A slow-moving stream of tears rolled down my face toward my chin. A single drop hung there waiting for its partner to make the journey down to the cool concrete floor. The tears land with a quiet thud joining a handful of others that had fallen before.
I have never cried during a tattoo, but today I am. It’s not an uncontrollable balling with shrieks of pain, just silent tears… It doesn’t even hurt that much!?! Why am I crying?
About halfway through the Sak Yant tattoo the corners of the monk’s face roll up into a grin and he says with the innocence that only a monk could possess “You are not crying because of the pain, you are crying because of the magic.”
Maybe he was right, it hurt, sure – but I wasn’t crying from the pain. I honestly don’t know why I was crying, it only lasted a few minutes and before I even realized, he was finished. I wiped away the tears and a few more taps with his needle and my tattoo was finished. Did I really just get tattooed by a monk? In Thailand?
Five years ago if you were to tell me I’d be living in Thailand I’d probably think you were crazy. If you said I’d be getting tattooed by a monk I’d probably tell you to seek help. Isn’t it crazy how life changes and how travel can change you?
Table of Contents
What Is a Sak Yant Tattoo?
Sak means to tattoo or to jab, Yant is the Thai word for Yantra or a type of mystical diagram.
Traditional Sak Yant (also called Sak Yan, or Yantra) tattoos are hand-etched onto the skin using ancient geometric designs mixed with Buddhist prayers.
They are believed to give the wearer magic powers associated with healing, luck, strength, and protection against evil.
Buddhist monks originally engraved Sak Yant into warriors seeking protection and strength in battle.
Often covering their entire bodies from head to toe in magic symbols to prevent knives and arrows from piercing their skin.
Traveling around Southeast Asia while living out of my backpack, I learned about these tattoos from some fellow travelers and thought it sounded like a cool experience.
Another term to explain: Ajarn means a teacher or master of something, we visited a Sak Yant Phra Ajarn aka Sak Yant master monk
The monk who did our Sak Yant tattoos had been giving these magical tattoos for over 20 years. At just 14 years of age, he started training under the most well know Sak Yant Ajarn in all of Thailand. He studied for many years and now he practices out of his samnak which is a traditional Sak Yant studio that has been built at his home, so he can care for his aging parents.
His years of practice were apparent with the speed at which he worked. Ajarn Rung literally drew five lines and the rest was freehand. More on Sak Yant designs below.
You will notice some monks in Thailand are covered with Sak Yant tattoos. Yantra tattooing has been around for over 2,000 years and is still practiced today in Thailand. Sak Yant tattoos are believed to give magical powers such as luck, money, good health, family, protection, etc.
Originally Buddhist monks tattooed warriors who needed protection and strength during a battle, but now anyone can get one. Some people would say this is similar to a witch doctor or even a psychiatrist who will prescribe something to help you.
If you have ever seen Angelina Jolie’s tattoo on her back shoulder and wonder what it was, it’s a Sak Yant tattoo. And no, I didn’t get the same one as her.
Sak Yant Designs
Depending on where you go to get your tattoo will determine your Sak Yant design options. There are still temples around Thailand that offer “free” Sak Yant tattoo (offering is ALWAYS expected, see below), where people line up daily to visit the Ajarn (master monk performing the tattoo) to get their magical tattoo.
If you go to one of these temples the monk will most likely not speak English. You will have no control over what tattoo you are getting or where on your body it will be placed.
I booked the Holy Tattoo Experience at Wat Bang Phra where we had an English speaking guide there for us to translate our whole experience. I’ve never had a tattoo before. Long ago I decided that if I ever received one, I wanted it to be special. Not some drunken challenge in the middle of the night.
The Sak Yant Ceremony
After the monk sketched the perfect blessing for me it was time for the ceremony. I removed our shoes and entered.
A silent moment passed and we had our ideas in our minds on what we needed in life, and I decided something else too.
How Much Does A Sak Yant Cost?
The cost varies Ajarn to Ajarn, but if you’re visiting a temple then it would “free” with a mandatory donation. All Ajarns have a standard fee just like a tattoo shop, as this is how they make a living. The price varies on the size of Sak Yant design but ranges from 1,000 baht to 12,000 baht.
If you visit an Ajarn you will have a fee as well as an offering ceremony. Offerings can be big or small. On our Holy Tattoo Experience at Wat Bang Phra , our guide had arranged our offering for us, but if you visit a temple on your own you’ll need to prepare an offering for the monk. An acceptable offering would contain:
- Incense sticks
- Some money (Thai’s believe the number 9 is lucky so an amount with 9 is best)
If you do visit a temple offering “free” tattoos please leave a large monetary donation. You need to realize that the local Thai people give thousands of dollars over their lifetime to the temples and tourists should not expect to just walk in and get a free tattoo.
Think of it like this, the minimum price of a tattoo in the USA is at least $50 so you should donate at least this in my opinion. It’s wrong for tourists to go to a country and reap the benefits locals have been supporting themselves with for their whole lives.
