That thing when you’re idly Googling for information on a region with little to no tourist infrastructure and all your research keeps coming back to one particular village which just happens to be home to a legendary traditional tattoo artist so you take it as a sign and start planning your trip there because basically, any excuse to have patterns permanently engraved into your skin. We hadn’t even considered the Kalinga Province until I’d seen a paragraph in the Lonely Planet whilst flicking through it in Sagada, tried to find out more and discovered the village of Buscalan, home of Whang Od who until recently was the last mambabatok, traditional Kalinga tattoo artist. Now she’s trained two grand-nieces (you can only train people who are blood related to you), and it seems that other women around the village are taking up the art self-taught, though they’re only tattooing tourists these days but it’s good to see the art won’t die completely, merely evolve.
So anyway. This village. More to the point, getting to the bastard place. We jumped on a jeepney from Sagada to Bontoc and headed to tourist information where the amazingly helpful Elizabeth gave us a load of information on jeepneys to various places, a map of Bontoc, and she even stored our main packs for us so we didn’t have to cart them up the hill. Oh yes, there’s a hill. More about that later when I’ve recovered from the PTSD. You can either take a jeepney bound for Tinglayan, jump off at Bugnay and take a habal-habal (motorcycle taxi) to Turning Point, or there’s a jeepney that leaves Bontoc anywhere between 2pm and 3pm depending on how many humans and cargo they manage to cram into it that’ll drop you right at Turning Point which is where the road ends.
Maybe don’t look at the tyres unless you want to give yourself palpatations. We saw the spare which was balder than Jean Luc Picard so I looked at the other tyres and oh my god, we’re going to die. The front left wasn’t just bald, it was worn away to the thread. I’m not even shitting you. We were an hour into the journey when the vehicle veered left with a loud pop and I thanked the deities that the sheer cliff drop was to the right. Everyone piled off, the tyre was replaced with the equally threadbare spare and we finally made it to Turning Point in possession of a few more grey hairs, nerves in a similar state to the first tyre and wishing I had a god to pray to.
If you haven’t already arranged a guide this is where you’ll find one and yes, you have to have a guide. It’s compulsory. Stop sulking, it’s the rules. We’d met an English chick called Amy and a French chick called Coralie in Bontoc, who’d met on a jeepney that morning and come to Kalinga on a whim after hearing some people mention it. They literally knew nothing about it, they certainly weren’t aware of the hill given that they’d brought all of their belongings with them. But the more people you are the cheaper it gets, guide fees are set at ₱1000 for up to 5 humans so we teamed up, and our guide was to be a very lovely chap called Francis who spoke barely passable English and wouldn’t smile in photos because he has no teeth. Then the hill happened. Thank fuck it wasn’t raining or I’d probably still be there now clinging onto the surprisingly sturdy make-shift railing.
The first part is all dirt which I can imagine turns into a terrifying slip ‘n’ slide of doom in wet weather, though the dirt does eventually give way to concrete as you make your way down. I saw a village which very definitely wasn’t downside and I wondered if it was Buscalan, and yes it was and for fuck’s sake, that meant a relentless slog back up. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, this was the first real incline we’d done since I got out of hospital, insert more excuses as to why I couldn’t keep up with the two girls with the big packs containing everything they own here. I kept having to stop as Amy and Coralie took the lead and Tarrant stayed behind me to make sure I didn’t die. Oh my god. I felt like my tiny little bag weighed the same as a small horse. Everyone was really awesome and waited for this gasping lump of flesh and hair as I dragged my way up and we collapsed (okay, I collapsed and begged my lungs for forgiveness, the others were fine) in a wooden building where we registered and parted with ₱75 environmental fee each.
Your guide will sort out your accommodation for you. Francis lives in the village and had a room set aside for tourists so that’s where we’d be staying and guys, this was legit the most homestay-like homestay I’ve ever stayed in. Usually you’re in a homestay and you have your room and your bathroom and the only thing that makes it a homestay is the fact the family live onsite. These guys literally use this room. The family were in and out grabbing clean clothes, school supplies, whatever else it was that they stored in there. This is the real deal. We only had a small mattress and a bunch of pillows and blankets between the four of us but Coralie ended up staying with Francis’s daughter-in-law which made it easier to bodge a double bed for me and Tarrant, and Amy slept on a row of pillows.
