Sit still, breathe. It’s only a small amount of time. Focus on something else…
I’m trying to take my mind off the pain in my back when I notice that my guide is talking. She points to the dusty rose carpet that we are sitting on, then points to the emerald green carpet just a few feet away. She is speaking in Thai, so I’m not sure what she is saying. But here I am getting a sacred tattoo from a monk surrounded by gold Buddha’s and small shrines, and while he is stabbing me in the back with a bamboo rod they are having a conversation about the carpet. I didn’t mind, though. Focusing on trying to figure out what they were talking about helped take my mind off of my back.
From the moment I decided I was going to Thailand I knew I could not leave the country without a Sak Yant tattoo. Reading blogs about these unique tattoos can be scary, though. In the more rural areas of the country the ink that is used for every one is all in one pot and while the needle is sterilized, the same needle is used as well. I was going to back out until I found a Facebook group that specialized in taking tourists to sanitary places to get these tattoos. I booked my tour as soon as I could.
Nana, who owns this small business, is a small cheerful woman in Chiang Mai. I was late to my appointment, but she met me with a bright smile all the same. We got into a car with a driver who was just as warm-hearted as she was. The first stop was to a small market to pick up an offering to the temple for my tattoo. She walked me through the alley to a small woman wrapping incense and hand-rolled cigarettes in banana leaves. I paid for the offering and we were on our way to the temple.
Nana talked to me a little, but the day I got my tattoo was the day after the Thai king had died. For most of the drive we listened to ceremonies over the radio. It was about a 30 minute drive out of the city and up a small mountain. We wound our way up into the forest and when only trees were visible, they stopped the car and Nana said “Here we are.”
She led me into a small house to the left of a temple tucked away in the forest. Young monks, maybe 14 years old were running around the grounds. Nana directed me toward the house and entered before me. She showed me how to address the monk, where to sit, and what to say. I recognized him from the photos online and had liked his work.
A Sak Yant tattoo isn’t a regular tattoo. It’s believed to have special powers within each design. Each tattoo represents something different, normally being some sort of protection as well as a representation of devotion to Buddha. The monk has a bamboo rod with a surgical needle at the tip. The needle is dipped in ink then jabbed into the skin. You can get these designs at tattoo shops around Thailand. The lines on the tattoo gun are much more clean, but the tattoo is not blessed. The other difference is in the writing. The script in the tattoos are not normal Thai. It is a language that monks study for many years to understand write. When the tattoo is given by a monk, the monk may change the writing based on the person, while at a tattoo shop you are getting a copy of something generic.
Some monks will choose the tattoo for you, feeling out what you are missing in your life, then giving you a tattoo that will attract the missing energy. The monk I went to allowed me to choose my tattoo myself; whatever I needed I would naturally be attracted to. He wouldn’t tell me what it meant until I chose. Not having done any research ahead of time, I chose the 8-spired circle. This wheel represents the 8 different Buddhas through out the week (One for each day, but Wednesday has Wednesday morning and evening) but it also represents protection through travels. Interesting.
I don’t have pictures of him giving the tattoo. Monks are not allowed to touch women. Even accidentally bumping into a women in the street leads to a lengthy cleansing ceremony. However, the monk I went to see was technically an Adjarn. This means that he was once a monk, but has stepped down to teach young monks. This also means that he can touch women. However, the Adjarn did not want photos of him touching me, and I respected his wish.
I was given a pain killer before we got to the temple, and I’m so glad Nana had them on hand. I’ve had tattoos from a gun of varying pain, my rig cage being the worst. I chose the middle of my back assuming that the pain would only be moderate there. Let me tell you, there is a significant different between a tattoo gun and a bamboo needle. This. Hurt. But it was so worth it and somehow the pain and getting through it in an unconditioned shack next to a temple in the middle of a forest in the 100 degree Thailand humidity made this experience so special.
Once he was done, the Adjarn performed the blessing and placed a bit of gold leaf on my tattoo. It’s not a perfect circle. The lines aren’t clean and it’s difficult to make out the writing. This is by far my favorite and most special tattoo.
The healing process was much more itchy than I had expected. Nana brings lotion that you
can buy to put on the tattoo. The healing process was a little bit longer than a regular tattoo. There wasn’t any swelling and not too much scabbing, but oh man did that thing itch.
If you ever find yourself in Chiang Mai, the link to Nana’s business is here. She just opened a small temple in Chiang Mai where monks will come to give tattoos. It looks like a beautiful building. The option to go to the monk is also still a choice. The initial fee includes transportation to the market, transportation to the temple, the ride back into Chiang Mai, and Nana’s service as a translator, as the monks do not speak any English. Bring extra Baht to buy the offering, a donation to the temple, and to buy the lotion from Nana if you want it. With the deposit, offering, donation, and lotion, the whole experience probably cost me 45-50 US dollars. The experience is worth so much more.