A Tribal Tattoo From Whang Od

A Living Legend

Whang Od is a legend in the tattoo world. I originally heard about her when I went on a date one Friday night to the Los Angeles History Museum (First Fridays there are actually a blast) and it just so happened that their Tattoo exhibit was going on. There was a section dedicated to traditional types of tattooing and a video featuring Whang Od. Born February 17, 1917, Whang Od is a Filipina tattoo artist from Buscalan, Tiglayan, Kalinga, Philippines. She is often described as the “last” and oldest mambabatok (traditional Kalinga tatooist). She has been tattooing headhunters and women of the indigenous people of Butbut in Buscalan, Kalinga since she was 15 years old. Bubut warriors used to earn tattoos through protecting villages or killing enemies. Although these warriors no longer exist, Whang-Od continues the tradition, tattooing tourists who make the trek to her village in the hills of Buscalan. 

The village isn’t exactly easy to get to, as you have to take a 10 hour bus ride north from Manila, followed by an hour long jeepney ride deep into the mountains. Then, you still have an intense one hour hike waiting for you, down into a deep valley and back up a steep hill where you will finally arrive in the small village of Buscalan. If you know me, you know that this instantly made me super excited, as I love off the beaten path adventures like this, as well as tattoos. I was immediately hooked. I told my date, “I am totally going to make that trek and meet her one day.” I was a little unsure if I actually would though as the exhibit said they were unsure of her exact age and I wasn’t sure when I would be able to take my next vacation.


Fast forward about 6 months to me quitting my job to travel the world and booking the cheapest flight to Asia, $230 for a one way ticket to the Philippines. Immediately after I booked my ticket, I remembered – Whang Od! I had to find her!

After some research, I found out that in order to get to the village, you need to have a tour guide (a local from the village) for at least one day and then you will stay at their house for your remaining time there. I decided to stay for 5 days. After all, I want to experience life as a local as well (not only get a tattoo). 

After the 10 hour overnight bus ride, I had finally reached the small city of Bontoc. From there I hopped on a Jeepney and off we went for an hour long trek on a road that hugged the very edge of the mountains, literally. Slightly scary at first but quickly forgotten as the beauty surrounding you is incredible. (I highly recommend riding on top of the jeepney if you are brave enough, but definitely beware of motion sickness) You are surrounded by rice terraces, mountains and a river running through it all. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

After arriving at the bus stop that the locals told me to get off at, there was a guy on a motorbike waiting to take me to the beginning of the path that leads to the village. We rode even higher into the mountains where Gloryahe, my guide, was waiting for me with the prettiest smile I have ever seen. Are you ready for the hike? It can’t be that bad. Sure.


I followed Gloryahe on a path around the mountain and then all the way down to the bottom of the valley where the water was running through the hills. We were heading downhill. Someone was carrying my bags for me. Gloria was smiling. All while I was sweating all the way through my clothes. Do you want to stop and take a break, she asked? Uhh yes. What is wrong with me. After 30 minutes, we reached the bottom and started the trek all the way back up the other side. As we stopped about 5 (or 6) times for me to catch my breath, older women and children, carrying chickens, huge bags of rice, and other ridiculously heavy things, continued to pass me by. How do they do this? (I still have no idea) Finally, we reached Buscalan. The trek was well worth it. The view was so incredibly beautiful! Gloria took me to her cousin’s house where we would be staying, poured me some famous Kalinga coffee (the best), and introduced me to the family.

Want to go see Whang Od? Already? Yes, sure! That is why I came here, right? Gloryahe explained that we should go early before the other tourists all got to town. Sounds good to me. I followed her on the concrete path around the village through front porches, stepping over piglets, puppies, and chickens along the way. We finally reached Whang Od, who was outside squatted down, tattooing another visitor. There is a sort of feeling you get when you see someone in person for the first time and I definitely had that feeling. And she was even more beautiful in person.


Traditional Kalinga tattoos are done with a thorn (which I picked out myself), soot, and a bamboo hammer. These days, Whang Od generally does her signature tattoo (three dots) due to her age, and the large number of tourists she tattoos on a daily basis. She asked where I would like it and I picked my wrist. She used one finger to scoop up the soot (the ink) and smear it on the edge of the thorn. She then began hammering the thorn into my wrist until all three dots here finished. I paid her about 100 pesos (about $1.50 USD), took a photo with her, and thanked her.

