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.

Filed under: Travel

One Comment

  1. Posted 09.11.2017 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    What a beautiful tattoo & lovely story! I can imagine it must be super hard to set aside the ‘control-freak thing’ and just let the ajarn do his job! It turned out amazing though :)

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