I’m not a big believer in magic (unless you count homemade pizza and love) but I do like tattoos and I’m a fan of Buddhism. So while getting a sak yant tattoo in Thailand was originally Jeyn’s pet project, the more I read about it, the more I wanted to get one too.
According to Wikipedia: “Yantra tattooing is a form of tattooing that originated among the Tai tribes of southwestern China and northwestern Vietnam over 2,000 years ago… It consists of sacred geometrical, animal and deity designs accompanied by Pali phrases that offer power, protection, fortune, charisma and other benefits for the bearer. Today it is practiced mainly in Thailand.”
“Sak means tattoo in Thai, and yan is the Thai pronunciation for the Sanskrit word yantra, a type of mystical diagram used in Dharmic religions.”
Jeyn did a lot of research online and once I decided to get involved I read a whole bunch of articles too. While it’s possible to get a monk to tattoo you off the street, it’s hard because of the language barrier. There are particular considerations for Jeyn because she’s a woman and there are rules for monks around interactions with women. It would also be harder to guarantee the safety of the experience. A safer (but more expensive option) is enlisting the services of a guide.
We ended up going with a small company called Sak Yant Chiang Mai, run by a lovely woman called Nana, who specialises in helping foreigners through the process. Nana has great reviews online and her company has a big emphasis on safety.
Nana drove us from her shop to a street market first thing in the morning where we picked up an offering for the monk. The offering was a small bunch of flowers and some other assorted items wrapped in a banana leaf.
We were then driven out of the city, along a forest dirt road, until we arrived at a beautiful Buddhist monastery.
We took our shoes off outside a small wooden hut and walked in to find a thick-set monk, wearing bright orange robes, sitting next to an altar with tattooing supplies spread out around him.
We’d read that sak yant tattoos were much more painful than regular tattoos. This sentiment was echoed by Nana who told us in the car that they hurt twice as much as normal tattoos. This is because of the way they’re done, using a thin pole with a sharpened point (traditionally made from bamboo, but more recently made from metal with a space to attach a disposable pointy bit) which is jabbed repeatedly into the skin.
Thankfully the sak yant was nowhere near as painful as either of us was expecting. It was actually less painful than some of my other tattoos. It was very quick too. the whole piece only took about ten minutes. The monk who tattooed us has been performing the sak yant ritual for over ten years and studied under a master sak yant tattooist who died last month, at the age of 100, sitting in the lotus position, mid-meditation.
The end part of the process was my favourite. After the tattooing, the monk splashed us with water and chanted a blessing as he drew shapes on our back with his fingers. It was a special moment. I have no idea what he was saying. I don’t understand the writing on the tattoo. I believe that Buddhism has much more to do with kindness and practices to help us deal with our own minds than it does with magic, superstition or blessings. But all of that aside, I did feel a wonderful sense of calm and cheerfulness spread over me after the blessing and I couldn’t have asked for a more interesting and enjoyable couple-tattoo experience to share with Jeyn on our Thailand adventure. Five stars.