To keep the traditional alive, Whang Od has passed along this art form to her two grandneices, Grace and Ilyang, who currently work along side her. Since I was there anyways, I decided to get one from Ilyang as well. She asked me to select which tattoo I wanted from the board. I chose the compass. She chose a thorn to use and got started, tapping the tattoo into my upper back. After about 5 minutes, she was finished. I paid her 500 pesos and followed Gloryahe back to the homestay. It all happened so fast.

IMG_1618 (1)
Kalinga Compass Tattoo

Staying in the Buscalan for the next 5 days, I learned that many others in the village have taken on this practice as well. Throughout the village you can hear a soundtrack of the relaxing tapping noise made from bamboo hammers. Most of the locals have tattoos as well. For men, they were traditionally a sign of power, wealth, and great strength. For women, they are a symbol of beauty. If I stay here too long I have a feeling I will get more and more beautiful as these tattoos are addictive!  Tattoo artists from all over come to visit Whang Od. I ended up getting two more tattoos from an artist who was staying at the homestay with me. (I highly recommend looking her up if you are in the Manila area)


This was an experience I will never forget and highly recommend visiting Buscalan whether you want a tattoo or not. Due to the popularity of Whang Od in recent years, this village receives an increasing number of visitors each day, especially on the weekends. If visiting, it is highly recommended to stay for at least a few days to spend time with the locals and explore the village as well! Buscalan is a magical place filled with some of the nicest people I have ever met.  If you visit, please be respectful of Whang Od and the Buscalan village in general. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.


Mountain Province


  • Buscalan is located in the northern mountain region of the Philippines, about 10 hours north of Manila

Getting There: Book an overnight bus from Manila to Bontoc. From the bus station, ask someone to point you in the direction of the jeepney pickup point. The jeepney will take you to the turning point where your host will arrange for someone to meet you.


Marina’s Homestay: Must book tour guide for at least one day and then pay for lodging separately. Your tour guide will help you get to the village and take you to Whang Od for a tattoo. Lodging cost includes unlimited Kalinga coffee and rice. The sweetest family ever, I was super sad to leave them and hope to go back to visit them again soon!

A Tale of Two Babas

While in North Goa, after a few days of trance parties, we decided to have a much needed beach day. Within our first few steps on the beach, a local gentleman escorted us to some lounge chairs with umbrellas to sit for entire day, a steal for only $0.80 USD. Perfect. As we sat down, he pointed toward the jungle behind us and said “Take a path 25 minutes into the jungle to find the baba under the banyan tree. Sit and have a smoke with him.” And with that he walked away. A baba under a banyan tree? No idea what that means but I am totally down. So we dropped our towels on our lounge chairs and headed into the jungle.


baba number one

A few steps into the jungle, it already feels like we are worlds away from the beach.  The music and people are muted in the background and we are now in a tranquil green land, breathing in crisp, cool air. I look to my left and see a huge black snake circling a branch. Really wish I didn’t see that, but I remain equanimous. Vipassana must be paying off. We continue walking and see a few tie dye sheets hanging up amongst the trees, a man with a long white beard sitting next to them under a tree. This isn’t a banyan but is this the baba? Hello, baba? He says “Yes, come. Welcome.” And motions for us to sit in a circle with him on the ground.

We sit down and he asks us all where we are from. We ask him how long he has lived here in the jungle. He says 35 years, 25 under then banyan tree and 10 under this tree right here. We ask him why he moved and he said the energy changed. We asked why, he answered, “I have no idea.” This answer instantly makes me enjoy people as other types of people often make up answers just to have them. We talk about Shiva and then God and he starts packing a chillum with tobacco mixed with hash. He takes a hefty hit and blows all of the smoke out of his nose. He instructs us to do the same and says “This high is for the head, not the body.” As we pass it around, he explains how many people are mistaken that Shiva is God. Shiva is Father. And God is not someone but God is all of us. We are all God. Inside us and around us. That is God. Baba gets it. 

Making the trek in the jungle to find baba.

We ask how old he is and he says he is 18. We ask him if we can leave a donation and he says he has no need for money. To just bring him food or fruits next time. Noted. He says banyan tree is about 5 minutes farther into the jungle. We thank him and head that way.

