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)
Minibus to Nakhom Chaisi: 140B ($4.32)
Moto Taxi (2): 200B ($6.17)
Offerings (2): 150B ($4.62)
Donations (2): 200B ($6.17)
Bus to Bangkok: 40B ($1.23)
Bus to Bang Khae: 70B ($2.16)
Taxi to Khao San Road: 160B ($4.93)
Total Spent: 1,060THB = $32.68 USD ($16.34/each)