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Sak Yant: Getting a Traditional Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand

Sak Yant: Getting a Traditional Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand

Before we ever made it to Thailand, I knew I wanted a sak yant.

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I can’t remember exactly how I found out about these traditional Buddhist tattoos, but once I did, I was on a mission.

sak yant is a traditional Buddhist tattoo applied by tapping a needle on a bamboo stick (or even a sharpened piece of bamboo) to set the ink under the skin.

These tattoos are like amulets for protection, good luck, strength…the list of attributes goes on. There are so many designs, but the basics include the nine spires (gao yord) and five lines (ha taew).

You can get a sak yant tattoo applied by the traditional tapping technique at many tattoo shops around Bangkok, but I wanted to have mine applied by an ajarn. At a tattoo parlor, you can get whatever you want, wherever you want. With an ajarn, placement and design of your tattoo depend on, well, you. They say ajarns will not apply these tattoos to anyone and that the ajarnmust deem you worthy before he will tattoo you. They also say an ajarn will not apply a tattoo that’s wrong for you, so to speak.

I can’t speak for how true that is, as it seems there are those who would be willing to do these tattoos to any farang for a quick buck, but I like to believe this is, by and large, truth.

I decided to visit Ajarn Thoy at Wat Tong Nai for my sak yant. One of the main factors in my decision was that he applies sak yant to women, which not all will do.

It was a sticky February day when we arrived at Wat Tong Nai. There was a crowd outside Ajarn Thoy’s studio, as the room had not yet been open. The crowd was almost entirely Thai women. As the anticipation built, we were finally let into the room to sit Indian-style on the floor in wait. One by one, Ajarn Thoy’s assistants plucked us one by one to receive our sak yant.

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I was nervous about the entire process, especially considering he applies the tattoo blindly (note the mask in the photo) and the inevitable risks for disease (though that turned out to be a non-issue in my case). And, of course, I was nervous to find out whether or not Ajarn Thoy would bless me with a sak yant.

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I had one other tattoo experience before receiving this sak yant. It was a very small tattoo on my right shoulder blade. Let me tell ya, the tattoo with the needle and gun hurt way more than this experience with Ajarn Thoy. This wasn’t pain, exactly. I could feel the point ripping into my skin, no doubt, but it was a very organic, almost transcendent experience.

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After the sak yant is applied, it must be blessed. The shot above is of the blessing.

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This is my ha taew just after it was applied and blessed. Note the raised, irritated skin and drops of blood.

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Another interesting note is that not all ha taews will read the same. Each Ajarn writes his own blessings, so the scripts will be unique based on where you received your sak yant.

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This was the next day. I’ve never seen a tattoo heal so quickly. The swelling and redness were completely gone by morning, and the sak yant never peeled.

Have you ever received a traditional tattoo on your travels?