Total Trip Costs :
3740 PHP, approx. $75 USD
Time Needed: Approx. 24 round trip hours on bus, 1 1/2 days in the village (in case Whang-od can’t see you on your arrival), or 3 days
For years I’ve wanted a tattoo from Whang-Od, the 99 year old tattoo master of the headhunter tribe of the Philippines. For me it symbolized so much. A connection with my mother’s country, an embracement of a traditional art that had somehow survived a hundred years of colonial attitudes, and a chance to carry a love of my Philippines with me, always.
The Philippines as it’s known today is so, so different from the Asian countries all around it. It’s a strongly Roman Catholic nation with conservative ideals that skew towards looking down on tattoos. But over a century ago the Philippines was once described as the Isles of the Painted Ones by the Spanish explorers, as the Philippine people of the time were adorned in full body tattoos. Christian missionaries would eventually wipe out the practice in all but the most far flung corner of the Philippines. But the best stronghold for the practice, and the only one that still exists today, is the Kalinga Village high in the northern mountains of Luzon.
During my internship at the Securities Exchange Commission of Manila, I knew that I had to take this opportunity to make the pilgrimage to the village. I’d been dying to do it for years. My colleagues all thought I was crazy. A mestiza (half-Filipina) making a trip like that by herself was unheard of and multiple people asked me not to go. The reaction to my desire to actually get a tattoo while I was there drew an even worse reaction, bordering on incredulous.
Unfortunately, the perception of tattoos in the Philippines is that they’re gang or prison related… which is the absolute opposite of what these particular tattoos actually represent. They are badges with each design have a precise and unique meaning, from valor, to protection, to beauty. I’m a stubborn woman and I’d been dead set on getting this tattoo. Nothing was going to turn me away from it. So the day my internship ended, I hopped on a bus, first step Sagada. But the process required a lot of forethought and planning.
First things first. If you’re trying to make the trip to Kalinga village from Manila (the path I took, but if you happen to be in Baguio all the better) what you’ll absolutely need is a phone. This is a requirement. Not only from a safety perspective but because you will need to contact a guide beforehand.
The guides are all men, from what I’ve been able to learn, and they’re a necessity because they’ll take you from Bontoc to the village. Technically, you can make it to Kalinga yourself. Once you get on the right road from Bontoc the path is essentially straight, albeit at certain points through tropical underbrush. But if you’ve never been there before and don’t speak the language the real issue start to arise when you get to the village and need a place to stay, and have someone convey your desires to Whang-Od.
The guide will arrange for the car that will take you to the jump point, arrange for your sleeping accommodations, and speak to the tattoo master Whang-Od on your behalf, since she doesn’t speak Tagalog or English. A guide also isn’t all that costly. For me, in 2016, the cost of the guide and transportation from Bontoc to Kalinga and back was approximately 800 PHP or $16 USD. This is their livelihood so I found no reason to be stingy and didn’t bother to negotiate… though I’m sure you can get it lower if that’s your inclination.
A few of the guides’ contact numbers
- Kuya Romy
- Francis Pa-In
Getting there from Manila
I elected to take Coda Lines Corp. bus to Sagada overnight. The bus company site looks completely sketchy but it’s real, I promise. Several of my very protective coworkers called the company to make sure they were 1) legit and 2) to try and reserve me seats. You can’t reserve seats prior but I found that there was plenty of availability when I purchased my ticket the night of.
I chose Coda because it was cheap, I wanted to day trip in Sagada, and you can get a direct return trip from Bontoc straight to Quezon city.
If you’re confused about all the city names I’m mentioning, here’s some context:
Manila is actually huge, and it’s comprised of multiple cities. Quezon is by far the largest city in Manila, with a population of 2.8 million. You can reach Quezon numerous ways if you happen to be staying somewhere else in the city (I was staying in Mandaluyong). There’s busses, ubers, trains, jeepneys, etc.
Sagada is a beautiful northern village in Manila with so many fantastic sights. It’s my current favorite city in the Philippines because it’s so different. It’s mountainous, verdant, and full of good food. Because of this, there are a lot of European backpackers and young Filipino travelers.
Bontoc is the jump point to Kalinga village, since there’s no direct road to Kalinga. Bontoc is a real town, with hotels and all that, but there’s not much to see there. Sagada is about an hour and a half away from Bontoc and there are multiple jeepneys and buses going back and forth between the two towns all day.
