Kalinga: The Amazing Journey to see Legendary Tattoo Artist Whang Od

I hadn't planned to visit Kalinga. It was only after I had the 10th local tell me that I really should go see Whang Od (the oldest traditional Filipino tribal tattoo artist) in Kalinga that I decided to make it happen. I had no idea where that was or what kind of journey I was in for. Little did I know that it was going to be my favorite part of my Philippines trip.

 

I had just got done exploring the Batad rice terraces in northern Luzon. I sat in my bedroom at Hillside Inn as I stared out the window at my gorgeous view watching the early morning fog roll in and out before I took off for my long journey to the mountain province of Kalinga.

I started with a 30 minute hike from Hillside Inn to the Batad Saddle. The locals said the public jeepney picks up from the saddle once a day at 9am sharp so I had to make sure not to miss it. A short uphill battle (phew was I out of breath!), and I was at the saddle where the jeepney was picking up passengers to bring to banaue (150 pesos/$3usd). The one-hour jeepney ride wasn't so bad. Once in Banaue, I asked a local how to get to Kalinga. I was advised to catch a van that will take me on a two-hour ride to Bontoc (130 pesos/$2.60usd). This ride was super wind-y along mountain cliffs but the driver seemed to have been driving these cliffs for years so I wasn't worried about dying (no not at all, hmmm). Then once in Bontoc, another two-hour jeepney ride would take me to Buscalan (100 pesos/$2usd). This was probably the most adventurous (and by adventurous I mean terrifying) jeepney ride of my life. We're talking rock slides every corner and 1,000 foot drops with no guard rails to catch yo ass if you get got. But the views though!

Later I found out that the driver has been driving that road for 27 years so that was pretty settling to hear. Nevertheless, I would do it again and again and again it was that gorgeous of a view. Two hours later, we made it to Buscalan! From here, we had to hike about 30 minutes through the mountains to the small remote village of Kalinga.

I had made the journey thus far, solo. There was about five of us visitors; two girls together (Bea and Leanne) and a couple (Lorraine and Lance). Bea kindly asked me if I was alone. I said yes. She said the tour guides were charging per group and I was welcome to join her and Leanne, how kind! Of course I said yes! 

Back to the part about the tour guides; we found out that every group was mandatory to have a tour guide. These guides were locals of the Kalinga village; they help lead you down the hike, check you in at the visitors center, and guide you through the village from the time you arrive to the time you leave. The rate for the guide was not pre-determined so we were unsure how much we were expected to pay. We stayed for a total of two days and two nights and felt 1,000 pesos/$20usd was reasonable so that's how much we paid our guide (about 330 pesos/$6.60usd each between the three of us girls).

Bea had made accommodation reservations with Charlie's homestay. When we got there, I guess it was full. But not to worry! The village was like one big family. Charlie had us stay with Selma (250 pesos/$5 per person per night). Selma is also a tour guide and hosts her own eatery at her home. Since Charlie's was full, she opened up her home to us. Bea, Leanne, and I slept in a cozy little room with a thin mattress on the ground.

By the time we were all settled in, it was nearly 7pm and we were starving. Selma had just made a fresh hot pot of chicken adobo. I don't know if it was the best adobo of my life or if I was just extremely hungry but I tore that shit uppppp it was so good! We chilled and got to know each other over a bottle of gin before we knocked out after a long and exhausting day of traveling.

8am: buscalan coffee, chicken tinola, and a drop dead gorgeous view. Oh yeah, & Jan 29, 2017: my 28th birthday. I sat and drank my coffee with a panoramic view of the beautiful mountain province. I couldn't believe where I was. It was beyond beautiful.

No cars, no TV's, no microwaves. It was a remote community in the middle of the mountains. The closest town to buy a gallon of milk was over an hour jeepney ride away. We hiked to this village where the people welcomed us into their homes with open arms. It was amazing to experience a life of such simplicity and a community so rich in culture and kindness. We had a long conversation on how they make money to survive. But then our conversation took a turn when we realized, they don't really need money. I mean, they provide almost everything they need themselves. They grow their own chicken and pigs and rice & they have an amazing water irrigation system. Perhaps all they need to pay for is electricity. So although they may not make a lot of money, they also do not spend much of it either. It was such a simple life. 

Now on to a long and confusing day. We head down to the tiki hut where grace and elyang were already tattooing visitors. Wondering where we were in line, we looked around and saw a piece of cardboard box taped to the wall with group names and # of pax. Some names with a date next to them of 2-3 days ago. I began to worry that we were far down a long list as some groups had 20-30 pax! Charlie said we were #22 and assured we signed up for "the list" when we checked into the village yesterday. Hesitant to believe we were on a list bc our name nor number was not on the cardboard box list, I was led to believe he knew what he was talking about so I let it be.

