind.
As for us, our guide is Oliver, trust me, he is one of the best guide there. He knows perfectly how to speak and understand tagalog and English language and is very accommodating. His contact number is 09397741477. Guide is 1000 pesos per day.
Where to stay?
This will depend on your guide. As for us, Oliver did all the Buscalan work for us, I message 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. And coffee, though I am not fan of coffee, but my friends are and they were asking for coffee every now and then, not just because its freezing out there but because the coffee tastes really good, well, they were exclaiming how great the taste it 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. Me and my friends bring 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 able to only buy cabbage on our last day. Expect the price of course, anyway its their only source of income there. We are the one cooking our dish, the place where we stay 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 to the Family.
Yes. But too bad, during our stay there are no electricity for almost a week. Just to be sure, bring powerbanks with you and charge your gadgets before going there. But with or without you will never be bored there. The company of the tribe and your friends is enough plus the weather there is cold enough perfect to have 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, informed them if ever you will be extending your trip. This is case to case basis though and to worst case scenario. From our experience, since there are no electricity and the only cellphone that has cignal is from our guide (yes, there can be signal through old model phones, not to all though, for I have my old model phone with me but is no use up there, same with my other friend, our guide’s phone is cherry mobile, we really don’t know if it does the trick, but he has signal on specific part of his house only) we extend for one more night and our guide’s phone ran out of battery so I wasn’t able to message my older sister and got panic when I haven’t arrived on the day I told her of our arrival and almost have me report to the police as 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?
Anything comfy to clothes that will keep you warm at night. Its freezing there esp at night.
When is the best time to go there?
Weekdays. There will be loads of people during the weekend especially holidays and long weekend. So, to secure you will be have your tattoo go on weekdays. But for us, we leave Saturday from Manila and arrive at Buscalan Sunday afternoon and few people on the line at the tattoo shop.
This is not required. But you may do so. Since this trip serve as my birthday outreach too, we bring school supplies for the kids and medicines like biogesic and paracetamol. We also bring candles and matches. You can bring gifts for Apo too and Grace they will be very happy especially wet wipes for they are using it on tattoing. I suggest not bringing any candies to 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 trip going to Tabuk at 7:00 pm and 8:00 pm 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 ran 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 arrive at 4:30 AM.
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 when you are like us, fast asleep and reach the terminal of the victory liner at Tabuk and have to pay 50 pesos each for a tricycle ride going back to Cathedral.
From the Cathedral, walk on the opposite side going to Police station from there you will see a karenderia where you can wait for the Van or jeepney going to Buscalan. The van arrives at 7 am but leaves at 8:30 AM they wait for the van to be occupied so take that time to eat breakfast and you can visit the cathedral.
Make sure to ride a vehicle going to Buscalan, otherwise you will be transferring from one to another. We plan to take a jeepney ride so we can try toploading but it’s the van who came first. Van from Tabuk to Buscalan takes about 3 to 4 hrs. We arrive at the Buscalan at 12 noon and we hop in to a single motor bike to go to the foot of Buscalan, from there, there will be another 1 hour trek going to their village. By 1 pm we are at the village.
How to go home?
This is the content I am not seeing in any post which I am very particular. For I am planning to leave as soon since we all have our work the following day. So let me share how we did it. From Buscalan, there will be a jeepney or van waiting going to Tabuk and Bontoc, the last trip is 1 pm. 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 late 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 to danger.
We take the Bontoc trip because we are 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 – 1000 per day | (we stayed for 3days 2nights) 2000/4 - 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 3days 2 nights
Will be telling the whole adventures and mishaps on my next post.