Is a Sak Yant Bamboo Tattoo More Painful?
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath in preparation for the pain I knew was coming. “Do you want to squeeze my hand?” Nathan said anxiously. He knew his time would come all too soon. I flinched a little as I felt the first stab of the needle pierce my skin and thought for a brief second that I might have made a terrible mistake. As the stabbing continued I heard Nathan ask “Does a bamboo tattoo hurt more than a regular tattoo?” We both knew that my pain tolerance was higher than his so I chose my words carefully, “Only a little.”
The fact that I was getting a tattoo at all was a pretty big deal as I’ll explain in a moment. But a Sak Yant bamboo tattoo, chosen just minutes before, in a seemingly random back yard outside Chiang Mai? Crazy!
It’s not that I was a tattoo virgin, I do actually have one other. It’s also not that I dislike them, I think they can be a great way to express yourself. The thing is it took me 40 years to get my first one because I wanted it to have enough meaning that I’d never regret it. *If you’re interested in hearing more about my first tattoo you can check out the post “A Story of Life, Death, Tattoos & Travel”
Anyway, deciding in a matter of days to go ahead and get another tattoo and having no definite plan of where or what I would get permanently etched onto my skin was definitely out of character for me. Not to mention the fact that getting a Sak Yant bamboo tattoo in Thailand is a bit controversial due to the fear of unclean needles. Then there was the question of “How does a woman get a bamboo tattoo from a monk?”
So What Convinced Me to Go For It?
It all started with a a chat with Ian Ord of Where Sidewalks End, followed by reading “Lanna Ink Experience” and finally a good amount of my own research. The fact that the Sak Yant bamboo tattoo has centuries old history behind it, along with a deep and sacred spiritual connection, satisfied my need for meaning. Sak Yant tattoos have been performed for over 2,000 years by monks (Ajarns) as a way to heal, protect and bless the wearer. It is a ceremony taken very seriously by both the Ajarn and the recipient and the bamboo tattoo is believed to contain magic powers.
Still, I’m not sure I would have gone through with it on my own. The assurance of being inked by a reputable Ajarn (tattoo master) in hygienic conditions and having someone I could trust guide me through the whole process was what ultimately sold me. Plus they knew a monk who would perform a Sak Yant bamboo tattoo on women without the need for “handlers”
Some Surprises Including a Vampire-Like Buddha
We were picked up in early morning at our apartment by a driver in a comfortable SUV and greeted by Alex, the director of WSE Travel. The journey to the makeshift shrine/tattoo parlor started early in the morning to avoid a long wait. Appointments are not possible with the Ajarn so people show up and wait patiently for their turn while watching others receive their blessing and sacred Sak Yant.
As we drove to the outskirts of Chiang Mai, our guide, Alex, who has studied Thai culture and history in depth gave us some information on the Sak Yant tradition and also advised on the appropriate way to show respect for the Ajarn (monk). We were told to remove our shoes before entering the sanctuary, not to stand above the monk, approach him on our knees and not point our feet towards the Buddha. Being appropriately dressed is also important when entering any temple. No bare shoulders or legs, although of course you will have to bare the part of your body being tattooed.
After about 30 minutes our truck pulled off the road onto a dirt driveway where we were greeted by a friendly yellow dog and the sound of chickens and roosters. It seemed we were not to be receiving our Sak Yant tattoos at a traditional Buddhist temple. As we stepped out of the vehicle an old lady appeared from a simple Thai house and gestured for us to remove our shoes and wait inside a square, fenced in area in her backyard.
The “temple” was filled with various Buddha statues (some rather creepy), lanterns, pictures and small shrines as well as rugs and cushions to make the concrete floor more comfortable. In one corner was a raised, seating area with cushions, alongside pots of ink, jars of bamboo sticks, books and parchments. Across from it was a rather unnerving statue. “Is that a vampire Buddha?” I asked Alex. He shrugged and laughed. “I have no idea but it does look like it.” (It turns out to be Buddha harnessing the spirit and powers of the tiger..hence the fangs and claws)
I have to admit that I was a bit nervous at this point as the setting was vastly different from sterile tattoo parlors I was used to seeing in North America. However Ian and Alex had assured me that they hand select their Ajarns and ensure the conditions are safe and clean. A big reason why I went with them in the first place.
Choosing My Sak Yant Bamboo Tattoo
Although Nathan and I had a vague idea of what we wanted for our Sak Yant bamboo tattoo we were still open to the suggestions from the Ajarn as that is part of the experience. Old tradition dictated that the Ajarn would select the tattoo for you based on things such as your aura and personal needs but these days things aren’t as strict and the receiver has much more input. While we waited we looked through the several books of magical tattoo designs. There were two that I quite liked but the meaning was written in Thai. I had also been considering the five line design made famous by Angelina Jolie, but it turns out that none of my selections were right for me.
The young monk arrived from the temple unceremoniously in a big pick up truck and waved hello to us before heading into the house to make coffee. He reappeared a few minutes later and took his place on the raised seat. He chatted in Thai with Alex for a few moments and then turned to look at me. Through the interpretations of Alex I showed the monk the images in the books. One was of two geckos intertwined in a heart shape, the other was an organic design of leaves which I found really pretty. I can’t remember the exact meaning of the two images but they had something to do with power and money which was not really I was looking for.
