Our journey to meeting Whang Od , also known as Maria Oggay, was several years in the making. I first came to know of Apo Whang Od (pronounced Fang-od) in a YouTube video I saw of tattoo hunter floating around on Facebook around 5 years ago.
Since then, countless visitors from local and foreign land goes thru a pilgrimage in order to see Whang Od. She has been practicing her craft for the past 80 years, this includes mainly marking the headhunters/warriors of the indigenous Butbut tribe. Most mambabatok (traditional tattooist) in the past were men, and female tattoo practitioners like Whang Od, is rare.
She is often referred to as the oldest mambabatok, and the last of her kind. I knew then that I had to meet her, and if given the chance, have the honor of being marked by her hands.
The possibility of meeting Whang Od came when a close friend of ours asked for joiners to be with his team, who is finishing a project in the area. Knowing that this is probably the closest chance we can get to actually see her, we grabbed at the rare lifetime experience.
Our journey started all the way from Makati. Our group met-up near Centris Mall in Quezon city. From there, we traveled all the way up to Buscalan – an almost 10-hour drive from the metro, passing by the Banaue rice terraces. Then having a short stop in Bontoc, where we had our breakfast.
A SCENIC TRIP
Travelling through mountain province to reach Buscalan is one of the most scenic trip you can take in the Philippines. You’ll be rewarded by views of the Cordilleras and the famed Banaue rice terraces. These ancient marvels dates back to 1000 BC and is said to be largely made by hand, created by the ancestors of the indigenous people of the Ifugao. They are referred to as the “Eighth Wonder Of the World” and up to this day, it’s beauty is still well-preserved and is simply a sight to behold.
THE PATH TO WHANG OD
The journey to see Apo Whang-Od is a pilgrimage , people say. Speaking from what we’ve experienced, I say it definitely is. One would need to travel several hours by land, (and/or even by plane) depending on where you’re coming from.
Upon reaching the jump-off point to Brgy. Buscalan, there will be a one-hour hike to reach the quaint village where the once secluded Butbut tribe of the Kalinga used to live in solitude.
Be forewarned. The journey up the mountain to reach the charming village of Buscalan is not a walk in the park. The first half of the trek feels faster because it is mostly a path going down the hill. Then around halfway through the hike, there will be a small waterfall and you will have the option to take a short rest if you want to. Our group chose to trudge on.
The second half of the trek is a different story. It’s an ‘assault’ level in hiking standards, our guide tells us. So bring some water, grab a walking stick or hire a porter- especially if you’re carrying a big pack. Having said that, you should pack light. You’ll regret doing otherwise.
Upon arriving at the top you have already reached the entrance to village of Buscalan. There will be a visitor’s center where you will need to register your group and your individual names, and a ‘number’ for your turn in having your tattoo taken. You can rest here and get your bearings together, especially after that steep hike. Here you can get some refreshments and buy some souvenirs, too.
Since we are staying overnight, we had more time contemplating on which tattoo design to choose, and for some of us, (the question is) if to get a tattoo at all. We were joking around that after what we had just endured (with that ‘sacrificial climb’), one should be inclined to get a tattoo, so as not to let all of that effort of getting there go to waste. In the end (and kidding aside), it’s really a personal decision. Especially since it’s going to be a lifelong commitment on your earthly body.
After a few moment’s rest, we were guided to where we will be staying for the night, at a house of a local family, or a homestay. On the way there, I saw a group of Kalinga women sitting and chatting outside a simple wooden house, and then I saw her- the Apo Whang Od. In the flesh. She’s probably not less than 5 feet tall. She seems to be in a perky mood. They were all smiling and musing at arriving visitors, which is probably a normal sight to them by now.
AMIDST THE TERRACES
I noticed several things in Buscalan. There were a lot of free-roaming livestock. There were chickens, puppies and dogs, and pigs. Yes, pigs. And piglets. Lots of piglets, actually. They all just wander around, not minding- even playing – with each other. We were told that mostly all the meat they consume there are raised from their village. They live in a very sustainable community. Most of the food they produce are consumed by the community and whatever surplus there is, they sell on the lowlands. We also came to learn that they bury their deceased elders underneath their huts. So it’s not a surprise if you see marked graves in their yards or beneath the stilts of their wooden houses.
The house we stayed in is on a higher vantage point and offers a sweet view of rice terraces which one would only normally see from afar when you’re standing on a highway viewpoint or a moving vehicle. They also offer free and unlimited Kalinga brewed-coffee, which was delicious, and this is already included as part of your stay.
Once we got to the homestay, we wasted no time crashing on the hut’s upper-level deck to rest our tired bodies. We spent the next couple of hours chilling, chatting and appreciating the bucolic setting and the beauty of the rice terraces which was right on our faces, up-close and personal. Nothing like the sweet caresses of the fresh, cool, cordillera breeze to sooth the souls of those trying to recover from a 12-hour journey from the city.
After having our lunch, it was time to get our tattoos done. There were already a lot of people lined up. Make sure that you are with your guide so that you get to your turn hassle-free. We first had the signature from Whang-Od then we got the full batok from one of the tribeswomen (also a relative) who learned the art from her, Renalyn.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM A KALINGA TATTOO
Traditional Kalinga tattoos was considered a badge of bravery or heroism, a bodily adoration, a painful rite of passage, a lucky charm against evil forces, a symbol of political & religious association within the community, and a mark of status & beauty.
Whang Od uses the soot from their pottery (for the ink), thorns and a bamboo hammer, for this tribal tattoos, and based from what I’ve experienced, this traditional way of tattooing is more painful than getting it the contemporary way.
If you’re considering getting a batok, make sure that you keep your tattoo clean and moisturized for the next couple of weeks. Healing could take as short as 2 weeks up to a month, depending on the size of your tattoo and your body’s healing ability. According to some blogs I have read, some people even take tetanus shots prior to getting a Kalinga tattoo.
At the end of the first week, my tattoo started to itch because the skin is drying and healing, so something to keep it moisturized would be helpful. As of this writing (10 days), my tattoo is almost completely dried out.
The path going down from Buscalan feels so much easier (and faster) than going up. From Buscalan, our group went to Sagada to spend another night there. On our way home back to Manila, we had a stop-over in Baguio to have an evening meal before heading home.
WHERE TO STAY IN BUSCALAN
You can reach the contact number posted in this photo. Remember, it’s important to get a tour guide before heading out to see Whang Od. There are several tour organizers offering this.
There are several guides online offering complete instructions on how to get to Buscalan and meet Whang Od. The most complete on I’ve seen so far is from the FB group Tattooed by Whang Od. You may add yourself to the group to get information that you need. I have added screen shots here of some of the information you might be interested in, such as how to go to Buscalan, what to prepare and things to keep in mind for your visit.