Monthly Archives: November 2017

Getting a Sak Yant in Chiang Mai

Detail of hand poked Sak Yant tattoo for compassion kunpanchom tharod between shoulder blades on upper back.

Why not became a running theme during our trip to Thailand and Cambodia, and led to some of the most memorable experiences of our lives. We rode motorbikes without licenses in crazy traffic, tried scuba diving, shot rifles at a dodgy shooting range, snorkeled in the company of sharks, ate scorpion and learned to fearlessly step out into roads to cross the street. Getting a hand poked Sak Yant tattoo was another one of those things, and a permanent memento to remind myself to say why not more often.

Sak Yant are sacred designs and inscriptions tattooed onto the skin, which are said to grant their bearers certain powers or benefits. We had heard about the temples in Bangkok and Chiang Mai that you could visit to be given a sacred tattoo by the monks there, but this can mean queuing for hours with many others and often the same needle and ink is used for every person. Monks are also not usually permitted to touch women, and because of this many will refuse to give a women a Sak Yant. As much as I liked the thought of receiving a tattoo in this way, I didn’t want to risk my health for it, so we had ours done by an ajarn at a sannak.

An ajarn is a master of his chosen craft and is usually a former monk who gained his skill and knowledge of his art form whilst practicing at the temple. Despite being a little more relaxed, ajarn’s still follow a strict set of rules and will refuse to give a Sak Yant to those who do not show proper respect. There are also many rules around which Sak Yant can be tattooed, so you cannot just pick any design you like. Certain inscriptions can only be applied in specific areas, some are specifically for men or certain types of people, and others are so sacred they are reserved only for those who have earned them.

When we arrived we were ushered upstairs to present our donation and offerings of flowers, incense – and the requested menthol cigarettes! Nat already had in mind exactly what type of blessing she wanted, and as it was something incredibly important to her it made things all the more emotional as she sat down to receive hers.

As I watched, I thought about what I should ask for. There wasn’t anything that I felt I needed, so I chose something a little more generic, but still important to me. I told the ajarn that I would like something to help keep me kind and compassionate towards all living creatures. He nodded his head with a smile as if he knew the perfect thing and motioned for me to come kneel. Each monk and ajarn has their own way of doing things, and will adapt the inscription to personalise it to the wearer and their needs, meaning even standard designs have many variations and are often unique. I asked where he would place it and he replied that the most beautiful and powerful place for this Sak Yant was between the shoulder blades.

I sat down in front of him and gritted my teeth as I waited for him to begin. As a bit of a control freak, I was anxious about having no real idea how the design would look, or even what size it would be, but once he started my apprehension soon disappeared. The sensation was sharp and methodical, and as he worked I found myself in a kind of meditative state, focused on the quick, hot poking of the long Khem Sak needle. Once it was over, he began chanting a prayer as he sprinkled me with holy water to bless the finished tattoo and infuse it with its powers.

The first time I saw exactly what it was that had been permanently inked onto my skin was as we climbed into a Tuk Tuk outside and quickly took photos to show each other. It was exhilarating to completely let go and put my trust into a total stranger in this way, and luckily I love the design he chose. It’s freehand and imperfect, but it captures a moment and feeling in time so beautifully, and that just makes me love it even more.

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Elephant Nature Park

Elephant eating at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand, Mum & baby. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Keeper at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant family at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant family at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant family at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Dog watching over elephants at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephants walking at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant family at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant feeding time at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand dog sleeping. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant family at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant family at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant family at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephants in river at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephants in river at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand.

When we decided to visit Thailand, there was one place that neither of us wanted to miss, Elephant Nature Park.

That morning we woke up to a drizzly, overcast day, but as we stood in reception we were barely able to contain our excitement as we waited for the bus to collect us. On the drive out of town we picked a few others up along the way, and once everyone was on board our guide explained to us the plan for our day and put on a video to explain the story of Elephant Nature Park and why it was set up. I was already aware of the way elephants and other animals are treated in the name of tourism, but even still, the video was incredibly hard to watch and showed quite graphically the suffering that many elephants in this industry are subjected to. It was important to see though, as without fully understanding the horrors of the situation you can’t even begin to comprehend what these animals have been put through in order to ‘break the spirit’ and allow their handlers to control them in this way.

Established in the 1990s by elephant conservationist Lek Chailert, the park works tirelessly to rescue and rehabilitate elephants that have been cruelly trained and abused for the tourist industry, logging and many other jobs where they spend their whole lives distressed and living in fear of punishment. The park does not allow rides or force their elephants to do tricks or perform for visitors, instead you are able to get up close to these amazing creatures, walking alongside them, feeding them and gently stroking them. Over the years the rescue program has expanded and now hundreds of dogs, cats, buffalo and many other abandoned and abused creatures also call the park their home. Set within the most beautiful, mountainous countryside and covering over 250 acres, the elephants and other animals are given the space to roam and live out the rest of their lives in a safe, natural sanctuary.

Once at the park our guide Nancy took our small group to the main hut to go over safety for both us and the elephants, before taking us onto the balcony area to feed some of the bigger members from behind the railings. As we made our way out into the fields, we walked past a family playing in the mud and stopped to watch a small baby and it’s family bathing in the river. Nancy explained to us that some of the elephants simply don’t like to be around humans after years of abuse, and so they only let guests interact with those who are comfortable and enjoy it. We were able to feed one of the younger elephants with some watermelon slices, before being taken over to see Jan Peng or ‘Full Moon’, who is an older grandma elephant in the herd.

The feeling of standing next to Jan Peng was almost indescribable. I approached her slowly, a little scared, and as I stood by her side I remember suddenly becoming very aware of the size and sheer power of this creature, and the thought that if she wanted to she could so easily just stomp me out. But she didn’t. Instead she gazed at me as I patted her shoulder with these lazy brown eyes, and as she fixed them on mine I saw such an intelligent, wise and compassionate being behind them, and I wondered how anyone could ever mistreat someone who looked at them in this way.

Our day here was even better than we imagined and we left with a much deeper resepect and understanding for these amazing animals. If you are visiting Thailand and would like to meet an elephant please stay away from any parks or attractions offering rides, shows or similar and consider visiting Elephant Nature Park instead. Your visit helps to fund the rescue and care of these beautiful creatures, and by refusing to visit the attractions which exploit them you can help to prevent more elephants suffering the same fate.

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