Meeting the Kalinga Tribe in Buscalan

Buscalan, the village of fierce (former) head-hunters, is today famous for being home to Whang-Od, the 100-year old, world-renowned tattoo artist who continues to ink enthusiastic visitors using the traditional Kalinga backhand tap technique.

In fact, this is the reason why we found ourselves in Buscalan. I wanted to get a Kalinga tattoo made by Whang-Od and planned our itinerary to include Buscalan village accordingly. The Butbut tribe to which Whang-Od belongs is just one of the many indigenous tribes in the Philippines’ Cordillera region. The tribe is also known for their historical head-hunting activities, although this practice died out in the 1960’s. Little else is known about them since they did not keep written records and remained rather isolated, having little interaction with the rest of the Filipino people.

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being inked by Whang-Od - Meeting the Kalinga Tribe in Buscalan

Whang-Od tattooing a visitor to Buscalan.

Meeting the Kalinga Tribe in Buscalan

Even if you don’t plan on getting a tattoo, experiencing Buscalan and meeting locals from the ButBut tribe is one of the most fascinating experiences you can have in the Philippines. Buscalan village, located in the Kalinga province right in the heart of the mountains amidst lush rice terraces and waterfalls, is as gorgeous as a mountain village can be. The views from Buscalan are some of the most beautiful we have seen in rural Philippines.

The Scenic valley of Buscalan - meeting the Kalinga Tribe in Buscalan

We just couldn’t stop taking photos of the beautiful rice terraces surrounding the village!

Getting There

Detailed information about contacting a guide (required) and getting to Buscalan via Bontoc are included in a separate post.

The Homestay

The only source of accommodation in Buscalan is a local homestay which your guide will arrange for you at a cost of 250 PHP (€ 5) per person per day. Not all homestays are equipped with an electricity supply so if you intend charging phones and cameras, do ask to be placed in a home with electricity. This said, despite the fact that we did request this ourselves, when we arrived in the village we were told that the power had been out for the past 4 days and was not expected to be reinstated any time soon. Take a portable torch with you, this is essential!

The room in the home was quite comfortable, although no blanket was provided, and it does get cold at night! The toilet was outside, in a little shed a few metres away from the house, and during the time we spent there we never figured out how to actually have a shower other than filling a bucket from a tap and throwing it over our heads.

Related: 50 Tips for Traveling in the Philippines

Meeting locals at the homestay - Meeting the Kalinga Tribe in Buscalan

A Buscalan villager of the ButBut tribe

The Food 

This is where things became complicated. The family we were staying with were also the owners of a little shop at the ground floor of the building, best described as a tuck shop selling a few sweets, chocolates, canned tuna and eggs. There are 2 or 3 such shops in Buscalan. We had been told that our hosts would prepare meals for us during our stay but this didn’t seem to be happening. When we got hungry and asked what food we could order (upon payment or otherwise), everyone seemed to get very confused and we were told that we could eat anything we wanted!

Related: 15 Must Try Street Foods in the Philippines

Rice is the most common food in Buscalan - meeting the Kalinga Tribe in Buscalan

Views from Buscalan

Confused by that answer, we eventually figured out that ‘anything’ meant that rice was always available at the homestay and other ingredients to top up could be purchased and cooked. The list of available ingredients of course was extremely limited; we just bought eggs from our hosts’ shop and cooked them in their kitchen. A couple of times we also bought pot noodles. And that was the menu for the length of our stay – rice, eggs and pot noodles for breakfast lunch and dinner. The canned tuna was not appealing at all – we had tasted it during our first week in the Philippines and resolved never to eat again.

We strongly advise you to bring some food provisions such as crackers and bread if you cannot handle eating rice all the time.

Related: The Rice Terraces of Banaue and Batad

What to do in Buscalan

If you want to get a tattoo by Whang-Od or any other tattooist in the village, be prepared to wait. We had been told that there’s usually a 3-4 days waiting list for Whang-Od so you would need to stay in the village for around 4 days. Raffi, our Kalinga guide, however managed to get us an appointment the first day that we were there. Other people were not so lucky though and we are still not sure how he managed this, other than assuming that Whang-Od had a special liking to the young energetic fellow who, by the way, doubled up as a lifeguard in a coastal resort in the warmer summer months.

Legendary tattoo artist Whang-Od, Kalinga tribe of Busclaan

The legendary Mambabatok Apo Whang-Od

If you’re waiting to get a tattoo your time will be pretty much spent wandering around the tiny village, talking to locals, and observing the tattoo artists at work. There really isn’t much else to do in the village.

For those not getting a tattoo, you can leave the village to go hike up the steep hills around it, possibly also visit the even more remote neighbouring Kalinga villages. The area is really very pretty although the hikes are strenuous.

The beautiful scenery at Buscalan

The beautiful scenery at Buscalan

If, on the other hand you already got a tattoo but you’re spending some more time in Buscalan, we do not advise you to do this. This because ideally, you should not get too much sweat on your tattoo or spend too much time walking, especially if the tattoo is on your lower limbs. You also need to protect the tattoo from sun and rain… but more on getting a tattoo in Buscalan and taking care of it in another post to be published soon!

