The Kalinga and Apo Whang-od
After the Camping on Apo reef, staying for two nights on the relax, quiet, friendly and 3G enabled Pandan island (there was wi-fi, but it was slow and not everywhere), which is located just 20 minutes away from Sablayan was an excellent environment to rethink my next steps.
(A small tip: when travelling around the far east it is a good idea to buy local Sim card with data. you don’t know where and when you will find wifi, plus, its very nice to be connected on the long bus rides).
At first, with two weeks left for my flight home, I was planning to hop the Philippines islands finishing my trip in Cebu city, but while planning it and reading about the places I planned to visit, something about the name “Apo” was too familiar and nagging me so, I searched the web for this name and found the link, in 2016 was a BBC documentary about the last traditional tribal tattooist in the Philippines, her name was “Apo Whang-Od”.
My liking of tattoos, its symbolisms and the fact that I have lots of curiosity about tribes and isolated places, I immediately started to search ways to get there and see if it can fit into my plans.
It was easy enough to fit that trip in two remaining weeks I had, so it was decided I’m going first to Manila and then continue North to the mountains.
Long bus trips in the Philippines go mostly during the night and my bus left Sablayan at 17:00 and I arrived in Manila at 2 am (Tip: use Uber or grab in the Philippines, the taxi drivers are rude, especially that time of night).
Having a full day in Manila till the next night bus gave me enough time to store my heavy bags, clean my dirty clothes (Tip: lots of cleaners there and there is always the possibility to pay extra for the fast service, its only double price but still cheap enough (about 300 peso per kilo)) and search for a guide in the Kalinga area (must have a guide there, he arranges the stay in the village and you cannot climb there without one. At the turning point you can find one too though, so no worries if you cannot arrange one upfront).
I’ve arranged my backpack for two nights and got early to the bus station to secure a bus ticket to Bontoc. The bus was comfortable (there was only place on the super deluxe bus and costs about 900 Peso) but the ride was very long, the bus left Manila at 21:00 and arrived in Bontoc just as the “city” started to wake up (6 am).
Asking around where to get to my next ride (Tip: ask for jeepney to “turning point” or Kalinga village) I was directed to it and it was easy to find.
Almost everyone in the Jeepney was going to same place, tourist or local. I met a couple from France that did not book a guide and I offered them to join me and my guide.
I didn’t know it but, it turned out to be much cheaper to share a guide. The guide costs 1000 peso per day in total (group or single), it should include the stay in his house the help with the tattooing (translation and line) the walks in and around the village and the walk back to the turning point, but not the food which costs 250 peso per day.
From the “Turning Point” (the last place with cellular connection, if your lucky) we climbed the mountains on a dirt road with a motorcycle closer to the Kalinga villages (the tribal area is called Butbut and so does their language), there is no way to ride all the way up to the village and 1 to 1.5 hours of hard leg work was needed to climb and reach the village where Apo Whang-od is.
The village is crowded with visitors (most in line for the tattoo) during the day. Pigs are walking around freely and kids are running on the narrow pathways with deadly drops, don’t be surprised if you see someone saluter a pig while you walk around, its still a tribal village and they don’t have a supermarket. Ask the guide to take you around the village, the rice terraces and don’t skip the smith (i bought a nice knife for 500 peso), the rice terraces have an amazing view of the surrounding (I recommend to walk the north side of the village terraces in the morning too, beautiful sun rise).
One night is the minimum stay (if you don’t have your own ride) in the village since leaving the village can be done until 12 o’clock in the afternoon. Anyway, the atmosphere is different in the evening, its much more mellow and less tourists. Waiting for your turn to be inked takes time so, make sure that he/she helps you in line.
Again, it was a Philippine shower and a bullseye toilet here. The first time I used it I encountered the biggest non tarantula spider I’ve ever seen. I ran away from there in panic holding my pants. This fucker was 10 cm radios and his body the size of a grown man thumb.
Apo Whang-od works with her two grand nieces and there is lots of difference in the results of the tattoo, (remember, Apo Whang-od is now 101 years old) Apo’s tattoos hurt more and are not so accurate, but she is the original artist (She tattooed the last real worriers of the tribe), its an honour to be tattooed by her in person. Its amazing to see how young she looks and how long she still works, its not really surprising with the fresh air and daily climbs all the old people in this place are in amazingly good shape, the way they walk the mountains, i couldn’t believe it.
The village people love to drink, so If you wanna be favoured by the locals, bring a bottle of local Gin (San Miguel Gin) with you, they love it and you can trade it for weed. Yes, they grow it there.
The local people are friendly as long as you respect their territory, try not to walk without your guide, you might walk into a house and they don’t like it. don’t be impolite or rude, I heard they can be vindictive and dangerous.
The first morning was a little hectic around the village. Everyone preparing for a big party in the evening women were preparing rice pots and the man the meat. a Carabao was specially slaughtered for this occasion (I added a video at the end of the story but don’t watch it if you have a weak stomach). I got a warm local coffee (not the shit Nescafe you get in the rest of the Philippines) from my host and looked at the preparations. All the population of the other two villages came down and we had traditional dancing, drinking and eating. They said it was a wedding but, I didn’t see any bride or groom, it was fun in anyway.
It was a great evening, talking with tribe folk during dinner finding out how ignorant they are about our way of living and not so simple is theirs.
That same night we were left with a ridiculous amount of weed and since it is not illegal and even dangerous to cary it around in the Philippines a couple of guys from Austria and me were rolling the biggest joints we could. Drunk and stoned we were dancing traditional dance with the locals on full bellies.
The morning after was very rough, the Austrians joined me on the journey and we started the long walk back to the turning point and the Jeepney to Bontoc.
We arrived in Bontoc early noon and found out that the bus to Manila leaves at 6PM, not knowing if there is place on it and not wanting to wait and find out the three of us decided to “Jeepney hop” as far as we can south towards Manila. From village to village and jeepney to Jeepney we made a steady journey mostly on the roof of the Jeepney allowing us the perfect view of the jungles and mountains surrounding us.
Eventually we got to a junction (just after a “city” called Bagabag) where a more steady flow of busses to Manila pass through. we jumped on the first bus and tried to sleep our way to Manila, it was a standard bus crowded, uncomfortable and unsafe (take a look at the picture below) I think we were lucky to arrive in Manila in one peace!
Thanks to the cellular data bundle I had, I had more than enough time to search a place to stay in Manila and book a flight to Cebu. I spent 2 days in the city to collect my bags use normal toilets, take warm showers, eating western food and plan the 5 days I have left in Cebu.
Not wanting to stay in Cebu city, horrible crowded expansive and dirty city I googled for somewhere else to stay and finish my trip with a relaxed atmosphere and perhaps some more diving, I was getting little dry in the mountains.
The decision was easy, Moalboal is situated only 3 hours away from Cebu city with a steady flow of busses or vans to and fro.
Carabao execution, don’t watch if weak stomach!!!