Twenty locals looked on as a chain-smoking monk with tiny reading glasses penetrated my skin repeatedly with a long sharpened piece of bamboo, the locals not used to seeing a white foreigner getting this type of tattoo, all had the look of genuine curiosity as anyone would in this situation. They searched my face for signs of weakness (which was ridiculously challenging to not show as this sharpened piece of bamboo is about 3x as painful as the normal tattoos that I’ve gotten in the past in much more modern ways). This is the full scoop on how I got this piece of Sak Yant art engraved into my back the good ol’ fashion way!
Wat Bang Phra Temple
This was not an easy place to locate, which was part of the point for me, I wanted something truly unique and authentic to commemorate the past year of my life traveling the globe and to remind myself everytime that I look into a mirror of who I was when I got this piece done, as well as a way to remember to not ever lose this sense of adventure. It was my version of a souvenir, go figure.
Fun fact; Wat Bang Phra literally loosely translates to “a temple with some monks”, not making this up people, that just gets me everytime not sure why!
I had heard of this place from word of mouth of an awesome guy I met in the Philippines, a fellow American with a bad case of wanderlust who had recently gotten one of these pieces done himself from this temple, the way he detailed getting this tattoo had me hooked from the start and I knew it was something right up my alley! I didn’t really think twice as soon as I heard about it, I knew it was something I HAD to do.
The temple is located about 1 hour west of Bangkok in good traffic, though I’m frugal and took a motorbike taxi so it took about 90 minutes.
For hundreds of years this temple has been a religious site of interest for the local Thai people, they come from all over to be blessed by the monks of this temple and receive these Sak Yant tattoos, as they are said to bring protection and good fortune for you and for your family. It is the home to Master Luang Pi Nunn, one of the most famous practicing monks in Thailand.
The temples much like the other temples of Thailand are beautiful structures composed of bright colors and shimmering gold with every square inch detailed in religious symbols, this in itself is a site to behold for a guy like me.
From central Bangkok I woke up about 2 hours before sunrise to scramble around and try to barter for the cheapest ride to the temple that I possibly could. As previously stated in other posts I LOVE bartering entirely too much so I really just turned it into a game as I often do. Taxis will cost you about $20-$30 USD to get from Bangkok to the temple and back, so as usual avoid taxis at all costs, especially here.
I found a lovely gentleman with a motorbike and a fluorescent vest that stated “taxi driver”, I started talking with him about where I was trying to go and his face instantly lit up, he was so excited that I wanted to go to this temple and get a bamboo Sak Yant the real local way, he said he had never heard of a white guy wanting to do it the traditional way. He himself had 2 Sak Yant tattoos from the same temple that he had gotten twenty years ago, he proudly removed his shirt and showed me the art work on his back, saying “this be you soon, look!” I gave him a high five and expressed my excitement to him, he decided to take me out there for half price because of the circumstance (so like $5 out and back), we shook hands and I jumped on the back of the motorbike.
We weaved through hellish Bangkok traffic (it’s reaaaaally bad here), and these motorbike taxi drivers are way too good at fitting through small lanes in traffic and even utilizing sidewalks to get past the car traffic, it’s crazy how they do it, and very dangerous, but I just get a weird thrill off of it, it’s kinda fun to whiz past all the normal traffic like that (though something that’s incredibly illegal in western countries).
Ninety minutes of transitioning from the hectic city streets of Bangkok to the middle of nowhere country-side of authentic Thailand we eventually arrived to our destination, a feeling of “what in the hell did you get yourself into this time Aaron” swept over me but my enthusiastic new friend quickly changed any concerns by rushing me over to a shrine to write down the names of myself and my family on an orange piece of cloth and place it before the Buddhist states while getting on my knees and bowing, he showed me how to do it the respectful way and I was stoked to have him there to help me.
A Peculiar Payment
Outside the temple I purchased a temple offering for the monk consisting of incense, flowers, and oddly enough menthol cigarettes (that one got me) all for about 80 baht ($2.60) USD.
Once the donation was purchased I removed my shoes and entered the temple as calmly as I could, trying to show respect in every possible way to the local people and their customs, which I felt was especially important in a scenario like the, as locals came from all over the country to get blessed. But in all non-seriousness #Blessed works for this too well….missed opportunities, if that’s not what that hashtag was made for then I don’t know what is!!
