From Brooklyn to Buscalan: A Journey to Whang Od

Whang Od breaks into a smile at the antics of her visitors. She celebrated her 102nd birthday on February 17, 2019 (Photo by Jensen Esteves and Maia Almendral Esteves).

Whang Od breaks into a smile at the antics of her visitors. She celebrated her 102nd birthday on February 17, 2019 (Photo by Jensen Esteves and Maia Almendral Esteves).

Whang Od is the oldest living traditional mambabatok artist. (“Batok” is defined as the art of tribal tattoo.) Her name is synonymous with Philippine tribal tattoo culture. She lives in a tiny mountain village called Buscalan, in the town of Tinglayan, Kalinga province in northern Philippines. (Read: https://www.larskrutak.com/the-last-kalinga-tattoo-artist-of-the-philippines/)

When my husband, Jensen, a tattoo enthusiast, and I, a lover of Philippine culture and history, first heard about Whang Od from my journalist sister who was writing about her for the New York Times (read: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/15/world/asia/tattoo-artist-kalinga-buscalan.html), we immediately decided to plan a trip to see Whang Od.

The opportunity came last month when we were invited to be part of a friend’s wedding in Tagaytay. As we booked our flights from JFK to Manila, we made sure that our itinerary included a visit to Buscalan. We did extensive research before we left, but made no formal arrangements until we arrived in Manila.

The journey to Buscalan takes time and requires flexibility, but people from all over the world make the trip. After an 8-10 hour bus ride from Manila to Bontoc, one can simply take a jeep to the Tinglayan meeting point. Luckily, Jensen’s cousins were excited about the trip too, so we were able to take a car which allowed us a more scenic route. We left Pangasinan before daybreak and caught breakfast in Baguio before proceeding to Sagada. We spent a night in Sagada to see the hanging coffins and caves, and to hike. Our Sagada guide helped us make arrangements with Racquel, our guide in Buscalan.

Racquel was the star of the trip for me. In a word, she is cool -- equal parts clever and no-nonsense in a way that makes you immediately let your guard down and want to invite her on your next family vacation. She is a Buscalan native who learned Tagalog and English in school. Apart from being a guide, Racquel (and her family) runs several homestays and even a sari-sari store. She is a grandniece of Whang Od, which definitely came in handy when making arrangements for our tattoos. Racquel was a one-stop-shop of sorts, and I cannot recommend her more highly.

Our tour guide, Racquel, standing on the patio of her home in Buscalan. She and her family hang their cell phones to try to get a bit of reception (Photo by Bernard So-Kua)

Our tour guide, Racquel, standing on the patio of her home in Buscalan. She and her family hang their cell phones to try to get a bit of reception (Photo by Bernard So-Kua)

Getting There

The drive to Tinglayan from Sagada took about two hours. We picked up Racquel at a pre-arranged meeting point and parked our car at the dead end where the hiking trail to Buscalan started. Locals assured us that the car was safe since other guides would be in the area all day waiting for other guests to arrive.

The hiking trail through the mountainside was narrow and rocky. It was beautiful but also an unfortunate place to realize your fear of heights, as I did. Parts of the trail had loose gravel and six inches of walking space, while other parts had stone steps and a bamboo railing. As I braced myself along the mountainside, locals expertly zipped around me with crates of dried goods and San Miguel Beer on their shoulders. There had been a much easier, paved trail that collapsed the week prior to our arrival due to a landslide. Already tired from a five-hour sunrise hike in Sagada, we took a little over an hour to hike to Buscalan, with breaks for water and shade.

Sagada is just two hours away from Buscalan by car. We spent a night there to explore caves, hike, and of course see the hanging coffins. It is definitely worth a trip (Photo by Jensen Esteves and Maia Almendral Esteves)!

Sagada is just two hours away from Buscalan by car. We spent a night there to explore caves, hike, and of course see the hanging coffins. It is definitely worth a trip (Photo by Jensen Esteves and Maia Almendral Esteves)!

We arrived in the village around 3 p.m. on a Monday, registered with the tourism office –literally a single hut – and paid a P75-per-person environmental fee. Over four hundred people arrived the prior Saturday just to get a peek at Whang Od; but luckily, by the time we arrived, there were only about 40 other visitors. We followed Racquel through the narrow alleys of the village, stepping over hundreds of sleepy pigs and singing children, to register at the tattoo shop. We were pleasantly surprised to be fifth in line to see Whang Od the same day.

Finally, we were taken up to our homestays where Racquel showed us our rooms and served us our first cup of Buscalan coffee. It was rich and delicious and worth a trip to Kalinga just for a taste. The rooms were simple, but clean and well cared for. Furniture consisted of a single mat on the floor, beddings and a pillow. A few family pictures and school certificates hung on the walls. Racquel explained that on days when the village hosts 400 guests, some groups like ours would likely share, but that day each couple would get our own room.

View of our room from the doorway of our home stay. It was simple and very clean. Jensen and I had a room to ourselves because we arrived on a very quiet day. Sometimes this room may be shared by a group traveling together (Photo by Jensen Esteves and Maia Almendral Esteves).

