“Pain?” the monk asked as the bamboo needle repeatedly pierced my flesh and my Sak Yant begun to take shape.
“No…. No, keep going, I am strong” I replied, knowing the only word of English he would understand was strong.
“Yes…. Now strong”, Ajran Rung agreed without stopping the Buddhist Sak Yant, or Yantra that was being etched on my back forever.
For years, I’d wanted a Sak Yant, and I was determined to feel every needle poke, every ounce of pain, every second of the experience.
The day had finally come and so here I was in the middle of nowhere Thailand, sitting in a shrine with a monk, an interpreter, and my mother getting a Buddhist tattoo……but as always I am getting ahead of myself.
I just sat there crossed legged opposite a monk as he rifled through old scrolls, and dusty papers full of magical tattoo designs.
He was deep in thought about the meaning of the Buddhist tattoos and what Sak Yant I would soon be blessed with on somewhere on my body.
Letting a monk you just met an hour earlier pick your next tattoo and its placement might make most people nervous but for me, it was pure excitement.
This was no ordinary monk, though. This was Ajran Rung. His family has been doing Sak Yant for the last 300 years. Ajran Rung as a child also traveled all over Thailand learning the art of Sak Yant from other masters, and he has been performing the Sak Yant and bamboo tattoo’s since he was 13 years old.
I tried to disguise my eagerness by letting my gaze linger on the golden shrines that surrounded me.
The one with the leopard skin tank top and protruding teeth was of particular interest. I quickly glanced out of the corner of my eye to see if the monk had chosen my Sak Yant.
He was still going through papers, so I shot a quick glance towards my mother.
She was visiting Thailand for the first time, and I wanted her to witness an authentic Thai experience, so I brought her along. She sat in the corner, chatting with my interpreter, a friendly middle-aged Thai man named Lowey. He was explaining to my mother the history of Sak Yant.
“A Sak Yant Tattoo is a tradition in Thailand dating back over 2,000 years.” Lowey said, “A Sak Yant, (Also known as Yantra) is a tattoo Given to you by hand by a Buddhist monk. Inside the tattoo are magic scripts that protect the wearer from a variety of things.”
Even today Thai people believe in the magic. Many Thai people get Sak Yant’s to make them more sociable, protect them at their jobs, or even stop bullets. Although I would not recommend trying the latter one out.
But to get the right Sak Yant, the Monk needs to know what you need protection from.
To get the right magic, design, and protection, you have to open yourself up completely to the monk. He needs to know your deepest feelings, fears, and worries.
For me, this was to hold nothing back when talking to the Ajran. Then let him pick my sacred bamboo tattoo, and its placement.
Sharing with the monk my deepest fears and worries. If the monk presented me with a Tattoo I didn’t like I could have said no or told him that I did not feel that this particular tattoo was the protection I needed.
I was committed to trusting the monk, and was set on letting him choose the tattoo and placement for me.
However, there are thousands of different yantras and their meanings are all unique. So the monk could has easily presented me with another Sak Yant if I did not have a good feeling about the first one.
I trusted that after our conversation he would give me the right blessed tattoo.
So just before the monk started going through the designs we were sitting facing one another.
I started spilling my guts to the Ajran, with the help of my interpreter Lowey. The monk and I held eye contact as he listened intently.
I told the monk about my life on the road. The struggles and rewards that it brings.
I shared with him the ways that I felt travel improved me. How its made me a stronger person, how it makes my soul come alive and taught me how precious the small things in life are.
I told with him how much beauty and love I’ve found in the vast landscapes and cultures across the world.
I was worried I would never find love. I shared with him how I had sacrificed friendships, and relationships to travel full-time.
Every step I keep taking on the road takes me further from the girl I love and the battle between the two.
I told him everything this lifestyle cost me, and the fears of what it would cost me in the future.
Half ashamed I looked to the ground; this was stuff I’d never admitted to anyone before, but I kept going.
I was sick of 3-day friendships, and tired of starting over in a new place every week. Once the road made me so social, but the longer I am on it, the more reserved I was becoming. I more I travel the more I keep to myself.
But travel is my passion, it makes me feel alive, and something I can’t imagine stopping.
I told him I needed a tattoo to give me the strength to keep living my dream, chasing my passion, and pressing through the hardships.
We finished the conversation as I told him I wanted to tattoo that would inspire me to grow as a person, but also remind of who I am and where I want to go.
My mother, who left during my conversation walked back into the shrine. She interjected that I am always jumping out of planes, off cliffs, or climbing mountains.
She added that some added protection for that wouldn’t hurt. Which made everyone chuckle.
So there I was sitting on the floor of a shrine waiting for my bamboo tattoo.
The rustling stopped. I looked over as the monk was staring at a page which held some Sak Yant tattoos and meanings.
He walked over and presented me with a Sak Yant a variation of the Paed Tidt.
I was so excited that I could barely keep still as we discussed the meaning of the Sak Yant, and why Ajran Rung had chosen this Buddhist tattoos for protection for me.
What makes my Buddhist tattoo rare is that it is 16 sided. Most Paed Tidt’s are eight-sided. In fact, if you google a 16 sided Paed Tidt, you will find next to nothing about them.
