So you’ve got disposable income, a stash of vacation days, and a sense of adventure equal to that of your entitlement. What are you going to do? Obviously not Disneyland. You’re going to get a tattoo from the legendary Whang-Od and you’re going to do it soon. She’s 99 and the line of visitors isn’t getting shorter.
Follow these ten steps to get the coolest souvenir of your life…
1. Get Prepared
Our decision to do this was somewhat impulsive. We didn’t start making plans until a month in advance. Which is the impetus, more or less, for me writing this: to help other nuts figure it out.
You don’t need to get any vaccines before visiting the Philippines. But better safe than sorry. The CDC makes its recommendations, but you don’t need everything on the list. You also don’t need to see your doctor for advice or a prescription for any of these, so save your time and money. Instead, find a travel clinic or health department. They will tell you what you need based on your travel plans. Because you’re getting a tattoo and hanging out in a village of handmade huts, be sure you’re up on Hep A & B and Tetanus. If you don’t already have it (and you plan to travel more in the future), get your Yellow Fever just because. Opt for the Typhoid shot if you’re not good at remembering to take medication. The first three hits of the accelerated Hep B series takes 21 days to complete, so factor in 3 visits to your clinic: the second a week after the first and the third two weeks after that; the last will be 11 months later, so put it on your calendar and don’t forget. You don’t need an anti-malarial. If you’re concerned, take a mosquito net and a very strong spray.
This adventure isn’t for you if you can’t get everything you need in one modest-sized backpack. DO NOT pack a suitcase. At minimum, I recommend the following :
- Rain jacket
- USB charging block (there’s electricity in the village, but you’ll want this for the long days and nights of travel when outlets are few and far between)
- Water bottle
- Long sleeved shirt or light sweater (it cools off in the evening in the mountains)
- Soap (if you’re not in the habit of carrying a bar with your toiletries, you’ll want it for showering in the village and keeping your tat clean)
- Aquaphor (for post-tattoo treatment; Grace and Whang-Od will apply Vaseline to your tattoo, but you will want something less oily for the following days)
- Protein bars (just in case dinner is carabou tripe)
- Your favorite running or lightweight hiking shoes (yes, the hike in to Buscalan is steep, but, no, you don’t need boots)
- Sandals or flip flops (for kickin’ it)
- Flashlight or headlamp (the latter if you’re going to Sagada)
- Wet wipes (for your tat and your butt)
- Ear plugs (for the overnight transit and the roosters)
Aim to be in the village during the week. Weekends are very busy. Plan to spend two nights. If you arrive on a weekend, you may need to spend three nights. Read the following to determine how many days of travel you will need to and from Buscalan.
2. Get to Manila
There’s a rainy season and a tourist season and you might want to avoid both, but if your sole reason for travel is a tattoo, neither of those will matter. The rainy season is mid-summer to mid-fall and the tourist season begins after that. We went in November and the weather was perfect; on the tail end of the rainy season and the cusp of the tourist season.
If your first destination in the Philippines is Buscalan, give yourself at least one night in Manila to acclimate. We didn’t and we both caught colds from pushing ourselves too hard. It’s a world class city, so take it in. Get some culture and good eats.
3. Get a Guide
Don’t worry about securing a guide in advance. When you first arrive in Manila, buy a SIM card (P1000 at the airport for two weeks unlimited SMS, calls and spotty data), and start texting the guides listed on the Tattooed by Whang-Od Facebook page. Our guide was Mike, a relative newcomer to the scene and the son Mike Sr., the owner of the Buscalan gift shop. He was subbing for another guide and was great. We originally coordinated something with Selma, but at the last minute switched to Mike to accommodate a friend we met along the way who wanted to split the cost but insisted on a male guide to carry her pack (guides are P1000/day; you may read elsewhere that you don’t need a guide for your entire stay, but that’s no longer true). I don’t know if our experience would have been different with a female guide, but in retrospect I think I would have preferred Selma. The young men in the village are distracted by betel, cigarettes, pretty girls and a variety of stimulants in powdered and liquid form and disappear without notice to partake of these things. Consider that you must be accompanied by your guide everywhere in the village. He or she will escort you from your homestay to the tattoo parlor to any point of interest you may request. No matter how romantic the idea, you will not be wandering around the village by yourself poking your nose into other people’s business.
4. Get to Banaue
You’ll want to take the overnight bus to Banaue to save precious daylight, but don’t expect to get any sleep. The road is windy and rough and the buses are rust buckets.
You’ll catch that rust bucket in Sampaloc at Ohayami Trans. You can book a seat in advance online. Try to get to the neighborhood before rush hour and eat dinner somewhere nearby. Getting there from downtown Manila at peak traffic is an ordeal. Taxi drivers will refuse to take you unless you negotiate a fixed rate. And even then… If you must, your best bet is Uber. Grab is a grab-bag. For dinner, I recommend Bulaloh de Espanya. It’s cheap, fast, delicious, and a 20 minute walk from the bus station.