So, Coda leaves from Quezon to Sagada twice. Once at 9 and then again at 10. The bus doesn’t have a bathroom, the ride is approximately 13 hours, and there are only two stops. One stop is a bus stop about 7 – 9 hours in. There’s a small convenient store / restaurant attached so you can get snacks, boiled eggs, and bad coffee as well. The next stop, though, is Banaue.
I’d never been and always wanted to go because Banaue is the home of the Philippine’s best and most impressive rice terraces. The stop is at the viewing point for the terraces and there’s a bathroom (which you must pay for, though the price is extremely low, like less than 50 pesos), and a souvenir shop. Very old men and women in traditional Ifugao clothing will ask you to take their picture in exchange for some money. I think the kindest thing you can do is to give them some. Even in their very old age, they feel the call to help their family in the limited ways they can.
The view is really the best part of Banaue, so I didn’t feel the need to stay the night there (though you certainly can and catch the next bus or jeepney to Bontoc). Banaue also represents the half-way point to Sagada. There are another seven hours to go from here.
At one point, it’s worth noting, the bus will actually pass through Bontoc so you can ask the driver to stop and let you off there. If you choose to do this skip the next paragraph.
Once you arrive in Sagada, it’s important to note that the town square (which is right outside of the mayor’s office and across the way from the tourist information center where you must register) is where you can catch a jeepney to Bontoc. There are multiple jeepneys that run back and forth throughout the day, beginning around 6am. It’s important to arrive early because the rides are frequently very full. People sitting on the roof is very common (and fun, if you’ve never done it — but please wear sunscreen and bring a scarf or hat!). The ride is incredibly cheap, I think 30 pesos, but check with the tourist center to get a quote on departure times and costs before leaving.
Once you are in Bontoc, your guide will ask to meet you someplace. Suggest the Saint Rita Cathedral. My big mistake when I first arrived was letting my guide select a hotel. No one knew what hotel I was talking about and I wandered lost for quite some time… But I guarantee you someone will know where the cathedral is and it won’t be difficult to convince your jeepeny driver to drop you off right at the door step.
Once you meet your guide, you’ll jump into a van and start up the mountain towards Kalinga. There’s a road now for a good part of the way. Eventually, though, you’ll have to walk. The path itself is fairly straight forward but it does give way to something more forested and mountainous as you make your way up. Depending on your guide (mine was a little older, so he needed rest) and your own fitness it can take an hour, or more, or less… But approximately that.
The most challenging part is the climb. There are rice terraces here, built into the mountains, and high carved steps, and in the heat of the day beats on you as you attempt to ascend. But the trip was made more interesting for me when a gray-blue crab scuttled down the steps and towards me, bold and fearless, and then right on pass. He had places to be. I was startled — I’d never seen a crab in the mountains before. My guide laughed at my shock and told me that they came from the mountain’s rivers and lived in the terraces that flanked the path on either side.
Once you make it to the top of the steps you’ll be greeted abruptly with the village. There are houses and an open-air bar / convenience store that will offer you all sorts of drinks, and it was a welcome sight after the trek. In the village there are guest house throughout the village and charge around 250 pesos. But my guide had already arranged for me to stay with Whang-Od’s granddaughter and apprentice, Grace, at the house where tattoos were actually given. It is by far the most decadent house in the village, with tile floors and a second story. Though it is still sparse and rustic, with paper thin walls that don’t reach all the way to the ceiling. My room was not big enough to contain the mattress on the floor that I slept on, so open and closing the door was difficult. But it’s still the best room in the village, and will cost you 500 pesos.
As for the town itself, it has its own points of interest. There are the rice terraces, which are large and lovely. A blacksmith whose name translates to “big man” who smiles a lot and makes crafts to sell to visitors, like knives and machetes, while his wife sits beside him and makes handcrafts. And so many children, and pigs! It’s not what you think of when you hear “head hunter”, but I suppose those hunts ended a long time ago. It’s easy to get lost here but once you get your bearings you get a sense for the community and everyone in it. I enjoyed wandering it best to see who wore the ancient tattoos and who did not. It’s mostly the older men and women who wear them now. Even here, the practice is fading away. But it was so nice to see these grandmothers with the beautiful scales tattooed across their arms and chest, smiling at me and gesturing to my bloody arm once I finally received the tattoo. I know they didn’t recognize me for what I am — half Filipina — and saw me only as a foreigner. But I loved their enthusiasm for the connection we shared once I wore my tattoo. It’s a rare, special feeling that I think many people who live “in between cultures” know.
