Whang Od, the last of the Mambabatoks…
The wind whistled past my face as I sat atop the jeepney, my eyes stretched wide to take in the plunging landscape whipping past me. Electro-swing pumped through my headphones as I held on tight to the metal roof-rack, my fingers white from the biting wind.
I was on a mission.
I had been conformable in Sagada, happy to be in a small mountain town with a cool climate and numerous hike. I had caved, swam, climbed and trekked to my heart’s content. I had snacked on local delicacies, made friends with a couple of chaps in the village and enjoyed chilling out for a bit.
This was not why I was here. I was here to get inked. I was here to find Apo Whang Od, a living legend and the last Kalinga tattoo artist to hold the title of Mamababatok – the tattoo master.
For nearly fifty years, Whang Od has been keeping the traditions of the Butbut tribe alive by tattooing with thorns, soot and a bamboo hammer. Occasionally, if she liked you, she would tattoo a westerner. I was turning up blind, hoping she would like me, hoping she would tattoo me.
I had no idea if she would.
I waited in the dusty frontier town of Bontoc, half expecting tumble-weeds to roll past at any moment and an impromptu cowboys versus Indians shoot-out to begin.
I sat there waiting for Pot Pot, a local chap who had offered to take me to visit Whang Od.
For decades, Whang Od has kept the traditions of the Butbut tribe alive by tattooing with thorns, charcoal and a small bamboo hammer. Now, I hoped to join the privileged few who could say that they had been tattooed by the last Kalinga tattoo master. First, I had to get there.
Pot Pot eventually arrived, apologising again and again for keeping me late. Pot pot was constantly smiling and somewhat resembled a small Buddha with his shaved head and twinkling eyes. He urged me to climb atop yet another jeepney and with a belch of exhaust fumes we left Bontoc behind us.
We raced further into the country, taking hair-pin bends with reckless abandon, bouncing along on top of the Jeepney as we climbed into the mountains. We passed deep ravines and soaring hills, countless paddy fields, farmers carrying goods to market, children playing on the road, herds of hogs snuffling in the undergrowth and tiny hamlets, clinging to the tiny space between the road and a vertical drop. The jeepney took us as far as possible before the road dwindled to nothing and we got out to continue on foot.
I shouldered my pack and set off into the jungle, following some kids with some extremely unhappy chickens tied to sticks. Slowly but surely we traipsed further from the road and higher into the hills.
An hour later, I could see ahead a small village perched atop a particularly steep-looking hill. I turned, catching the last rays of the sun as they slipped across the valley, and decided I better hurry up. It was going to be dark soon.
I arrived at the village without warning, one minute I was still on the lonely path, the next moment, I burst from the jungle and was standing next to a wooden shack with a tin roof. Animal skulls and chicken feet hung from every square inch of a nearby house.
In ones and twos, the villagers came out to greet us, they spoke only limited English but luckily Pot Pot acted as a translator and before I knew it I was whisked away by a friendly family and shown a place where I could lay my pack and sleep for the night. I crashed almost immediately, exhausted and all too aware that tomorrow I would finally be meeting with Whang Od.
Whang Od didn’t look like she was in her nineties. She was sprightly, humorous even, and smiled from beneath a heavy black hoodie – the kind of thing a teenager might wear. I had spent most of the morning agonizing over what tattoo to get and had, in the end, decided upon a fern; a symbol of rebirth and, I later found out, fertility.
Whang Od carefully outlined the tattoo upon my arm using charcoal and a small stick.
Next, she picked a sharp thorn from a lemon tree and placed it carefully within another stick before glancing at me, checking that I was ready and preparing her hammer.
I sat on a hard block of wood, watching with grim fascination as she lifted the stick and began. Whack, whack, whack. I felt nothing. I watched as the thorn punctured my skin, again and again, forcing the charcoal inside the wound, five times a second. The musical noise of the hammer drifted across the village as a crowd of interested villagers watched to see if I would reveal any sign of pain. I did not, for in truth, it really did not hurt.
I had waited years to meet Whang Od, a truly incredible woman. I had traversed valleys and hiked through the jungle, ridden atop metallic-death vans and endured belching fumes; what were a few pin-pricks to mark the successful completion of my journey?