The deal is it’s ₱250 per person per night and this includes free boiled rice and local coffee. Francis told us we could buy vegetables from local shops to cook on the stove we had in the room. It transpired that by “vegetables” he meant “canned goods” such as corned beef and sardines. We located a shop. I’ve never seen so many fucking cans of fish in my life. Tarrant visibly recoiled, she won’t touch seafood. Corned beef was fine by me though, I love that shit. It’s my northern upbringing. We consider corned beef hash a delicacy anywhere north of Stoke. I stocked up on that, Amy bought garlic because she’s a little bit fancy, we all got some eggs in our lives because egg fried rice for breakfast is the shit, and we headed back to combine our newly acquired goods with the rice of which there was a metric fuck tonne of.
Also, top tip, never feed a French person corned beef. Coralie decided to brave a little bit and her face said it all. Bitter regret. You probably shouldn’t attempt corned beef if you have a sophisticated palatte, it takes a bit of practice to enjoy any manner of canned meat. Personally I’ll eat Spam like an apple but I also consider instant noodles a viable source of nutrients so you probably shouldn’t listen to me. The coffee here though, that’s pretty badass and involves chucking two generous dessert spoons of ground coffee into a kettle, followed by four (yes, four, you may wish to alert your dentist and have them meet you at the airport upon your return home) dessert spoons of sugar, and four cups of water. I added a little more to allow for evaporation. This is good for four humans. They drink so much fucking coffee here. They wouldn’t stop making it. If I’d have tried to keep up I think I could have scheduled my next sleep for roughly May 2025. We’d managed to find some ridiculously cheap Captain Morgans in Bontoc and we were using coffee as mixer and I spent a pretty long time that night trying to coax my eyeballs down from the ceiling. It’s like liquid crack.
The village of Busculan is the kind of village that, as a traveller, you really want to experience. Yes, they get a lot of tourists, mainly domestic but a lot of foreigners come here too. They’re slowly trying to catch up with demand but it’s still an incredibly genuine place to be. It’s crawling with dogs, cats, chickens and pigs. Mainly pigs. So many pigs. And fuck me, pigs are noisy little buggers. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, they sound like they’re being slaughtered. Feeding time? Squeal like someone is stabbing you in the face. Playing? Squeal like someone is stabbing you in the face? Someone looked at you a bit funny? Squeal like someone is stabbing you in the face. All livestock have almost free range and pig owners mark the mother pig so they know she’s theirs, usually by shaving lines into them or something, and the baby pigs stick with the mother.
They eat a lot of pork here, somewhat unsurprisingly. We were brought local pork to eat as well as green beans which they call morning glory which means something very, very different where we’re from. We couldn’t ever complain we were left hungry here, they made us more rice than we could eat despite us insisting we could use up the previous day’s rice. It wouldn’t go to waste though, they’d mix it with water and feed it to the pigs. Because there’s a lot of pigs. Did I mention the pigs? And the locals? I’ve never met a friendlier bunch. Even the people who don’t speak English are keen to try and interact. Francis’s wife came to eat with us. The women are so welcoming and there are a lot of older women who sport the truly traditional Kalinga tattoos and if you ask them, they’ll let you take their photo. Tattoos used to be very important to Kalinga people but not these days. The villagers in Buscalan do have tattoos but they’re not traditional. Back in the day women used to get their whole arms tattooed but it was purely cosmetic; if you didn’t have tattoos you weren’t considered beautiful. There are still quite a few old women in the village with these sleeves.
As for the blokes, they had to earn their ink. The Kalinga people were headhunters and men got tattooed according to people they’d killed. We didn’t get to meet any traditional headhunter men though which I was a bit gutted about. Obviously I’ll just have to come back one day when I’ve got more time and explore the Kalinga province. Sooner rather than later though, I think it’s one of those cultures where if you don’t see it now you probably never will as elders die and the younger generation don’t carry on traditions.
Buscalan, Kalinga Province, Luzon, Philippines
Stayed at: Francis Sagio’s home. If you’d like to contact him he’s on 09075906013.