I asked myself how I could make the most of my four days trip to the Philippines… I honestly don’t think I could’ve found a better way than going to the middle of nowhere in the Mountain Province to discover a part of the filipinos culture. I heard about the famous and legendary woman Apo Whang-Od several times and was really intrigued. Before getting more into it, I did a video about the whole experience here :
At 103 years old, she’s now the oldest tattoo artist in the world. She is also the last mambabatok (traditional Kalinga tattooists) and is part of the Butbut people of the larger Kalinga ethnic group. Traditionally, only men with special tattooing ancestry were allowed to learn the art. Apo Whang-od was an exception due to her talent seen by her father, the master tattoist of Buscalan.
She has been doing tattoos on headhunters and indigenous people of Butbut since she was 15 years old and has always been adding 3 dots as her art signature. The Butbut warriors, who used to earn tattoos through protecting villages or killing enemies, no longer exist. Despite that, Whang-od continues to tattoo tourists visiting Buscalan.
So after spending a day in Manila at the incredible Z Hostel, I decided to go for this crazy roadtrip with Corhey Travel & Tours. And let me tell you, the Road to Buscalan is not an easy one. Doing it through a travel agency is way safier and it allow you to avoid the pain in the ass of having to book several buses and jepneys. The organisation takes care of the car and tour guide. It’s a long ten to fifteen hours trip in the mountains so if you’re usually sick, I strongly advised taking preventing medecine.
At the parking, a tour guide will take the leadership of the group and you’ll walk through wonderful small paths in the mountains and rice terraces to join Buscalan village. Once arrived, you’ll need to register. Depending on how busy Apo Whang-Od is, you may not get a tattoo from her on the day of your arrival. But you can get one from her nieces, Grace and Ilyang, to whom she untrusted her knowledge.
We were lucky enough to be taken care of on our first morning there. Apo, seated on a little stool on the ground, was already working on someone’s design when we arrived. It was quite impressive to see as she’s repetively hitting the skin with her traditional hand tools. She uses a lemon thorn needle that is attached to the end of a small bamboo stick and to another shorter stick to tap the thorn into the skin. The ink is a mixture of water and soot. Pambabatok, compared to other conventional tattooing techniques, is relatively painful. But if you’re only doing the three dots, it’s only a matter of minutes.
During the whole week end, the village took really good care of us. We slept in one of the bamboo house all together and were offered a fish & rice breakfast, a nice dinner and another breakfast with the best coffee I’ve ever tasted.
Travelling truly allows you to open your eyes, mind and heart. That’s why it can be so challenging sometimes ; we’re basically learning how to swim in the unknown, outside of our comfort zone, and how to feel deeply with the fear of getting attached to places and people we may never see again. But that’s also what makes those experiences so beautiful, worth it and rewarding !