Chiang Mai – Thailand
Sweat drips down my forehead in the sweltering afternoon heat. My mind is clear. I turn my back to the monk. He begins to chant a prayer. I am asked to kneel down and fold my hands together in order to prepare for the process. To be honest, I am very nervous. This will be my first tattoo. Not only my first tattoo, but it will be done with a bamboo spike rather than the conventional tattoo gun. The prayer ends, and what happens next lives with me forever
It was late the night before in Chiang Mai. My friend Shawn and I had just backpacked across Myanmar, and were ready for some classic Thailand bar hopping; combined with the most delicious food found in Thailand. We found a greasy Thai joint serving up classic Northern Thai specialties like Chiang Mai pork sausage, and the incredible 100-year-old Chinese soup. Spicy Thai food goes best, of course, with Chang beer… oh and maybe some Samsom whiskey. Actually, it doesn’t really matter which drink you choose, just make it an alcoholic one.
Anyone in Thailand can get a Thai tattoo. Head to Khao San in Bangkok and you will see an abundance of “Tattoo Me Long Time” or “Best Bangkok Tattoo” parlors spread across every tourist boulevard. These tattoo shops may offer the “Sak Yant” tattoo, but it’s not the real thing.
What Is Sak Yant?
Let’s go over what Sak Yant really is. For generations, Buddhist monks have given these spiritual tattoos to the Thai people. These are not your average tattoos. These tattoos are said to have magical qualities to them. Each tattoo, unique in its own way, can provide you with magic to fend off illness, make you a better fighter or even improve your luck. The ink from these tattoos is made from cobra venom and Chinese charcoal. The monks who give the tattoos do not use machines. Instead, they tap them into you with a spike attached to a bamboo pole. Getting a REAL Sak Yant is a difficult and confusing process. Most tourists opt for the tattoo parlor and get themselves a fake Sak Yant because it’s easier.
Sitting in Chiang Mai, drinking and eating to my heart’s content, there was only one thing on my mind, Sak Yant. This would be my fifth attempt at getting one. Every previous attempt I had made had been foiled because either no foreigners were allowed or the monk was not available, but this time I was determined.
“Do you know what will make a good end to this trip, Shawn?” I exclaimed to my friend, poised in concentration. “Let’s get Sak Yant … magic tattoos, my friend.”
Shawn, a complete tattoo fanatic, looked at me with excitement and said: “Well ya that only seems logical.”
It was decided. As best friends, we would attempt to get Sak Yant tattoos no matter how long, how difficult, and how scary it was. We were destined for this tattoo.
The Journey to Get Magic Tattoos
The next morning we woke early. Focused on what we wanted, we hit the streets to find our partner in crime. Nok was his name. Nok was a Tuk Tuk driver who knew of a temple outside of Chiang Mai where we could get the sacred Sak Yant. To be honest, we didn’t even discuss a price with Nok. We just got in and knew that this was the day we would get Sak Yant. We drove for about an hour outside of town, passing by rice paddies filled with dark water glinting in the morning light. Arriving at a temple complex, amidst the rice fields, we were approached by a monk. This monk was covered in Sak Yant. His Sak Yant was red in color, which I had not seen used before for this style of tattoo. With Nok translating, we agreed that in one hours’ time the monk would give us our tattoo. We waited until the early afternoon when, suddenly, the temple complex doors opened and to our surprise, a procession of people carrying a body walked in. The monks rushed to the entourage. Our monk approached us and exclaimed that today, because of the passing of this man, he would not have time for Sak Yant. We were defeated. It appeared as though my fifth attempt at this had ended again in failure.
“Let’s try one more place I have heard of,” Nok said to the sad, defeated faces of me and Shawn.
We were off again on this crazy journey. The afternoon heat became stifling. We left the rice paddies behind and entered into deep jungle surrounded by beautiful jade green mountain peaks. In the distance, a small village appeared. Chickens ran across the dirt tracks that were streets. The women walked about, garbed in traditional hill-tribe gear. This town was beautiful, and completely off the tourist radar. The Tuk Tuk stopped in front of a very basic looking temple. The temple had chickens, pigs, and cows wandering around its gates. The temple itself was made of simple teak stilts and was covered in odd, aged carvings.
“This is the temple of a master Ajarn, I am not sure if he will tattoo foreigners,” Nok said.
We entered the temple and Nok began to talk with the Master Ajarn Monk. Ajarn is the name given to a monk who tattoos Sak Yant. The Monk was also covered in Sak Yant. Every time he moved you could see more Sak Yant peeking out from different parts of his body. Nok came back to us with a giant grin and told us that this monk was very busy, but he would make an exception for us today and give us Sak Yant. A sensation of excitement jolted up my spine. Five attempts and finally it was going to happen! Not to mention that the journey, the setting, everything was spectacular about this very moment in time.
The monk asked us to pray with him and a fifteen-minute ceremony began. He asked us which tattoo we wanted. We had a choice of three. One, in particular, spoke to me the most. This tattoo was special to the monk. Designed exclusively for me by this monk, it consisted of five lines, each with a different purpose. After the decision was made, the process began. The monk began chanting behind me. I was nervous but calm at the same time. The monk held the bamboo spike to my back and began tapping. I won’t sugar coat it: it was painful. Shawn, who already had many tattoos, all done by machine, later said it was more painful than any machine tattoo. The monk tapped the spike rapidly in and out of my back. I concentrated on how amazing the experience was rather than on the pain. After twenty minutes the tapping stopped, and the monk blew a spell into the tattoo. This truly felt amazing. It could have been the adrenaline, but I swear I felt that magic enter me.
That was that: I had my first tattoo. To this day, I love to tell the story of my receiving of Sak Yant. The story isn’t finished, however. Shawn proceeded to receive his unique tattoo as well. Then, to our surprise, Nok jumped in and had both his arms tattooed.
“Nok, why are you getting two Sak Yant Tattoos?” We asked.
“My wife always calls me girl. She says I’m not a man until I have Sak Yant. So I show her, I get two tattoo!!” Nok explained with an ever widening grin upon his face.
How Much do Sak Yant Cost ?
How much do these tattoos cost, you ask? Technically speaking, they are free! However, an offering of food and cigarettes to the temple is greatly appreciated. You can also give money, as we did because we did not have cigarettes. In order to give money, you must put it in a donation box as the monk is not allowed to receive currency.
You will notice that I have not shared the monk’s name or the temple’s location. I’m not trying to be greedy with this; but if you want a Sak Yant, then you too should go on your own journey to receive it. The tattoo is so special to me because of this journey, because of Nok and the whole experience. Most backpackers will tell you to go to Wat Bang Phra in Bangkok to get one, which is special in its own way. But as a traveler, do something that is special to you. Don’t just fall in line and be like everyone else. Go on a journey, and create your own story that will come define who you are.
Useful Information For Getting a Sak Yant Tattoo In Thailand
Location – Northern Thailand near Chiang Mai
Cost – Tuk Tuk for the day – 30 US$, Tattoo – Free, but donations accepted
Tips – Finding a real Ajarn can be difficult. Do not just give up and go for the Bangkok tattoo, the experience of finding the real Sak Yant makes the story that much more incredible.
Recommended Guide Books – Lonely Planet Thailand