Once inside the temple my driver slowly led me over to a wide open room full of statues and religious monuments (also like 4 stray dogs, that was an odd one), pictures of the Thai king were everywhere much like anywhere else in Thailand, and other important monks and religious figures covered the walls of this dark room. On a real level the room was hot, real hot, and there was one small fan running in the whole room and this did next to nothing. As someone who heats up entirely too easy, this place became a sauna for me, usually you’ve gotta pay extra for that right?
The Unique Concept
The concept of the tattoo is that each Sak Yant symbol brings forth different variations of good fortune and protection from different things. There are many symbols of all different sizes that can be chosen by the monk. MOST IMPORTANTLY and partly what makes this idea so unique is that I did NOT know what kind of tattoo that I was receiving or where it was going to be, nor how big, it was all up in the air so I just had to roll with it, it’s only permanent right?!?
The monk feels you out without saying a word and gets your “vibe”, he will then give you the corresponding tattoo that he feels fits you best or that you need for protection and begins carving up your skin without you even saying a word. Honestly I was just happy he didn’t give me a tramp stamp, I’m way too happy with where he decided to do the tattoo and the sheer size of it was perfect.
One of the more interesting parts of this tattoo as well would be the ink. It is said that the ink is a strange concoction of all kinds of Thai spices and herbs of the magical variant, how much of that is true/false I don’t know, but the key ingredient that most stuck out to me is that it’s known to be mixed with snake venom. So I will forever have a small dosage of snake venom engraved into my skin, I thought that was pretty damn cool, yet I’m also sure that the snake venom factored into the amount of pain while getting the tattoo. I mean it’s one thing to be getting stabbed a bunch but you mix that with a searing pain of snake venom aaaaaaand you ‘re gonna need some serious pain meds (luckily in Thailand you can get this stuff way too easy).
The process of getting the tattoo itself only takes 15-20 minutes, the monk is a damn magician with that bamboo stick, factor in the fact that he has given thousands upon thousands of these tattoos and you wonder how in the hell he’s able to still do it this well or not have arthritis, the man’s a medical anomaly. Also the fact that he’s constantly smoking a cigarette ALL day and he’s about 80 years old, seriously modern medicine should study this guy, he is a true medical anomaly and a total badass.
We patiently waited in an unofficial line on the floor while I watched this chain smoking elder monk with tiny reading glasses carve these tattoos into person after person, with every passing minute these things looked more and more painful, as the concept literally is just getting stabbed by a long sharpened piece of wood about 1000 times to create these symbols, and there’s quite a bit of blood involved.
There were no words exchanged by anyone besides a few grunts and groans from the people getting their tattoos done, and occasionally the monk would speak to some of the helping hands in the room to do things like clean the needles or get him a towel, otherwise it was eerily silent.
About 1 hour of waiting later the monk motioned to me to come forth, I removed my shirt, sat down in front of him and clasped my hands waiting for a searing pain to hit me. There were no words exchanged, he just sat there and analyzed me for a few minutes and then threw the stencil on my upper back for where he wanted it to be, and boom, he just started shanking me.
Two men on each side of me grabbed my skin as the monk went along, this kept the skin tight enough for him to be accurate with his piercings so that mistakes wouldn’t be made.
I clasped my hands, closed my eyes off and on, and just tried my best to not say a damn word and to not show any weakness as there were some twenty locals in the room watching curiously. As the obvious minority here and not something that they see here everyday I felt like I especially had to man up as much as possible, no weakness, though on the inside I’m pretty sure my subconscious was just screaming for the whole twenty minutes.
I’d wager after the first ten minutes I just became kind of numb to the pain, I got used to it gradually, though my hands were clasped on my arms about as tightly as you could imagine throughout the whole entire process, you would need a crowbar to get me to let go!
Once the tattoo was completed and the pain began to go down the monk started talking to one of the men grabbing my skin for a little while, then he began chanting. He spoke the traditional Buddhist chants and then blew on the tattoo a couple of times, while dousing it with some water as he kept chanting so as to complete the magic protection of the tattoo. This completes the spell that was placed on the tattoo, and the chant that Luang Pi Nunn chants is called Kataa (which of course translates to “magic spell”), this unleashes its power.
It was complete, I had survived my bamboo tattoo experience, though there was still so much more fun in store for me that day! I’d be lying if I said I still wasn’t a bit skeptical of the thoughts of HIV, but I’m going to try to keep this thing positive so…..moving on….yes that was an HIV pun, deal with it.
Convincing my Motorbike Driver to get Another Tattoo
This is quite possibly my favorite part of this whole endeavor, because it was so spontaneous and random, I love that kind of stuff.