There were about 20 people chillin at the tiki hut waiting their turn. Knowing we still had a while to go, we decided to go on a quick hike through the mountains.

It was about 4pm when we got back to the tiki hut to see where we were in line. Still, our name not on the list. I began to worry we were waiting for nothing and not in any place in line. Since I don't speak the language, Bea talked to Charlie to sort it out. Charlie came down to the tiki hut with us. There was a big group of 22 just finishing up, there was one other guy waiting, Kevin, who was alone with 1 pax. Then there was us. I guess if you're not there, you're not next. So after the big group of 22 was done, Kevin was up. We sat anxious and excited bc we were next! Charlie helped declare to all those around that we were next after Kevin. All was good. Charlie left and another tour guide came by with a group of four girls saying that they were next. OHHH HELL NAH BRAH. Of course I wasn't going to go bad and make a scene bc 1. I don't speak the language 2. I still didn't know how "the list" or "the line" worked & 3. It would just be plain disrespectful to the artists and village. So, I just sat and hoped we would get tattooed that day. & We did!

Patiently waiting, we got tattooed by Elyang right after Kevin. She took a sharp thorn from a tinik and dipped her finger in a coconut shell coated with blank ink which they made from pot residue, crushed charcoal, and water. She grabbed her two sticks and started to tap tap tap away. Boy, did it hurt. Different than the typical machine and needle. It felt like getting stabbed by a big ass nail, over and over and over. It felt stronger, sharper, deeper. Nonetheless, it was bearable.  I got a traditional Kalinga design of a python: strength and guidance. After a quick 30 minutes, I was done. I love it! (600 pesos/$12usd).

We ended the day with yummy chop suey, guitar songs and beer by the bonfire, new friends and good vibes all over. It was a great 28th birthday.

7am rolled up and we planned to be at the tiki hut by 8am. Rumor had it that Whang Od was going to feel well enough to tattoo today! 7:45am and we were the first ones there. Yes! First! 8am and grace was alone. No Whang Od, again. Although disappointing to not see Whang Od, we were still excited to get the three dot signature tattoo by grace. Right after I got my signature, Whang Od showed up!!!! Ahhhh!!!!! The living legend!!!!!

I couldn't NOT get tattooed by her so I made sure to get the signature but her too. And I did (100 pesos/$2usd). Such an honor!!! Now, I have a piece of work from Whang Od and both of her two grand daughters Elyang and Grace.

Quickly after we got tattooed by Whang Od, we had to hike out to catch the van that would take us from Buscalan back to Bontoc. It leaves at 11am and takes about an hour (100 pesos/$2usd). From here you can catch a bus to take you back to Manila. We, on the other hand, took a six-hour bus ride from Bontoc to Baguio (176 pesos/$3.52usd) to have dinner and drinks before a long overnight bus ride down to Manila.

Total costs spent:

Day 1: 1422 pesos/$28.42usd
150 (jeepney #1)
130 (van)
100 (jeepney #2)
250 (accommodations)
165 (tour guide)
600 (python tattoo)
20 (pancit pack)
7 (chocolate wafer)

Day 2: 1134 pesos/$22.68usd
250 (accommodations)
165 (tour guide)
100 (signature tattoo)
100 (van)
176 (bus #1)
343 (bus #2)

Tips and advice to visit Kalinga:

  1. Arrange accommodations ahead of time.

  2. Bring cash (& small change)

  3. Plan to have at least two nights but would be best to be flexible for three nights just in case the queue is extremely long.

  4. Don't bank on getting tattooed by Whang Od. She hadn't tattooed for three whole days when we got there then we got super lucky when she came out on our last day. She hasn't been feeling well lately and if she doesn't feel like tattooing, she doesn't.

  5. Whang Od's two grand daughters Elyang (18) and Grace (20) have a long wait, make sure you know where your place in line is. Talk to your tour guide and follow up throughout the day.

  6. Some people get tattooed by Cheesy "upstairs", most likely able to get tattooed same day. The youngest relative to tattoo at age (15)

  7. Respect the artists, respect the process, respect the culture. Be prepared to wait, patiently. The sign says if you cannot wait for this rare piece of art, you don't deserve it. Wait your turn, even if you don't know when it is. This was definitely the most frustrating part but just know it's what you have to do. Don't try to change things. You are a guest. Let them do their thing.