Getting the Tattoo
I arrived at about noon and was taken straight to Grace’s house. We walked around the back and onto an overhanging balcony, were already a group of six young Filipinos from Manila getting tattooed. At the center was Whang-Od, sitting on a wooden bench, her hand steadily hammering the wooden needle into the skin of a young, anxious looking man who stared straight ahead but tried to smile at me (apparently this was the third time the mark was getting tapped into his skin, which Whang-od described as “stubborn”). Immediately, from the obsessive amount of research I’d done into the topic, I recognized the hawk he was getting tapped into his forearm but I was more interested in the artist.
She was so small and frail. I hadn’t expected that. When you think the words “tattoo master” and “headhunter tribe” you think… big, imposing, indomitable. But Whang-Od can be no taller than four and a half feet tall, with thin, bird-like shoulders and a head bowed as she worked. I spoke with the other people there and watched her work. Apparently she’d done over a dozen tattoos already, as there was a large group that had already left. And it was clear that she was exhausted. Who could be surprised? She is anywhere between 96 and 99 (Whang-od told me she was 99, but didn’t know her birthday for sure) and the art requires focus and a steady, strong hand.
I waited until the next day to get my tattoo… And it was then that I learned that, despite how much I tried to prepare, there was really no preparing for it. There were a limited number of places it could be (arms, back, chest), and Whang-od would do nowhere else. In her time she’d learn that some places don’t take well to the ink, or are too painful. And the designs you could pick from were from, interestingly, an anthropology book that examined Kalinga tattooing culture and a massive white board where the designs had been drawn. It wasn’t a formal board in the least, either. Clearly a kid had drawn on it at some point, and that someone had attempted new elaborations on old designs and tried to make totally new ones. Perhaps Grace. One of the girls from the day before showed me a design that Grace had done on her back, which was a beautiful and very modern geometric design.
It was clear that neither Whang-od nor my guide really had the patience for me err’ing and ahh’ing over my decision, however. When I first arrived, I felt certain that I would choose the hawk. A beautiful, simple design that represents sight, and communication between god and the hunter. But after seeing the crab on my trek to the village and seeing the design before my eyes, it felt like the one for me. The symbol represents the traveler and provides protection. And placement on the left side ensures that you will be able to travel more in the future.
The moment I selected it, Whang-od went to work. Using a bamboo stick with a needle or nail (hard to tell, it was covered in ink), and an ink made of charcoal, ash, and other components she immediately went to work on my left arm. It was a dull, easy pain… especially compared to the tattoo I received from the monk in Thailand on my back. I fell into the rhythm easily and I was relieved and so happy to have her use fresh wet wipes on my arm to clear away the blood. I was willing to risk sharing a blood rag with others (which was what had been done in the past here) and had bought wet wipes in case, but it’s clear that certain practices have changed for the better.
Because I had only one small design (which cost 1000 pesos — a markup from a year past) the process was short. I couldn’t tell you how long. Maybe twenty minutes? Time passed both slowly and quickly. She told me my skin takes the ink well so she didn’t have to keep hammering the ink in and went around the design perhaps twice… I chose not to look, because I think it minimizes the pain.
After the tattoo
Once my tattoo was one I let it air out and set. It wasn’t until maybe an hour or two later that I put on an antibacterial gel. But all the while there were trails of blood. It was far, far bloodier than the much larger design on my back. One of the girl’s that I met the day before was already infected (though no one else was). The placement might be part of the reason, as it was lower arm / wrist, which might make it more susceptible to infection since she was sleeping on the floor and it’s harder to keep it from touching something… Or she could have just had a weaker immune system.
And yes… I saw the post about the girl who’s foot got infected and she wound up in the hospital, as well as the post with the girl whose arm got weird gray and fuzzy. I had none of these issues, and I think most won’t. What I got was mostly bruising and scabbing, which comes with the territory.
By day 12, though, the tattoo was for the most part fully healed (though a little itchy at times).
After, my guide took me back to the jump point. From there, I got onto a jeepney with the other guests and rode down the mountain on top. The view and speed made the ride exhilarating. The drop is steep and, of course, the driver is bold… So if you want a memorable return trip, consider it.
Once back, just ask the jeepney driver to drop you off as the bus station and catch the Coda bus back to Quezon city!
Oh and if you do ride on the roof or if you’re out in the sun in general cover your tattoo. This is good tattoo advice in general, but these sort of tattoos are particularly susceptible to fading. You want it to look nice and fresh for as long as possible!