5. Get to Bontoc
After what will feel like the longest night of your life, you’ll wake up at the base of the 8th Wonder of the World, the Batad rice terraces. If you want to see these, add a day to your itinerary. You’ll need to stay in Banaue or arrange a homestay somewhere along the Batad trails. Either way, your next step to reaching Buscalan is to take a van to Bontoc, which you can catch from the bus station in Banuae. The ride is roughly, no pun intended, 3 hours, and if you didn’t take the Batad detour, you’ll see plenty of stunning rice terraces en route. Get the earliest van possible. You need to arrive in Bontoc early enough to catch the last jeepney, which, if local sources are correct, is 2pm. You’ll also want to leave yourself time in Bontoc to see their fabulous museum and buy food and gifts for your guide, homestay family, and tattoo artist(s).
6. Get Food and Gifts
If your timing is good, you’ll have a few hours in Bontoc. Go see the museum. Seriously. It’s fantastic. Then go shopping.
If you plan to get your tattoo from Grace, get her a sugary gift. We learned that she has a sweet tooth and really appreciates cookies. Buy some soft bread for Apo, too, even if you’re only getting her signature. We did and she was more excited about it than the fancy laser cut necklace we had made for her.
The most important thing to purchase in Bontoc is food for yourself. While it’s highly likely that you will get one, you’re not guaranteed a home-cooked meal. As your backup, buy some sort of canned dinner like chili or soup for each night you will be in the village. (If you don’t eat it, just leave it behind for your hosts.) Then hit the Bontoc market. Unless you’re a strict vegan/vegetarian, definitely buy a cut of meat or whole fish. You want to impress. Your homestay will feed you mountains of rice, so don’t buy anything like grains or cereal. But do buy a load vegetables. You will eat all the pigs in the village, and, if you’re a kale-munching, granola-crunching hippy like me, you will want something green and clean to balance out your pork intake. Lastly, but maybe most importantly, buy several bottles of 4 X 4 Gin, one for each night you intend to stay and one to leave behind for your host family to enjoy without you, though, if the neighbors catch wind of your boozy gift, you’ll make fast friends and probably drink that last bottle with them, too.
You can buy househould items like matches and Ibuprofrein, and while we did, it’s not clear if those items were appreciated as much as the food and booze. You are going to a village, but it’s not by any means primitive.
Your homestay will run you P250–300 per person per night.
7. Get to Buscalan
Catch the jeepney to Buscalan next to the Mountain Province State Poly College. Get there early. It’s first come, first served. If it fills up, you’re SOL. Request to ride on top. It might be crowded, but it’s much more fun. Depending on what you arranged with your guide, he or she may meet you in Bontoc and ride the jeepney with you. If not, let the driver know your destination and he will make sure you get off at the right stop.
And that stop is at the end of a winding dirt road and the beginning of the Buscalan trailhead. The hike is short but strenuous. If your guide isn’t onboard your jeepney, he or she will greet you at this stop.
8. Get Tattooed
The tattoo shop is chaotic. It’s a bustle of guides, groupies and gawkers. And yes, you are one of the latter. It’s first-come, first-served and the guides track arrival, loosely. Depending on the season and the line, you might get tattooed at the end of your first day, but you will most likely wait until the next day or even the next. This gives you plenty of time to think about what you’re going to get. But don’t think about it too much. It’s just a mark on your body for the rest of your life :)
We wanted an intricate design and learned that Whang-Od, as she is aging, is ‘loosening up’, thus, not the best choice for small, detailed tattoos. We opted to have Grace ink us and only get a signature from the master. Grace was amazing. Her technique is precise and gentle, considering the method. And she has a wicked sense of humor.
So does Whang-Od. If you’re male and, if after issuing your tattoo, she grabs your crotch, just roll with it. She’s fucking with you. She wants to know how ‘big’ you are. I hope you impress as much as I did :)
Our tattoos cost us P700 for Grace and an additional P100 for Whang-Od’s signature. They will apply Vaseline to your tattoo and instruct you not to wash them for 24 hours.
9. Get Gone
Getting back to Bontoc will depend on the time of day you leave Buscalan. Your guide will know what to do, but be sure to communicate this early and often. We needed to get an early start, so Mike arranged motorcycles to take us down the mountain to the bus stop, which is outside a roadside bodega where you can buy Kalinga coffee. Get a bag. The shit’s delicious.
10. Get Some R&R
Now it’s time for some R&R and an excellent place to find that is in Sagada. It’s a short ride out of Bontoc up a winding mountain road. Catch the jeepney here. The streets of Sagada are lined with inns and hotels and I don’t think you can go wrong with any choice. We stayed in Masfarre, and while it was nice, we probably could have done better for less.
Pro tips: The food at Yoghurt House is overrated, but they have the best coffee in town. Moonhouse and GAIA are both amazing, and, at the time of this writing, not in the Lonely Planet guide book. Hit the former for happy hour, the latter for vegan/vegetarian foods and local brew. Sagada Brew is crap and to be avoided at all costs and Lemon Pie House is worth the stop if you’re passing by and in the mood for something sweet. The best meal in town is Log Cabin. So good we ate there twice. Definitely see the Hanging Coffins and do the Cave Adventure, but do it early. You want to beat the crowds.
11. Get Home
For the trek back to Manila, I recommend catching an overnight out of Bontoc. Bypass Baguio. If your time and budget are tight, both are better spent in Manila.
Hit me up with questions or corrections to this post. Good luck, fellow warriors!