Inked Abroad: Getting A Sak Yant Tattoo from a Monk

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!

 

Chiang Mai: The Anti-Bangkok

After celebrating Christmas Day at school with my students and fellow teachers, I packed up my backpack once again and headed out bai tiao (to go travel). I planted myself in a seat on an overnight bus, something that I've come to know too well in Southeast Asia, and headed north. 9 hours in and out of sleep later, and I had arrived in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand's most popular city. Riding on a bus all night isn't ideal, but it's cheap and easy and saves you on accommodation for the night.

The first thing I encountered stepping off the bus was the weather. It was COLD! Okay, it was cold-er than Phrapradaeng. It was only about 50F/10C, but this was the coldest air I've felt for more than 8 months! I immediately put on another layer of pants and a scarf and shivered dramatically. The second thing that struck me about Chiang Mai was how small it was. Growing up close to NYC and now living near Bangkok, for me, cities mean skyscrapers and masses of people. Chiang Mai was nothing of that. There were no tall buildings and definitely no mobs of people like I've often encountered in Bangkok. The buildings didn't raise more than ten stories here and there, this was a city that moved at a slower pace… and I was liking it.

Chiang Mai's style and atmosphere has been heavily influenced by the slower way of life in Northern Thailand, where village life still exists. Street markets sell goods in the style of villagers, very similar to what I saw in the northern villages of Vietnam. Gone is the mass produced trendy Western clothing that's for sale everywhere around Bangkok. I found Chiang Mai to be everything that the capital is not; clean, relaxed, walkable, friendly, cheap, and charming.

Over the next two days, I met up with some fellow teachers and spent most of my time wandering the streets and indulging in the Northern way of life. I was introduced to Khao Soi, a northern Thai curry dish that's main ingredient is curried perfection.
Photo by  Andrew Ho

Photo by Andrew Ho

Khao Soi consists of a coconut based curry served with egg noodles and topped with crunchy noodles, red onion, pickled cabbage, chilies and lime. I can confidently say that it is one of the best dishes I have eaten in Thailand. I'm a condiment queen and the toppings were a perfection addition to this warm and comforting curry. I'm used to eating hot curry in hot weather, and having a bowl of Khao Soi on a chilly Chiang Mai night with a Singha beer to wash it down was perfection. I feel quite cheated that I cannot have it every day in Phrapradaeng!

Chiang Mai is home to over 300 temples, which means you can probably never be done exploring them, if that's your thing. Besides indulging in new cuisine, I took an afternoon to explore Wat Phra Singh, a temple dating back to. 1345 and home to the city's most admired image of Buddha. The grounds consist of three temples, a large chedi, a reclining Buddha, gardens, and a temple library. The grounds were lavishly decorated for the New Year including a bustling market filled with tourists, both Thai and foreign.

After visiting each temple and seeing the creepy lifelike replicas of dead monks, I took refuge in the shady gardens that surround the wat. Temple grounds are the ideal place for monk spottings, always and exciting and unnerving experience as I try to steer clear of them so I won't accidentally touch them (Thai cultures forbids monks to touch women and vice verse, and it's respectful to move off a path to let them pass in front of you). I always have visions of my klutzy self tripping and falling on top of a monk to the horror of everyone watching, and then it ending up on random Thai Facebook pages…

Above: Lifelike replicas of monks. Below: real living monks.

One of my favorite attributes of temple interiors are the elaborate painted doors and walls that fill the space with life and color. I think literally every surface of a temple is decorated in some fashion, the bolder the better. The exteriors are just as beautiful and unique. Many temples are decorated with mosaic that is made from broken porcelain cups and teapots (china, as we Americans would call it). And the gold, there's always so much gold!

Wat Phra Singh consumed me for a few hours, as I snapped photo after photo trying to capture its beauty before leaving in search of my next coconut shake. That night in Chiang Mai led my friends and I to a popular backpacker bar area, Zoe, filled with travelers indulging in shisha and cheap drinks. My favorite part of that experience was discovering the 40 Baht Mexican food cart serving up black bean burritos well into the early morning. It was tasty and cheap, sometime Bangkok sorely lacks.

