“Are you nervous?” she asked.
“Yes I am very nervous, it’s my first time”. I replied.
I returned the same question “what about you, are you nervous?”
“I am very nervous that it will hurt, it is also my first time” she said in a concerned voice.
“We will give each other support” I added looking into her eyes with kindness.
And then the real questions that I was afraid of began… “Are you a Buddhist?” she asked warily. She probably wanted to know if I had the right intentions for being there.
“I am not a Buddhist but I believe in Buddhist philosophy” I replied confidently.
“Do you believe in the magic of the tattoo?” she asked again.
I wanted to answer correctly. I wanted to show respect for the tradition but I wasn’t necessarily attached to all of the superstitious beliefs that it carried. This was obviously a very important day for them in a very religious sort of way. For me it was also important but in an adventurous sort of way. I was getting a much desired souvenir of my solo round-the-world trip.
“I believe everything is possible” I replied.
She smiled and I smiled back, it seemed she was satisfied with my answer and I had her approval to be there.
After the friendly interrogation the woman and her family had warmed up to me. I had new friends and would not be going through this experience completely alone. I was happy. I was also relieved to not be the first one in line so I could watch the process and people’s reactions to the pain as they began to be marked. I wondered how it would feel against my own body as I awaited my turn. I noticed the monk was switching from the bamboo needle to the machine depending on whose turn it was. I later found out that he’d recently began using the machine to help speed things up as he’d become very popular. I watched him use it on younger women (in their 20’s) and men. The traditional bamboo needle was used on the married women (30’s to 50’s) who were marked with invisible palm oils. Apparently there is still a stigma on women getting tattooed in Thai society. I had no idea if he would use the bamboo or the machine on me, a non-Thai woman who looked to be well over 30.
For years I had wanted to get a tattoo but not just any tattoo, I wanted it to be special. I thought that it would be great to get it done during my travels so that it would remind me of my solo journey around the world. I gave some thought to a couple of different symbols and the different places where I could have them placed on my body. I just wasn’t quite sure when and where it would all happen. One day, while reading one of my favorite travel blogs (in preparation for my trip), I chanced upon a story on Sak Yant. I became so interested in this ancient art that I continued to search more into the topic and was quickly convinced that this was the type of tattoo I wanted to get.
Sak Yant is a form of tattooing practiced in South East Asia, mostly in Thailand and Cambodia. Sak means to tap or tattoo in Thai and Yant is how the Thai refer to the Sanskrit word Yantra; which is a geometric design that is used as a tool in concentration or meditation. Sak Yant is a 2000+ year old ancient magical practice done by some Buddhist monks who become Ajarns- masters in the tradition of Sak Yant- and who do the ritual in specific temples in Thailand. The tattoo is traditionally done using a sharp bamboo needle and a special ink recipe that is said to contain snake venom, charcoal, palm oil and other unknown ingredients. Apparently the Ajarn keeps the exact recipe mix a secret. The Ajarn will decide what symbol and where to tattoo it on the person’s body based on a quick reading of the person. If you were to do a private ceremony, then the Ajarn would do it based on whatever he believes you need after you share your personal story with him. Lucky for me it seemed that he always chose the back first. The tattoo images are based on Buddhist, Animist and Brahman beliefs. These tattoos are believed to give the wearer luck, strength and protection from evil. In ancient times they were given to warriors to protect them in battles. Nowadays they are sought by true believers but have also become popular with tourists who try to get them in tattoo parlors in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. These tend to be conveniently located near bars where people end up after a night of drinking. This to me does not seem to be the true practice, but to each their own.
I decided that if I was going to go through with this then I wanted to follow the tradition as legitimately as possible. I would find one of these Ajarns that carried on the ancient tradition in the country. I learned about Wat Bang Phra a temple that only focuses on this special practice and where Thai believers go to get theirs done. The main Sak Yant Ajarn at the temple is Master Luang Pi Nunn. He gives over forty tattoos a day everyday.
After about an hour of waiting, my turn came up. I slid myself across the floor over to the monk while keeping a kneeling pose. I understood that as a woman I could not look at him in the eyes or talk to him. I pressed my hands together against my chest in prayer mudra and brought them up to my forehead while respectfully bowing down to the monk. I was following what everyone else had done prior to me. I proceeded to sit in front of the monk giving him my back. He had other plans and wanted me to sit with my left side facing him but since he could not touch me he grabbed a marker and began poking me to make me rotate. I was so nervous I barely knew what to do but his two assistants helped me get in the right position. It was a very awkward moment to say the least. Everyone in the room seemed curious to see if the foreigner would follow all protocols correctly. I leaned over and clutched the big pillow provided as the assistants held my neck down and pulled the skin on my upper back tightly with their hands. Master Luang Pi Nunn turned on the machine and I braced myself for the pain that was about to be inflected upon my flesh. I took a deep breath and tried to imagine being on a nice beach but my effort was futile, the horrible pain quickly destroyed the mental image and brought me back to reality. The monk used a piece of cloth to separate his hand from my skin to avoid any touching.
As previously explained, the Ajarn picks the symbol and where he wants to place it on your body. He will usually start with your back. There are many symbols to choose from and they may make a few additions of their own. I read somewhere that they will even distort letters or leave out consonants on purpose to make the image hard to copy. Not sure if this is entirely true but I know there are a lot of fake or “unofficial” Sak Yant Ajarns in Thailand, I assume like the ones found in the shops near the bars. Once the Ajarn finishes, he gives a blessing and blows air onto the tattoo to bestow the magical powers onto it. Unfortunately I was not able to ask the Ajarn about what he had given me but based on some research, I believe I received the symbol known as the Hah Taew shown on this photo:
The possible meaning behind these five lines based on research:
3. The third row protects you from the use of black magic and anyone who tries to put a curse on you.
4. The fourth row energizes your good luck, success and fortune in your future ambitions and lifestyle.
5. The fifth row is to gain charisma and attraction to the opposite sex. It’s also a boost to the fourth row.
Getting my first tattoo turned out to be more than expected. It gave me a glimpse of a rather esoteric South East Asian tradition. It allowed me to experience honest Thai hospitality. I felt welcomed by the Sak Yant believers that I met at the temple who allowed me to join them in their world even if just for a moment. It all reminded me of what travel is about- learning from others and experiencing cultures that are so different from our own. It was a great experience that I will cherish every time I look at my back in the mirror.
A VERY SPECIAL THANK YOU to Ian Ord (@WSETravel) from Wheresidewalksend who gave me the confidence, inspiration, and guidance to get my first Sak Yant tattoo. I hope to join him on one of his tours in the near future to get my tattoo blessed again and get a second one.
I recently attended a presentation with Ian Ord who explained all about this wonderful tradition thoroughly. I realize now that I missed out on a lot of the cultural learnings because I did not have a guide with me, and because there was no time to speak to the Ajarn about anything that was going on in my life at the time. Instead of getting a tattoo specifically made for my situation, I got a generic one that most women receive when they join big crowds at temples and the Ajarn is unable to give personalized attention to anyone.
I will definitely seek the guidance from Ian and WSE Travel when I am ready to get my second Sak Yant.