The Rebirth Of A Dying Tradition: Butbut Tribe Ed.

A Short Overview

“Batok” is the term used for the hand-tapped method of tattooing, often practiced before to symbolize strength among men after victorious fights and protection of their own village from other villages, as well as beauty and wealth among women as the cost of one tattoo involves a great amount. However, since the entry of Americans in the northern region with the aim of pacifying and “educating” highlanders altogether with modernization, slowly the practice of performing batok was gradually decreased since then.


Apo Whang-od Oggay, hailing from Buscalan village of the Butbut tribe in Tinglayan Kalinga, was first featured in the television series Tattoo Hunter on Discovery Channel by anthropologist Lars Krutak. Since then, it cannot be denied how great the impact has been with hundreds of tourists flocking in to Buscalan village mostly on weekends, with the hopes of being tattooed by her as she has been often described as the oldest and last traditional tattoo artist of her generation. Yet, accomodating all would take her days. Some might wonder why don’t she just teach others to help her out? Now here’s the thing. The practice can only be taught to those within their bloodline. However, over the passage of time, a lot of things has changed. After she began training her great niece Grace Palicas roughly more than a decade ago, a lot of other mambabatoks have emerged, with almost 30 (figure to be confirmed, either close to 13 or 30) or more performing the said practice to date. The meaning of it however no longer holds what it was originally done for.

Of plans and uncharted waters

The idea of getting a tattoo has been on my bucket list for quite some time. I have been planning to have one in the coming months until one of my friends, Jhonethan, messaged me about going for an out of town trip as they are having a holiday day-off on the 3rd of September. Having a nomadic character who is always up for anything that involves wandering away, I said “Why not?” So then we had some discussions and part of our choices were to go for Batad in Ifugao or visit the mummy and burial caves of Kabayan, Benguet. With that, we took some time to search for some sample itineraries and local tour guides who could assist us. Soon as I was able to find a contact person whom I can coordinate with in Kabayan, Jhonethan suddenly decided we just go for Buscalan in Tinglayan, Kalinga to visit Apo Whang-od. Again, having a nomadic character, it wasn’t a problem for me as long as I get to wander.  All that was left for us was to find a few more friends who can join us in this DIY trip to lessen the expenses :p.

Getting There

Then came Saturday. Unfortunately, only Jhonethan was able to grab a friend with him who can join us as my friend cannot make it given the time and date. So for our trip, we decided to go for the Manila – Bontoc – Buscalan route. Getting to Bontoc, we reserved bus tickets through Coda Lines. It costed us P760 for this one (P725 base fare + P35 online booking fee). Our trip was scheduled for 10:30PM and it took us roughly 12 hours as there are a lot of stop overs and there is a traffic along Nueva Vizcaya road.

Sunrise along Kayapa

From Bontoc, there are jeepneys going to Kalinga with its terminal located just by the side of the Mountain Province State University and near the DPWH office. When riding the jeepney, one must make sure that the route is headed for Buscalan. There is also a bus traversing the Bontoc – Kailnga route but I’m not sure of the time schedule. When we arrived, the jeepney scheduled for 11AM already left so we have to wait until 2PM for the next one. While waiting, a lot of tricycle drivers are offering to take us to Buscalan. We just opted however to wait as we are skeptical if the tricycle could really make it there. So after three hours of waiting, we already departed from Bontoc. For our trip, the fare was P100 and travel time was around an hour and a half.

No Pain, No Gain

After more than a day of travel and reaching Buscalan at half past three in the afternoon, we still have a long way to go.

The view that greets you

Arriving there, we were greeted by manong Pio who will be our guide. From the drop-off, we still need to hike for at least thirty minutes to an hour before reaching the village itself where Apo Whang-od is.

Jump off

Road widening and construction is still ongoing so we had to pass by a very narrow path by the side of the mountain.

IMG_5575The path going up is well made but it’s generally steep making you lose your breath and stop to take a rest from time to time. The best thing to do is be early so as to avoid the scorching heat of the sun.

Reaching the top

Once in the village, you will need to register at the souvenir shop and pay an environmental fee of P75.

Just some reminders to follow while in the village

After, we were led by manong Pio to Isabel’s Homestay. They have a fixed rate of P300 per head in the entire village so don’t go searching for a cheaper one 😆. Each homestay offers unlimited rice and coffee so all you have to worry about is your food.Along the way, you will get to see a lot of boars wandering all around.


