I arrived in Bangkok on a rainy evening after an uneventful plane ride. After spending over an hour in the customs line (apparently it’s super busy at 4pm?) I exhaustedly hauled my backpack over to the ATM where I promptly spend 10 years searching for my debit card and got yelled at by a British businessman. Off to a great start! I then moseyed on over to the taxi counter, handed the attendant a piece of paper with my hostel address scrawled across it, and then played my favorite, familiar game of seeing if he could read my handwriting well enough to get me to my destination. I had learned at this point to not even attempt to say the street names since my butchering of the local languages usually led to more confusion. After a few seconds of squinting he shrugged and handed me off to an overly enthusiastic driver that practically shoved me into the back of his hot pink cab.
I had heard that the cabs in Bangkok were brightly colored and that the drivers could be eccentric, but I can only imagine this one was on another level since I never got in another one like it. The interior was packed with gold beads, sparkling deity statues, and the entire roof and seat covers matched the blinding pink exterior. The driver also appeared to have multiple framed 5×7 photos of his family glued to the top of his dashboard, and the back window had “not allowed” stickers with red icons and big red slashes through them. From what I could gather it looked like fruit, dogs, sex, smoking and photos (even though I tried to take one stealthily and failed when the flash went off) were prohibited in the taxi. No fun allowed, yeesh. I would have tried talking to my driver since he seemed like a rad dude, but he was more interested in laughing hysterically with his friend in Thai on speakerphone and driving erratically through rush hour traffic.
I somehow made it alive to my super trendy, gorgeously-designed hostel in the middle of the city: Bed Station. I walked in to a lively atmosphere and blaring party music that was contagious, and after checking into my cozy 6-bed girl’s dorm I headed back out, grabbed some delicious pad thai for dinner, and curled up in a bean bag in the common area to decompress before tomorrow’s secret adventure.
I hadn’t clued a single soul into what I was planning. It didn’t need to be a secret for any particular reason, but it was a combination of not wanting anyone else’s input and wanting it to be a special, personal experience that kept me from letting anyone know.
I had decided to get a Sak Yant.
I discovered this sacred tattoo while doing preliminary research for my trip and was immediately intrigued. Sak Yant tattoos, also known as Yantra tattoos, are thought to be at least 3,000 years old and are based on traditional geometric patterns used in Hindu/Buddhist meditations. These designs are believed to contain powerful magic properties that bestow protection and good luck upon the wearer, and were considered so powerful that warriors believed the ink could stop weapons from penetrating their skin. Traditionally the script is of Khmer origin, but it varies slightly depending on region. Using a method called bamboo tattooing, Sak Yants are traditionally applied by hand using a long rod of bamboo with the sharpened point dipped in ink. While the method remains the same, they are now more commonly applied using rods made from steel.
Normally one would obtain a Sak Yant by visiting a practicing monk at a Buddhist temple, but former monks known as Ajarns are also able to tattoo them. In either case, it is required that a monk or Ajarn study and practice the ancient art of the Sak Yant for years or even decades before they are allowed to bestow the tattoo with all of its mystical properties intact. There are many different designs, each with varying meanings and blessings, and the monk will typically consult with the wearer before selecting a design that they feel will give them the maximum spiritual benefit. The location on the body is also typically decided by the monk as well. The magic contained by the Sak Yant is maintained and enhanced by following a set of rules, reciting a morning kata, and through having the tattoo periodically blessed (preferably by the monk who applied it).
I still had a few reservations.
All of this already sounds incredibly rad, right? I definitely thought so. But what nagged me about this tattoo was its apparent popularity with foreigners. Not that I wanted to be a special snowflake by any means, but it seemed that many tourists got Sak Yants without considering the enormous meaning behind them or the spiritual impact it is supposed to have on their daily lives. Even worse, many simply got them tattooed at regular parlors as a fashion statement (this was apparently made popular by celebs like Angelina Jolie, which I wasn’t even aware of until I was informed on my way to the Ajarn’s house).
