For years I’ve wanted to get another tattoo, but I never committed to it, always unsure of what I wanted. When I got to Thailand, I knew that this experience would be life changing for me. It’s a country overflowing with mysticism and culture; it would be difficult not to be changed by it. Learning about Thai culture, I heard about the ancient practice of “sak yant”; a deeply meaningful blessing tattoo performed only by Buddhist monks. They either use a traditional bamboo stick or a long metal stick attached to a needle. No machines, no stencils. Living here has been all about saying “yes” to things I normally wouldn’t, and having a monk tattoo me fit that bill perfectly.
On January 16th, we had a random day off school; the perfect opportunity to go on an adventure. I decided the night before that I wanted to make this tattoo a reality. A few blogs provided some helpful information on the location of the tattoo temple and the process, but all I really knew was that the temple opens around 8 am, and to arrive early to get in line and wait your turn. My friend who I teach with agreed to come with me, and just to be safe we set off for a taxi at 5 am. The ride took about an hour. It was pitch black outside but my mind was already racing with scenarios of what was lying ahead.
We arrived as the sun rose over Wat Bang Phra, turning the sky orange. We had a lot of time to kill, so I indulged in a 7-11 breakfast of ramen while we waited to go inside. Around 7:30, we bought an offering of cigarettes and flowers to donate to the temple for 75 baht and entered a small building. There were only a few others waiting before us, mostly Thais. We waited anxiously for the monk to emerge, unsure of what was going to happen.
When the monk emerged from his quarters and took a seat at the front of the room, everyone gathered near him, bowing low to the floor. He was Luang Pi Nunn, who I would find out later to be the most famous tattoo master in all of Thailand. He mumbled a quick prayer and immediately one of the waiting men peeled off his shirt to be tattooed. The tattoos began in rapid succession, no one speaking a word the entire time. The young Thai men had done this before, judging by their tattoo covered backs. The monk added a line or two here and there, tap tap tapping his long inked needle into the skin of whomever was seated before him while two other men held the skin taut on either side.
Pretty soon the line dwindled down and it was my turn to go. I scrambled over to sit in front of the monk, leaned over a pillow and braced myself for the pain. Two patient men assisted the monk in pulling my shirt down to reveal my shoulder blade (monks aren’t allowed to touch women), and he went to work. It was surprisingly not that painful, and my anxiety soon subsided. As quickly as it had started, it was over. Luang Pi Nunn whispered a prayer over the completed sak yant and breathed it to life by blowing on it. His tattoos are believed to hold magical powers, which he fills with holy energy. I bowed before the monk once more and placed 100 baht into a jar beside him as my donation to the temple (about $5 in total).
I snuck off to the bathroom to take a peek at my shoulder, still not knowing what has been tattooed on my body.
On my left shoulder blade he had given me 5 sacred lines called Ha Taew. This is the most popular sak yant among females, but each one is unique. The best description of what Ha taew means is this:
1. First row prevents unjust punishment and leans in your favor when the area is gray, cleans out unwanted spirits and protects the place you live in.
2. Second row reverses and protects against bad horoscope constellations and bad luck.
3. Third row protects you from the use of black magic and anyone who tries to put a curse on you.
4. Fourth row energizes your good luck, success and fortune in your future ambitions and life style.
5. Fifth row is to gain charisma and attraction to the opposite sex. It is also is a boost to the fourth row.
In order for the Ha taew to be effective, the receiver must follow a set of rules similar to the 10 precepts of Buddhism. They are basic life rules such as; do not steal, do not kill, do not lie, do not partake in evil deeds, and so on. I think I can manage to follow these guidelines!
This experience was easily one of the most magical moments here in Thailand. It was pure cultural bliss, something that is unique to Thailand, and now I’ll carry the memory for the rest of my life. I’m so happy I chose to do it; it’s more than just a tattoo, it’s encapsulates my year in Thailand. I’m grateful that I now have a little protection constantly watching my back, literally.
Sak Yant FAQs
Where is Wat Bang Phra located and how do you get there?
Wat Bang Phra is located in Nakhon Pathom province, about 31 miles (50 km) west of Bangkok. You can find the exact address here:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wat_Bang_Phra . There are actually two Wat Bang Phras on the same road, about 5 minutes from each other. The tattoo temple is the one located just next to the river (closer to the east). When you arrive, you will see various statues of animals, Buddhas, etc. all clumped together near the parking area. The entrance to the tattoo building is behind that, you can ask anyone where to go by simply saying “sak” (tattoo); they will know what you are looking for.
There are minivans that leave from Victory Monument in Bangkok that will bring you to Nakhon Pathom province, although where they drop you off is unknown to me. We took a taxi from where we live, I copied the temple name and address (in Thai) from the article I posted above and showed it to the driver. Make sure they use the meter, so you won’t get ripped off. It took about 45 minutes to get there, without traffic. It will cost a few hundred baht, but it’s the most convenient way to get directly to the temple.
What time should you arrive?
The tattooing begins around 8 am, when the monks emerge and begin their work. I would recommend arriving between 7:00 and 7:30 am, so you can find a spot in line on the temple floor and wait. I have a friend who said she waited all day, because they arrived around 9 am and had many people in front of them, but we arrived around 7:00 and were done by 9:30 am!
How much does it cost?
There are two ways to get a tattoo here. You can be tattooed on the first floor by a monk who will choose your tattoo for you, which is the route I took. You must buy a temple offering, which are laid out on a table outside. It cost 75 baht (less than $3 USD) for one offering of flowers and cigarettes (Monks smoke too!) After your tattoo is complete, you can donate additional money to the temple in a jar beside the monk. I placed in 100 baht ($3.00).
If you don’t want to leave your tattoo fate up to a monk, you can head upstairs for one of your own choosing. They have a book to choose from and it will cost 3000 baht ($100) and up, depending on the size.
What should you wear?
Since you are visiting a temple, you should dress “temple appropriately”, meaning ladies should have their legs covered to the knees and shoulders covered. I wore a loose fitting top that covered my shoulders and was easy to pull down in the back and reveal my shoulder for the tattoo.
Did it hurt? How long did it take?
Yes, being poked with a needle over and over again hurts! I personally didn’t think it was that bad, but everyone is different with their pain tolerance. It was completely tolerable; I thought it would hurt much more! My tattoo only took about ten minutes, so it was all over pretty fast. The healing process was incredibly fast, as I don’t think the ink goes as deep as a machine tattoo. Mine was peeling by day four and after just one week it was smooth and beautiful!