Indelible Soot – In Search of the Last Mambabatok

The highlighted sea of clouds of Pulag, the Playground of the  Gods. The highlighted sea of clouds of Pulag, the Playground of the Gods.

Audible torrential raindrops on Baban Homestay’s roof could be heard before we were fully awakened by not only our obnoxious phone alarms but also by the more pleasant smell of breakfast (plain fried leftover rice and boiled eggs).

We haven’t slept much for the past 24 hours and here we are at 2am in the morning ready to hike Mt Pulag, the highest summit in Luzon. Barely touching our breakfast (we had dinner a mere 4 hours ago), we stepped out of the pine wood homestay to witness a magnificent milky way on the horizon. The rain has finally stopped and adorned with our headlamps, we proceeded to the wilderness.

A UNESCO World Herritage - Rice Terraces of Batad
A UNESCO World Herritage - Rice Terraces of Batad

To the locals, Mt Pulag National Park is the sacred “playground of the Gods” – a sanctuary where spirits roam and we couldn’t help but feel a little chill creeping up our aching spines during that wee foggy pre-dawn hike. Thankfully, about 2 hours later, fine streaks of sun rays illuminated our treks and warmed our spines. We passed Camping Ground 2 (couldn’t recall seeing Camping Ground 1) and saw a couple of tents there. We then reached a clearing where we were just in time for the sun to be in full force and for the famous sea-of-clouds of Pulag to settle. “You can take photos here” said our guide as he hustled off to another undulating bump for his own selfies. Awed by the view, we suddenly realised that this isn’t the peak of Luzon – it had took us another 1.5 hours under the blistering hot sun to reach the summit of Mt Pulag sitting at 2,928m asl. The summit itself has even less vegetations. No wonder this mountain is named “Pulag” or Puklag which means “bald”. Any longer up here and we would have been burnt bald too. By the time we descended back to the Ranger’s station, it was almost noon, making the total hiking distance a whooping 15km. While desperately resting at the shed of the Ranger’s hut and scavenging what remaining stash of water left, we noticed a group of hikers who were just about to ascend the mountain and wondered - “Yeah, it could have been worse indeed.”

Awed by the great view atop Mt Pulag

Cleaned and refreshed, we set on our bumpy and winding journey to Banaue town and rested for the night, repacked and hiked 11km on asphalt road the very next day to Cambulo Village. Cambulo Village is our transit way to Batad Village which took us another 5km or 2.5 hours hike under unforgiving Pinoy heat. Upon reaching the UNESCO World Heritage rice terraces, we were greeted by children of merely 4 to 5 years of age, selling Halo Halo (a Filipino cold delicacy of crushed ice, ube, gulaman, sweetened beans, coconut strips and evaporated milk) with their mothers. One can only imagine our sense of ecstasy when discovering such decadent concoction after hours of exposure to almost 400C heat! Taking a breather at the very first viewpoint to get a panoramic view of the amazing rice terraces, we could witness several village settlements among the terraces. Swiftly guided to Ramon’s Homestay by our guide which is a native Ifugao tribe house cosily located in the heart of Batad, this rice field turned out to be quite a maze. After lunch and our remained reserved energy, we hiked a 5km return trip to the Tappiyah Falls – a stunning 70m waterfall tucked in the mountains of Banaue. Exhausted, we retired early.

The stunning 70m high Tappiyah Falls located in the heart of Batad

We woke up pre-dawn to catch the magnificent sunrise while enjoying our breakfast of banana pancakes and Banaue coffee (strong!) before proceeding to the Awa Pass View Point, which was a steep 3km climb up and out via Pat Pat Village, taking us a total of 5 hours hike. Back at Ramon’s Homestay after exploring almost all of Batad’s Rice Terraces, we could finally rest and relax in this sanctuary like Ifugao homestay while listening to Uncle Ramon’s tale of their local heritage. English proficient and articulate, Mr Ramon patiently explained about the origin of the 2,000 year old rice terraces of the mountain of Ifugao by the ancestors of the indigenous people. Legend has it that there was once a hunter and nomad called Umanger who chased a deer to the middle of the rice terrace where a pond was located. He and his family and friends, noticing the lusciousness of the land, started cultivating sweet potatoes before settling down. After becoming a permanent village settlement, rice planting was slowly cultivated. Families expanded looking for available water sources, while at the same time expanding the rice terraces up the mountain. This “Eight Wonders of the World” was built with minimal equipment, largely by hand. This ancient method was to carve up the mountain to a suitable water source from the rainforest above the terraces for irrigation supply naturally. It is an ingenious way and also the reason why houses are clustered around the water sources, marking each family territories. The terrace steps, intricately layered, if were to end, it would encircle half the globe! Though peaceful now, the Ifugao native tribes were head hunters before. Their strong family ties were carried out in clusters and they hunted heads for revenge of their ancestors. Tribal wars were common before and even till now, the graves of their warriors stays close under their houses, and some kept even inside their houses.

