A Magical Thai Tattoo

A girl friend and I are walking around a suburban looking neighborhood in Chiang Mai, where our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off about thirty minutes prior. We have been wandering around lost, up and down each street, unable to find anything that looks like it could be the place where we are trying to go. Disappointed, we begin to mentally give up and start wondering how we are ever going to find a tuk-tuk to drive us back to our hotel.

If you haven’t noticed yet, most of my travel stories seem to involve a similar version of this situation. Wandering around lost in a foreign country. Walking in circles. Finally thinking I am on the right track, only to pass the same building for the four hundredth time. A sense of defeat filling my soul as I sit down on the curb and pout about it for a moment. Then out of no where, like clockwork, a random stranger boy usually appears and whispers, “Psst. Follow me.” Which at that point, I gladly do, because what other choice do I have. I mean I guess I do have other, safer choices, but the whole, “Am I going to get robbed/kidnapped or not” adrenaline rush seems to make the experience more exciting. Kidding. But really. I actually do usually decide to follow this stranger boy because at least there is a chance he will lead me to my destination. And I obviously cannot find it on my own.


So a few months prior to getting lost here in Chaing Mai, a friend and I had decided to take a trip to Thailand together. It was the first time either of us had been to Asia so we wanted to do something special to commemorate this milestone in our lives. After some researching, we found an article about traditional “magical Thai tattoos”. What better way to remember our first trip to Asia than to have it branded on us forever?

This magical tattoo is more formally known as a Sak Yant and involves the tattooing of sacred geometrical designs and ancient text on the skin by Buddhist monks or other holy men. A sharpened needle is screwed into the end of a bamboo stick, dipped into ink, and then basically hammered into your skin. These tattoos represent customized magical and spiritual reminders and have become known in the Thai culture as a way to provide both protection and good luck to those who wear them.

It takes years of training to become a Sak Yant practitioner (often known as an “Ajarn”, or learned master) and an in depth study of the magical arts is required before you can begin tattooing. Throughout their lives, these masters must practice meditation techniques to help them harness the magic that is used in this sacred blessing, enabling them to transfer it to those they are tattooing. The years of study involved allow the Sak Yant master to customize each design and sacred blessing specifically for each individual.


So yesterday we contacted an Ajarn and told him we would be coming to see him. We had both selected to receive the most common design, the Hah Taew, which is a five row yantra (basically lines of text that can be chanted during worship or meditation). I decided to get mine in one long line down my spine and she went with the more common five line sequence on her shoulder blade. This design is said to encompass every aspect of one’s life. Each of the five lines representing a different area, protecting from unwanted spirits, bad fortune, and black magic, while bringing good fortune and success.

The Ajarn agreed to these designs for each of us, confirmed we could come in the following day, and sent us his address. Which catches you up to why we are lost in this random neighborhood. So here we are. Right then, as if on cue, we hear a stranger boy’s voice whisper from the abyss. “Psst. Follow me.”

Startled, we look up and see a man peaking his head around from the side of a house. Where did he even come from? And how did he know where we were going? Regardless, we head in his direction and he points to a house a few down from where he is standing. “There.” We look at each other. Sure, okay, why not.

We walk around to the back of what looks to be a one bedroom house and open the sliding glass door in front of us. We step into a large open room with dozens of beautiful Buddha statues on the far end. Inside sit about seven people. In front of them is the Ajarn master with a man in front of him, sitting with his legs crossed. The man is facing us, so we can’t see the tattoo being done on him but his overall demeanor is pretty calm. So calm, it is as if he barely notices the long, sharpened bamboo needle being repeatedly jabbed into his back.


We take a seat amongst the others and watch. When the tattoo is finished, the Ajarn master turns the guy around and starts chanting, performing some sort of blessing on him. We can now see this guy’s back and what is strange is that there is no tattoo at all. Just a bunch of red dots where the needle punctured his skin. We are a little concerned but then realize he had been using clear ink. I remember reading that these tattoos are received by many locals for the sole purpose of their meaning. I think this is pretty sweet because it shows how much they believe in their magical powers and aren’t just getting it because the ink looks cool.

The man stands up, pins some bills on the donation tree, and walks out of the house. The Ajarn master then looks over at me, directly into my eyes, and nods for me to come forward. Welp, I guess I am next.


