Before I moved to Thailand, I began messaging with the other girls that I would be living close to in Chonburi City. We talked about flights, luggage, dress codes and-of course- trip ideas! It was then that my friend Marie first mentioned getting Sak Yant tattoos.
A Sak Yant is a sacred tattoo, concocted of secret ink ingredients, that is given and blessed by a monk. The tattoo design itself and where on your body it is placed is also determined by the monk. Each tattoo offers the wearer certain protections and energies, as well as a set of rules to live by. Since the magic of a Sak Yant decreases overtime, the tattooed person can return to the temple to re-empower it and get another Sak Yant.
I was intrigued. The setup for Sak Yant tattoos felt perfect to me; since I could never decide on what to get a tattoo of and where to put it, having someone else- a monk no less- place it seemed like a cool (and admittedly easy) alternative.
You can get a Sak Yant tattoo from various places throughout Thailand. The most well-known and traditional place, however, is at the Buddhist temple, Wat Bang Phra. This temple is located an hour west of Bangkok in the Nakhon Pathom province. Perfect for a weekend trip!
On Friday evening, Marie, Laura, and I cut through Bangkok and took a bus to Nakhorn Pathom. We stayed in a little hut at The Hidden House, a place about 20 minutes from Wat Bang Phra; we wanted to get to the temple bright and early Saturday morning as the tattooing is a first-come-first-serve process.
Our time at our hut was a little side attraction itself though. We ended up staying in a “Raft Room” that had us floating on top of a river! On Saturday morning, we woke up just before the sun and were treated to a gorgeous sunrise.
We talked to the owners of the Hidden House for a while, who told us that a lot of travelers stayed in their rooms for the sole purpose of getting Sak Yant tattoos. They also gave us more information on Sak Yants:
Sak Yant tattoos are a type of white magic. Monk Luang Po Pern became the master of Sak Yant tattoos at Wat Bang Phra after leaving for a time to become a hermit and meditate in jungles, graveyards, and ruins. Due to spending years in the jungle, Luang Po Pern developed a connection to jungle animals. And so, Sak Yant tattoos at the Wat Bang Phra temple are believed to contain spirit animals.
Unfortunately, Luang Po Pern passed away in 2004. Still, monks at the temple continue to carry out his work.
Traditionally, Sak Yant tattoos are engraved in the skin with a sharp bamboo rod. However, some monks at the temple now use regular tattoo guns. It just depends which monk is on tattoo duty the day you go.
Surprisingly, I did not feel nervous as we took a Tuk Tuk ride to Wat Bang Phra. We arrived about 30 minutes before the tattooing was to begin and purchased our 75 baht-worth of required donations for the monks (a pack of cigarettes, incense, flowers and 20 baht). The final cost ended up being $2.97. That’s right, people. My first tattoo ended up costing me less than $3.
Then, we entered the tattooing room, where my nerves finally set in. There were about 15 Thai people already in the room. Some of them looked at us curiously as we set down our donations and took our seats on the floor towards the back of the room. And then we waited in dead silence as more and more people entered the room and took their seats. Well after the starting time, the monk finally entered the room and took his seat in front of us.
As if following a script (that foreigners are clearly not given) everyone got to their knees and started bowing to the monk. I think the guy sitting behind me took pity on me because he tapped my shoulder and silently gestured for me to kneel a certain way and hold out my hands. I clumsily followed along.
Without a word, the first person in line approached the monk. He bowed 3 times and turned his back to the monk. Two men who were also in line held his skin tight and the monk began to tattoo.
The monk that day was using a tattoo gun. As much as I had wanted the most authentic experience, I was kind of relieved that I was not going to be repeatedly stabbed by bamboo. I wasn’t sure not how much my nerves could take at this point.
As I watched each person go, I began to feel really out of place (and that’s saying something as I feel out of place on a regular basis in Thailand). Here I was, in a sacred temple in the middle of nowhere. Marie, Laura, and I were the only non-Thai people in the room. Most of the people getting tattoos were older males, many who already had multiple Sak Yant tattoos on their bodies. And then there was me…
And suddenly, it was our turn in line. Marie bravely went first and made the whole thing look like child’s play. And then it was my turn.
My thoughts at the time: How am I supposed to approach this monk without pointing my feet towards him? (In Thailand, you’re not supposed to point your feet towards a monk) Am I going to get in trouble for having my shoulder exposed in a temple? How many times did I just bow again? Wow, there’s a lot of people looking at me right now. This definitely makes the Top 5 on my Craziest Things I’ve Ever Done list…
The whole process took about 5 minutes: 2 guys held my skin tight (monks can’t touch female skin) and I wrapped my arms around the provided pillow. So did getting the tattoo hurt? I guess. I don’t have past tattoo experiences to compare it to. I think I had too much adrenaline going to notice any pain. Plus, it’s not cool to cry in front of 40-some people staring at you hardcore.
Marie and I both received the Hah Taew (Five Lines) Sak Yant. According to “Sak Yant Chiang Mai” (http://www.sakyantchiangmai.com/sak-yant-designs-and-meanings/), the Hah Taew…
“represents 5 yants or magical spells. Each one will be done individually and the following magical spells have been cast to do as described below.
- 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.
- The second row reverses and protects against bad horoscope constellations and bad fortune.
- The third row protects you from the use of black magic and anyone who tries to put a curse on you.
- The fourth row energizes your good luck, success and fortune in your future ambitions and life style.
- The fifth row is to gain charisma and attraction to the opposite sex. It also is a boost to the fourth row.”
Before leaving Wat Bang Phra, we explored the rest of the temple grounds and stumbled upon Lauang Po Pern’s body, which has been preserved in a glass coffin. Just a tad creepy.
So there you have it. I was touched by white magic and have a bizarre story behind my very first tattoo. All for $2.97…