My motorbike taxi driver when he had woken up for work that day had NO intention or idea that he would drive a random foreigner out to this legendary temple to get a tattoo and he especially never thought that he would be getting his own tattoo that day.
As soon as my tattoo was completed I hugged it out with my delightful new friend (as many of you know, I’m a hugger), he was so happy that I had gotten this. He exclaimed to me how much into Buddhism he is, showing me albums of pictures of places he had been to of his own that were primarily religious significant locations of Buddhism. I explained to him that I myself was not Buddhist but had a great deal of respect for the teachings of Buddhism, as this is not a false claim I truly believe that there are a lot of values and life lessons that can be learned from this religion. Having traveled through so many countries where Buddhism is so prevalent, I took it upon myself to do a fair amount of reading on the subject.
Honestly in a bit of a joking manner I offered to pay the donation fee for my driver, and exclaimed that he should get his own Sak Yant tattoo to complete the day, as it had been twenty years since his last one. Without a single second of hesitation he said; “okay!!” and so I bought the donation of flowers, incense and cigarettes for the guy and he immediately jumped into line on the floor, it was a sight to see.
He got his Sak Yant done without a single grunt or groan of pain, the man was made of steel. He had already gotten two others done on his upper back, so the monk decided to give him a piece on his mid back, this was not a small one either. As it was a bit larger than mine it took about 30 minutes but I was just still stoked that I actually somehow convinced this man that I had just met not four hours ago to get a tattoo on the spot!
After it was all said and done we took pictures of each other’s tattoos in front of a background of his choosing, he was on cloud nine and this in itself made me way too happy. He invited me to come to dinner and meet his family back in Bangkok after we left, and of course I said yes to this offer. He showed me off like some kind of prized art piece when introducing me to his wife and son, I would also like to point out that this was some of the best Tom-Yum Soup I had in all of Thailand, his wife should be have her own cooking show on the food network.
My Sak Yant Symbol
So after all was said and done what Sak Yant tattoo did the monk give me and what did it mean?!
The symbol is called Gao Yord, aka 9 spire (or peaks). This is a magical and one of the most sacred of Sak Yant tattoos in the Buddhist culture, it is supposed to protect the wearer from physical attacks, as well as bring good fortune from many directions, thus it is often translated as being given to those who do a great deal of traveling and need protection from many different directions, this would make quite a bit of sense for me.
The 9 spires represent the 9 peaks of Mount Meru, which is a mythical mountain from Buddhist/Hindu legends that is thought to be the true center of the universe, on top of each of the peaks as you’ll see in the picture sits a small Buddha with the spirals on top representing the path to enlightenment, spiraling upwards of course!
This is one part that I find especially intriguing about my Sak Yant tattoo, there are a special set of “rules” that should be followed to make the best use of the good fortunes and protections brought on by this spell. They are as follows:
- I can’t have a lover who’s already married (well shit there goes my Wednesday night plans…now what?!)
- I can’t eat leftovers (I do this weekly, does meal prepping count? I might be SOL on this one)
- I can’t indulge in food from a wedding or funeral banquet (Don’t invite me to your weddings anymore I guess people, sorry, not my fault).
- I can’t consume star fruit, pumpkin, or any other ‘gourd’ vegetable (does this include pumpkin spice lattes or pumpkin pie, because myself and every basic white girl on this planet will not do well with this)
- I can’t slander anyone’s mother (I had better stay off of the comments section of literally anything online then, also no more YELP review I think….dammit)
- I can’t cross a single head bridge; but large or small bridges are not forbidden (Does it still count if I have next to no clue what this even means?!)
- I can’t brush by the blouse or skirt of a woman, especially during the menstruation period (for one how am I supposed to know, and for two well…. I should probably just not even comment on this one never mind)
- I can’t let a woman lie on top of me, or sit on top either (this is just one that I simply cannot and will not follow, there goes my good fortune, I regret nothing for this one though)
- I should not sit on a ceramic urn (Don’t think this should be an issue, can’t say I normally do this)
- I should not duck under a Thaanii banana tree (well how the hell am I going to pick bananas now? Grocery store? As if)
- I should not duck under a washing line or an overhanging building (you know what, I’m at the end of this list and I’m out of anything sarcastic or witty to say, oh well).
** Have any interest in doing something like this or have any questions on this? Or are you traveling to Thailand anytime soon?! Message me and I’d love to help you! Hope you enjoyed reading this now I have to go make sure that I’m following these damn rules, wish me luck, number 5 will be especially challenging.