Into the Land of the Headhunters, Part I: Bontoc to Bugnay Junction

Location: Buscalan Village, Kalinga, The Philippines

I was pretty hungover when I woke up and my throat was all scratchy and dry from karaoking into the early hours of the morning. My head pounded as I showered. Picking between the two tank tops I’d brought to wear became an almost overwhelming task. At breakfast, I stuffed down a huge meal of pata (crispy pork), rice, and broth, hoping to soak up all the alcohol still curdling my stomach. I couldn’t be sick today; there was too much ahead of me. Today was the day that Craig, Tom, and I journeyed to Buscalan Village and met Whang-Od, the last true artist of the mambabatok.

A little background. Mambabatok is a unique art form that has been practiced by the headhunting warriors of the mountainous region of Kalinga for over a thousand years. “Batok” translates from the local dialect to “tattoo” in English. And that’s what these artists do: pass stories on from generation to generation using the skin as a palate. Women are adorned with the diamond patterns of snakeskin to symbolize beauty and the curved, crisscrossed paths of the rice terraces to express fertility. Men receive tattoos from war: one for each enemy killed. Back in the day, warriors would be covered from head to toe in blue-black ink.

A peace pact between the majority of the tribes has stunted the tradition and most of the prominent, tatted up elders have died.Whang-Od, who is 97-years-old, is one of the last of her generation still alive. She was taught the art of the mambabatok, which is passed down from mother to daughter, as a young girl. She herself is covered in tattoos, a living artifact of a dying tradition. Though she is teaching her 19-year-old niece, Grace, the art form, she is technically the last of her lineage and so the last of the mambabatok.

The tattoo designs are simple, but elegant. What I find most impressive is that they’re all free-handed. Whang-Od, like her ancestors, creates her own special concoction of ink from soot and other natural sources. Before she begins a tattoo, she dips a slender blade of grass in the mix and traces out the design on the skin. But there are no measurements beyond what she she feels out, what she decides in that moment. And then she picks up her tools: two bamboo sticks, one with a calamansi (a sour citrus fruit) thorn tied to the end. She dips the thorn in ink and punctures the skin, dot by dot drawing out a permanent picture.

I’d read about Whang-Od and her work online. After learning about the traditions of the mambabatok, I knew that meeting Whang-Od would be my next adventure in the Philippines. I researched how to get to Buscalan Village, where she lived and worked, and found out that it wouldn’t be an easy trip. After Bontoc, the route became a bit treacherous. I hadn’t read any reports where a traveler visited Whang-Od without a local guide by their side.

But Craig, Tom, and I planned on winging it to our destination, with only the notes I’d scribbled in my journal to guide us. Those notes:

Bus Info:

  • Behind Center Mall @ 7AM

    • To Bontoc Dangwa Terminal (GL Bus)

    • 5-6 Hours

  • 2hr jeepney ride to Tabuk but get off at Bugnay Junction

  • 2hr hike to Buscalan Village

  • Guide (?)

We hadn’t looked up any guides, only made up our mind to go to Buscalan Village the afternoon before we took off from Baguio City to Bontoc. But now here we were, day-packs slung over our shoulders, walking down main street in Bontoc, looking for the jeepney (the main public transportation system in the Philippines; much like a safari bus except painted with wild murals on the outside) headed to Tabuk.

When we asked around the bus station, we were told that there was only one daily jeepney to Tabuk, and it left at 9AM in the morning. It was 9:11AM and our ride was long gone. Craig, Tom, and I were at a loss. No other jeepneys even headed in the general direction we needed to go and there was no way we could walk the distance. Craig began to proposition locals, asking how much it would cost for someone to drive us up to Bugnay Junction.

Finally, we found a trike driver who was willing to do the job for 1200 pesos (about $75 total). It was a lot of money, but we didn’t have a lot of options. All three of us had flights to catch out of Manila within a few days. The driver led us to his little metal mobile, a small steel box attached to a motorbike with a plastic windshield across the front. He’d named it Gladys Kristine and decorated it with a portrait of Che Guevara. Craig hopped on the back of the bike behind the driver, Tom sat on the seat in the sidecar, which was built for a single rider, and I planted myself on the floor of the car, my feet dangling off the side. And we took off.

The trike turned out to be a brilliant stroke of luck; we drove through the curving ridges more slowly than a jeepney would and I had the perfect view of the sloping valleys and carved out rice terraces from my spot on the floor. It was breathtaking; the green peaks of the mountains stretched from the sky and framed the fat, brown river below. Tin rooftops dotted the view, glittering under the sun. We snaked around and around, slowly heading deeper and higher into the ranges. I could see that the accounts I’d read online weren’t exaggerating about the danger; we passed multiple “CAUTION: FALLING ROCKS” signs, swerved around resting cows, and zigzagged through paths where boulders had fallen and broken across the road. All of this overhanging a sharp cliff with a hundred-and-something foot drop.