Naughty little pig 😆

Hearing that, you might think that the whole place is stinky or that you might step on their poops. Despite that, you’ll be surprised to see how clean the area is and how fresh the air could be. It is just a simple place yet being there gives you the time to just enjoy the view and be at content.En route our homestay, we get to see Apo Whang-od’s house.

This is the stick that holds the thorn used for tattooing

Apo Whang-od’s house. This is different from where she performs batok.

Since it was already late, we took the time to roam around and take pictures, have a drink of their unlimited robusta coffee, and think about what tattoo design will we go with. We just decided to have our tattoos be done the following day.We went on the other side of the village. This is a perfect spot for pictures when the fields are green. This is where the sun rises as well.

One of the homestays you can find. What’s good about it? It’s in front of the rice fields.

Below are the materials they use for tattooing sessions including different designs which holds its own meaning. (I’ll be doing a separate article on each design, hopefully soon.) We get to also see Apo Whang-od in action.

Dog days

Mobile network coverage within the area is weak so you have to prepare for it! :pYou won’t be able to access your favorite social networking sites so it’s best you have stories prepared to tell your friends. If not, you can always play card games or drink to your heart’s content.

Now or never

So then came the following day and I woke up at around past five. Unfortunately, there was no coffee available yet so I just decided to go out and enjoy the cold morning breeze until such time Jhonethan decided we go by the other side of the village and have a view of the morning sunrise. So there we went and took more pictures after which we decided to eat breakfast.

Right after that, manong Pio led us to one of the skilled mambabatoks, manang Renalyn.I was the second one to get tattooed. When my turn came, I felt a little nervous not because of the pain I will feel but the idea of having my first tattoo. For the design, I chose to have the one called “Prayer”. Manang Renalyn starts out by drawing an outline of the said design.Then, she proceeds now by starting to tap the thorn covered in soot mixed in water. At the first hit, I really did not feel any pain. It was just like being poked by a small pin continuously.



What only got me worried was the time it started bleeding. I tried not to mind it however and just trusted manang Renalyn. After thirty minutes or so, I was done.Next to me was Norly. While waiting for him to finish, I took the time to capture more photos.


Thorn used is taken from pomelo trees


We wanted to explore the area more after but since we are doing a DIY trip, we have to be conscious of our time as there are limited trips going back to Bontoc. Luckily, one of the groups there still has some seats available in  their rented van and offered it which we gladly accepted.  But before leaving, we sure didn’t want to miss the opportunity to have a picture with Apo Whang-od.Right after, we now joined the group who invited us. From Buscalan until Bontoc, the organizer just charged us P100 each for the fare which is basically just the same as when we went there. From Bontoc, we decided to take a side trip first to Baguio before heading back to Manila.



Summary of Expenses

  • P760 – Bus fare from Manila to Bontoc
  • P100 – Jeepney fare from Bontoc to Buscalan
  • P75 – Environmental fee
  • P333 – Individual contribution for P1000 guide fee since we were only 3
  • P300 – Homestay
  • P600 – Tattoo
  • P50 – Picture taking with Apo Whang-od
  • P100 – Fare from Buscalan to Bontoc
  • P212 – Bus fare from Bontoc to Baguio
  • P455 – Bus fare from Baguio to Manila

Possible Routes

  • Manila – Bontoc – Buscalan
    • Coda Lines Bus from Manila to Bontoc
    • Jeepney from Bontoc to Buscalan – there are no hourly trips so you must schedule accordingly
  • Manila – Baguio – Bontoc – Buscalan
    • Victory Liner or Genesis/Joybus from Manila to Baguio
    • D’ Rising Sun or GL/Lizardo Trans from Baguio to Bontoc – earliest trip is around 4AM and 6AM respectively but changes depending on given date and weather

Contact Person


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  1. napintas pagkasulat mo, plus pictures.
    simpleng buhay, simpleng pamayanan.

    more kuento hinggil sa pamayanan at karampatang pictures😁
    at ang pagpanatiling sumusunod ang mga bisita/turista sa ordinansya ng barangay, hindi pagsalaula sa environment, maging ang pagrespeto sa mamamayan, sa kanilang kaugalian at pamayanan.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the post. It was awesome story to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating travelogue. Beautiful photography!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting!!


  5. Amazing trip, the pictures are fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, for you getting a tattoo really was a rite of passage! And really, it should be treated with reverence since it is a moment that you will live with for the rest of your life. I loved all the photos!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is so cool! Only seen this way of tattooing on TV before, you lucky dog who got to experience the real deal!

    Liked by 1 person

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