Although many pieces of pop culture, film and otherwise, have painted Bangkok as a place to get black out drunk and fondle young females, there is much to enjoy beyond this sad reduction of a culture. Thailand not only has culinary arts that delight with spice, it also has gorgeous islands that stun, enthralling architecture and folk arts, as well as a wealth of spirituality that is not readily found anywhere else. For many Buddhists, Hindus, and beyond, Thailand can be an epicenter of incredible temples, enlightened awakenings, and warm communities.
During dinner one night at the Bangkok-based hostel, the gathered travelers all began talking about their plans for the next day. I mentioned the sacred Sak Yant tattoos at Wat Bang Phra, an ancient tradition still being practiced at a famed temple. Some were less than ecstatic about the idea, but my roommate Carlo said he’d love to take the plunge with me and we began making arrangements.
After taking the bus from the busy circular city center only a five minute walk from our hostel, we got off at the directed spot, and looked around. It seemed to be a desolate area with cracked plastic signs advertising old electronics and car parts. Crossing a bridge over the long sun soaked highway below, we came to a corner where a few men were hunched lazily over their dirt bikes and scooters. We asked the riders if they could take us to Wat Bang Phra and, after packing up behind a willing driver, the three of us were off on two wheels through a landscape of pineapple palms and farm lands. Bumping along the dusty red road, we finally made our way to the gates of the temple complex. On the property there are not only large temples basking in the glow of sunlight, but also a magnificent array of colorful sculptures, each representing characters from Thai folklore. We took pictures in the mouth of the tiger, and looked over the quiet running Tha Chin river.
The traditional red tiled roofs and golden spires loomed above us and, awe-struck, we approached the small greeting center to buy our gift of incense, cigarettes, and flowers for about the cost of $5. This is what we would use in exchange for our magical Sak Yant tattoo. Placing our aromatic offering on a small brass alter, we gathered with the others to wait until the Sak Yant master arrived. The walls were thickly plastered with centuries of splattered ink and dirt. Cats wandered in and out of the rooms at their leisure. When our monk approached, tools in hand and with a rather severe expression, the procession started quickly. There was a vibrating anticipation in the air almost thicker than the heavy humidity itself.
Happily, I was second to be tattooed. The rest who waited simply sat with either patience, or immense curiosity, and others still sat deep in prayer. After bowing to the monk three times, I lowered myself onto a cushion in front of the monk, was pushed into position with the end of a magic marker, and then felt a few hands stretching the skin of my back.
Monks who have taken vows and joined the order are not allowed to touch the skin of female bodied persons, but layman, a non-monastic Buddhist, are able to help with this hitch. The monk only uses one needle for every person, and before he began it was dipped into a dark liquid I could only imagine as pure alcohol, then dawbed into ink, and then into my skin. I had heard of people describing the sensation as hot, and it is true that I have never received a tattoo that burned as much. But it was over before I knew it. My Hah Taew Sak Yant Tattoo was finished; the monk was whispering the last few lines of a prayer, blowing his breath and blessing over my tender shoulder.
My particular Sak Yant tattoo is the Hah Taew, or Five Lines, and, like all of the Sak Yant’s, it not only acts as a protective amulet, but also comes with particular rules to follow so that the power of the spirit is not diminished. Each line is a magical spell: “The first row prevents unjust punishment...cleans out unwanted spirits and protects the place you live in. The second row reveres and protects against bad horoscope constellations and bad fortune. The third row protects you from the use of black magic...the fourth row energizes your good luck, success and fortune in your future ambitions and life style. The fifth row is to gain charisma and attraction to the opposite sex. It is also a boost to the fourth row.”
Perhaps the other most well-known Sak Yant designs are the Gao Yord Sak Yant Tattoo or Nine Peaks, and the Paed Tidt Sak Yant Tattoo or Eight Directions. Just as each one has different meanings, and different connections to its religious affiliations, they also have different Sak Yant rules that the wearer must commit to following as a means to preserve the power of the spell. These can range from not drinking or doing drugs, but can even include not having sexual relations in particular positions, or not eating particular foods like Star Fruit or leftovers. Many of these rules stem from the precepts of the Buddhist Eightfold Path, which is the way of life towards enlightenment.
There are now $90 “tours” that take you from hotel to temple, and back, in a nice clean, private bus. The providers take care of the fees, you’re allowed to meander the grounds, and you get your very own ink. But, if you’re looking for a more adventurous route, and you want a taste of real Thailand, I suggest trying more pure forms of Bangkok travel. The padded ease of air conditioned tourism often makes for a less visceral experience, and you’ll see more of the country if you leave the safety of your comfort zone.
I will admit that I am not a leery traveler and that I often take chances here and there if I think the experience will be worth it. Some may think this includes my Sak Yant tattoo. However, while there have been many concerns voiced that Wat Bang Phra, due to lack of health code standards, can transmit diseases, there have never been any recorded episodes of such and spiritualists continue to make the pilgrimage to receive their inked blessing. It is a favorite destination for many, including tattoo artists like Chad Koeplinger and Craig Chazen aka Boxcar, who are interested in spiritualism and its particular iconography. The temple, Wat Bang Phra, also has a yearly festival that celebrates the tattooing tradition and recharges the power of the divine Sak Yant.
If you aren’t interested in taking a chance with Wat Bang Phra’s shared needles, many artists, including Arjanneng, Sak Yant Embassy, and Thai Tattoo Café continue to practice the ancient Sak Yant tattoo tradition in a more regulated environment. They stick to traditional designs, bless your piece, and even add a small piece of gold leaf for luck. It can be a deeply rewarding, enriching, and fulfilling experience. So it’s important to realize that although you can easily print out one of these ancient symbols and take it to your nearest tattoo studio, the technique of Sak Yant is one that takes years of spiritual tattooing practice.
“The Sak Yant Master must learn Pali, the sacred Buddhist language, the ancient Khmer alphabet, the yantra designs and the Blessing chants that go with each. In northern Thailand many also learn and use the ancient Lanna language and script, and many Sak Yant tattoos in this region use this script over the Khmer. In addition, the power of the Sak Yant is drawn from the Sak Yant Master and they must learn and practice throughout their lives meditation techniques to harness the magic that is used in the sacred blessing. Only after their masters feel they are ready, are they given the Ruesi mask, signifying they have gone from being a student to being a Master.” Any tattoo artist can replicate a design, but it takes a master to know the mystical intricacies of something that is deeply interconnected with ancient faith. It is not for everyone, but it is certainly well worth the earning.
There are also tons of tattoo studios in Bangkok for some regular tattoos as well! Don't think that going to Thailand means you can only leave when blessed with a Sak Yant! I, of course, did both. I received the cutest tiny little traditional Thai tiger illustration that I had found on an antique scroll during a trip to the Jim Thompson house...another worthwhile tourist stop. I went to BKK Ink because they have English speaking artists and good reviews. It was a clean shop with a great family atmosphere.
For those first traveling to Thailand, I suggest doing some research! Figure out what your goal for your trip is, what you're hoping to glean from your travels, and why you want to go to Bangkok. You can then find out what experiences may best support the trip you have in mind. I was able to visit with elephants at an ethical conservation center, dance under waterfalls, speed through canals on water taxis, touch a 150 foot long golden Buddha at Wat Pho and so much more. I couldn’t possibly encapsulate, perfectly, how beautiful this place is at its heart and the effect it had upon me.
Bangkok certainly has some culture shock in store for many people. It is not the cleanest, wealthiest, or most sophisticated of cities, but if you are open to it, you will find the best of what this city has to offer.