Somewhere along my city strolling I passed by an adorable Anuban school that made me stop and peer through the gate into a parallel Northern universe. Chiang Mai is a city that's cheap, relaxed, surrounded by mountains, and offered delicious food and a break from the sweat fest down South. It's basically Bangkok's polar opposite; I will definitely be returning.

 

Discovering Angkor

IMG_0866

On my first full day in Siem Reap, I headed to the world famous Angkor Wat and spent the day exploring the ancient ruins and temples. This region of Cambodia known as Angkor was once the seat of the Khmer Empire, a Hindu kingdom that ruled from the 9th to 15th centuries. The Khmer kings were known by many powerful names like “god-king”, “lion-man”, and universal monarchs. The architecture that was constructed during under Khmer rule are sprawling and magnificent; fit for nothing less than a “god-king”.

Because of the sheer size and number of archeological sights to visit at Angkor, you need to start your day with the sun in order to fit it all in and not faint from heat exhaustion. Located about 15 minutes outside of Siem Reap town, the temples are best reached by hired tuk-tuk driver who will be your personal driver all day for about $15 USD.

I headed out at seven a.m. and was happy to see that the day was hazy but not rainy, ideal weather for exploring outdoor temples in the heat. After purchasing a ticket and temple pass for $20 USD, the first and most anticipated stop is the principal temple of the region, Angkor Wat. Built around 1113, it’s easy to see why this is one of the most famous religious monuments in the world, not to mention the largest religious structure in the world.

Approaching the temple is like approaching the Eiffel Tower. You crane your neck to see it as you’re turning the corner, but nothing can prepare you for the actual sight. This temple is absolutely massive, it’s surrounded by walls on all sides as well as a giant moat and was once enclosed by another outer wall that occupied a space of 203 acres. Talk about massive!

Because of my early arrival at the temple, I was able to explore the grounds mostly alone. It’s easy to get lost in there, the hallways that encompass the central tower go on forever; I must’ve only seen about 50% of the temple in two hours. The imposing structure is built of sandstone and is a classical example of Khmer architecture. Towers are shaped like lotus buds, bas-reliefs cover the walls depicting ancient scenes, with vaulted archways similar to ones used in Gothic structures.

IMG_0691

IMG_0660

IMG_0640

There are many other sights to visit within the Angkor grounds, and it’s easy to spend an entire day exploring. Ta Phrom is a smaller temple, yet it is still large and sprawling. Dense jungle has grown around and literally through this temple fusing the natural and the man made. There are literally huge trees that have engulfed parts of the temple walls and grown upward towards the jungle canopy.

IMG_0847

IMG_0891

You can walk amongst the ruins here and get lost in the maze of corridors that sometimes end abruptly from the roof caving in.  I loved the ruined feel of this sight and how it’s located deep in the jungle. Walking through it made me feel like I was the first person to explore the temple, just like Indiana Jones. Ta Phrom made its big screen debut in 2001’s “Tomb Raider” film starring Angelina Jolie, which is how it’s known today.

IMG_0879

Another well known sight is Angkor Thom, which was one of my favorites. It was the capital city during reign of King Jayavaman. The temple that lies at the center of this sight is known as Bayon Temple.  Because of my late morning timing at this temple, it was literally mobbed with tourists who arrived by the busload. I tried to ignore the hordes of people but it soon became overwhelming as I could hardly take two steps and not bump into someone. The most unique feature of the Bayon are the  200 “face towers” that are located on the top level. These massive stone faces silently watch over the 1 million tourists that visit Angkor every year.

IMG_0787 IMG_0773

I really liked the details that are present at the Bayon Temple. The walls are carved with historical scenes from ancient Angkor, from battles to everyday life in the city.

IMG_0821

IMG_1880

After wandering through the temples for the better part of the day, it was safe to say I was templed out, hungry, and dehydrated. The skies turned dark around the fourth or fifth temple, so I decided to call it a day and head to the nearest restaurant. The temple tour finished with a fruit shake and famous Cambodian curry fish amok, which was served in a large coconut.

I would love to see Angkor again in my lifetime, it’s almost too much to internalize in a single trip. What I would love most is to visit with my Dad, who is a history buff and was most excited for me to see the temples. If you are ever in Southeast Asia, take the time to go to Siem Reap and visit the Angkor Temples, I don’t think there is anything like it in the world… and you can fulfill your childhood dream of pretending to be Indiana Jones for one day.