Receiving a tribal tattoo from Whang Od

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.

On my way to get a tattoo from Whang Od

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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.

Onwards to Whang Od

Jeepney riding in Kalinga

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.

Local kids on the trail to Whang Od

Local kids on the way to Whang Od’s village

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.

Animal skull in Whang Od's village

The shaman’s hut

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.

Kalinga tattoo in the Philippines with The Broke Backpacker

The thorn we would use for my Kalinga tattoo.

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?

Whang Od finishing my tattoo

Whang Od finishing my tattoo

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.

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The Broke Backpacker runs us through how to actually get to the legendary Whang Od and what to expect from a Kalinga tattoo.

39 Comments

  • Audrey says:

    Haha, awesome video Will! I laughed out loud at the end when you find out that it’s actually a fertility symbol. 😉

  • Alba Luna says:

    It didn’t hurt? Really!!? I had the chance to get her art in my skin and it really, really hurt (it was on my wrist, though). Congrats on the post, it’s really funny and useful for the ones that want to get there =) Mine was more like a tale, in case you want to read another point of view: http://www.albaluna.es/en/oh-yes-this-was-the-way/

    I’ll be following your adventures from now on! Have a nice day!

  • Hey Will,

    Thanks one more time for being apart of out Travel Inspired Tattoos article. We love your ink and the story behind it! Until next time…

    38 MORE Travel Related Tattoos from Backpackers, Globetrotters, & Bloggers
    Shannon // Camera & Carry On recently posted…38 MORE Travel Related Tattoos from Backpackers, Globetrotters, & BloggersMy Profile

  • jo says:

    Hey Will, Nice tattoo :). Btw. how long is the travel time from SAgada to Bontoc? and Bontoc to buscalan? planning to get a tattoo this December. Thanks!

    • Will Hatton says:

      Hey Jo! It was about two hours between each of them. Have fun!

      • Ada says:

        congrats you were fortunate enough to geta tattoo from her i am so jealous i havent haad the opopurtunity , i also appreciate that you remind everyone to be polite and to take their trash with them , im not sure if you understand how jealous i am , my family has moved away and that is something i researched , its part of my heritage.

  • gail says:

    Hi! Great blog!
    It’ll be my first time to get inked and decided to do it with Apo Whang-od. Since it’s my first time, can you give me some advice what to do right after getting inked or how to take care of it? Thanks a lot!

    • Will Hatton says:

      There are loads of sites out there that will tell you everything about proper tattoo care, but basically just keep it protected from the sun, don’t touch it while it’s healing, and apply tattoo cream to it a couple times a day 🙂 Have fun!!

  • Nins says:

    Hi Will,

    Could let me know how long the tattoo process took? And how much Whang Od charges so Id know how much cash to bring this December.

    Thank you so much!

  • Mj says:

    Hi,

    I love your blog post about your experience at Sagada, this makes me proud as Filipino. Anyway this is silly question from a local here in the Philippines.. I would like to know your experience about your trip. Like how did you found out about Whang Od and do you have to schedule your tattoo session with her and do you pick your own design? I really wanna know how planning goes because I wanna get a tattoo for my birthday and I’m planning to travel alone for the first time.

    Thanks :>

  • King M says:

    Hi Will,

    I just stumbled across your blog when looking for ways to get to Sagada from Banaue and have now decided to head up to Whang Od to get a tattoo.

    Just had a couple of quick questions. Since Pot-Pot, and then you, wrote up on Whang Od has there been a huge increase in the tourists headed there? I really want to go but I’m worried about finding a large number of tourists already there.

    Also,

  • NJ says:

    hey Will! how much did you pay for your tattoo? I’m planning to go back there and get second one. thank you very much! 🙂

  • RhodaMac says:

    This is so cool ! I have heard about this lady & her tattoos from other travel bloggers, I’m glad to read about her again. However 1000 pesos per day per group for a travel guide, whoa! I’m a filipina living abroad, never been to Sagada but to Banaue many times many years ago but 1000 pesos per day is not cheap. Well at least I know now how much it’ll cost me should I decide to visit Sagada in the future, thanks !

  • Kelly Turpin says:

    Great story, and enjoyed the video!

  • Andrew McQuinn says:

    You said she doesn’t always tattoo westerners, how does one know they aren’t going to make the trip for “nothing.” Meeting her would still be reward enough but I would truly love to be tattooed by her.