Hidden Sanctuary of hand-pounded organic rice and Banaue coffee
Scenic view of rice terraces on our way to Buscalan

Our journey continued back to Banaue town and towards Buscalan Village in great anticipation to meet the 102 year old Maria Whang OD Oggay, a living National Treasure of the Philippines. This time the hike was relatively short, a 45 minutes hike from Tingalay drop off point. Known worldwide as Fang-od Oggay as the last tribal tattoo artist to hold the title of Mambabatok – a traditional tattooists’ title by the Kalinga ethnic group for thousands of years. For over eight decades, Oggay has been single-handedly keeping the traditions of the Butbut tribe alive through this unique method of tribal hand-tap tattooing, deep in the remote Philippine Cordillera Mountains. Kalinga means “outlaw”. Similar to the Ifugao tribe, there were once warriors and head-hunters. Triumphant Butbut head-hunters and male warriors of the indigenous tribe would go to the mambabatok in Buscalan, Kalinga to get a batok (a hand-tapped tattoo) as a symbol of bravery. The number of tatooes on their bodies are directly proportional to the number of heads they took. For men, the Kalinga tattoo was traditionally a sign of strength, wealth and power. For women, it is a sign of beauty and strength. This traditional hand tapping tattoo is said to be 20 times more painful than conventional needle machine tattoo.

Pomelo thorns for inking and souvenirs
The Indelible Soot presented by Maria Whang OD Oggay (Photo by Goh Seng Kee)

Heaven, our guide and host lead us to our homestay, the Buscalan Tattoo Homestay. It was a weekday but you could already see locals and foreigners lining up towards Fang-od’s hut. We had no choice but to wait for our turn. We purchased new pomelo thorns from nearby homestays for hygiene and souvenir purposes. At around 3pm, our guide led us to Fang-od’s hut. I could hear the pulsating rhythm of her bamboo tapping as we reach closer. Inching through the crowds, I could finally see her – she is beautiful. She was tapping a scorpion symbol, undistractedly, on a visitor’s right wrist as I saw blood oozing with each tap. I clutch the handle of my thorn tightly – this would be my first tattoo. Having read so much about this legend prior to this trip and finally meeting her face to face overwhelmed me with emotions. Suddenly I was called in next – I panicked. Palms sweating. Heart beating in my ears. She took my palm and stared (legend has it that she read palms too) and asked me where. I pointed at my wrist and gracefully, she took my thorn, wiped it with charcoal ink, positioned the thorn and started tapping away with her bamboo hammer. The pain was like being stung by a hundred ants repeatedly, but I persevere as I know it is worth every pain. I got her signature 3 dots – representing herself and her two nieces, Grace and Elyang as they dedicated their lives to traditional tattooing. Fang-od never marry and these 3 dots signifies women independence and strength, where we too are able to withstand hardship and pain alongside men. The living treasure has signed me off with an indelible soot – a treasure that will remain till my very last breath.

Group photo at the summit
Last modified onTuesday, 12 May 2020 20:35
Melissa Lim

Melissa Lim is a research pharmacist in Kuching, Sarawak and does regular academic writings as her day job. She is passionate in hiking and has been to the Himalayas four times, covering the Annapurna Circuit, Sikkim and Ladakh. She has also climbed the volcanic mountains of Indonesia, including the active volcano Gamalama and Ijen. She runs regularly and participates in International trail running events such as the TBMT Ultra 2016 held in Sabah, Malaysia. Also active in numerous Non-Government Organisations, her works and contributions have been regularly published in local newspapers.

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