We presented our offering to the monk and shortly after, Adam was on the ‘tattoo stool’. Naturally, I had him get his tattoo first.
Just One Thing to Note:
A monk is not supposed to be photographed giving a Sak Yant tattoo to a woman because he is not to touch a woman or see her exposed back. In respect to these wishes, you’ll have to just enjoy Adam getting his tattoo and not me! Adam also wanted me to mention that all that talk of crying at the start of this post was not him!
Wat Bang Phra Temple
The best place in Thailand to receive a Sak Yant tattoo is a Buddhist temple called Wat Bang Phra.
It’s located about 40 minutes West of Bangkok.
For hundreds of years, the temple has been a pilgrimage site for Thai people wanting to receive the protection of a magic tattoo, inspiring them to travel long distances.
It’s also home to the most famous Sak Yant practicing monk in Thailand, Master Luang Pi Nunn.
The grounds of Wat Bang Phra are composed of a series of beautifully ornate temples surrounded by colorful statues. I made my way towards the tattoo building located in the back
Cigarettes As Tattoo Payment?
Outside the entrance, I purchased a temple offering consisting of orchid flowers, incense sticks, and menthol cigarettes for 75 baht ($2.40 US) before removing my shoes and heading inside.
Everyone is expected to present these simple gifts to the monk as payment for a Sak Yant tattoo.
The items are then recycled so the process can be repeated, with money from the sales helping with the upkeep of the temple.
You should then make an additional donation for your Sak Yant to the monk.
An old Thai man led me into a dark room filled with dusty golden Buddha statues. Photos of Thailand’s King Rama IX and elder monks adorned the walls.
Ceiling fans slowly whirred overhead, but the room was still hot — as there were 30 to 40 people packed inside.
Waiting For My Sak Yant
It seems I’m not the only one wanting a tattoo today. Master Luang Pi Nunn is in demand here and etches up to 50 Sak Yant tattoos a day. If you don’t visit the temple early enough, you may not get one.
Due to some miscommunication with a motto-taxi driver that morning, I arrived about an hour later than expected. I’d just have to wait my turn and hope for the best!
So I found a spot on the floor and attempted to make myself comfortable over the next 4 hours. The long wait allowed me to witness many others receive their own tattoos.
Eventually, Luang Pi Nunn took a break while the rest of us continued to sit in silence, listening to bird song and cats meowing outside. By now I was up front though, with a great view of his tattoo workspace — and I have to admit it was a bit shocking!
Does a Sak Yant Tattoo Hurt?
Do you think getting stabbed with a pointy steel rod for 15 minutes would hurt? Yes, it hurts.
Does a Sak Yant hurt more than a regular machine gun tattoo? No, not in my personal opinion. This was my fifth tattoo, my other tattoos were all done at a tattoo shop in the USA with an electric tatto gun.
My tattoo on my ribs hurt way more and took three times longer. Everyone has a different pain tolerance and the pain level differs on what part of the body the tattoo is on. Many people say getting a Sak Yant on your shoulder is one of the less painful places, which is where mine is.
Can Women Get A Sak Yant?
Yes, I am proof of that. However, not every monk will give women a tattoo. Thai Buddhist monks cannot touch women and therefore most monks won’t tattoo women. A few Ajarns will give women a Sak Yant while wearing a glove in order not to touch them.
Sak Yant Rules Of Conduct
Every Sak Yant has its own “rules” and some are very strange. Such as: do not eat pumpkin (I love pumpkin soup), don’t drink alcohol (Ummm, well I don’t know about that one).
If you are doing research online you’ve probably seen the most common set of rules are from Wat Bang Pra, which is not only a temple but also training for monks and Sak Yants. The rules of conduct are:
- Do not eat star fruit, pumpkin, or any other ‘Gourd’ type vegetable
- Do not be anybody’s lover who is already married
- Do not slander anybody’s mother
- Do not eat food from a wedding, or funeral (weddings just got a lot less fun, but they didn’t say anything about drinking here)
- Do not eat left-overs
- Do not duck under a washing line or an overhanging building
- Do not duck under a banana tree of the type thaanii (whatever that means)
- Do not cross a single head bridge; large or small bridges are forbidden
- Do not sit on a ceramic urn, especially a cracked, or a broken one (got ya… I think)
- Do not let a woman lie on top of you, or sit on top either
- Do not permit a man to be brushed by the blouse or skirt of a woman, or crossed in front of; especially during the menstruation period.
Is Sak Yant Tattoo Safety?
The safety of Sak Yant is debatable. It can be a risky practice. The needle itself is usually wiped with an alcohol pad after each tattoo.
Or it might be placed in a bottle of alcohol while a separate needle is used for the next person. But the same pot of ink is used with everyone, and blood can mix with the ink.
This opens up the possibility of contracting HIV or Hepatitis. There are no hard statistics though.
