#WhangOdventure: A Guide to Kalinga Tribe's Living Legend

Itching to get that traditional ink straight from living legend herself, Apo Whang Od? Here’s what you need to know before, during, and after your tattoo trip.

By: Araceli Therese

Scope:

1. Transportation: 4-step Travel– where, what, how much!

2. Tour Guides: do you need one?

3. Home Stay / Food and Water / Toilet: WHAT?

4. The Tattoo: design, price, pain, and the artist

5. IMPORTANT Tips: what to bring and NOT bring, do’s and don’ts, tattoo care, precautions, etc.

We do urge you that as you travel — do not forget to connect with nature & with people. Step out of the comfort freaking zone & GROW! Grow like a beautiful bonsai tree! Live free of fears — fear of mistakes, fear of loss and any thing that hinders you to give love!

JUST GO. GET ON THAT BUS AND DO IT.

Connect with people and ask away! Go & get lost for a bit and find your way again.

Make an adventure! Make a human one X –#HumansLikeUs

The Kalinga Tribe is one of the many indigenous tribes in the Philippines. Their location is in the mountain provinces area, close to places like Baguio, Sagada, and Banaue.

The tribe is recently famed for the living legend: the last true tribal tattoo master of the tribe, APO WHANG-OD. (Now, this is true to some extent- she is the last living tattoo master of her generation, but not for the whole tribe as she has got two people in line to her throne– the young master, Grace, and Elyang Wagid, the youngest & third in line.)

NOW…

Authenticity & quality… “to each their own”

Let’s say that authenticity & quality are mere perception & preference. Your experience is and will be unique and true to you. There might be similar things people go through but the whole experience is still completely unique to the driver of the destiny– each of us alone.

And this experience is my own. You might experience something similar but it is how you take your journey & how you let it imprint on you as much as you to it.

I’d like to think of it as…

…a guide pointing travelers like ourselves to a right direction.

TRANSPORTATION (4 Step Travel)

For international peeps: you’ll need to book a flight to Manila, Philippines first!

Now for the local travels:

* MANILA-BAGUIO (via bus) – BONTOC-BUSCALAN (via jeepney) – “Turning point” – Hike up the Kalinga Tribe Village *

1. Manila to Baguio

  • go to CUBAO for the bus stations (get a taxi & just say either GENESIS BUS STATION or VICTORY LINERS)
  • There are two trust-worthy bus lines: GENESIS BUS LINER or VICTORY LINERS. You can just rock up on the bus station as we did & buy your tickets right then & there. But look at the schedule online 2 days or at least a day before.

    For peak season though, I suggest you book in advance to be safe — for booking, you have to go to the bus station & purchase your ticket. The popular stations are all in Cubao.

    We left at 12:30 am but there are travels from 3 am to 7 pm. Just check online or call their hotline because they change without prior notice.

  • 3 types of buses
    • Ordinary: no aircon, cheapest at around Php 400+ ($8.54)
    • Air-conditioned: with stop-overs, picks up people along the way, around Php 500-600 ($10.67-12.81)
    • WIFI bus: no stops, with WIFI and bathroom, spacious reclining seats, and free water and blanket – Php 721 ($15.39)
  • We took the WIFI bus as it’s the most comfortable and it’s the fastest with no stops: our journey was 4 hours, so with stops and traffic it would probably be around 5-6 hours.

2. Baguio to Bontoc

Tadaa! You’re in Baguio City, the Philippine’s Summer Capital as it’s one of the coldest places in the Philippines! You can stay there for the night and pick strawberries the next day, or you can just continue on your journey and focus on finding Apo Whang Od. Up to you… how much do you like strawberries?

  • From the drop off, you can either walk 15-20 minutes down or take a 10-minute cab ride to the next bus station going to Bontoc. Two liners again: GL Bus Lines and D’Rising Sun Bus Line.
  • They have travels from 6-8 am (it depends) to 3 pm going to Bontoc. Cost is Php 220 ($4.69), and travel time is 3-4 hours.

3. Bontoc to Buscalan (Turning Point)

The lovely people there will point you in the right direction, just be willing & ask! Just say Apo Whang-Od’s name and they will show you where to get the jeepney to go to the “turning point” in Buscalan (where no more vehicles are allowed beyond that point).

  • The jeepney is Php 100 ($2.13) and it takes about 1.5-2 hours to get to the Buscalan turning point.

Now… sit on the roof of the jeepney for a spectacular view & a bit of a challenge! This will be uncomfortable but I dare say it is the most stunning & worthy seat!

4. Hike up to the Kalinga Village

Be careful and take in the stunning rice terraces and mountain views. This hike takes 30-45 minutes depending on your pace. It’s also to make up for that happy meal you ate!

