Just the village of Buscalan alone is worth the lung searing trek, but the reason people flock here is Whang Od. If you want to be tattooed by her it’s absolutely possible if you’re happy to wait, and many people are. These days it’s common to have someone else do your main tattoo then go to Whang Od for her signature, three dots in a row. I mean, I did want to get tattooed by her at first but the more I spoke to people who had been here the more I thought, nah, I think I’m good with the dots. Francis told us she was 99 years old in December. Wikipedia says she turned 100 in February. Her grandniece apparently says she’s 103. I think when you get to that age you lose count anyway, but here are the pros and cons of getting tattooed by Whang Od:
1. It’s Whang Od. The legendary Whang Od. She’s 100 years old and still tattooing.
2. She’s been practicing her art for about 80 fucking years, dude.
3. She’s tattooed actual, genuine headhunters who literally hunted heads.
4. She’s the master. To have her hammer charcoal into your flesh with a thorn is an honour.
1. She’s 100 years old, her eyesight isn’t what it was, neither is her coordination.
2. Her tattoos are brutal and can take a lot longer to heal than if you have one done by the younger women.
3. She fell asleep whilst tattooing one Aussie chick and kept on tapping. She literally tattooed in her sleep (bows down and worships). However, the line she was doing ended up being a smattering of dots. The Aussie chick was cool with it, it’s a story.
4. Dear sweet lord, her tattoos hurt!
We had our main tatts done by a woman whose name I forget but she’s one of the self taught women. You choose your design off a board and they all have meanings from “mountains and nature” or “safe travels” or whatever. You could probably ask your guide what they mean but despite Francis being a lovely fella, he wasn’t the best guide. He kept disappearing so we just asked a group of students from Manila what they’d been told. Oh, and here’s a hot tip; don’t lounge around in bed until 6am like we did, get up and out and ready to be inked (charcoaled?) by 6am so you don’t have to wait as long. I did want a bracelet design around my arm but that meant something about mountains but I generally only like those when I haven’t just tried to climb up one so I opted for a diamond shaped thing that apparently means safe travels. To be honest it could mean fucking anything. You could tell me it meant “I love jam” and I’d have believed you. Tarrant went for a stylised compass.
Now, I have some tattoos. Not as many as people think but the ones I do have are large and visible. I’m no stranger to body art. But oh my fucking god, this hurt. I pulled faces. Faces I tell you. It’s not the most sterile of environments either and the tools used are a thorn from a pomelo tree inserted into a stick, then there’s a second stick for tapping, then there’s a mixture of charcoal and water which the artists applies to the thorn with her finger. No gloves are used. We were in a thatched, wall-less hut with a dusty wooden floor. At one point the thorn fell out of the stick. She picked it up, stuck it back in and carried on.
Oh my god I’m going to lose an arm. It’s going to get infected and my arm will drop off. What the fuck am I doing? She started by using a piece of grass to stencil the design onto my forearm with charcoal before she started hammering. And when she started hammering I started wincing. I demanded that Tarrant and Amy distract me with chatting and music. Shit shit shit. I can’t tell you how glad I was when it was over and I was handed my thorn to keep as a souvenir forever and ever or until I lost it somewhere. Tarrant was up next and she seemed to deal with it a lot better than me, and then we were off to find Whang Od for our three dots.
I’m not going to lie, I was a bit awed just being in her presence despite only finding out she existed two days ago. She squatted there, casually hammered charcoal into tourists, expertly spitting occasionally. She’s a beautiful woman too, a pleasure to photograph, and she doesn’t mind if you do. If you’re only having the signature (₱100) you get to queue jump so we slid in and yep, she’s fucking brutal. It felt like she was hammering bloody nails into my arm. I don’t have the pain threshold for Whang Od. The dots are a bit wonky too but you try putting three dots in a straight line when you’re 100 years old.
She doesn’t speak a word of English and I think her Tagalog is next to non-existant too, there are people around to translate for you, and she doesn’t seem to mind if you want a photo with her afterwards despite her being super busy. She even smiled for our photo. She’s amazing. I think I’m a little bit starstruck. I’d swoon but I’m British and we don’t do things like that. We save it for Facebook.
Once you’re done getting permanently marked it’s going to get sorer as the day wears on and even more so the next day which is fair enough really, you’ve literally just had charcoal hammered into your flesh with a fucking thorn. You’re free to spend your afternoon as you like and I think your experience now comes down to your guide and as I said, Francis is lovely but I’m not sure he’s the best guide. We’d met a couple of blokes who’d had a guy called Rudy (09269534010) who’d shown them around the village, introduced them to people, pretty much knew everyone and walked them over the hill. We had to practically beg Francis to show us to the start of a trail so we could walk up a hill to another village for some stunning views. Seriously buddy, what are we paying you for? It’s not like we’re asking you to walk up the hill with us.
He did, to his credit, take us to a huge gathering that evening in the square but I have this ridiculous social anxiety. Over the years I’ve learned coping techniques, predominantly faking it until I feel comfortable, so I generally hide it quite well. That is until I’m suddenly and unexpectedly (and the latter is the key word here) thrown in with a metric fuck tonne of humans I don’t know and am expected to socialise with. I get a knot in my chest. My brain scrambles. I have to vacate the situation immediately regardless of what experience I might be missing out on. Too many unexpected humans equals mental meltdown. Turns out a bloke in the village had finished building a house and had slaughtered a pig which we’d seen earlier and cooked up a load of rice for everyone. I missed out because I’d retreated back to the room where I had rice and corned beef from a can I had to hack open with a blunt knife and a pair of pliers. Screw you, mental health.
But Buscalan, guys. Despite the hike in and subsequently out (though out is a crap tonne easier than in, but try explaining that to your entire lower body) it’s worth it. So worth it. This was one of my favourite experiences since we left the UK. I really wanted to explore more of the Kalinga region but we don’t have the time. I have to come back. I’m enamored with the culture here. I want to trek to remote villages and stay with locals and scoff rice and vegetables with my hands whilst trying to chat to people I don’t share a language with. As long as there are no more than five of them at a time unless I’m advised in writing 24 hours in advance.
Buscalan, Kalinga Province, Luzon, Philippines
Stayed at: Francis Sagio’s home. If you’d like to contact him he’s on 09075906013.