View of our room from the doorway of our home stay. It was simple and very clean. Jensen and I had a room to ourselves because we arrived on a very quiet day. Sometimes this room may be shared by a group traveling together (Photo by Jensen Esteves and Maia Almendral Esteves).

While we took showers in a nearby building, Racquel climbed down to the tattoo shop to check on the queue. She came back with the news that Whang Od had, as she often did, called it an early day and would not be doing any more tattoos. We would keep our place in line starting at 8 a.m. the next morning.

We decided to walk around the town to explore a bit when we unexpectedly bumped into Whang Od outside of her home. She was feeding the chickens and taking out her trash. She smiled politely as we walked by. Because I live in New York, I’m preconditioned to act unimpressed and leave celebrities to their daily lives, even if I literally traveled around the world to see her.

As you would any elder, you should approach Whang Od with respect. Many took her hand to mano (put her hand on one’s forehead) or presented her with gifts. And like any hustler who knows her worth, she also asks for PHP 50 for a photo with her if you aren’t getting tattooed. She prefers bills facing the same direction and folded neatly to indicate respect. Not doing so earns you a side eye that needs no translation.

For dinner we ate chicken adobo and Racquel made paksiw na bangus, which she served with an enormous pot of rice. The meal, she explained, would feed 15 to 20 of her family members. After dinner we grabbed a few San Migs from the sari-sari store and drank them on the balcony. We could hear the chatter of locals below and Bruno Mars blaring on a distant radio. The noise stopped abruptly at 10 p.m. when everyone simply took to their own porches, turned off the music and spoke more softly. When we turned off the lights to go to bed, I remember being struck by the silence and darkness, suddenly hyper aware of how far I was from my normal life in New York City. As I lay down, my body relaxed and I fell asleep instantly. 

Jensen and I woke up before dawn the next morning. We followed the local dogs up the hill to the rice terraces and watched the sun rise. As we got back to Racquel’s, generations of her family were gathered in her kitchen to pour themselves steaming cups of coffee before starting their day.

We walked down to Whang Od’s tattoo shop in the lower part of the village after breakfast. The shop is comprised of a few homes with enough space for tattoo stations and a waiting area. Whang Od sets up her wooden tattoo stool under a small stairwell with the perfect amount of light. Her grandnieces, Grace and Elyang, tattoo on a balcony a few steps away, where they spend their days working together side by side. With no children of her own, Whang Od is training Grace and Elyang to carry on mambabatok practices. I planned to get two tattoos that day, one from Whang Od and a larger piece from a grandniece. As I waited for my turn, I picked a piece from a small board of traditional Kalinga designs with translations.

With no direct descendants, Whang Od is training her grandniece to carry on the mambabatok practices. Grace and Elyang are her primary apprentices. Elyang, pictured here, completed my standing eagle tattoo (Photo by Jensen Esteves).

With no direct descendants, Whang Od is training her grandniece to carry on the mambabatok practices. Grace and Elyang are her primary apprentices. Elyang, pictured here, completed my standing eagle tattoo (Photo by Jensen Esteves).

Signature Design

In Kalinga tradition, warriors earn the right to be tattooed. Each design symbolized a specific act of bravery such as their rank, or who they killed or wounded. Women were tattooed as a symbol of beauty. The tattoos are done using a pomelo thorn, which is attached to a bamboo stick then hammered into your skin. Since headhunting is no longer practiced, Whang Od has extended tattoos to those beyond the Kalinga tribes. By doing so, she’s opened up her village to travelers from around the world.

The tattoo needle used by mambabatoks. It is made from a pomelo thorn and bamboo stick. Up until recently, Whang Od had insisted on reusing these on dozens of guests. Now, thankfully, you can purchase your own for P100 (Photo by Jensen Esteves).

The tattoo needle used by mambabatoks. It is made from a pomelo thorn and bamboo stick. Up until recently, Whang Od had insisted on reusing these on dozens of guests. Now, thankfully, you can purchase your own for P100 (Photo by Jensen Esteves).

Whang Od mostly sticks to her signature these days, three dots representing herself, Grace and Elyang. I was the first in our group to go. I purchased my own pomelo thorn for PHP 100 – if you don’t, then Whang Od will use a previously used thorn – and sat down on another low stool in front of her. Racquel told her I planned to get another tattoo from Elyang so that Whang Od could decide on the design placement.

Using a dried up coconut shell, Whang Od mixed charcoal and water to make a paste then took her wooden hammer and began to work. Like the hike to get to her village, the pain was not easy, but it was tolerable. We had brought a fresh pack of anti-bacterial wipes and I asked Racquel to make sure Whang Od used them. She was finished in less than five minutes. Then she posed for a photo with me before moving on to her next client.

Whang Od before applying her signature tattoo on my back. Racquel acted as translator between us, explaining the second tattoo I planned to get from her grandniece. Whang Od asked for my input on design placement, but ultimately the decision was hers (Photo by Jensen Esteves).

Whang Od before applying her signature tattoo on my back. Racquel acted as translator between us, explaining the second tattoo I planned to get from her grandniece. Whang Od asked for my input on design placement, but ultimately the decision was hers (Photo by Jensen Esteves).

