Maria Oggay or widely known as “Apo Whang Od” was recently awarded the highest recognition of the national government agency for culture and arts, Dangal ng Haraya Award for Intangible Cultural Heritage. She is the last mambabatok of her tribe – The Butbut Tribe. Carrying the thousand-year old tradition, she uses pomelo thorn and charcoal mixture as ink to draw visitors to her village in Buscalan, resting in the town of Tinglayan of the mountainous Kalinga region.
Having survived being there recently, allow me to validate commonly blogged information about visiting Buscalan Village. I have also did research before booking a flight, and found out that not all internet-provided information are totally true after all. (Take note of the BUTs)
Info #1: Travel time to Buscalan takes 12-15 hours
BUT our roadtrip from Manila to Buscalan only took us 8 hours.
We departed Manila at 7PM and had to arrive before 4AM at the drop-off to Buscalan because police checkpoint starts at 5AM prohibiting the entry of all tourists, following the Executive Order to lockdown Kalinga due to NCoV scare.
Of the 2 routes, via Nueva Vizcaya and via La Union, we had to choose the latter since it is said to be a shorter route. Regardless of which route to take, going to Buscalan is admittedly a tedious commute. But I think the real deal lies not only in the long-hour drive that will turn your butt into a pancake, but also the life-threatening winding road.
The seemingly never-ending sharp curves in narrow roads has sometimes only about 10-inch distance from a lurking ravine that will surely turn you and your ambitious travel goals into pieces, literally.
Traveling at night intensifies the scary look of the deep cliff, you can’t see anything except hell. Just the thought of that holds you back from falling asleep. Now you know why no one arrived in Buscalan well-rested. Such torment lasts up to 3 hours [only] if your driver is as aggressively fast as Kuya Francis.
The ride is not for travelers with seasickness like me. Bonamine won’t help. And seating in front and beside the driver doesn’t work. It only gives you a VIP access of watching the live action as it takes place, giving you accumulated anxiousness every time y’all drift into that blind U-curve one after another.
Going back was a less fatal experience as we took the Ifugao-Nueva Vizcaya route. Same curves but less sharp and roads are highway wide.
Info #2: Apo Whang-od’s Village is inhabited with preserved tribes
The setting of the village is that of a tribe as it is exceptionally remote, BUT the community and the people itself have noticeably adapted to the modern world.
Unlike how we were made to believe, they dress like us and are no longer in tribal dresses. Kids have smart phones, and lads have that latest Kawasaki Fury [customized] motorcycle. Even Whang-od herself wears decent dress and red lipstick given by the tourists. The only thing left with ethnical feel is when they speak Butbut, their local dialect. It’s so native I feel alienated. *French and Canadian left the group*
I’m glad their young populace are attending schools too. There are 3 primary schools around. They have gradually adapted to modern literacy.
Info #3: Trail is difficult
It takes around an hour from the drop-off point to the Butbut community. The one-way trek consists of going up and going down and crossing river BUT I can say that the trek can be classified as generally easy. Not because I’m used to trekking but because most pathways are paved, hand rails are in place, and bridges over rivers are made available. Like other tourist destinations, the trail was enhanced to provide convenience to the visitors. Visiting families bring their kids, thus the trek is child-friendly.
It was raining when we hiked so if you’re lucky to have that weather, you need to be careful with the wet rocks and pavement as it becomes too slippery.
Time flies so slow in Buscalan. It’s quiet and peaceful. The weather is pretty warm during daytime but chilly at night.
Info #4: You may not get a tattoo from Apo Whang-od
She was no longer around when we came. According to the locals, she evacuated in the mountains of Canaan (pointing to the little community across Buscalan) as advised by the local government due to NCoV scare.
Most, if not all, of the visitors come there to get inked by the 102-year-old national living treasure. BUT her absence didn’t stop us from getting a traditional tattoo. While it’s glorifying to be inked by the legend, getting a traditional tattoo can also be accomplished by her trained new generation of Butbut Artists.
My artists Mea and Jhon Rey are true blooded Butbut tribes who are smart and can communicate well. They price tattoos very cheap so please don’t haggle like our Frenc[h] buddy. My 2 designs were only 500 pesos. I gave an extra when I learned they are attending high school. Mea dreams to be a Civil Engineer someday.
All the traditional designs are from Whang-od herself. So don’t be disappointed, it’s both fulfilling to get 3 dots from Apo Whang-od and get designs by the apo (grand children) of Whang-od.
Info #5: Tattoo is very painful
I can attest to this. The thorn being poked inside your skin is 10 times more excruciatingly painful than machine tattoo. BUT it’s not true for all. In fact, in my group of 12, I was the only one who felt so much pain even if I already have [machine] tattoos unlike most of them. And yes I have already forgiven them for laughing at how I reacted to the pain. :3
Maybe it’s the part where I had it placed because it also matters according to Jhon Rey. All I know is that my pain tolerance really failed me that time that if Apo Whang-od was there, I would choose not to get a tattoo from her. Everyone says she hits 10x harder, I can’t imagine the pain. Our guides shared how the pain was too much to bear for some that there were instances when the person peed, fainted, and even pooped.
I love my traditional tattoo, and I’m satisfied with it, knowing I got it from the successors of Whang-od the legendary.
Info #6: Traditional tattoo takes long time to heal
I came across a blog that warns readers how the traditional tattoo is “the dirtiest tattoo. Even now, when I pinch it, something comes out.” There is even a story about one tourist whose tattoo “almost cost her her life”. This could happen, rarely. BUT not all experience are created equal. Traditional tattoo may take longer healing time but it should be fine when well taken-cared of.
Going to Buscalan is not a walk in the park. It’s an off-beat destination. And that’s what makes it a unique and worthwhile experience. Going there and getting a “dirty” tattoo is a risky and crazy decision, BUT probably one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. The exciting and unforgettable experiences almost killed me but made me so alive for an adventure of a lifetime. ~