As I sit in this temple in silence I keep thinking that I must be crazy. I took an hour bus ride and then hopped on the back of some guy’s motorcycle for another half hour to reach this place. And here I am waiting with 40 Thai people to get a magic tattoo from a monk. After about an hour of waiting, my turn came up and I had to approach the monk by sliding over on my knees. I pressed my hands together, bowed down and brought them up to my forehead, as a sign of respect.
I positioned myself in front of the monk, giving him my back. He is not allowed to touch women but he wanted me to sit with my left side facing him so he grabbed a marker and began poking me to make me move. I was so nervous I barely knew what to do but his two assistants helped me get in the right position. It was awkward! I proceeded to squeeze-hug the big pillow that was provided as the assistants held my neck down and pulled the skin on my upper back tightly. The monk turned on his machine and I braced myself for the pain that was about to be inflected upon my body. I took a deep breath and tried to imagine being on a nice beach but it did not work, the horrible pain quickly brought me back to reality. The monk used a piece of cloth to separate his hand from my skin to avoid touching me.
There was a sign right next to the monk that read “no photographs” but I was able to sneak in a few:
here is the first lady getting the tattoo, this is how I had to sit as well, hard to see the monk, the ray of light is right on his head.
For a while now I have thought about getting a tattoo. I wanted it to be special and thought that it would be great to get it done during my travels so that it would remind me of this journey. I had thought about a couple of symbols that I could get and where I would get them on my body. I just wasn’t quite sure when and where it would all take place. While reading my usual and favorite travel blogs, I ran into a story about 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 that I wanted. Sak Yant is a form of tattooing practiced in South East Asia, mostly in Thailand. Sak is the word in Thai for tattoo 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 an ancient magical practice done by some Buddhist monks in some specific temples. 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 who knows what else. Apparently the monk keeps the exact mix a secret. The monk will decide what image he will tattoo and where on your body he will do it. Luckily he usually chooses the back. 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 it has become a common practice and you find shops all over Thailand offering them. If I was to do this I didn’t want to do it at some shop in Bangkok or Chiang Mai, I wanted it to be done at one of the special temples known for the practice and where Thai believers still go to get it done.
I learned about Wat Bang Phra; which concentrates on this special practice ever since the temple was built. The main Sak Yant monk here is Master Luang Pi Nunn who apparently is very popular and gives over 40 of these everyday. It is all quite interesting, spiritual, beautiful, strange and superstitious all at the same time and I definitely wanted to experience it!
Wat bang phra
So the whole experience begins with getting there; which is rather easy if you follow directions well. I took my directions from a great travel page that I recommend: www.wheresidewalksend.com. Once you manage to arrive you head to the back of the complex where you will see the small temple and a table just outside where you will find someone selling offerings. You are expected to buy an offering containing a pack of cigarettes, orchids and incense to give to the temple. The cost was 75 baht; which is approximately US$2.
Once you enter the temple you go to the room where everyone else is waiting. You place your offering plus an additional money donation inside a bowl in the middle of the floor. The Thai people were offering 20 baht so I left 40 baht just to be safe.
the lady selling the offering
the entrance to the small temple where the monk gives the tattoos with all the visitors’ shoes outside
When I arrived I was #10 in line and the room quickly filled up with about 30 more people. There was a family (mother, husband and their two sons, and a friend), and two other groups of friends waiting in front of me. I was definitely happy to not be the first one in line so I could watch the process and people’s reactions to the pain as I waited my turn. One of the families was quickly interested in me since I was the only foreigner there. The ladies were feeling nervous as this was to be their first tattoo; we quickly bonded over this. They asked me a few things to make sure that I was serious about the practice. They wanted to see if I believed in the magical powers of the tattoo and if I believed in Buddhism. They insisted on waiting until I was done to make sure I was ok; which I thought was very sweet of them. They waited outside for about 20 minutes until I came out to say goodbye. It was great meeting them as they made this experience even more special. I regret not getting a photo with them.
I was sitting right next to a few statues of a monk, a buddha, a monkey and a cat that was very playful and entertained me. There was also a stack of offerings probably from the previous day.
After my tattoo I went around the complex; which was quite interesting. There were various beautiful temples, a lot of mystical statues of animals, deities and even super heroes.
wish I would’ve had someone explain all of these to me.
When I started to head back out to the main road to find a ride back to the city, one of the other groups from the temple pulled up beside me in their car. They offered me a ride to the bus station in the next city. Of course I accepted. They were quite eager to hear about my experience with the pain as these women had only received a couple of marks from the bamboo needle and in palm oil (instead of the dark ink). Apparently Master Luang Pi Nunn only uses the traditional bamboo needle (khem sak) to manually tattoo Thai women with invisible designs. I guess it is better for them to not have a visible tattoo (but still get the blessing) as there is still a stigma related to women with tattoos. I was disappointed that he was using the tattoo gun on the rest of us and not the bamboo needle as I wanted to experience the tradition in its real form. My guess is he has become so popular that it is more efficient for him to do it in this manner. He was taking about two minutes to finish each tattoo vs. the usual ten to fifteen minutes that he takes using the bamboo needle. Now I am more curious about receiving a tattoo from a bamboo needle… hmmm…
Master Luang Pi Nunn, the same monk that tattooed me using the traditional bamboo needle. Image courtesy of watbangphra.com
The monk picks the symbol and where he wants to place it based on your aura. There are many symbols to choose from but if I understand it correctly, they will make a few additions or changes of their own based on the person. I read somewhere (not sure if true) that they will even distort letters or leave out consonants to make the image hard to copy. Apparently there are a lot of fake or “unofficial” Sak Yant ajarns (masters) in Thailand who cannot do it properly or instill the proper powers into it. Once the monk finishes, he says a blessing silently and blows air on the tattoo to give it its magical powers. I received the symbol known as the Hah Taew. You may recognize this image from Angelina Jolie’s back. She received a Hah Taew tattoo in Cambodia, also from a monk.
healing nicely a couple of days after
Here is the meaning of my tattoo’s five lines:
1. The first row prevents unjust punishment and leans in your favor when the area is grey, cleans out unwanted spirits and protects the place you live in.
2. The second row reverses and protects against bad horoscope constellations and bad fortune.
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.
It was a great cultural experience that I will never forget… well I can’t, it’s on my body forever.
Was it risky?! YES! the monk cleans the needle with some alcohol in between people but obviously this is not the highest of hygiene standards. There is always a risk of contracting a virus but thankfully I have not found any stories on this yet. Not a lot of people went before me so I am hoping for the best and of course will definitely get tested in three months to make sure all is good.
If you want to learn more about this practice, here are some good websites and other blogs of people that have received a Sak Yant tattoo: sak-yant.com and expert vagabond