Apo Whang Od is a living legend, The last of the Kalinga Batok Grandmasters. A centenarian traditional artist of a nearly dying hand-tap tattoo art form. It is a pilgrimage of sorts to visit her in the Mountain Province village of Buscalan. Click to see the Youtube Vlog.
It is a rapidly transforming ancient village surrounded by the beauty and majesty of rivers and rice terraces on Luzon Philippines. The trek is truly breathtaking. And not just because of the climb.
The weekend trip to visit the Buscalan village is a long ride from Manila, but don’t let that stop you from experiencing the culture of this tribal village in the clouds.
There are a few ways to travel to the village, I reccomend going with an experienced tour group. I was lucky enough to get a seat with Walwa tours and they handled all the details like a boss.
The old saying “The devil is in the details” applies in varying degrees on a trip like this. For example, dealing with the limited schedules available for public transportation in the Tinglayan region can leave you high and dry. Or walking many Kilometers in the hot sun. There is limited (or no) wifi and mobile service outside of the main jump off points (like the city of Bontoc).
Arranging for a guide, which is mandatory to visit village, securing a homestay residence in the village, and being able to eat with no restaurants are some of the considerations that travelers to this remote destination will need to manage.
The homestay locations for visitors average about 250 Php per night.
There aren’t any restaurants in the village, but I did see a few signs offering prepared dishes. Your guide, or homestay host can (and will) prepare food for you. The guides are not optional, all visitors are now required to have a local from the village at a cost of 1,000 php per day (per 5 people)
Even the Signature Apo Whang Od tattoos can range in price from 100 to 1,000 Pesos depending on the size.
The Kalinga coffee is unique, this region is one of the largest producers of organic coffee in the Philippines. I bought 1 kilo for 100 pesos. But it is free during your stay there. I also bought some sweet organic tobacco here for 10Php a leaf. And… Well, it isn’t the only thing you can get in Buscalan that is smokable. This place is the unofficial Colorado of the Philippines.
The people of the village despite having a savage history as skilled head hunters are friendly and approachable.
They also have integrity and are very hospitable. The reason why I was walking around in this GoPro walkthrough Video was because I left my rain jacket hanging at the visitor registration center. I honestly kind of thought it would be long gone… And was very grateful to find that the villagers kept it for me when I returned to ask about it.
Apo Whang Od, The last Grandmaster of the Kalinga Batok art was recently honored with the Philippines National living treasures award.
Until recently Whang Od was considered the last of the Mambabatok. (Kalinga Tattoo artist).
The tradition in the culture dictates the art can only be taught within the bloodline. Apo Whang Od is now also teaching this art to her nieces. These young apprentices are the heralds that will maintain, and likely evolve this unique cultural art form into the future.
Sadly, this is not eco-tourism – But I think it can be with some adaptations!
Walking through the Buscalan village, it became more and more evident that the simple infrastructure of the small town can’t keep up with the influx of people coming to see Apo Whang Od. Despite the “leave nothing but footprints” philosophy, littering is evident, even the children of the village casually discard trash when opening a package of treats a visitor gives them.
The ground in many areas between the houses is muddy. That mud will probably have a mix of dog or pig feces. There are areas of standing water that collect where there is cement sit with algae blooming. At least during the rainy season. I recommend a decent pair of footwear, this is not the kind of place you want to slip and fall. For the most part any unpleasant smells were not too bad, or cloying.
From what I observed The heavy demand is too much for Buscalan to serve its roots and its tourists.
They don’t have any easy way to scale up their infrastructure. What is getting lost in the hype of the cash grab is that they have a fragile culture and organic eco-system that is challenged more and more by mass tourism.
I wonder if the village could implement policies in addition to, or in conjunction with the registration fee for visitors to carry a even a small bag of trash out of the village? The non-eco element of mass tourism is negatively impacting the natural elements of the culture and the way of life for this village.
Hopefully the traditional elements of the culture will be preserved in it’s inevitable evolution.
The reality is visitors to the village do not have to adapt to their way of life. The Kalingan But-but tribespeople are opting, struggling, or maybe simply pressured to rapidly conform to how the outside world lives to… Just to keep up.
The rice terraces, the mountains and the village in the mist of the clouds is breathtaking. Time seems to slow down here, conversations & camaraderie take the place of checking emails and social media accounts.
It was an amazing experience. Well worth the 10+ hour overnight drive from Manila. It’s about a 3 kilometer hike that ascends 1.2 KM over the trail. It is steep and muddy in some spots.
#walwatours provided an all inclusive package for 2650Php
The transportation to and from the meet up spot in Manila. And arranging the lodging and all the meals in the village. We stopped on the trip for a few meals that were in restaurants. Although these few meals were not included in the package, It was a minimal expense. The menu’s where we stopped had some pretty good options at around 100 Php for a meal.
During weekends and Holidays the village can be crowded. The queue for a signature tattoo with Apo Whang Od starts early and are LONG. And it can get chilly up there, like 45 degrees F (7.5 degrees C).