Sak, meaning tattoo in Thai, Yant, Thai pronunciation of yantra, is a form of yantra tattooing. It dates back over 2,000 years. Originally the tattoo was performed by Tai tribes in the region ranging from southwestern China all the way through to northwestern Vietnam. Today, it’s predominantly practiced in Thailand but also to some extent in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. In Thailand, the tattoos are performed by Buddhist monks or wicha practitioners. The tattoo is meant to provide a spell of protection, power, fortune and the like for the bearer.
The history of the tattoo dates it back as far as 2,000 years ago. Over time, the practice spread all over south-east Asia even to Indonesia and the Philippines. Originally, the tattoo was meant for warriors and to help them in battle by providing them with a blessing. The tattoo delivers magic, good health and good fortune. Each region had, and still has, their own version of the tattoo differing in pattern as well as scripts.
I’ve been thinking about a tattoo on and off for the last few years. I haven’t been able to commit to one because I haven’t been able to choose a design I felt was right. It’s a big commitment after all. I always felt a tattoo needed to have a good meaning. I couldn’t just walk into a shop, pick something out of a book and get it done. But, a few years ago I heard about Sak Yant tattoos. I have fallen in love with the idea more and more over time.
A lot of people write about how a monk has to deem you worthy. That’s not true. Everyone deserves a blessing and they will offer their services to anyone seeking. The speculations about an aura came about from foreigners who sought tattoos and had a language barrier where the monk or ajarn did not speak English. Each Sak Yant is powerful. However, without having the person conversation, no matter how quick or detailed, the ajarn cannot provide them with anything but a general protection. Both the monks and the ajarns train for many years but in the art of tattooing, not mind reading or aura reading for that matter.
There is a controversy around tourists or foreigners receiving Sak Yants though. It has to do with the location of the tattoo. In Buddhism, the head is the most sacred part of the body and the feet the least. Many Thai people are unhappy to see religious tattoos below the waist like on thighs. However, most often the Sak Yant will go on your shoulders. If there is no room for it there because of already present tattoos, it will go on your arm. So, like with everything else while travel, be respectful and everything will be alright.
If you’re thinking about getting one there are two ways you can go about this.
Visit a temple
This post is about getting the tattoo in Bangkok and the closest and most popular spot near Bangkok is called Wat Bang Phra. As you enter the temple, you have to buy a gift for the monk who will tattoo you. The temple has ready made gifts that they essentially reuse. The gift it’s usually made up of flowers, cigarettes and incense. They are symbolic and part of the ritual. The donation goes into the maintenance of the Wat, of course.
There is no set price tag for a Sak Yant. And it’s a little different for the locals than for the tourists. Thai people make daily donations and alms to their temples. They highly invest in them and a Sak Yant tattoo is one of the things offered to them.
I’ve read about all sort of price range which is a reflection of the size of the tattoo. A small tattoo can cost as little as 40BHT (~1.25USD) such as a Haw Taew which is the 5 line tattoo that Angelina Jolie has. A much larger tattoo like Suea Koo, which is made up of two tigers, can cost as much as few hundred dollars. It will depend on from temple to temple. Some of them will charge prices that Thai people end up donating over their lifetime. Others will charge you what a Thai person is charged that same day. Lastly, there are some places and temples that will bluntly rip you off because you are a foreigner. Do your research to find out how much you should pay exactly.
One you arrive at the temple, you will wait in a room filled with people. It’s advised to get there as early as possible in the day so you don’t have to wait too long. In the room, you will get to watch the monk tattoo anyone who is in line in front of you.
There are other issues with getting a Sak Yant at Wat Bang Phra, among other cheap donation based temples. One of them is the cost, naturally. Another is the group of locals who choose to get theirs done there too. Most of them are extremely poor people who can’t afford to pay anything else. The locals you find there are farmers, street food vendors, garbage men, prostitutes and even gangsters. They want health, money or love blessings. Wat Bang Phra is inexpensive to them too. That makes temples overrun with people; high demand and low supply leads to overrun temples, rushed service, compromised hygienic practices, and skipped traditions.
Another thing that I haven’t mentioned yet is that women will not be allowed to be tattooed at som temples. Although I’ve read numerous account of women receiving tattoos at Wat Bang Phra. The reason for this, of course, is a religious tradition which did not allow women to receive Sak Yants. However, today more and more Thai women are getting them. Often times with clear ink too.
I mentioned briefly the lower sanitary standards in temples due to high demand. That is exactly why I didn’t choose to go with a Sak Yant from a temple. They reuse the needle. They do clean it in a mystical solution that no one seems to be able to identify. Although I have received a tip that it just might be blue ethyl alcohol available from 7-11. At least that’s one confirmation of alcohol being involved.
More or less, it’s still pretty shady as far as sanitation goes. UNAIDS 2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic reports no cases of contracting HIV or AIDS from the Sak Yant tattoo needles. The needles in use have no reservoir for the ink. Therefore, it can’t also absorb blood either to pass it from person to person. Especially so if they clean the needle between uses. Let’s be real, that’s not safe enough. I wasn’t sold. So I chose to get tattooed privately by an ajarn.
