First off, we just wanted to give a big thanks to each and every one of YOU who have been supporting and following us through this journey and all of our adventures these last 3.5 months in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. It means a lot to know that you care enough to keep up with where we are and what we are doing. THANK YOU!
An especially enormous thank you to our families who have supported us in many more ways than one, who have given us endless words of encouragement and motivation, and have had a never-ending supply of patience with us and our not-so-traditional ways of living. We love you, and your support means everything! We would not be where we are if not for your tremendous love and generosity.
Starting April 17th, we will be joining an intentional community and permaculture farm called the Panya Project, located about two hours outside of Chiang Mai. We will be focusing on sustainable living and existing in tune with the natural world, and will thus have very limited access to WiFi for awhile. You can read more about the project here. We may continue writing blog posts about our experiences at the farm depending on internet access, but they will be fewer than those we have been posting while traveling.
Our goal is to spend the next 3 months at Panya, but we will be returning to Ohio in late July for a wedding! Yay!
We do not have solidified plans for what we will be doing in August and onward, but we do have loose plans to go abroad again, if finances allow, so we very much look forward to seeing our family and friends while we are home for a few weeks in July/August.
Once again, thank you everyone, for keeping up with us and we hope everyone is having an incredible summer!!
So much love,
Nicole and Jojo
P.S. Here’s a little recap of the last 3.5 months. Time sure does fly. 🙂
Our first taste of Songkran was actually up in Pai. We were walking down the street as per usual, when a grown man appeared out of no where and tossed a bucket of water at us as we passed his restaurant! ‘Officially,’ Songkran is celebrated April 13-15th for the Thai New Year, but many people start throwing water several days early and several days after the festival has ended.
The tradition of Songkran began by sprinkling water on family members as a symbol of cleansing and purification, in celebration of the new year. Today, it has evolved into a full-on, country-wide water fight with buckets, water guns, and lot and lots of drinking.
There are pretty much no exceptions regarding who you are allowed to throw water on. Kids are doing it, old people are doing it, everyone is doing it! Supposedly if you hold your hand out, people are supposed to respect your disinclination to be pelted, by just sprinkling a little bit of water on your hand, but we saw countless people attempt this maneuver and get drenched anyway. There were people that looked like they had just arrived in Chiang Mai and were carrying their giant backpacks around with them, pour souls.
The first official day of Songkran was the day we went to the elephant park. As we were returning to Chiang Mai after visiting the elephants, it took us nearly an hour just to get into the city and to our hotel. The traffic was insane and there were people absolutely everywhere. We were too exhausted from playing with elephants all day to partake in the excitement and decided we would participate the next day. We did get drenched just walking into our hotel, though! There is no escaping it!
The second day we went out to the main road near our hotel in mid afternoon when the festivities were in full force. We got soaked within 5 minutes of being outside our hotel. Sometimes we would get squirted with a gun and look around, only to find that a business man (in a suit!) was shooting at us from inside his office. Sometimes the servers at a restaurant would throw buckets at passerbys when they had a break between tables. Lots of people drive around in the back of pickup trucks with huge barrels of water (full of ice!!) and dump buckets on people as they drive by. It is absolute insanity.
Our street really enjoyed shooting people riding by in tuk tuks. Sometimes the tuk tuk driver would intentionally slow down or even stop so that the people could drench his passengers! Tourists and locals alike were ganging up on them and forming alliances to fight epic water battles from opposite sides of the streets. Ya know, even with oncoming traffic in both directions. (The death toll is pretty high during Songkran.)
The third day and last day of Songkran was the day we really decided to turn out and do it right. We had our water guns (and a bottle of booze) and headed out to the canals where things were really crazy. People use the canal water to fill up their buckets and water guns. Yes, it is disgusting; but we’ve also jumped in Mirror Lake at Ohio State…so it’s fine. We were surrounded by screaming people pelting each other with ice water, and stages thumping loud house music with soaking wet Thai people raging their faces off.
We were soaked the minute we stepped out of our hotel, but it was the people driving around with buckets of ice water that really got us! You never get used to it. To be fair though, April is the hottest month of the year in Thailand, and we weren’t feeling it, being soaked in ice water all day! It was a nice relief, though a bit shocking!
We moved on from the canal after a while and stumbled on a parade going through town. There were lots of different groups and some of them were dancing and playing traditional music while people threw water on them!
We ended up in a group fight with a bunch of other backpackers for a while. Some hotels/restaurants would have a big barrel out front for people to fill up their guns so there would always be a congregation of people surrounding them. It seemed like people were pretty generous about sharing water, but you had to ‘pay the toll’ of being pelted by all the people standing around it in order to get any!