I walk over and show him the photo I had sent the day before of the placement I want (down my spine) and in a nervous small voice, ask if he could please use a new needle (I had heard that they don’t always change the needle and wanted to be somewhat safe). He looks at me blankly so I attempt to say this in a few different ways to try to get him to understand my English. He finally seems to understand as he nods and reaches for a new needle. I let out a sign of relief but this feeling quickly fades as I watch him pour more ink into a bowl he has obviously already used for someone else before me. Before I can object, he dips my needle in the bowl and is ready to begin. Hmmm. At least the needle is new. (Don’t worry, I have been tested for HIV and everything else since and luckily am okay.)

He motions for me to sit facing away from him, with my legs crossed, and to lean forward, so that my back is curved, vulnerable and exposed for him to jab the needle directly into my spine. I am nervous but that quickly dissipates as I remember how calm the other guy’s face had looked when we walked in. This thought quickly reassures me that this can’t hurt all that much. Right? 


Ummm, not at all. The first time the needle hits my spine, it immediately sends an excruciating sharp pain down through my body that is unlike anything I have ever experienced in my entire life. Did I just yell out loud? What the fuck was I thinking? Why would I ever choose my spine for this kind of tattoo? It hadn’t even crossed my mind that this would physically hurt me. Can I ask him to stop? What if I get paralyzed from the needle going too far into my spine? It sure feels like he is pounding it in pretty dang hard. Why so hard, dude?

The room around me is calm and quiet with excited people happily anticipating their turn. While this scene of serenity is taking place around me, screams are filling my head so loudly that I wonder if anyone in the room can hear them. A needle is being hammered into my back. Over and over and over. I began to pray to the Universe asking for help in getting through this. Pulling my palms together as I pray. Chanting anything and everything I can think of to possibly take this pain away from me. I close my eyes and squeeze a pillow that is on the floor in front of me. Clenching so tight that my knuckles turn white. I have to remind myself to breathe.

I need to open my eyes so that I don’t get lost in this pain. I manage to slowly lift my head up a few inches and look at my friend who is sitting happily with the others in front of me. She looks directly at me smiling, giving me the thumbs up sign as if she is excited for my current situation. I wonder if she can see the look of terror on my face. I don’t want to scare her since she hasn’t gone yet, so let out the best half smile I can and drop my head back down to look at the floor. The smile immediately leaving my face as I close my eyes again and feel my jaw clenching tight. Finally, after what I guess to be about fifteen minutes, he taps me in the back signifying that he is finished. Thank you, thank you.


Wow, okay. That wasn’t so bad. I mean I survived, right? I stand up and return to my seat on the floor with the others, and let out an audible sigh of relief. My friend is excited for her turn and as she stands up, asks me how it was. Hmmm, it is nothing you can’t handle for fifteen minutes. She looks confused and says fifteen minutes? Your tattoo took over an hour. What. I guess I blacked out from the pain. Maybe the Universe really is listening.

When my friend is finished receiving hers, we both take a photo with the Ajarn master and open the sliding door to leave. A random guy is standing there, apparently waiting for us on his scooter. Feeling all protected and shit with our new tattoos, we jump right on, not thinking twice about where he came from or how he knows where we want to go.

He drives us a few miles to the main road, stops, and motions for us to get off the bike. We start walking down the road, not knowing where we are headed, but also not caring in the slightest. The sun is shining down and now that the experience is over, we feel a new sense of confidence having just survived. Our tattoos also look pretty darn cool.


No longer in the midst of the pain, I realize at that moment that the whole experience wasn’t actually horrible at all. It was mentally empowering. And actually incredibly spiritual. I feel like I have grown closer with myself because I went through it and survived. If I could get through that, I am pretty sure I can endure and overcome anything that is thrown my way.

I think this can be applied to many situations. We can be in the middle of something that brings us great pain. Whether it be heartbreak or anything else that creates some sort of turmoil in our lives. During it, we become focused on and even obsessed with the pain we are feeling and maybe even angry at what we think is causing it. I certainly wasn’t happy with the Ajarn master as he was stabbing the needle into my back. Even though I willingly chose to be there. I didn’t think I would make it through. But now here I am walking in the sunlight. With the pain only a memory in the past.

This experience taught me so much about the power of the mind. And how important it is to remember that nothing you are going through will last forever, unless you choose to stay stuck there. Being branded on my body, this tattoo not only protects me in life and as I travel, but also serves as a reminder that I can make it through anything, no matter how painful. What a powerful way to remember my first trip abroad and to take with me for the rest of my journey in life.

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.

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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!