Banyan Tree
Baba’s banyan tree


We arrive at the beautiful banyan tree to find a group of about 10 people sitting in a circle around a fire sipping tea. At the head of the circle is a ripped Russian dude with his shirt off who looks like he may have won a few UFC championship belts in his day. Next to him, a tiny local guy with a huge smile on his face. On the other side of the Russian, a man sitting down with one leg behind his head.We soon learn this is Baba. He starts singing and looking at all of us with a smile on his face. They pack a chillum and yell “Boom Bholenat” to honor Shiva, and with a deeper meaning of One Love, and pass it around the entire circle. He asks me if I want to light the next one (an honor). Yes, of course. I light it, we all yell “Boom Bholenat” and pass it around.

Some Russian ladies walk up to the circle extremely happy and the whole vibe raises a notch. They pull out chocolates and breads for Baba, go hug him and sit down next to him, chatting away. What a diverse group of individuals all gathered here under the banyan tree. We sit there, chill, and take it all in for about 20 minutes. We then get up, leave a donation on the plate in front of Baba (50 rupees each we decided), and make the trek back down to the beach. We exit the jungle back to civilization. What just happened? Was it all a dream? Later in town, I pass one of the guys who was in the circle with us and he winks at me as we go our separate ways.

Whale Sharks in Mexico

I absolutely love the ocean and need to be near it. But the truth is, it completely terrifies me. It is massive, full of life that I know nothing about, and can easily push you down on your ass whenever you start to think you are more powerful than it. (Also what I love about it.) I am the type of person who is drawn to things that scare me. It is thrilling to be uncomfortable and to challenge myself to see what fears I can overcome. Therefore, I decided to try and get over my fear of the ocean by swimming in it with the largest fish in the sea. Oh yea, they also happen to be sharks.

I found a place in Mexico called Isla Holbox, which is a popular destination for swimming with whale sharks. Before I could talk myself out of it, I asked off of work, booked my flight, and paid for the whale shark excursion all within a matter of minutes (I am rather impulsive at times) No turning back now.

If you could look at my Google history the week before I left, you would see a LOT of the following. Do whale sharks hang out with great whites? Do great white sharks and whale sharks swim in the same areas? Has a whale shark ever hurt a human? Even on accident? Then, I stumbled on a kindergarten class page where a 5 year old boy drew a photo of a whale shark and wrote about how much he loved them. I read his whole post about how sweet and gentle they are, like elephants of the sea. I just so happened to love elephants and if this little boy trusts whale sharks, I will too. Now I was actually excited.

1, 2, 3, GO.

It is my third day  in Isla Holbox (which is a really chill place) and the time has come to go face my fear. They give me my snorkel gear and I get on the boat with about 10 others who are also visiting for the same reason. The boat ride is about 2 hours but luckily, I am too worried about my stomach hurting and there being no bathroom on the boat, for me to worry about what I am about to do. I also have never snorkeled before and have no idea how to breathe through the tube. These are my two main concerns as we start to enter calm, glassy water with no land in site.

Up ahead, we see some other boats circling a certain area.  We head in that direction, as this is where the whale sharks must be. Our instructor asks who wants to go first. My hand goes up, probably because I am blacked out from fear and have no idea what I am doing. The main thing he tells us is to make sure not to touch them and to jump in near their head and then swim along side of them, following them. Okay, but how do I breathe through this mask? I tell him I don’t know how to use this and he says he will be right next to me to help if I need it. It is two at a time so another girl and I pair up and sit on the side of the boat, waiting for his cue.

He points out a whale shark and says okay when I count to 3 jump in. What? This is happening way too fast. “1, 2, 3, Go!” We jump in and I find myself immediately grabbing for his hand (I hope this is what he meant by “here to help”) and I put my head under water.


Before this trip, I watched a video of this girl swimming elegantly alongside these beautiful creatures. I thought to myself, I am easily going to get a shot like that. Fast forward to the present moment. As I put my head under the water, the whale shark’s mouth is about 1 inch under my feet. Shit, I need to get out of the way. Good thing I am holding the guide’s hand. He pulls me away a bit and then we swim alongside of it for about 15 seconds before it is gone.

Well, the only video I got there was a bunch of commotion of me jumping in the water, seeing the whale shark head and then just the camera shaking with no shark in site as I try to steady myself away from it. This is actually pretty comical if you ever get the chance to watch it. 