After that, we ended up on the main road near our hotel again where things got just a little out of hand. Joe jumped on (and fell off) a moving tuk tuk in order to drench the passengers inside. Meanwhile, I had teamed up with a 4 year old Thai boy and we were sneaking up on people and shooting them from two sides at once. At one point the owner of the restaurant we were in front of started telling people they couldn’t use any more of his water because they were not ‘friends.’ But for some reason he continued letting us use it! I think he appreciated us keeping his child entertained for several hours!
By about 7pm we were absolutely exhausted (and quite drunk) and ended up calling it a very early night! We woke up the next day sore and scraped, but it was most definitely worth it! It was a pretty unique New Year’s celebration and one of the wildest parties in the world! We were glad we were in town for the celebration and grateful for the opportunity to participate.
After several days relaxing in Pai, it was time to make the treacherous journey back down to Chiang Mai. The ride was just as nauseating as the first time, but soon enough we were being dropped off at our hotel. We booked a room in advance because we were going to arrive the day before Songkran, the biggest water fight in the world, being a three day celebration of the Thai New Year.
It also happened to be a Sunday, which meant we got to check out the Sunday Market in the center of town. It was full of the usual clothing and handicraft vendors along with street artists and exotic treats. It was also incredibly packed because so many people were in town for Songkran. Chiang Mai is a major destination to celebrate Songkran so the city gets packed with both Thai and foreign tourists. It was a little chaotic!
The next day we had made reservations for one of the activities we had been looking forward to for months: playing with elephants!
We were picked up at 8:30am by a van that would take us the one hour ride to Elephant Nature Park, a rescue and rehabilitation center, known for its ethical treatment of elephants and ambition to spread awareness of the plight of the Asian elephant. During the ride, we got to view a National Geographic documentary on the treatment of elephants in most Thai elephant camps. It showed video documentation of the horrific breaking process called “Phajaan,” where a baby elephant is ripped away from its mother and put in a tiny “cage” that it barely fits into, completely restricting all movement. Then, it is stabbed and beaten with nails, chains, and bullhooks to “teach the elephant who is boss.” This is an ancient process used often in Thailand, and is considered to be the only way to domesticate an elephant for riding and working purposes.
Basically, the video explained that a major reason this process is still being used, is because there is a huge tourist demand for riding elephants. People can make money off of domesticating elephants to be ridden, so this process is being perpetuated by the thousands of tourists that come to Thailand to ride elephants each year. There are some camps that claim to offer ‘ethical’ elephant rides by only making the elephants work for a few hours a day, and limiting the weight on each elephant, but that doesn’t stop people from wanting to cash in on the elephant riding business, and thus continue using the Phajaan process.
But, doesn’t the idea of sitting on top of an elephant and trekking through the jungle sound awesome?? We thought it did, but we were glad that we did the research beforehand on the ugly side of this popular activity. Elephant Nature Park is unusual because it does not offer any elephant rides. Most of the elephants in the park have been rescued from such places and are now allowed to roam the park, have immediate access to veterinary care, and interact with guests in a much more ethical/humane way. After doing a lot of research beforehand on the treatment of elephants, this is why we chose to go to Elephant Nature Park instead of any of the other elephant camps.
Once we arrived at the park, we were briefed by our guide on what we would be doing and how to safely interact with the elephants. We were told that some of the elephants in the park still suffer from mental issues because of the abuse they experienced in the past, so we should only approach elephants that our guide indicated were friendly. It’s also important to approach them from the front if you want to pet them, because they can’t see you if you’re standing behind, and they will kick!
The first thing we got to do was feed the elephants. This part we had to do from behind a fence on a large platform to protect us from their trunks. They bob their heads up and down a lot when they’re being fed and the force could knock you over! They knew what we were coming over to do and started reaching their trunks out to us before we even had anything to give them.
Our guide brought us a big laundry basket full of corn and watermelons to give to the elephants. We held it out to them in our hand and they would use the ‘finger’ on the end of their trunks to grab it and place it in their mouths. Sometimes they would get a piece they didn’t like for some reason and would just drop it on the ground after grabbing it, then reach out for a new piece!
After feeding them for a while, we walked down the steps to walk around the park. We followed our guide to a group of three elephants that we were allowed to approach and pet. The oldest of the three was 75 years old! They were all very sweet and gentle.
After hanging out with those three for a while, our guide beckoned us to follow her again to meet another elephant. This one was hanging out alone near the Medicine Room. Our guide told us that she is very paranoid of other elephants and will run away if they get too close to her. She also had a hole in her ear, a scar from her abusive past in the illegal logging industry. Now she wears a flower earring in it!