Tiny droplets of blood decorated my arm as slowly but surely, the design came to life upon my flesh. It crawled and writhed as Whang Od continued to breathe life into it with her bamboo hammer. I could think of no better way to pay homage to this incredible woman and to travelling, adventure even, itself than to get a traditional tattoo… this was an idea I had been knocking around for years and, as I watched the tattoo take over my arm, I knew I had made the right decision.
Practicalities of visiting Whang Od – July 2016 Update
To get to Buscalan, Whang Od’s village, you must first travel to Bontoc – an easy jump from Sagada or an overnight bus from Manila.
From Bontoc, you can catch a daily jeepney from outside ‘Dereyk’s Restaurant’, just up from the police station, that costs 150 pesos, and will take you to the turning point near Buscalan. The jeepney usually leaves some time between 1 pm and 2 pm. It is well worth riding on top; you will be rewarded with stunning views.
The jeepney should take you off the main road and up to the trailhead where you can begin the hike to Buscalan Village, home of Whang Od.
As soon as you get off the jeepney, you will probably be met by local guides. You have to take a guide or you are not allowed to visit the village – the guide fee is 1000 pesos per day per group. You only need the guide for the first day; make it clear that you don’t want to pay the guide fee after the first day.
The trek to Buscalan takes between forty minutes and two hours depending on fitness. You can also travel by zipline for 100 pesos if the zipline is running (it often isn’t).
Staying in Buscalan – July 2016 Update
For better or for worse, tourism has now arrived at the village as word of Whang Od and her tattooing skills continue to spread far and wide.
The biggest problem currently faced by the village is tourists littering – there is no waste management in Buscalan so please do your bit; do not litter and carry all of your trash out with you when you leave.
The villagers are all wonderfully friendly people and you will end up staying in one of the villager’s homes.
You can arrange to stay in one of the villager’s houses relatively easy, it will only cost around $5 but be aware that it is pretty basic – you will get pillows and blankets but will basically be on the floor so if you have a rollmat you should bring it.
Charlie Pan, available at 09981888697, pretty much runs the whole backpacker scene in the village – he can arrange accommodation for you which will cost around 300 pesos per person per night and includes food.
Pot Pot’s walkthrough over at Travel Trilogy is well worth a read for more info on Buscalan.
Be sure to check out the villager’s awesome bamboo smoking pipes… They are an excellent way to keep yourself entertained in the evening.
Getting inked by Whang Od
Whang Od is a ninety nine year old lady and a living legend; she is not a tourist prop and does not appreciate having cameras in her face.
If you ask her for a selfie then you are god-damn stupid. Show her the respect she deserves and do not hug her, touch her or invade her space with close-up photography.
You can choose to have Whang Od select the design and placement of the tattoo, as is traditional in Kalinga culture, or you can choose it yourself from a board of designs in the village.
Once you have been tattooed, Whang Od will then tell you how much your tattoo costs – it will probably be between 400 and 1000 pesos.
I strongly recommend that you bring Whang Od some gifts, we bought her some basic food stuff – soft bread (she doesn’t have that many teeth left!) as well as some matches and a kilo of salt.
Update: February 2017
Whang Od is currently in poor health and is turning away the vast majority of those who come seeking tattoos. She is increasingly fussy about who she tattoos, as is her right. In anticipation of her retirement from the tattooing scene, Whang Od has been busily training other women in the village how to give Kalinga Tattoos and there are now as many as ten other artists, the youngest of whom is just eight years old – it seems that the practice of Kalinga tattooing will live on.
I have heard reports that sometimes the village now has up to four hundred visitors a day, largely as a result of the villagers actively promoting Whang Od in a bid to open up the area to tourism. The first time I went there was only one other foreigner there, the second time I went I did meet about a dozen other foreigners – the scene is certainly getting busier and, sadly, more commercialised.
Buscalan is, however, a great spot to start more adventurous off the beaten track adventures into the hills and from Buscalan it is possible to arrange multi-day treks to other, very rarely visited Kalinga villages…
If you do go to visit Whang Od, please be polite, do not contribute to the litter problem and realise that the village is struggling to cope with such large numbers of tourists. For my part in opening the village up to tourism, I apologise. I have decided that henceforth when I discover a gem such as this I will not be revealing an exact location.