After getting a close look at his tools, I got a bit nervous and briefly thought about backing out. This is not the kind of thing you should do if you want to practice safe travel…
The workspace consisted of a few cushions surrounded by bloody rolled-up pieces of toilet paper, a nasty bucket of inky water, old plastic bottles full of rubbing alcohol, and grime caked onto the walls.
I’d also just watched at least 12 people get jabbed with the same couple of needles. And who knows how many went before I arrived.
But then I realized that if it was truly dangerous, there wouldn’t be so many people waiting in line to get one. Right?
Or is the whole room just full of crazy people with a death wish?
Snake Venom Ink!
I didn’t have long to ponder though, as the monk soon returned and it was my turn to help hold the next person’s skin while he worked. This gave me an excellent view of the whole process. It was mesmerizing to watch.
Suddenly it was my turn. Pulling off my shirt, I respectfully bowed three times before turning my back on the man who was about to repeatedly poke a sharp needle into my skin.
Occasionally a monk will deem a person unfit to receive a Yant if they don’t take it seriously, refusing to work on them.
Two local guys held my skin tight as I braced for first-blood. Not knowing what image I was about to get.
Each monk concocts his own special blend of magic tattoo ink too. The recipe is secret, but is thought to contain Chinese charcoal, snake venom, palm oil, and even human remains!
Taking The Pain
When the needle first punctured my skin, it felt like a bee sting. Followed quickly by a swarm of bees launching a full-scale attack.
My muscles tensed up and I began to sweat. Squeezing a pillow in my lap while attempting to look tough for the 40 Thais attentively watching the foreigner for any signs of weakness.
But surprisingly it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. Initially, I was afraid my eyes would water, or worse, I’d pass out in front of a room full of people…
Yet after only 10 minutes and a thousand needle strikes later my new Sak Yant was nearly finished!
To complete the sacred tattoo, Luang Pi Nunn chants a Kataa (or magic spell) and blows it into the design unleashing its power.
Yant Gao Yord Meaning
So which tattoo did the monk give me? It’s called the Gao Yord, or 9 Spire. A powerful and sacred tattoo that protects the wearer from violent physical attacks and magic assaults. It’s also supposed to bring good luck.
The 9 spires represent the 9 peaks of Mount Meru — a legendary mountain from Buddhist and Hindu mythology that is thought to be the center of the universe.
Atop each peak sits a small Buddha, with the spirals above them representing the path to enlightenment.
Inside the boxes are symbols written in Khom, an ancient Cambodian alphabet, but the language itself is Pali Sanskrit. The same mantra is actually written on each side. A mirrored image of itself. It reads: Gu Ti Gu Ya Tha Saa Wae Taa Saa Gu – Gu Gu Ti Saa Tha Ya Gu Saa Taa Wae
Apparently there are also 11 special rules that go with my Sak Yant:
- I can’t eat star fruit, pumpkin, or any other ‘gourd’ vegetable. (no more pumpkin pie?!)
- I can’t have a lover who’s already married. (sounds reasonable)
- It’s absolutely forbidden for me to slander anybody’s mother. (no problem)
- I can’t eat food from a wedding, or funeral banquet. (well that sucks)
- I can’t eat left-overs. (I’d love to know why…)
- I shouldn’t duck under a washing line, or an overhanging building. (um, ok)
- I definitely shouldn’t duck under a Thaanii banana tree. (harvesting bananas isn’t a hobby)
- I can’t cross a single head bridge; but large or small bridges are not forbidden. (no idea what this means)
- I shouldn’t sit on a ceramic urn. Especially a cracked, or broken one. (do toilets count?)
- I can’t let a woman lie on top of me, or sit on top either. (shit!)
- I can’t brush by the blouse or skirt of a woman, especially during the menstruation period. (how am I supposed to know?)
Would I Do It Again?
Yes. Absolutely. I may get another one too. In fact, I’ve learned that the magic needs to be replenished each year with a fresh blessing by the monk. So I’ll have to go back eventually one day anyway.
Thai people from all levels of society take the practice very seriously, and many completely cover their bodies with sacred Sak Yant tattoos.
You’ll frequently find Sak Yant designs on Thai soldiers, doctors, monks, actors, and politicians as well as criminals and mafia assassins.
Women can get them too. Angelina Jolie is probably the most famous.
But because it’s forbidden for monks to touch female flesh, they’ll use a cloth or gloves to prevent contact with women.
Some people choose to receive an invisible tattoo, by using palm oil on the needle rather than dark ink.
I’m very happy with my Sak Yant, it was a wild experience I’ll never forget. Especially with this permanent souvenir on my back!
Sak Yant Tattoo Details
The monestary is located at Nakhon Chai Si, Thailand.
My sak yant tattoo only cost ฿75 THB (about $2.50 USD) plus my additional personal donation, however after a few years it turned into a backpacker Disney Land and they are now charging MUCH more up front.
I’ve heard from others that it has completely lost its authenticity, and often actual monks are no longer doing the tattoos.