Our guide called for us to move on again and we walked across the park to a group of three ladies snacking on more corn and watermelon. One of them, whose name is Medo, was one of the most touching and heart wrenching elephants to meet. Medo was also employed in the logging industry, until she was injured by a log that broke her ankle. Because of her injury, she was no longer able to work in the logging industry, so she was was forced to breed instead. She was chained and savagely attacked by a huge bull in musth (an aggressive period caused by hormones) that left her with a dislocated backbone.
Luckily she was rescued and though her injuries will never properly heal, she now lives a life free of abuse and has even made some close friends despite being isolated for much of her life.
After that it was time for lunch, which was a surprisingly delicious buffet of all kinds of curries, meats, veggies, and noodles. Definitely better than what we had expected, especially since it was a buffet. Our guide told us that after lunch we would get to meet some baby elephants!
Our guide led us across the park again where we found a group four adult females and a 1.5 year old baby named Yindee. He was closely followed by his mother Mintra, and his nannies, Mae Jampaa, Malai Tong and Jarunee.
We watched them interact for a while and then followed them down to the river where they proceeded to take a bath, rolling around and splashing in the water. Yindee was being particularly playful and even trying to climb on top of the adults. Sometimes he would go underwater for minutes at a time and all we could see was his little trunk sticking out above the surface.
It was hard to discern what exactly had happened but at some point they all started trumpeting at each other and we were hastily told to back away as the elephants came out of the water. Some of them started making really loud growling noises that sort of sounded like tigers or lions, and it got a little bit intense. We asked our guide what was happening and she said it was because of the baby (there was a little bit of a language barrier.) It looked like they were being protective and once they were out of the water, the adults surrounded the baby so he could hardly be seen.
Somehow, whatever they were concerned about passed and they started throwing dirt on their backs which was really adorable. Our guide said they use it as ‘sunscreen.’
Next, we walked to a different part of the river and got to give an elephant a bath! We were given buckets to throw water on her back. It was blazing hot and she looked like she was in heaven.
After playing in the river, we walked back to the platform to meet “the big family.” The family consists of a 2.5 year old elephant named Nevann and his nannies, one of whom is named Kham Pan, an elephant rescued from a trekking camp. Apparently she was given to the park after she collapsed under the weight of tourists going for a ride, and was too old to continue. After receiving higher quality treatment at the park, she regained a lot of her energy and became a little unruly. For some reason, when Navann was born, she developed an infatuation with the baby elephant and hasn’t left his side since. They call her “Super Nanny.”
It was really intimidating being surrounded by this huge family. One of them almost accidentally crushed us against a wall, when she was rubbing up against a post to relieve an itch! It was fun to watch Nevann running around causing mischief.
The last baby we met was Khun Dej, a rescued orphan boy whose foot was damaged in a poacher’s trap. He was enjoying himself, snacking with his nannies.
After that, it was time to say goodbye and head back to Chiang Mai. We fell asleep on the van almost immediately after a long day visiting with the elephants. We capped the night with a bottle of wine and the new episode of Game of Thrones.
Our visit to Elephant Nature Park was absolutely incredible and most definitely a highlight of our journeys. Being able to interact with the elephants so intimately (and ethically) was a really amazing opportunity for which we are very grateful. Very glad that such a wonderful operation exists and that we were able to help support their cause.
Breakfast: 95b ($2.93)
Elephant Nature Park Single Day Visit (x2): 5,000b ($154.19)
After a few days in Chiang Rai, we wanted to visit Pai, a small town in Northwest Thailand. Unfortunately there is no direct bus from Chiang Rai, so to get there, we had to first travel back down to Chiang Mai and then up again to Pai.
First we had to get a tuk tuk to the Chiang Rai bus station, where we were pointed toward a booth to buy a ticket to Chiang Mai. The bus to Chiang Mai was pretty uneventful and took about 3 or 4 hours. Once we got there, we had to figure out where to buy a ticket for Pai. We asked the woman sitting at the kiosk thing and she pointed us to another bus station “bus station 2” that was right next to the one we were in. Once we found the right place, we bought our tickets and had to wait about half an hour for the van to leave.
The van to Pai bordered on agonizing. The trip is famed for its 762 curves, some of which are vomit-inducing hairpins, and the driver was persistent on maintaining a ludicrous speed the entire way. To top it off, we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so we were in an unpleasant state of hungry yet nauseous…
It took another 3-4 hours to finally get to Pai, but it was definitely worth the trip! We found a cheap room right on the main street right away, just as the sun was going down.
Pai is known for being a “hippie town” and very tourism-oriented, but picturesque and laid back.