Our turn is over for now. We let everyone else in the group go and we get to go again. This time, I didn’t hold the guide’s hand (I promise!) and actually was able to swim along side of it and follow along without getting scared. While it all happened pretty fast, there were a few moments where I was just swimming there under the water, thinking wow. These sharks are not even fazed by us. They just continue along opening and closing their incredibly large mouths and swimming slowly ahead. What an amazing experience that I highly recommend.


While I can’t say that my fear of the ocean is completely gone, I also must say that I don’t necessarily want it to be. The reason I love the ocean is because it makes me feel small. It reminds me that whatever I have going on in my head or whatever problems I am currently facing, are the size of an ant compared to the world around me. It is incredibly humbling. I think this experience strengthened that perspective even more. It also showed me how I was so scared of something (a whale shark) that actually doesn’t even care about me or seem to notice I exist. Whale sharks are super sweet and I wasted too much time being scared of them. Isn’t this true with so many of our fears?



  • Holbox is an island on the north coast of the Yucatan penninsula in Mexico


  • Whale shark season is mid-May to mid-Sept
  • Packages start at $150 per person
  • Contact: VIP Holbox, info@vipholbox.com

VIP Holbox website

The Truth About Traveling Solo


Traveling solo can be life changing. It builds your confidence in so many ways. But what not many travelers or travel bloggers tell you is that it can be really fucking hard. I used to take solo weekend trips to Mexico all of the time. I would think things like, How easy is this? I am a pro. I am so confident. Traveling with someone else? How lame!

Africa, alone? Ummm obviously.

Flash forward to me landing in Moshi, Tanzania. I step off the taxi into the town. What an amazing day! Just let me find my hostel. Oh, my phone doesn’t work here. Whoops, I should have checked that. Oh well, let me ask someone. “Hello, do you know where this hostel is?”  Looks of confusion followed with me staring at their back as they walk away. Beads of sweat rolling down my forehead. A 15 kg backpack on my back. Thunder from above. Literally, it starts pouring. Oh, delightful. Maybe I can find it myself. 

After walking around for over an hour, asking multiple people for directions, even hotel receptionists who point me in different directions. I even give my phone to a few people to show them the hostel phone number and ask them call on their phone. No luck. No one understands. I sit down on the curb of the corner I have passed 10 times already and start crying. I can’t do this anymore. I am never going to find my hostel. It is hot. It is raining. No one speaks English. No one cares about helping me. Why didn’t I figure this out beforehand. What am I supposed to do? I can’t find anywhere to even put my bag while I walk around. 

I sit and cry for about 5 minutes. I go through the cycle in my head of feeling sorry for myself and then talking myself out of it. You can do this Jill. Get it out but then stop crying. It won’t help your cause. Get up. Start over. People are here to help you. It will all work out.

I finally get up and ask a woman who is crossing the street. She doesn’t speak English or understand what I am trying to ask. I walk over to a boy sitting on the side of the road texting. I show him the name of my hostel. He says, “Yes, follow me.” We walk for about 15 to 20 minutes. I start to wonder where he is taking me and if he understands where I was trying to go. I am desperate. Am I being dumb? Is he taking me to an alley somewhere to rob me? At this point, would I even care if someone stole all of my belongings so that I didn’t have to carry them around anymore? I keep walking. I continue to follow him to wherever he is leading me. This is not the way that any of the hotels pointed me. But I keep going.

A few minutes later, he says, “Here!” and points. Huh? I look up and there is a small sign with my hostel’s name. He presses a button and the door opens.

I made it. He follows me in. I give him the only shillings I have on me, which amount to around $1. A small price to pay to someone for saving my life. 

I check in and go upstairs to the rooftop balcony. I order food and a Kilimanjaro beer while going over the chain of events that led me here. I come to the following conclusions.

Traveling alone can be hard. But it also forces you to put your life in the hands of the locals, communicate with them and rely on other human beings for help. Asking others for help is something that has always been hard for me. And when you are in situations like this, you are forced to give all of your trust to another human being. Also hard for me.

Well, it looks like this experience was just what I needed. It showed me where I needed to grow and provided me with excellent opportunities to do so. In my first 2 hours in Africa, I was already becoming a more enlightened person. Thank you, Universe. Maybe go a little easier on me next time? Nah.