There were about eight others who got her signature before it was Jensen’s turn. He, with c help, would be requesting the first fully designed piece from Whang Od that day. In preparing for the trip, he found a photo of a Kalinga warrior and he pointed to the warrior’s shoulder tattoo. There was no guarantee that Whang Od would agree to it. She has been described as moody, sometimes refusing to tattoo certain people, or opting not to tattoo at all. While she seems generally excited to share tribal designs, she is also quick to put her foot down and refuse to do certain designs that are reserved for warriors. Another guide told us she often decides on the design, then hands it off to Grace and Elyang to do the bulk of the actual tattoo, before finishing off the pattern. Others wait days before she’s ready to start their tattoos.

Essentially, if you are asking to get tattooed by Whang Od, you should be prepared for anything. But as Jensen removed his shirt to reveal numerous tattoos on his arms and back, Whang Od’s eyes perked up. She too respects tattoo culture and her excitement to make her mark was visible. Upon looking at the warrior’s photo, she explained that he was from another tribe, but that she was in fact the one who tattooed him. Without another word, she set to work designing the tattoo with a flexible dried reed to lay out the pattern. When I heard the rhythm of her hammer tok tok tok, I knew we had lucked out.

Jensen got the increasingly rare honor to be tattooed by Whang Od herself. She took two hours to complete a centipede design (Photo by Maia Almendral Esteves).

Jensen got the increasingly rare honor to be tattooed by Whang Od herself. She took two hours to complete a centipede design (Photo by Maia Almendral Esteves).

The entire process for Jensen’s tattoo took about two hours. Whang Od was focused, but often stopped to hear part of guests’ conversations or tell the other guides that their guests will have to pick a simpler design. A toddler from the village came up and stole some of the Hershey’s kisses we brought for her. She laughed jovially before shooing him away.

Around the same time, Elyang started my own tattoo. I decided on a standing eagle, which represented strength, guidance and freedom. Elyang took her time to get the design just right. Her hand movements were confident and swift. She was as gentle as a person could be when hammering a thorn into one’s skin. After just ten minutes, she gave my shoulders a gentle squeeze and whispered “All done” before calling out to the larger crowd, “Lunch break tayo!

I love watching people, so I thoroughly enjoyed the hours spent at that mountainside tattoo shop. Whang Od and her grandnieces strike a balance between order and curiosity. Naturally, there are those who criticize the relative accessibility of tribal traditions. But Whang Od and her grandnieces act more like careful guardians, deciding carefully how much to share and where to draw the line. They seem delighted by the fact that their tattoos bring them people from around the world. They want to know where you came from, they’ll stop what they’re doing to look at photos and ask questions about your stories. They watch carefully as visitors interact with each other and do their best to navigate Kalinga customs in this strange cross section of experiences in which Buscalan is at the very center.

As I write this today from my couch in Brooklyn, the excitement of my trip has started to settle and my tattoo has nearly healed. Aside from coffee grounds, what I carried with me back through the winding Cordilleras and across the ocean was an immense sense of awe of my motherland. As a Filipino American, my perspective of the Philippines was limited to balikbayan boxes, white sand beaches, fresh mangoes, and messy politics. I look forward to discovering new corners of the Philippines and, like Whang Od, sharing them far and wide so that others can feel the same sense of wonder.

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Shots from the one hour hike to Buscalan. These were taken by Jensen during some of the easier moments of the hike. I was too focused on balancing to take any photos of my own.

Shots from the one hour hike to Buscalan. These were taken by Jensen during some of the easier moments of the hike. I was too focused on balancing to take any photos of my own.

Tips for those considering a trip:

  1. Don’t wait too long! While she’s strong and sharp, at 102, Whang Od is well within reason to retire.

  2. Book a guide who is a Buscalan native. Contact Racquel via SMS text at 09101408693 (remember there is no cell service up there so give ample time for a response). You can also find additional recommendations and tips on a Facebook group called “Tattooed by Whang Od”.

  3. Give yourself time and flexibility. While we got lucky with the queue, I wish we had a few more nights of true off-the-grid living.

  4. Bring cash (Prices were as follows: P75 pp environmental fee, P1300 per day for guide for a group of four, P250-P350 per night for home stay including coffee, rice and kitchen access; P100 for pomelo thorn, P100 for Whang Od’s signature tattoo. My standing eagle from Elyang was P500, Jensen’s tattoo from Whang Od was P2000)

  5. Pack only what you need: Aside from comfortable shoes for the hike, bring tsinelas (rubber slippers) for the shower, and a jacket as it gets cold. Bring cosmetics (soap, shampoo, toilet paper) and towel. If you’re getting a tattoo, bring alcohol swabs, baby wipes, and clothes that let your tattoo breathe. Basic non-perishable food came in handy, but you can purchase some stuff in the shops. We also brought small gifts for our hosts and Whang Od — specifically “I love NY” T-shirts and stickers for the kids.


Maia Almendral Esteves

Maia Almendral Esteves

Maia Almendral Esteves is a nonprofit event planner and storyteller. She was born in Manila, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is now attempting adulthood in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and cat.