Total transportation costs (as of June 2016): 

One way per person: Php 1,041 ($22.22)

Roundtrip per person: Php 2,082 ($44.45)

 

TOUR GUIDES 

OK so this is a bit of a conundrum so please read it & take it in…

When we reached the “turning point”, we were mugged by people saying they are tour guides. It is quite a conundrum because you want to support people who are making a decent living, but then you also don’t want to get ripped off being backpackers/tourists/foreigners.

So we went with our initial gut & purpose, which is to try to have the most authentic experience. We chose not to get tour guides and instead do it ourselves.

IT IS POSSIBLE although we were threatened with “NO TOUR GUIDES, NO ENTRY” & “NO TOUR GUIDE, NO TATTOO” — very vexing!!

Now.. you can choose to have a tour guide & you can contact them. The pay is Php 1,000 ($21.35) PER DAY. If this does not bother you, then I will encourage you to go do it as it supports someone; but only if this does not bother you & if you deem it to be necessary.

To each their own, remember? 🙂

I would recommend Kuya Gilbert, he’s the only one with a proper NC2 Tour Guide certification from TESDA (a government branch). He is very well-liked and genuine. Reach him at 0908 479 2012.

Anyway, we did not get a tour guide & hiked up on our own. When we reached the village, the first hut will greet you — that is the registration office for visitors to log in. The officer in charge made a deal with us because they do want their villagers to earn.

We made it clear in a respectful manner that we do not need a tour guide, but we do understand that they have to earn so we made a deal for only Php 500 ($10.67) for the whole trip & not per day.

The guide helped us queue & find a home stay, but other than that, the tour guides just sit around & wait for you to get tattooed.

It is just that we deemed it unnecessary as we need not pay someone $21 per day to help us hike up for 30 minutes and sit around to watch us get tattooed… it does not sit well with what we want out of the trip. And it makes us feel like spoilt brats with chauffeurs!

We do understand that it is to make sure we are safe & will not roam around their village but we found it to be unnecessary.

So if you have the same spirit as us, brave it out and just be polite about not wanting a tour guide.

WARNING: the tour guides are going to promise you that because of them, you will be first to get a tattoo, but this is very unrealistic. The tattoo artists are very much into respecting the queue. They know who’s next and who’s been waiting days before you arrived. Trust me: status, titles, and money are nothing to them. It doesn’t matter if you’re the president– they will have you wait in line!

You will have to queue even if you have a tour guide so think it out and weigh the pros and cons. 🙂

HOME STAY / FOOD AND WATER / TOILET 

Home stay rate is Php 250 ($5.33) per person per night (with meal: rice + viand – breakfast, lunch & dinner).

How to find a home stay? If you’ve contacted a tour guide, they will help you find a home stay. If not, the registration office (first hut you see upon entering the village) will assign one for you.

Food & water: Food is included in the home stay price, but you can get canned goods in the stores around, or you can go to this eatery with a glorious view of the rice terraces they made by hand!

The eatery is called SELMA’S EATERY & their food is good! Price for a meal is Php 75-100 ($1.60-$2.13). Just ask for “Selma’s Eatery” & the locals will be more than happy to direct you to where it is. 

Water is not a problem as there’s free flowing mountain-top water 24/7! It is crystal clear & definitely clean. No hot water though. Just cold mountain freshness!

Toilet: NOT A PROBLEM! The one where the tattoo session is, in Ate Abuc’s house (Grace’s mum), and is very clean; same as in the home stays! Your butt will not be disappointed 🙂 #SUCCESS

 

THE TATTOO

My own tattoo design, made by mixing the tribe’s symbols together. The first one on the left is a mix of the crab (top) which is the symbol for a traveler & python (bottom after the three dots, or Whang Od’s signature) which means strength, guidance & protection. The second tattoo is a mix of three different crab designs to create a compass-like symbol of the crab to symbolize “the traveler (going) in the right direction”.

Design:

As we’ve read from previous blogs about this experience, there will be a book & a huge wooden board full of designs (with meanings) of their tribal tattoos so no worries!

However, I designed my own and it has been so far the most challenging for all of them (the three generations!) so be careful and keep it simple. I think they were able to do what I’ve designed because they were already familiar with how to draw it as it’s been what they’ve been doing but just in a combination.

Think about it because it will be on you forever & choose the area wisely!

Price:

Apo Whang-Od is the only one who decides on the price. So even if you get your tattoo done by Grace or Elyang, you will have to go find Apo & show your tattoo to her for pricing. The prices range from Php 100 ($2.12) (for the Apo’s three dotted signature) up to Php 1,000++ ($21.25++). 

See the photos & description below to get an idea and further information:

Apo Whang-Od’s Tattoo: this python tattoo with the Apo’s signature (three dots) on top included is only 600Php ($12.75). The python symbol of the Kalinga tribe is to symbolize strength, guidance & protection.

Grace’s tattoo on me is one of the symbols for crabs; it means “traveler”.

This is what the two tattoos combined look like from a distance. I mixed the crab & python symbols to signify “strength, guidance & protection for the traveler (me)”.