We spent four relaxing days in Pai enjoying the superb scenery, drinking smoothies and kombucha at all the different cafes, enjoying some of the best Thai food we’d had in the entire country, and having a few drinks at the various bars around town that had live musicians every night.
The last day was probably our favorite. We let ourselves sleep in past breakfast and got brunch at a place called Ohm Garden Cafe which was delicious, then hung out at our bungalow for a few hours before heading to Pai Canyon to see the sunset.
We took a roundtrip tuk tuk for 100 baht each and got there about 30-40 minutes before the sun went down. We explored the area and climbed around the rocks. The view was breathtaking! (Though some call it the “Thai’s response to the Grand Canyon” which is really reaching.)
The sunset was amazing and it was the perfect way to spend our last day in Pai.
When we got back and were trying to decide where to eat for dinner, Joe had the idea that we sample a whole bunch of street food instead of going to a restaurant. It ended up being a great idea!
We started out with sushi that was only 5-10 baht per piece! Then Joe tried a couple of different sausages on a stick.
Next, Joe finally made good on his promise to try a fried insect while in Thailand. His choice was cicadas, but the woman threw in a couple of meal worms as a bonus. He said the locusts were crunchy like potato chips and he actually ate a couple of them until he got one that was a little underdone and described it as being “meaty.” He did not eat any more after that.
To take his mind off of the chewy insect carcass he had just ingested, we tried some homemade beef jerky which was pretty good. They even warmed it up over a fire for us.
Lastly we got a piece of BBQ chicken which was pretty good but it was weirdly salty…kind of like ham.
We finished our street food tour with a warm Soy Chai Masala.
After that, we decided to head over to a bar called Edible Jazz (where we had spent the last two nights as well…really liked it there) where we sat on pillows on a bamboo platform and watched the live band they had that night.
After a couple of drinks, we stopped for one last snack at a “Grandma’s Pancakes.” Where an older Thai woman made us the most artistic silver dollar pancakes stuffed with bananas and drizzled in chocolate. They were only 40 baht for 10!
We had a few debates about Pai and whether or not it we liked it. Pai is undeniably a fun place to be, but it’s not exactly ‘authentic’ or ‘traditional.’ It didn’t really feel like being in a foreign or exotic country and sometimes it felt like there were more tourists than Thais there. It could have been a town in California or something. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t cool or enjoyable, just not exactly what you picture when you think of visiting Thailand. We agreed it was still a place well worth visiting, though. The vibe was nice and it was a great little vacation from vacation!
After a long, long (~16 hour) overnight journey from Bangkok, we arrived in Chiang Rai, a largeish city in the very nothern most part of Thailand, at about 8am. Luckily, we had looked up a place to stay and knew where to tell the tuk tuk driver to take us.
Our hotel’s name was Chat House, where we scored a double bed with a fan and private bathroom for only 250Baht, about half the price of our accommodations in the Thai islands. It also had an attached restaurant in a romantic garden setting. We liked the north already!
Despite our desperate desire to just collapse in bed and crash, we decided to take advantage of the day and go see one of Chiang Rai’s most famed attractions, Wat Rong Khun, also known as ‘The White Temple.’ We wandered out of our hotel and down the road until we were able to flag down a tuk tuk. We told him where we wanted to go, and we agreed on 300Baht roundtrip, including wait time at the temple.
The White Temple is a Buddhist temple-styled art exhibit that is owned, designed, and constructed by Chalermchai Kositpipat. He opened the temple to visitors in 1997 and has devoted his entire life to its construction, to this day. In fact, the total construction of the White Temple is expected to take 90 years to complete!
It was clear upon arrival that this was no ordinary temple. Even the traffic cones leading up to the entrance were a bit strange…
The main structure is called the Ubosot. It is an all white building trimmed in tiny mirrors, styled in the likeness of traditional Thai architecture. The building glitters at every angle – it’s pretty magical, and definitely the most unique temple we’ve seen, yet.
When we arrived, the main temple was closed for lunch, but it was going to reopen in about 20 minutes so we used that time to walk around the grounds. The first structure we came upon was a sort of demonic shrine with a bottle of whiskey in the center. Every detail of the temple seemed to be carry religious symbolism, and the grounds around the temple seemed to symbolize the wordly distractions holding us back from what is truly important. This wasn’t the only anti-alcohol symbol on the grounds, but it was a very intense one!
We kept walking further on and came to a line of trees with ghost-like heads hanging from the limbs. Some of the heads were images from Western pop culture. It is said that the artist’s aim is to reimagine the teachings of Buddhism for the modern world…perhaps he’s using villain-like characters to drive the point?