I have always been fascinated by Buddhism and considering I was planning on visiting some heavily Buddhist countries for a few months, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to learn about the religion before making my appointment.
Two months later, I officially committed.
During the recurring tours I took every weekend, I visited countless temples, consulted my guides and absorbed as much information about Buddhism as I possibly could before making my final decision. I distinctly remember that it was in a beautiful, countryside temple in Phnom Penh where my guide was teaching me the proper way to Wai that I finally felt the sense of resolve I had been yearning for.
Inhaling the incense and listening to the the quiet chanting around me, I knew was ready to take the leap into having a religious design etched onto my body for eternity. Buddhism is fundamentally built on the idea of karma, where a person must complete good and kind deeds in order to mature through the cycle of rebirth; and what better way to continually aspire to be a good person than to get a sacred charm bestowing the wearer with protection that must be maintained by being a compassionate human being?
Making the Preparations
Traditionally, the method in which Sak Yants are applied is not very sanitary or safe. While it truly is a more authentic experience to get a Sak Yant from a temple by a practicing monk for a small offering (usually around $4 USD), the needles are not typically cleaned and the ink is re-used due to the high volume of traffic. After sufficiently researching how to do this safely, I opted to organize the experience through Where Sidewalks End. This meant I would be tattooed by an Ajarn, but with clean needles and fresh ink.
Can women even get a Sak Yant?
This was something I wondered as I had heard a rumor that monks are traditionally not allowed to tattoo women and can be punished severely for it. I was told that this isn’t entirely true and that monks can certainly refuse to tattoo a woman due to their religious beliefs, but more open-minded monks and Ajarns will simply use gloves or a piece of paper when tattooing women to avoid coming in direct contact with their skin (there is a “no-touch” rule as part of their training). WSE works with Ajarns who tattoo women, so this wasn’t a concern for me. I made sure to adhere to the dress code however, which typically involves wearing long pants and covering the shoulders.
The Day Of
A very nervous me was picked up promptly at my hostel by my enthusiastic guide Petz (who I would subsequently become fast friends with during my two week stay in Bangkok). We hopped on the skytrain and then onto a moto-taxi while Petz detailed the process and what would be expected of me when we arrived. Do not point your toes towards the Ajarn or Buddha, as this is a sign of disrespect. Do not stand above the Ajarn at any time. Bow your head as you give the offering. I will guide you through the prayer before we enter the house. Remember to breathe, it shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes, but it can be painful! You can consult with the Ajarn freely and I will translate.
This was my first ever tattoo so I had no idea what to expect in the pain department, but with my head swimming from all of this information as we sped past tiny restaurants and into a residential district, I suddenly realized I was going to be tattooed inside someone’s house. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it definitely turned out to be a more intimate experience than I was anticipating. As we pulled up to the open porch (which was easy to spot amidst the mass of Buddhist decor), we were told the Ajarn was just finishing up and would be with us shortly. While we waited, Petz handed me some incense and led me through a prayer in Thai that I butchered horribly, but that didn’t stop him from flashing me a huge smile. “Not bad for your first Thai words!”
My Ajarn and the Sak Yant design
I had no idea who would be giving me my Sak Yant until I arrived, but I learned afterward that Ajarn Neng is quite revered for his craft, and that each Ajarn has a different and unique design style that makes their work truly one of a kind. I took off my shoes and entered the tiny house. A radio played popular music while small fan whirred next to Ajarn Neng, who was covered head to toe in beautiful, elaborate Sak Yant tattoos, and I was immediately in awe. We had a short consultation with Petz translating – I already had an idea of the design I wanted but needed to have it confirmed. Ajarn Neng agreed upon it, and I presented my offering before he stenciled an outline on my left shoulder (the traditional location for this particular tattoo, I didn’t object).