I then asked about the Hah Taew (the 5 line design made famous by Angelina Jolie) which actually made him laugh. He spoke with Alex for a bit who then turned to me with a grin to interpret. “He says that he will not do the Hah Taew. It is not a sacred Sak Yant and has no magic.” What?? “Apparently it was only created about 20 years ago and is usually given to Westerners.” Alex continued. Now I must add here that I have seen plenty of Thai people with the Hah Taew but this is the story my Ajarn gave me and I wasn’t going to take a chance on getting a meaningless Sak Yant!
Finally Alex asked me if there was anything in particular I wanted blessing or protection for. “Well we are travelers so protection is always good. Plus I strive to find a balance in my life of love, happiness, health and prosperity. Does that help?” Alex translated this to the Ajarn and I could see that he liked my answer by the way he smiled and responded. “He has a couple of suggestions that contain all of the protection and blessings you have asked for. Plus he says that the magic in them is not too powerful for you.” Apparently the Ajarn can sense when a particular Sak Yant has too much magic for someone.
Of the two he suggested I was easily able to choose. The Gao Yord is a sacred design of nine spires representing the nine sacred peaks of Mount Meru and the rise to Nirvana. It also contains nine sacred images of the Lord Buddha and is said to provide a wide range of blessings and protection including kindness and compassion from and toward others and protection against serious injury and evil doers. These two things alone are great for travelers like us!
The Sak Yant Experience
Finally the time had come for the painful portion of the experience. The Sak Yant bamboo tattoo is done freehand, other than the drawing on of a few guidelines. The bamboo stick used is intimidatingly long and the needle that is stuck into the end of it is scarily thick. The ink is called Wan and is uniquely made by each monk using an alchemy of ink, herbs and sometimes even animal bile.
As I said to Nathan the application is definitely more painful than a regular tattoo but the upside is that it is much faster. My Ajarn said that he would be taking his time as he wanted it to look good for me and even so it was complete in about 20 minutes! Once the bamboo tattoo was finished the Ajarn covered it with an oil, said an incantation then blew the magic into the bamboo tattoo through the bamboo itself. The final step was a blessing from the monk consisting of more incantations and a splattering of water on my head and shoulders.
When the ritual was complete I bowed low and shuffled away backwards on my knees anxious to get to a mirror so I could see my new Sak Yant! My skin was red, as would be expected after being stabbed hundreds of times with a needle, but the tattoo looked great. Just fyi, the redness was gone within a couple of hours and within 48 hours it looked as if I’d had it for months. I was super impressed with how quickly it healed.
In some ways the experience was much less formal than I had imagined and yet it was also an incredibly special and meaningful one. Definitely something I will never forget or regret. This was due in large part to the Ajarn chosen by WSE. Although still warranting respect, the monk himself was quite informal and approachable. He was quick to smile and laugh and eager to learn about his visitors. At the same time it was clear that he took great pride in his work and the Sak Yant traditions and beliefs. Personally I preferred this to the solemn, less personal and more rushed experience described by visitors to some of the big temples that perform Sak Yant bamboo tattoos.
As I said before, many monks will not perform Sak Yant on females or if they do, they will have “handlers” so as not to touch the flesh of a woman. This Ajarn is known for his willingness to tattoo and bless women. (Although he did not allow photos of my procedure which is why all the action shots you see here are of Nathan.) This makes him a favorite of the ladies, so much so that while we were there Nathan and Alex were the only non female visitors.
In the short time of our visit we met two women who came to receive a personalized enchantment drawn on a rolled parchment and also four female family members who waited and watched as we received our bamboo tattoos. We were told that the elder of the group was in her 80’s and had come for her very first Sak Yant in aid of her failing health. She watched our procedure somewhat fearfully asking if we were in pain. I really hope she went through with it despite Nathan’s teeth clenching and grimacing.
Doing it the Right Way
Although many visitors to Thailand do seek out an Ajarn themselves, I would highly recommend finding someone like Ian and Alex of Where Sidewalks End to facilitate the experience. The combination of having a guide who is knowledgeable and speaks fluent Thai, along with the ease of having all of the logistics taken care of and most importantly the comfort of knowing that everything will be done safely and hygienically is priceless. Plus they also take you for a delicious lunch! Oh and btw, Where Sidewalks End offer lots of other amazing off the beaten path experiences!
If you do decide to go it alone just be sure to do your research and if possible actually talk to people who have had the experience themselves and can personally recommend an Ajarn. Also, unless you speak Thai, go prepared with an idea of the Sak Yant you want and be familiar with the proper respect shown in a Buddhist temple and to the monk himself. Most importantly make certain you are comfortable with the cleanliness of the place and the tools. An un-sanitized needle is no joke. You want the experience to be memorable for reasons other than contracting a disease or infection.
Respect the tradition
Finally, whether or not you believe in the “magic” of the Sak Yant bamboo tattoo, I hope you will view the experience as much more than just a holiday souvenir. The Thai people take this tradition very seriously and fully believe in the power of these blessings. At the very least show respect for the tradition and beliefs and take the opportunity to open yourself up to the unique cultural experience. After all isn’t that what traveling is all about?