Next we came upon a golden building, the only structure in the entire complex that wasn’t white. Turns out, it was the bathroom! Apparently the artist chose this opulent color for the toilets as a comment on worshipping worldly desires and what their actual worth is. In other words, we tend to associate the color gold with things that are important (because gold is materialistically valuable.) So when you first see the ornate golden building standing amongst the white ones, a person might think, ‘Oh, that must be a special building because it’s gold and that’s a special color!” Alas, no, tis the toilet.
Next, we came upon a half finished building and some tree looking things next to it. As we got closer, we realized they were made out of thousands of hanging tin ornaments. They are sold for 30 Baht and visitors can write a wish or message on it, then hang it one of the ‘trees.’
Right next to the trees was a gazebo, all in white, just like the temple. Inside was a beautiful golden wishing well. Not sure if the gold was another symbolic choice like the toilets? On the inner ring of the well was a picture of each astrological zodiac sign.
Around the corner was a structure styled just like the big temple, but it had a rope across the entrance so visitors could not enter. We weren’t sure what this building was meant to be, maybe it was a newer structure and not entirely completed? Still very beautiful to walk around and admire, though.
Finally, it was time to visit the Ubosot!
The Ubosot is surrounded by a shallow moat full of large, white koi fish. As we got closer to the front of the building, we were greeted by horrifying creatures lining the edge of the walkway. The temple building represents the realm of Buddha, and one must cross and escape the earthly desires (symbolized by demons and ghostly, grasping hands emerging from the earth) in order to enter.
Once we managed to escape the demons and impure desires, we reached the main temple hall. Photography is not permitted inside the temple, but it was unbelievable! The walls were covered in murals including Western idols such as Michael Jackson and Neo from the Matrix amidst writhing flames and demons, but there were also people riding in tranquil cloud-boats that were sailing over a sea of rainbows. Sounds bizarre (and it was) but there is really no way to satisfactorily describe it. You can look at some pictures of the murals here.
Successfully fascinated and weirded out, we headed back to our hotel where we took a nap (couldn’t help it) then went out to explore the Night Bazaar in town. It was a really quaint little market and we got some delicious barbecue for dinner for less than $6. Win!
The next day we set out to visit what could be considered the White Temple’s counterpart: The Baandam Museum, also known as ‘The Black House.’ Like the day before, we wandered down street to find a tuk tuk, and agreed on a 300Baht round trip fare.
In contrast with the White Temple, the structures of Black House are (as one might expected) mostly dark browns and blacks. The complex is the creation (and former home) of a late Chiang Rai artist named Thawan Duchanee. In fact, he was the teacher of,Chalermchai Kositpipat, the artist who designed the White Temple. Like the White Temple, construction is still in progress at the Black House, and it seems the artist put things in place to have it continue after his death.
Unlike the White Temple, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much religious significance to the Black House. It seems more like an ornate collection of things like animal furs, bones, and sculptures. Although it has a darker vibe to it, we found the architecture at the Black House to be more elegant than that of the White Temple.
The grounds are full of buildings of similar style, containing all sorts of strange things. Some are monstrous, some are relatively small. There are even bathrooms decorated with seashells and wood sculptures. There was also some of the most ornately carved doors and furniture we had ever seen.
It was a strange combination of totally creepy, yet somehow elegant. I think it might have trumped the White Temple in weirdness. Wild animals, phallic sculptures…even the skeleton of an elephant…
Perhaps the most bizarre two days of our entire trip, but a good balance between the black and the white! And we couldn’t resist another barbecue dinner at the Night Bazaar.
About 30 miles west of Bangkok lies a Buddhist temple called Wat Bang Phra. It is home to Master Luang Pi Nunn, one of the most well-known tattooing monks in Thailand.
Every single day, people gather at Wat Bang Phra to receive their Sak Yant tattoos from Luang Pi Nunn. Sak Yant is a form of tattooing that originated in Cambodia, but has spread to other countries of Southeast Asia, including Thailand. Traditionally, a long, sharpened bamboo stick is dipped in ink, then tapped into the skin repeatedly to produce an image of blessings and ancient, sacred geometric designs. The monk then blows into the tattoo, whispers a prayer, then blows into it again. It is believed that this process gives the tattoo magical powers that protect or bless the wearer in various ways, depending on the design in question.
The secret recipe of the ink used for the tattoo is only truly known by the individual monk, who makes it himself. Depending on who you talk to or what article you’re reading, it’s believed to contain some combination of herbs, ashes, Chinese charcoal, palm oil, and snake venom…!