Visit an ajarn
I booked my tattoo through Where Sidewalks End. It cost me $250USD. I honestly chose it because of their promise of a sterile environment. And it was. Additionally, don’t forget that the ajarns are privately living people, often supporting their own families like you and me. Same goes for the local guide. Basically, they work for themselves unlike the monks in temples who are taken care of by donations. I later found out that Where Sidewalks End even donates 2% of the cost to local social and environmental projects.
I got picked up by my guide at my hostel. His name was Valentino. He was friendly and pleasant. His job was two-fold. He was supposed to get me to and from the home of the ajarn and he was my translator. It took us maybe 45 minutes to arrive. At the home, there was another man waiting for a tattoo as well. I went first because mine was much smaller.
However, before anything took place we had to pray. We prayed with the ajarn’s assistant by repeating chants after him while holding incense in our hands. We prayed to Ganesha. It took about 10 minutes. At the end, we placed the incense by the statute to burn and entered the room where the ajarn was all set up for us.
The ajarn asked me to tell him about myself. Of course, Valentino was translating the whole time. I told them that I never envisioned myself in a specific, typical lifestyle. I never wanted a specific career. I always imagined living life by doing things exactly like this tattoo. I want to see the world because it makes me feel alive. I want to collect experiences and stories. The ajarn and Valentino chatted back and forth. Valentino wanted to know if the ajarn had a recommendation for me. He did. He suggested a 9 spires yant called Gao Yord.
Each ajarn and each monk have their own tattoo designs. The general shape and idea are based off the traditional Sak Yant designs but the details vary artist by artist. The script written for the tattoos are not words but chants. The mixture is written with Thai, Khmer and old scripts. The scripts are unique per artist. What is written on my back is only legible by my own ajarn (okay, and his disciples). The script is called kata. The ajarn is the only one who can read it because he is the only one able to enact the spell cast upon me.
Like I said, I received the 9 spires tattoo called Gao Yord. The design of Gao Yord represents Mount Meru. It’s considered the centre of the mind, body and soul. The Gao Yord is meant to help balance the three. It is also similar to spires atop every stupa and chedi. They all represent the path to enlightenment. The tick base being Earth and the spires moving upwards towards heaven and the enlightenment.
Each Sak Yant is personal whether you get it done at a temple or by visiting an ajarn. The ajarn suggested the Gao Yord for me to help me figure out who I am as a person. He asked me about my age and concluded I am way too young to know anything about myself yet. The tattoo will serve two purposes. It will protect me from the evils of the world and it will help guide me in learning about myself and finding balance in myself.
I agreed to his suggestion.
As the ajarn was getting ready to start I watched him as he opened a brand new needle from a sealed bag. That right there was worth all the money to me. Anyways, before the inking took place his assistant told me to silently pray while it’s getting done. It would help keep my mind occupied and away from the pain. While I prayed I was supposed to think about what the tattoo meant to me and anything else I needed from it. I wanted courage and confidence. So that is the total and super personal meaning behind my tattoo.
The process was supposed to take 30 minutes to finish. But mine took 60 minutes because I was very uncomfortable. I had to sit on the floor with my needs against my chest. The pain was also not that pleasant. I couldn’t sit still and I kept on fidgeting. This, in turn, meant the ajarn had to be much more careful about not screwing anything up by taking his time. The guide and the ajarn were making fun of me while he was tattooing me. The ajarn didn’t understand why I kept on fidgeting if it didn’t make the pain any lesser. Thanks, guys… ಠ_ಠ
I learned a little bit about the ink. It's made up of natural ingredients such as charcoal and oils. Some herbs are added for a natural antiseptic. There is also no snake venom used in the ink, even if that sounds kind of bad ass. The sting is due to the antiseptic which can feel like a snake bite to some. I didn't feel anything.
At the very end, when the ajarn was making final tweaks and adjustments, my body finally gave in and relaxed a little. The ajarn used his very limited English to comfort me by saying things like "good job" and "almost done." It was actually very nice of him to have been patient with me.
When the whole thing was finished, the assistant cleaned off my back. That’s when the time came to enact my spell. The ajarn put his hands on my shoulders and chanted the spell of my tattoo’s script. I received a little Buddha statue to help enact the power of the tattoo as well as a small prayer card. I am to pray the prayer each day before I leave the house. And that’s it.
My experience was fantastic. The only thing I wish is that the guide, Valentino, took a whole lot more photos. But I’ll survive. All in all, I highly recommend going to an ajarn. I felt the experience was extremely personal and private too which made the whole thing a whole lot better. If you want to book your tour through Where Sidewalks End, go for it. They do it in both Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
I am a freelance web designer who documents her travels with photos and words via Black Journal. Additionally, I work with small companies that want to re-brand their online businesses to create products that change lives of their customers all in the hopes of gaining more customers and retaining their current ones longer.