    • Will Hatton says:

      If she did choose not to tattoo you, one of the apprentices probably would. You would have to be a real asshole for her not to want to tattoo you though – the situation up there has changed in recent years and this is nolonger the ‘off the beaten track’ adventure it once was… still well worth going but these days the village is changing to accomodate for the sudden windfall of tourism.

  • rose says:

    hi will, ive read ur blog bout your trip in sagada, just wanna know how to go out from whang od’s place going to the bus station nearby going to manila. thank you and your response is highly appreciated.

  • neil says:

    Hi will, is it true that she can only do limited designs of tattoo? or you can prepare your own layout?

    • Will Hatton says:

      Hey Neil, traditionally the artist chooses both the design (of which there are about twelve) and the place where it goes. Potentially, you could ask her to do something different but if it’s too complex she will probably say no.

  • Aj says:

    Hi Will! I am planning tot go to the Philippines this year and I wanted to get my tattoos (: . Ive been in America almost my whole life and its been a dream of mine to be tattooed by Apo Whang-Od. I am from the actual tribe of Kalinga but the sad thing is, I don’t know much about how to get them since I have been living here in the states. Gladly, your blog helped me a lot. Since I am a Kalinga, would it be different to get a tattoo from her and what did you do after you got your tattoo from Apo Whang-Od?

    • Will Hatton says:

      If you are of Kalinga descent you must definitely go! I suggest letting Whang Od choose the spot and the design, it will be a more authentic experience 🙂 Getting to the tribe is really quite easy now, you can catch a bus from Manila to Sagada, chill in Sagada a few days and then catch a couple of jeepnys and walk into the village – possible to do the journey in half a day and I recommend spending a few days there 🙂

  • Will Walker says:

    Hey Will,

    I’m looking to receive a tattoo by Whang Od or her apprentices. How did you get in connection with the guide to take you to the village? Also, do you think a three-day trip in the area is enough time? Thanks for your time!

    – Another Will.

    • Will Hatton says:

      Hey other Will! I had a local friend who knew this guy and gave me the number. These days though, the village is well and truly on the map – you can just rock up. It’s worth contacting Charlie in advance though and asking him to sort your accomodastion as apparently it can now be crowded in high season. It’s worth going in low season. If you want some really epic treks, there are lots around there and not many people go further into the valley.

  • Anne Laurence says:

    Hi Will,
    I would like to know more about the healing process of the tattoo
    and also if you can tell me if everything is clean and sterile,

    Thanks a lot

  • Update: I visited Buscalan March 30 and 31, 2017. Unfortunately my tour guide host Francis, said that Apo Whang Od was not in the village because she was attending her grandson’s graduation.

    I did however talk to a nice couple from Canada, and they were tattooed by Apo, and she seems to be in good health I guess? (I had to leave before she returned to Buscalan)

    I was tattooed by Davira (I think that was what she said her name was), she was 15 years old and said she had been tattooing for 8 years.

    My 4 days in the Philippines I did not meet 1 person that knew about Apo, or Buscalan. The only foreigners I saw in Buscalan was the couple from Canada. Everyone else was visiting the village from other parts of the Philippines.

    It was an amazing experience, and I had so much fun getting to the village!

  • Kath says:

    Finally! I’ ve found what the fern “anamam” tattoo means. I let her choose my first tattoo. I was not able to grasp the meaning. She said that it accentuates beauty. And she jokingly said it will attract men. Hahaha. She is okay now. I got my tattoo last week, April 07. ?

  • Shanon Cloe says:

    Good day, I am a nursing student from the University of the Cordilleras in Baguio City Philippines and we are currently conducting a research about the people who have been tattooed by the traditional tattoo artist in the Philippines and since Apo Whang Od is the famous one I just want to seek help if you can be one of our respondent in our study, I will just ask some questions about your experience when having tattooed. I am hoping for your response. Thank you

  • Raine Jocsing says:

    Hi Will, i was just looking around the internet and i just found your blog. Just wanna ask some questions regarding on how can i get inked by apo whang-od. Because according to what i’ve read on your blog there are almost 400 visitors that comes everyday. So do know how much people does apo whang-od accomodate everyday to ink? Because im planning to go there next month when i get back from Hk. Im afraid that can’t have the tattoo from her. Because i have only limited time. Thanks a lot.

  • What was that, the process of the tattoo is hilarious, how you manage to keep yourself calm. I can’t even imagine.

    Thanks for sharing your video.

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