To top it all off, there is usually no discussion about the design or placement of the tattoo you are going to receive beforehand. The monk decides the design and location based on your aura and what he believes will benefit you most; and you’ll find out what it looks like after it’s been permanently transcribed on your skin.
After hearing about it and doing a ton of research online about the origin, symbolism, process, and safety of receiving a Sak Yant, we knew we wanted this to be a part of our trip to Thailand. Note: You can get Sak Yant designs at pretty much any tattoo shop in Thailand, but we wanted the real thing. We wanted it chosen and blessed by a true master.
Getting to Wat Bang Phra from Bangkok was the most challenging and stressful part of the entire event. We woke up at 4:15am, got our stuff together, and dropped it off at the front desk of our hotel to hold for us (because we were checking out that day.) We needed to get to Victory Monument, where the buses leave for Nakhon Pathom province. We left early in the morning because we had read that sometimes there are so many people lined up to receive their Sak Yants that many people aren’t able to receive theirs and have to come back another day. Also, the sanitation situation is…not quite up to Western standards…so we wanted fewer people getting tattooed ahead of us.
We decided the best way to get there would be by tuk tuk, so we found one and bargained him down to 100B for the ride. Once we got to Victory Monument, though, we had no idea where the actual bus stop/station was. We walked around the area until we spotted some minibuses. We walked up to the little podium thing and helplessly asked for Nakhom Pathom, until the woman finally understood us and pointed us in the right direction. We evidently weren’t in the right spot, so we had to keep walking further around the monument, somewhat aimlessly, until we asked someone for help again. This time we were pointed just a little further down the street to another group of minibuses. “Nakhon Pathom?” we asked. The man nodded, so we specified that we needed to go to Nakhon Chaisi, the town where the temple is located. With the help of a Thai girl on the bus that graciously stepped in and translated for us, we were on the bus and on our way to Nakhon Chaisi at about 5:30am.
After 45 minutes or so, the bus stopped in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. The bus driver motioned for us to get off, and pointed across the road to a couple of guys sitting next to their motorbikes across the road that started waving at us when we got off of the bus. We had to walk across a bridge to get to the other side of the road, and they offered us rides for 100B each. We probably could have gotten a discount if we had requested to share a bike, but we were tired and we wanted to just get there, so we didn’t argue.
The ride was about 20 or 25 minutes and it was amazing. We raced down the road just as the sun was coming up over the fields and jungles, and that’s when we really got excited about what we were about to experience.
Finally, we pulled into Wat Bang Phra and paid our moto drivers. We walked toward the entrance, but the gates were closed. Despite getting up so early, there were still several Thai men there waiting already! They nodded and smiled at us when we approached and told us that we had to wait for the temple to open.
Since we hadn’t eaten anything that morning, we decided to walk over to the little stand back by the road to get a snack. It was pretty slim pickings, so we settled for some curbside instant-Ramen before making our way back to the line.
When we got back, there were a few more people than before, but there were still only 6 people total ahead of us. There was also a woman selling temple offerings, which must be purchased by any person that wants to receive Sak Yant. The temple offerings cost us 75B each, and included a stem of orchids, a pack of incense sticks, and…a pack of menthol cigarettes. These items serve as the ‘cost’ of the tattoo and are presented to the monk as a gift.
We didn’t have to wait long before the gates were opened at about 7am, and we were allowed to enter. We all took our shoes off before entering and put them on a rack next to the gate. We then walked into the temple, past several large Buddha statues, and into a room about the size of a typical classroom, adorned with more statues and photos of senior monks on the walls. As soon as the people ahead of us entered the room, they got down on their knees and crawled to their space in line. There was also a large golden bowl in middle of the room, where we saw them place their offerings, so we did the same. There were also pink envelopes in a basket for people to put donations in. We had read about that part online, so we knew that we were supposed to put a donation in the envelope (we opted for 100 Baht each) and present it to the monk after being tattooed.
People slowly trickled in as we waited for the monk. We had read stories online of the room being completely packed, but this wasn’t the case for us. We speculated that maybe it was because it was a Saturday morning? But we weren’t sure. All in all, there were no more than 20 people in the room when Luang Pi Nunn finally made his appearance half an hour later.
When he walked in, everyone fell silent and bowed as he passed. His face showed nothing and his robes were stained with ink. In complete silence, he spent about 10 minutes adjusting his light and getting his workplace ready. Then he pulled out a…. wait, what’s that? Is that a tattoo GUN?!
We looked at each other, startled in confusion. What about the traditional method and the bamboo stick and stuff??? That’s what we came here for! We later admitted to each other that we both almost backed out when we saw that tattoo gun, but we’re really, really glad that we didn’t. More on that, later.
