Things to Remember When Visiting Buscalan

The small village of Buscalan in the province of Kalinga is home to a tribe known for their distinct traditional art form. The world was first introduced to the Butbut tribe and their unconventional tattoo when one of the earliest episodes of Lars Krutak's TV show, Tattoo Hunters featured Apo Whang-Od and the art of 'Pagbabatok'.

We list down few important things to remember when you are planning to get the traditional art from Buscalan.

1. The history

A few decades back, the Batok or the traditional tattoo was only given to the women and warriors of the Butbut tribe for protecting their land and taking the heads of their opponents. As years go by, the Butbut warriors and the head hunting activity have slowly seized to exist. Today, it is a privilege for the tourists and travelers to receive this unique traditional Filipino art, but there is also a number of discussion debating whether the influx of tourist either cause harm or good to the people of Buscalan.

2. What is your reason?

First and foremost, I have high respect to Whang-Od. She was one of the original tattoo masters who render "pagbabatok" to the head hunting warriors of their tribe, but one of the common points surfacing the debates is how the 98 year old Whang-Od is treated as an attraction of the village. Most says that the number of people seeking a tattoo from her is counting up to her advancing age and health.

Visitors should know their reason for visiting Buscalan. Instead of focusing on Whang Od, make the tattoo and the place your reason for traveling. Instead of saying "I'll get a tattoo from Whang Od", why not say "I'll get a traditional tattoo in Buscalan". Apo Whang Od already have two apprentices helping her out, and there are talks among locals that there are other few from the village who practice it as well. Whether we got the tattoo from Whang Od or not, what matter is that we are grateful to be allowed to receive this traditional tattoo from their tribe.

3. Three ways to get to Buscalan

There are three ways to get to Buscalan from Manila:
  • Via Tabuk: Victory Liner has a direct trip to Tabuk; travel time is around 11 hours, fare is around Php 850.00.  From Tabuk, take a jeep bound to Bontoc in front of St. Williams church for another 3 hour travel, and get off at Bugnay (Php 120). From Bugnay, charter a habal-habal to the jump off point to Buscalan (Php 100).
  • Take note, that jeep bound to Bontoc are only available at Tabuk up util 9:00 AM. In case of mising out the last trip, there are also van just beyond St. Williams church bound to Tinglayan.
  • Via Banaue: Florida Bus and Ohiyami from Dangwa in Manila has nighty trip to Banaue (Php550), trip will take around 9 hours. From Banaue, ride a jeep bound to Bontoc (Php 150), for another 2 hour travel. From Bontoc, ride a jeep bound to Tinglayan and drop off at the jump off point of Buscalan (Php110). 
  • Via Baguio: Take regular trip from Manila to Baguio (4-6 hours, Php 500), and take a bus bound to Bontoc in terminal near Bugio Public Market. From Bontoc, ride a jeep bound to Tinglayan and drop off at the jump off point of Buscalan (Php110).

4. Guides and registration

Guides and registration are required when visiting Buscalan. Unfortunately, since tourists and travelers can come from either Tinglayan or Bontoc, your place of registration and guide assignment will depend on where you were from. Local guides recommend to register in Buscalan as it will directly benefit the villagers rather than registering from Tinglayan.

We also learned that guide fee and registration in Buscalan are a bit more affordable than in Tinglayan. So if arranging for your guides, better to get them directly from the jump off point of Buscalan.

Guide Fee: Php 1000.00 per head per day
Registration: Php 75.00 per head

Grace who took lessons under Whang Od since she was 10 years old

5. Get a tattoo from Grace

Remember what we wrote in number one? There are two young women who are currently  helping Whang Od out, her two granddaughter Grace and Eliang.

Grace, who took lessons from her grandaunt, Apo Whang Od since she was 10 years old is now [18 years old and] also considered as a master in her own rights. As I observed from her work, going back and forth to press down the ink  deep into the skin that her work is finer and cleaner. Her age could be a factor, but it is no doubt that she is very keen to the details when it comes to the tattoo.

Grace was the one who made my tattoo, and I could not wish for anything else. I really recommend to get the tattoo from her as you will be very astonished with the result.

Eliang, another granddaughter of Whang Od taking apprenticeship under her

6. Respect the Culture

There are no hotels in Buscalan, so most visitors stay with the local family. With that, always remember to respect their culture. If we are not familiar with their culture, show respect as much as we know we can.

The accommodation with the family also includes the  meal during the whole duration of your stay, if you bring your own food, you can share it with the whole family, and be kind enough to offer to help with the dishes.

Drinking alcoholic beverages to get thru the night is okay, since most guides and villagers also do it and even invite you to join them, just keep the volume to a minimum and refrain from making late night partying.

If you want to take pictures of anything or of the villagers in particular, always ask permission first.

7. Avoid the Weekend

One integral part of eco-tourism is minimizing the impact we make in a destination. Since most influx of visit is during the weekend, I would recommend as much as possible to schedule your visit on weekdays [Monday to Wednesday to be specific]. You will definitely help lessen the concentration of tourist on weekends and would better appreciate the village with lesser crowds. You will also have a lesser waiting time in queue for your turn to get the tattoo.

The needle is made out of thorn from pomelo tree, while the ink is a mixture of coal and water

8. The Tattoo

By now I'm sure you already know that this tattoos are a bit different from the conventional we know. The process of "Pagbabatok" includes the use of a thorn from a pomelo tree as a needle, and the ink is made from a mixture of charcoal and water. The thorn will be repeatedly tapped with a wooden stick to introduce the ink deep into the skin pigment.

There is no need to worry about possible blood to blood transmission of disease as each one will have their set of thorns. Some also prefer to use Tetanus Toxoid and antibiotic cream for prophylaxis against tetanus and infection, but there are also some who want to keep it as close as possible to its traditional form and refrain from using such medications, only relying on proper tattoo care. It's your health and own discretion, so either way is good and safe.

9. The design

The traditional Kalinga tattoos are mostly tribal and geometric in design, it is also heavily influenced by the environment and the meaning it represents on their tribe. Some of the notable designs are the centipede, the serpent eagle, the hawk, the crab, and the star, the sun and the moon.

If you have a personal design in mind to put in your skin, I recommend to keep it to yourself for now and save it for machine tattoo. Take our word of advice that it could more likely end up bad than good if we persist with our own design. Just choose from their library of beautiful [although limited] designs. Remember that it is also part of respecting their culture. You may ask your guides to help you explain the meaning of each tattoo.


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