Elyang Wigan’s tattoo: this is the most detailed they’ve done, the price of which is still reasonable though! It’s Php 800 ($17).

This is the most challenging the three tattoo artists had to do only because they’ve not had the symbols mixed up to create a new design like I did with this one & there were loads of details for one tattoo; but it was doable because they are familiar with the designs individually. I mixed three different symbols for crabs (traveler) & it looks like a compass to symbolise “the traveler in the right direction”

These are the three designs & I am VERY pleased with it!!! I love them all & am happy they will be a part of me forever! #mayforeverpala 🙂

PAIN AND THE ARTIST (STYLE)

Take your time to observe the artist and chat with the other people there to know who is best for your pain tolerance and style.

Straight to the point: Apo Whang Od is the most painful of the three because of old age, straining eyesight, and muscle control that isn’t controlled anymore. There was this one point when she was hammering me and not the bamboo! She’s the cutest 🙂 The Apo’s style is very traditional and she keeps to their tribal roots. It’s the most authentic though most painful, I dare say…

You can tell her where to put the tattoo but the size and everything else is up to her.

Grace’s style is quite modern and she makes fine lines compared to the traditional look of the Apo. She’s also very graceful in hammering and you’ll definitely hear the difference!

Elyang Wigan’s style is a bit similar to Grace’s, but she’s more open to suggestions. She also likes a challenge, and I would say she’s more artistic. She’s the only one who said yes to my shoulder tattoo. Her hammering is also not as painful!

This is the headband we gave the Apo. It’s from Vietnam (another tribe there) and she wore it straight away, and she was wearing it until the day we left. It helps her keep her hair away from her face every time she does a tattoo. So stuff like this helps, I think, instead of sweets & food. They eat very healthy organic food there as they plant their own veg & rice!

TIPS: these are things we wish we read about before our journey, as well as some common-sense ones

  • Bring a good and humble attitude: treat them the way you would want to be treated. Respect the place and the culture. Don’t be aggressive but do not lose reason.
  • Important before tattooing: sometimes the Apo forgets to change the thorn and she soaks the wet tissue in the same bucket as the others, so PLEASE MAKE SURE YOUR BLOOD IS CLEAN BEFORE YOU HAVE YOUR TATTOO DONE, for obvious reasons of “stuff” that can be passed through blood.
  • Important tattoo care: Dab coconut oil on the tattoo every time it gets dry or itchy. Do NOT use your nails (no picking on it), just the palm of your hand or your fingers. The horrible photos you see online are because they scratch it and soak it in water without leaving time for it to heal. We clean ours with an anti-bacterial/anti-itch bar soap (Sulfur Katialis) 2x a day then dab it dry before applying the coconut oil. TIME HEALS! 🙂
  • Bring your own coconut oil if you plan to get a tattoo — this will make the healing process safer & prettier! Coconut oil can also be bought in the market in Bontoc Town Proper for Php 25 ($0.53) per 50 ml.
  • Bring extra cash (NO ATM or whatsoever near the village!).
  • Negotiate your prices.
  • For women, bring your monthly lady jam equipment: don’t paint the village red!
  • A Torch (flashlight) would be very  helpful!!
  • PLASTIC/TRASH BAG — you must take with you all the trash you used. There is a huge problem for trash there so let’s be responsible & loving humans! 🙂
  • A sleeping sack would help a lot! As much as mosquito/insect repellant!
  • Every blog we’ve read says you must bring gifts, but we encourage people NOT to bring sweets for the kids. Please bring SCHOOL SUPPLIES, COLOURING BOOKS & CRAYONS especially; MEDICAL KITS, ALCOHOL-FREE UNSCENTED WET WIPES or ANY PRACTICAL things instead 🙂 The whole thing about people bringing sweets for the kids develops them to beg for it from those who don’t give them sweets. The children there are not really beggars but this system is being started because of outsiders bringing in random sweets. They are starting to beg sadly…
  • Ah! Prepare LOADS of riddles & jokes to share with them! They love it! We spent a half a day just doing this– not only does it make them laugh & think, it can also save you from boredom while waiting. And you get to connect with them a lot more! 🙂
  • IMPORTANT: Again, even if your tour guide promises you that you will get the tattoo that day & even if you pay the tour guides double, it will not happen unless it is really lowest of low season! Prepare for this & make your journey there flexible to avoid disappointment.
  • Connect with the people– the villagers & other travelers alike… 🙂 It makes the trip even more special xx

 

Come on… Go and be brave to get lost a bit & connect with people: LIVE!  

Once we open our minds & our hearts; once we step out of our comfort zone; once we face fear in the eye & say “You are there but it’s OK”; once we laugh & we connect, we love; & there is no age, no skin colour, no gender & no disability in love. We are all equal. We are all humans. This was the lesson of the trip 🙂  Now go get that rare work of art & make it an epic journey!! #HumansLikeUs

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