Once he had all of his equipment ready and sat down, the visitors collectively crawled forward to offer the golden bowl of gifts to the monk. We kneeled and bowed to the floor, with our hands on the backs of the people in front of us. It was a really beautiful and special moment.
As the monk did not speak at all, the line was self congregated. It was difficult to understand the process of determining who was to go next, but the Thai guys in front (the ones that were already waiting at the gates when we first arrived) seemed to have it under control and everyone just followed their lead. The first one took off his shirt, kneeled in front of the monk, and bowed to the ground three times before turning around and sitting cross legged, with a triangular pillow in his lap to lean on. He was covered in gorgeous Sak Yant tattoos; clearly he had done this many times before. The two guys next in line each got on either side of him and held his skin taut while the Luang Pi Nunn did his thing.
The monk opened a vessel sitting next to him that apparently contained a series of stamps with the Sak Yant designs on them. Later, we learned that it’s not the actual design on the stamp, it’s just a series of lines in order to keep the tattoo straight. All of the symbols and designs are freehanded, with the stamp used as a guide. He pressed it onto an ink pad and then onto the man’s skin before turning on his tattoo gun and going to work on his skin. Because we were sitting in front of the guy getting tattooed, we couldn’t see what was happening, but it took about 2 or 3 minutes before the monk was blowing on his new tattoo and chanting a prayer. His eyes were closed and he chanted so quietly, it was all but inaudible. When he was finished chanting, he blew into the tattoo one more time. The guy turned around and bowed 3 more times to the monk before placing his pink envelope in the bowl next to him. We were shocked when the guy turned around, the tattoo was perfect! And so quick! In fact, it looked even better than a lot of the Sak Yant tattoos we had seen online.
We watched as the line in front of us dwindled away, each tattoo taking no more than a few minutes. Most of the people in front of us already had a lot of Sak Yant tattoos, so they were getting really cool ones. There are a few designs that are really common for first-timers, but these were ones we were not so familiar with, which was neat to see. There was a Thai girl in front of us who had never gotten one and was clearly very nervous! When it was finally her turn, she shut her eyes and clenched the pillow until her knuckles turned white…it was a little unnerving, but when she was finished, she had a big smile on her face!
Finally, there was only one more guy in front of us, and it was Joe’s turn to help hold his skin tight (women are not allowed to do that part.) He got to watch right up close as Luang Pi Nunn worked on his design! That’s also how we found out that the stamp is just a guide, rather than a template.
Then, it was finally Joe’s turn. He bowed three times, turned around, and the monk went to work. I tried to gauge how painful it was by his face, but he was leaning over the pillow so I couldn’t really get a read. (Note: We both have pretty large tattoos already, but we weren’t sure if this gun/process would be any different regarding pain levels.) It was over in no time though, and before I knew it, Joe had bowed again, placed his envelope in the bowl, and I was being beckoned to come forward.
I had prepared to reveal my back by wearing a tank top that could easily be stretched/pulled down and out of the way. It is disrespectful for women to show their shoulders in a temple though, which I rectified by wrapping a long scarf over my chest and around my shoulders/arms. Some of the other women wore zip up jackets backwards so that they could just unzip the back to reveal their skin, while remaining covered. I crawled over (one should not put themselves above a monk, so it would have been disrespectful to stand while Luang Pi Nunn was sitting) and bowed three times, before turning around and awaiting my fate.
Now, monks are not allowed to touch women, but that doesn’t mean women cannot get Sak Yant tattoos. Luang Pi Nunn used a marker (yes, a marker lol) to prod me into the right position, and instructed Joe and the other guy next to me where to hold me down. When it came time for him to do the tattoo, he put a small piece of paper towel under his hand, so that he would not come in contact with my skin. (Interesting fact: Many women opt to get their magic tattoos done in oil instead of ink, making them “invisible.” Apparently they are still believed to bestow magic powers on the wearer, but many Thai women do not want the tattoo to mark them visibly, for social/cultural reasons. The Thai women that were in the room with us did get visible ink, though.)
I braced myself, and before I knew it, the prayer was being blown into my new Sak Yant. We had differing views on the pain level. Joe felt that it felt the same as a regular tattoo. However, given that he had been dealing with a relatively serious burn on his leg, we suspect his pain tolerance might have been higher than usual. I felt that it hurt WAY worse right at the beginning (I was clutching the pillow with my eyes closed like the girl before us) but the pain decreased gradually as the tattooing went on. By the end of mine, I was sitting relaxed with my eyes open, and could easily have sat longer if necessary. Maybe the snake venom ink has a numbing effect or something, who knows.
