“What is your intention?” The staff from Sak Yant Chiang Mai asked me while deciding on the tattoo design I would have. After spending 4 days of doing yoga at Suan Sati, I wasn’t expecting to hear that question which also usually starts a yoga session. But it does makes sense. Tattoos are something that’s contemplated upon. It’s a permanent mark on the skin. So for me it should have meaning. One thing I do know for sure, I will get a traditional Sak Yant tattoo on this visit to Thailand.
Sak Yant Tattoo
When I had my first tattoo, it was memorable since it was done by the famed Whang-od back in 2013. At the time, her craft of was dying art in Kalinga as she was the last of the mambabatok. Today spells a different story with the art seem to be in good hands with young proteges. I’m still proud to have a piece (in fact two) of their culture with me. Since then, I thought, if I ever want another tattoo, I want it traditionally done like this one.
In contrast to Kalinga tattoos, Thailand has a traditional tattoo form still widely practiced until today. They call it Sak Yant. Sak in Thai means “to tattoo”, while yant comes from the Sanskrit word yantra which means “magical insignia”. They are usually done by Buddhist monks or ajarns (former monks) trained in the art of Sak Yant tattoo. They have the authority to bless and activate its enchantment. Traditionally, they use metal rods with bamboo needles, but lately for hygienic and artistic purposes, steel tips are used.
Chiang Mai Sak Yant
Initially I wanted to get my Sak Yant tattoo in Bangkok. The Wat Bang Prah temple is famous for a large crowd of local and international tourist alike, lining up early in the morning to get a Sak Yant Tattoo from monks there. One reason is that it’s cheap as you only pay for at least a minimum donation (usually US$3). But you have to line up for at least an hour to get your turn. If you don’t know Thai, it can be a challenge to communicate with the monk on the tattoo design you like, so often, they just tattoo what they think what is right for you.
Since I have limited time of stay in Thailand, I searched for alternative means online. I stumbled upon Sak Yant Chiang Mai from a blog that availed their service. They seemed quite organized, authentic and have a competitive price. Since I was bound for Chiang Mai, I decided to go with them. They have a couple of options for getting a Sak Yant Tattoo. Initially I wanted to do a temple visit but since I only have less than two weeks before the trip, all slots were already booked. So I went for the second option which is an in-house visit to their shop in Chiang Mai. It only has 2 slots left for the afternoon so I immediately got the schedule after lunch. It’s convenient that they have online booking and payment system via Paypal for reservation. Coming from Suan Sati, I headed straight to their store in Chiang Mai.
In-House Tattoo and Designs
Sak Yant Chiang Mai store is located within the ancient city of Chiang Mai, surrounded by several Thai homes and commercial establishments from eateries, cafes and convenient stores. It’s a small and humble looking two story shop. I had to leave my shoes outside to ensure that the interior remains clean. And it was indeed neat and immaculate. I was welcomed warmly by the staff as they prepare my donation and offering. There were two other tourist there that had their tattoos done. I like that it wasn’t crowded. They rolled in my paper bill donation and inserted in one of the pre-packed donation items plus the LM Blue cigarettes I bought.
They have a binder of designs to choose from. While I already have one in mind, I pored through the designs which were all fascinating. Sak Yant designs have phrases, geometrical shapes and symbols which empowers the bearer some power of protection, good fortune and charisma. When I was asked what my intentions were, I wanted my first Sak Yant to be distinctive of the Thai culture and also symbolic of my yoga journey and travel lifestyle. The Gao Yord resonates to me well.
The Gao Yord or Buddha Peaks is one of the three “Yant Kru” or master yants. It is a master yant with encompassing powers of protection. A good starting yant for those who are planning to add other yants later. Personally I like the temple-like design with nine spires shooting up the sky. It symbolizes the peaks of Mt Meru and states of enlightenment which is akin for me to achieving yoga. I consider myself extra sensitive to the supernatural when I travel and this yant has the power against all forms of “Black Magic”
Having decided on the design, I brought my offerings at the second floor where the tattoo area is. It’s a small room, airconditioned but adorned with religious Buddhist items. The small space does feel sacred. “Sah Wa Dee Khrap”, I greeted and the ajarn pointed me to seat on a cushion in front of him. He uttered a short prayer before we start. I was given a small pillow to hug and keep my back wide while the ajarn does the tattoo.
My ajarn’s name is Ajarn Amnat. He served as a monk for seven years and an ajarn for 9 years. He is known as one of the more artistic of the Sak Yant tattooist in the store. Soon, I felt the needle started penetrating my skin. The pain was bearable. I think. Whang Od’s tapping was a lot more heavy. But as the tapping reach up to the neck, that’s when I started to wince a bit from the pain. The whole process didn’t last an hour. When I saw the results, I liked the fine clean lines on the design that he did. I thought, the tattoo was also bigger than I expected. For the ending phase, he proceeded with the blessing of the tattoo.
Acquiring a Sak Yant tattoo through Sak Yant Chiang Mai was easy, straightforward and hassle-free. I may have not visited a temple but the in-house experience was still meaningful. Perhaps next time if I decide to get a second tattoo, I would opt for a temple visit. To add significance to the ritual, the staff gave me an incense and a candle. They suggested to burn and light it up in the evening and reflect on the ritual and the Sak Yant. It doesn’t have to be religious but earnest. I didn’t have a chance to light it up that evening since I was in a train transit to Bangkok. But I’m quite satisfied on how it turned out. It felt like I accomplished what I wanted to do in Chiang Mai at that time. A symbol of another journey to take, a timestamp on my skin.
Like any other tattoos, Sak Yant Tattoo requires after-care. These are recommended:
- Direct sunlight in the first 3 days
- Swimming in the first 3 days especially salt water. (Bathing is okay but no soap)
- Lat pulls and exercises that may pull the skin and muscles under the Sak Yant for a week.
- Apply healing ointments for the first week 2–3 times a day.
Are women allowed to have Sak Yant? Yes. Ajarns can touch women. Monks too with gloves and without any intention of lust.
And as a bearer of a Sak Yant, there are suggested rules to follow:
- Do not kill
- Do not steal
- Do not lie
- Do not desire another persons lover or spouse or be unfaithful to your own
- Do not get intoxicated
- Do Not speak ill of your Mother (or any Mother)
For Sak Yant Chiang Mai follow their Facebook at /SakYantChiangMai/ or visit their site www.sakyantchiangmai.com
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.