I would be receiving a Ha Taew, also known as the Five Pillars:
“The Yant Ha Thaew is designed to improve your Karma and Line of Fate in five different aspects of life.
1. The first row prevents punishment in court cases, and cleans and protects your abode.
2. Second line reverses bad horoscope constellations and bad Karma
3. Third row protects against black magic and curses
4. Fourth line is for luck and fortune, and success in one’s projects
5. Fifth and last row is an attraction charm to make you attractive loveable, and also boosts the luck and fortune already laid out in the 4th row kata, and prevents curses as in the 3rd row kata.”
Two men sat on each side of me, pulling my skin to keep it taut while Ajarn Neng worked his magic. I breathed slowly and deeply, trying to think if literally anything to ease the searing pain of the steel rod poking steadily into my shoulder blade. Petz saw my struggle and offered me a brief mantra to keep repeating, which I did as the Ajarn’s small dog made its way across the room and curled up against me. Aside from the Thai chatter around me and a reassuring pat on the feet from Petz every now and then, I completely lost my sense of time and when it was finished I was convinced it had only taken maybe 20 minutes. I learned later that this was completely false and that it had taken around 35. I don’t have experience getting a regular tattoo with a gun so I can’t compare the two, but I will say that bamboo needle hurt like a bitch.
After it was finished and Ajarn Neng wiped away the last of the ink with a paper towel, I sat upright, crossed my legs and put my palms together as he chanted a prayer over me. I then felt a short, cool breath blow onto my raw ink and was sprinkled by sacred water before dizzily bowing to him one last time. He smiled widely as I thanked him and I stumbled back outside into the hot, humid air.
Petz then informed me of the rules I must follow to keep the magic of the Yant intact, as well as a tiny slip of paper with a three-line mantra that I would need to say every morning. The rules are as follows:
1. Respect your parents and be grateful for them.
2. Do not use any chemical drug. Mushrooms and marijuana are fine.
3. Do not eat star fruit or winter gourd. I was told it’s because these resemble a woman’s lady parts…not even going to try to figure that one out.
4. If you have a chance to come to Thailand, you should come and worship the Waikru day (Master day) which organized once a year at Arjan Neng’s place.
5. Do not walk under clotheslines. Traditionally monks should not be in the presence of women’s undergarments.
6. No adultery.
7. Pray kata from Arjan Neng 3 times in the morning.
Sak Yant Aftercare
Sak Yants heal completely differently and often times much faster than a traditional tattoo. I took the plastic wrapping off after about two hours and rinsed it with cool water. I have sensitive skin anyway and was told that the tattoo can itch uncontrollably for up to five days, but me being the paranoid wreck I am, I texted Petz the next day when I started noticing tiny, itchy hives developing around the area. He told me it was nothing to worry about (he was right) and Benadryl at least helped me sleep through the night, but boy did it itch like crazy. Not scratching was definitely one of the greater tests of willpower I’ve faced.
I was told to put Vaseline on it but opted for a water-based, unscented lotion instead that I grabbed from the local 7-11 as I’ve heard Vaseline can clog pores and make itching worse. I applied it once a day to keep the tattoo hydrated and took some really awkward showers for about two weeks as to avoid dousing the tattoo in water. I made sure to keep it covered from the sun and avoided swimming…and viola. The itching stopped after the promised five days and it was completely healed after only about ten.
It’s now been about 4 months since this experience and I can honestly look back on it as one of the most impactful decisions I’ve ever made. I look forward to saying my mantra every morning and not a day goes by where I don’t run my fingers across the lines and smile to myself. There is definitely magic in this ink, and having a permanent reminder to be kind etched into my skin has shifted my perspective in a lot of ways. If you are thinking of getting one, research it, understand it and get ready to make a commitment to alter your life in the best possible way.
Thanks for reading this massive post, catch you next time for more adventures around beautiful Bangkok! xx
Bangkok: 9.10 – 9.23, 2016