We were done and out of there before 9am, anxious to get a look at our new ink! Ready…?
Joe had received the Gao Yord, also known as the 9 Spires Yant. It is traditionally placed at the nape of the neck and is one of the most common designs for a male first-timer. All of the men we saw at the temple, that were covered in tattoos, all had the Gao Yord in the same spot at the top of their backs.
The 9 spires are meant to represent the 9 peaks of Mount Meru, a mythological mountain and house of the Gods. It is also said that Mount Meru represents the center of the Universe. A small Buddha (represented by three ovals) sits on top of each peak and the squiggly lines called Unaalome (the ever-decreasing spiral) above them represent the path to enlightment, that gradually straightens out as you move toward it. Each Buddha bestows a special power to the wearer.
In each square is an abbreviation for the different protection spells that will be bestowed upon the wearer. There seems to be some debate about how many squares will be in the design and what spells will be included, but it is generally agreed that they will include good luck, fortune, power, and protection. It is also said that the wearer is protected from black magic and evil spirits.
I received the Hah Taew or ‘5 Sacred Lines,’ which is the most-known Sak Yant design (at least, in the West) and the most common design for female first-timers, usually placed on the left shoulder blade. Most of the Thai women in line with us were also first-timers and received the Hah Taew, as well.
There are different versions of the Hah Taew, but they all include 5 blessings or magical spells, usually including kindness, success, charm, good luck, and protection against evil spirits. At the end of each line is the same Unaalome (ever-decreasing spiral) as the spires on Joe’s design, and they also represent the path toward enlightenment. This design was also popularized when Angelina Jolie got one, so a lot of tourists apparently go to tattoo shops and just ask for one that looks the same. (Unless you get it done and blessed by a monk though, it is not considered to hold magical powers.)
The wearer of a Sak Yant is supposed to follow a set of rules, but there is a lot of debate over what rules and for what length of time. Some say there is a set of rules for all Yant bearers, some say there is a different set of rules for each design, and some say the monk himself decides the rules for each individual. In general, the rules focus on avoiding evil deeds, including killing, stealing, and lying, etc. Some say the rules must be followed eternally, and some say for only seven days after receiving the tattoo. We were not given any rules by our monk. In fact, he did not speak to anyone at all, except for the whispered prayers he blew into each of the yantras he bestowed. We’ve decided that since receiving our tattoos, we will do our best to not commit any evil deeds, and to make a stronger commitment to spiritual growth.
I mentioned earlier that, after the fact, both of us admitted considering backing out because of the tattoo gun…but for some reason, neither of us got up to leave. After we left the temple and had a moment to reflect and discuss, Joe put it really nicely:
“When Luang Ni Punn first began using the tattoo machine, a thought flashed through my mind and was quickly resonated by Nicole. She leaned over and whisphered, “I can’t decide if I am disappointed or relieved.” A traditional hand powered bamboo tattoo is intimidating to be sure, but also a point of excitement and pride about getting the “real” experience. I too was relieved at the familiarity of the tattoo gun, but my disappoint began to grow at the thought of being cheated out of an experience. However, before the disappoint was able to fester, I realized there was a lesson to be learned.
A portion of Buddhist philosophy revolves around the relationship between our expectations and our perceptions. Roughly put, the stronger our expectations are and the further they deviate from reality, the more suffering we are likely to endure. The escape from this sort of suffering is found in awareness of acceptance of any present situation as it is, unmuddied by our desires or expectations of it.
I don’t think the master sak yant monk intended to teach us a lesson with the machine, but I believe we learned one nonetheless. The Sak Yant is not about requesting a desired tattoo, nor even an exchange of expected services. Rather, it is about humbly offering your sacrifice and yourself to a monk and, in turn, the monk offering the gift of his blessing in the form of the sak of his choosing (which choice I now realize includes not only the symbol, but the method of application as well.)
The above reflections and tranquil atmosphere of the temple prompted me to quickly dump my expectations and disappointment in order to fully immerse myself in the truly real and unique experience of that particular morning at Wat Bang Phra.”
In summary, despite our initial doubts/disappointments, we both realized our error quite simultaneously, and decided to go on with the tattoos. Receiving a Sak Yant is a very sacred and spiritual experience, and if a tattoo gun was Luang Pi Nunn’s preferred method of giving them, that’s what we wanted. Being humbled by our own fallacies only made the experience that much more meaningful, and perhaps our magic tattoos will help us remember that lesson.
How much we spent on Sak Yant tattoos, including travel to and from Wat Bang Phra:
Tuk Tuk from Khao San Road to Victory Monument: 100B ($3.08)