A 100-year old Filipina from the Butbut tribe in the far-flung mountains of Buscalan, Kalinga, Philippines is considered a treasure in the world of body art. Apo Wang Od as she is commonly known was named as the last mambabatok (traditional Kalinga tattooist) of her tribe. Batok is a traditional hand-tapped tattoo technique that uses charcoal as ink and lemon thorn as a needle. As her work circulated the internet, her talent was celebrated in international tattoo exhibitions. The name Wang Od is locally and internationally recognized as one of the admired tattoo artists today.
The trip to Banaue took more or less 15 hours land trip by van from Manila. We left the city around 11:00AM and painstakingly endured the long distance drive, not to mention the twisted roads on the side of the cliffs on our way. At 10:00PM, we arrived in Banaue, checked ourselves into a hostel and left for Buscalan early in the morning. The trip from Banaue to Buscalan was approximately 2 – 3.5 hours drive.
Almost 10:00AM the next day, we finally arrived in Buscalan. Our tour guides waited for us at the drop-off area. There is a specific parking space intended for private vehicles. With a minimal parking fee, you can safely leave your service vehicles overnight. The duration of the trek from the drop-off area to the village would depend on your pace, but evidently it will be a challenging uphill and downhill hike. For fit hikers, it will only take 30-45mins.
Heads up: You will be hiking two steep mountains to the village. Please consider the weight of your bag, the heat of the sun and also your physical ability. Travelers who have hypertension or any medical problems, prepare yourself physically prior to the trek or talk to your doctor about your travel plan. There is no available doctor in the village who can help you during worst case scenarios.
Meeting Apo Wang Od
Excited to see an indigenous community and assuming to see the locals wearing their traditional Ifugao clothes with houses made of light materials and other locally plentiful plants; I rushed curiously to the village. To my dismay, it was a regular neighborhood same as what we have in the lowlands, except for farm animals freely wandering around their front door.
After lunch, we prepared ourselves to meet Apo Wang Od but we needed to wait for our turn since she was working with someone. Aside from Apo Wang Od, there are plenty of younger mambabatoks in the village. To maximize our time, we decided to get a tattoo from Emily.
Apo Wang Od is a little old lady with an expressionless face sometimes. Her tiny structure made her look fragile, but she is fit for her age. She was wearing a white T-shirt and a printed trouser when she slowly approached us. Overwhelmed, we loudly rushed to greet her. Her facial expression changed. I couldn’t tell if she was annoyed or harassed. The tension calmed down. She asked who wants to get a tattoo. I volunteered; I have been waiting for the opportunity. People from different parts of the world as far as Europe or South America travel to get a tattoo from her and others do not have the means to do so, they are my motivation to get myself tattooed.
Ready for the experience, I sat down next to her and pointed at the design I wanted. Anxious about the hygiene of my tattoo, I handed her antibacterial wet wipes. My eyes were locked on the thorn that she would be using. I could feel the thorn deep in my skin while she was trying to get the charcoal inside. If you want to ask if it was painful, of course, it was, but the pain was nothing compared to my determination of getting inked. After less than 20 minutes, she was done and I was relieved. Another adventure off my bucket list.
Regular Sized Tattoo from Emily – 500.00
Regular Sized Tattoo from Wang Od – 500.00
Wang Od’s Signature Tattoo – 100.00
Where We Stayed:
Buscalan Homestay – 300.00 Php / person
It’s a comfortable hut with a kitchen, bathroom, toilet and great view. Basic amenities are provided.
Tour Guide and Buscalan Homestay:
Contact for quote
Phone: +63 999-978-4199
One Viahero Van Rental
Phone: +63 917 554 1858
Request for Billy Espiritu as your driver
Phone: +63 916 795 3810
Where We Ate:
Our tour guide provided us food. We paid at the end of our stay. A small sari-sari store is located near Buscalan Homestay. Bring comfort food.
Additional Travel Tips:
- Rent a van for group travel. It saves time and it’s more convenient.
- Trek early in the morning when the weather is cooler.
- Prepare yourself physically.
- Bring candies for the village kids.
- Bring something for Apo Wang Od. We bought a few groceries for her.
- Bring antibacterial wipes.
- Apo Wang Od allows you to choose your own tattoo design.
- Souvenir shops are available in the village.
- A souvenir shop next to Emily’s house can create a traditional memento using the thorn used for your tattoo.
- For tattoo care, use over the counter antibacterial ointments.
More Pictures and Video:
Thank you for the experience Apo Wang od.