In any Paed Tidt tattoo, the circle means that the wearer is complete and that the-the script on the arrows would protect the wearer in any direction they travel.
The 8 points stand for the different representation of the Buddha.
16 sided Paed Tidt covers all that and much more. The magic script would protect me from those that want to harm me, worry, and keep my body safe.
The magic of this bamboo tattoo also entails the wearer with strength and courage. It would instill me with passion, and protect me from my fears.
It’s the Sak Yant of an adventurer, a nomad, and a dreamer.
I was so excited that I could barely keep still as we discussed the meaning of the Sak Yant, and why he had chosen this one for me.
It was as if hundreds of years ago a monk designed this Sak Yant knowing that one day I would show up and get it.
Again I met Ajran Rung’s gaze.
His eyes were kind, but his stare was deep. I could tell he was analyzing me.
After a moment, he broke eye contact and said something to the interpreter.
Lowey then told me “Your center of energy is the middle of your back, that is where your Sak Yant should go.”
I nodded to Ajran Rung, he smiled, and we began the ceremony.
First, I was presented with incense and directed to a golden Buddha.
Getting to my knees, I bowed before the shrine three times.
As the smoke and smell of burning incense wafted into my face as I said a prayer.
I asked for a fresh start, for courage, and for strength to let go of things I was holding onto.
I recommitted myself to this life on the road, fulfilling my dream, and chasing my passion.
Standing up, I returned to the monk and presented him with an envelope which I put into a bowl.
He lifted it, and I closed my eyes as he gently pushed the bowl against my forehead and started whispering prayers.
I couldn’t help but wonder what my mom, who was raised Catholic, was thinking about seeing her son participate in a Buddhist ceremony.
I turned around exposing my naked back to the monk. My Sak Yant, my first truly blessed tattoos was about to begin.
I fought the urge to squirm as a long bamboo needle penetrated my back over and over again. My flesh was hot, almost burning as the ink and magic of this bamboo tattoo sunk into my pores.
Bamboo tattoos are done by hand and are less painful than getting a normal tattoo with a gun. First, there isn’t the sensation of a needle dragging across your skin that you have with regular tattoos. Instead, you feel small pokes that feel like little stings.
With a Sak Yant or any bamboo tattoo, you also get a break.
After about 15 to 20 pokes the ink needs to be refilled which gives a few seconds to relax, take a breath, and focus.
But while Yantra’s are less painful, you do feel it.
As he kept going, he motioned for me to take more pictures.
After a few photos, I put down the camera so I could focus on the experience of getting a Sak Yant.
But while they are less painful, you still feel it.
The skin on my back was on fire, and I clutched my hands together until my knuckles were white.
For the next 50 minutes, I closed my eyes and concentrated on each sting.
I wanted to immerse myself entirely in the experience this meant feeling everything. I found comfort in the repetitive nature of the bamboo tattoo and imagined the magic sinking into my skin with each poke.
For me, a Sak Yant means a few things.
1- It was participating in a tradition of a culture that I love, and a country that has become like a second home to me.
2- A Sak Yant is a declaration. Even if you don’t believe in the magic of the Sak Yant looking at it is a reminder.
A reminder of your struggles, and fears, and that you have the strength to overcome them. It a promise to yourself to fight to become better, and not to let your struggles rule your life.
3- A Sak Yant is a promise and a commitment to this lifestyle I love.
I received mine about 25 minutes outside of the old city of Chiang Mai. I picked this spot for a few reasons, and I went with I went with a travel company, Where Sidewalks End, which specialize in this type of deep cultural experience’.
– The main reasons I chose this Sak Yant experience is because you get to have a one on one conversation with the Monk.
There are a few places to get Sak Yant’s in Thailand, but most of them you just wait in line with a bunch of other people get your Sak Yant and leave.
Because you don’t get a conversation with the monk they can’t give you protection specifically to who you are as a person.
This means they often give give a ‘generic protection’ such as the Haw Taew, or the Gao Yod , which are said to give you a protection against all bad doings in life. This is the only one I know where you get a conversation with the monk.
This lets your Sak Yant be more personal, and a more meaningful and Sak Yant that is unique to you.
Ajran Rung is famous in Thailand. His family has been giving Sak Yant for over 300 years. When he was younger, he traveled all over Thailand studying the art of Sak Yant from different masters, and he has been giving these bamboo tattoos since he was 13 years old.
–Sak Yant’s began with the Lanna Kingdom as a way to protect warriors in battle.
The Lanna Kingdom is modern day Chiang Mai. Getting a Sak Yant in Chaing Mai means participating in an ancient Thai tradition right where it started.
They have a good relationship with the monk. The monk doesn’t speak English and prefers to deal with people he knows. The guides know the monk well and will provide you will the best Sak Yant experience possible.
The company also gives back to Thailand Part of every tour goes back to helping Thailand. A country that is incredibly dear to me.
Ajran Rung supports his family through his art of Sak Yant. The gift in the envelope is a generous. They also pay their guides and driver much more than a regular Thai wage.
Getting my Sak Yant in was my most memorable experience in Thailand. Which is a country I have spent over a year traveling?