Related: Discovering the Cave and Coffins of Sagada

The Festival

As soon as we arrived in Buscalan, we were told that that there was going to be a large party happening that weekend. I was lucky enough to get my tattoo the day before the party, as all ‘normal’ activity in the village was halted on festival day.

The festival was held in honour of a villager who was celebrating his eightieth birthday. As part of the celebrations, seven carabao (bisons) were killed in his honour. The animals were donated by each of his seven children (who saved up for a long time to honour their father in this manner) and would feed the whole village after they were killed and brought up from the lowlands.

Meat cuts being prepared for the festival in Buscalan - Meeting the Kalinga tribe in Buscalan

Preparing the carabao for the festivities

As we walked around the village that day, we could smell the strong aromas of cooked meats and we soon found the place where all the cooking activity was taking place. As we approached, we also started to smell the stench of blood whereupon we suddenly came upon a building in which several men were sorting out animal parts.

Huge pots were bubbling all around the shed with what we assumed was some kind of soup. Upon a closer inspection, the pots revealed large intestines, kidneys, hearts and other organs being boiled in a brown gravy. After two days of eating rice and eggs, we have to say that the smell was not unpleasant at all, although the sight was not for the squeamish. We’re including some of the mildest photos below so that you can get the idea.

Sitrring the pots for the festival - meeting the kalinga tribe in buscalan

Cooking intestines and other questionable animal parts

At around 1pm we heard a loud gong signalling the start of the dancing. We quickly made our way to a large opening in the village where the party was being held. We had been advised to take some offerings as a sign of respect with us, so we bought nuts and candy and gave them to the men coordinating the party, who were conveniently sitting at the table in the square collecting other gifts. We were quickly welcomed, and swiftly found a place on a little nearby ledge to watch the dancing.

The locals explained that the Kalinga men would be sounding the gongs whilst the women would perform a traditional dance, in which they would imitate the flight of an eagle.

Very casually one of the locals pointed to the polished jaw-shaped handles on some of the older gongs which the men were carrying.  “You see those? Human jaws of enemies” he eagerly told us, explaining that they were a legacy from the Kalinga’s headhunting exploits which were only terminated in the 1960’s. Although the jaws looked human they didn’t really feel human to us. In any case, I thought I would have felt a lot more horrified than I did at watching humans playing around with other human jaws, enemies or otherwise.

Related: Two Months in the Philippines – Travel Expenses and Costs

Human jaws, previously owned by Kalinga victims, now used to decorate the festival gongs in Buscalan

A human jaw, legacy of the head-hunting activities of the Kalinga

More horrifying was the fact that Nikki and I were called out to participate in the dance with the locals – an invitation we could not refuse for fear of offending them (or in other times possibly lose our jaw! :p). The throbbing pain of my new tattoo had left me feeling pretty exhausted and the last thing I felt like at that point was flapping my arms up and down amidst a circle of women, with all of the village laughing and clapping, whilst avoiding being hit on my freshly inked back. But that I did…. and it was ok though slightly embarrassing!

Male villagers playing the gong whilst female villagers imitate the flight of the eagle - meeting the Kalinga tribe in Buscalan

Dancing during the party which eventually Nikki and I joined!

To our delight, Whang-Od joined the next dance. Her hair was neatly parted and adorned with beads matching those around her neck. She was wearing a dark lipstick and silver earrings and looked absolutely stunning for a woman of her age. She danced around with ease making the same fluid movements as her fellow villagers and blended in with the dancers very smoothly. We loved watching her dance in the festival considering that she is usually portrayed as very serious.

If I live to be a 100, I want to be just like her!

Related: Making the Most of Moalboal

Legendery tattoo artists Whang-Od enjoying some moments at the festival - meeting the Kalinga Tribe in Buscalan

Whang-Od taking part in a traditional ButBut dance

As the cheap rum flowed, the locals became more and more rowdy, and slightly aggressive (drunk party type of aggressive), so much so that Raffi came to advise us to go back to our homestay. But we were not having any of that of course! (A side note aimed at our Maltese readers – 30 years’ experience at Maltese Festas and Paceville build your stamina to being around drunk rowdy people!)

Anyway, we realised that some other activities were happening in different spots in the village – large open spaces were again filled with meat parts and the names of villagers were being read out. Big chunks of meat were being assigned to every local family. We were told that the meat chunks were gifts from people from neighbouring Kalinga villages who had come to celebrate and enjoy the party taking place in Buscalan.

In the meantime we were given bowls of the soup with some entrails we had seen being prepared during our morning walk. The soup was a greyish brown colour and tasted a little bitter and very strong. Bits of intestine and skin were floating around in it. We were hungry, but not too keen on consuming too much of it, yet as nothing else was available really, we swallowed it down hoping that it wouldn’t result in too many frequent toilet visits. (We slept right through the night ;)).

A selection of cuts brought on as gifts from neighbouring villages - meeting the Kalinga tribe in Buscalan

More animal parts being handed out to the villagers

As the day came to an end, the villagers retired to their homes and started smoking their large chunks of meat on barbeques outside. We eyed them hungrily, but that meat wasn’t meant for immediate consumption, and would be smoked, cured and saved for special occasions.

We went back to our room and devoured our last ration of salted crackers, dreaming of the large meal we planned on eating upon our return to Bontoc the following day.

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