If you have ever thought about getting a tattoo with amazing personal significance, then I would highly recommend looking into getting a Sak Yant tattoo in Thailand. With a history of over 2000 years, getting a Sak Yant is a personal, intimate experience, and a piece of art you will keep with you for the rest of your life.
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What is a Sak Yant?
‘Sak’ means ‘to tattoo’, while ‘Yant’ is the Thai pronunciation of the Sanskrit word ‘yantra’. A yantra is a sacred, often geometrical design, which offers specific protection and magic. There are over 1000 different Sak Yant designs, so these are anything but random tattoos. A Sak Yant should be given by an Ajarn, or tattoo master. These Ajarns may be practicing monks, or they may be situated in cities and towns, practicing individually and serving their communities.
A Sak Yant is much more than a pretty tattoo, and should be given by a properly trained Ajarn. Although tattoo shops may be able to offer you designs that look similar, a traditional Sak Yant is created with the individual in mind, and involves blessings, offerings, and rituals that need to be performed by a professional.
Originally Sak Yants were given to warriors, to protect them in battle, and the tattoo practice is found throughout South East Asia, including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. Traditionally tattooed with bamboo, now the Ajarns use a Khem Sak, a metal rod ending in removable needles. Khem Saks are either crafted by the Ajarn, or handed down from master to apprentice.
The Sak Yant is designed in consultation with the guest, and involves speaking to the Ajarn about your life, fears, needs, and dreams, in order for the tattoo to be appropriate and powerful. Contrary to what you will read online, the Ajarn does not read your aura or mind to find out what tattoo you need.
This belief comes from the fact that many Ajarns cannot communicate with foreigners, and are forced to give a powerful but general Sak Yant. This is part of why I would recommend using an agency like Where Sidewalks End.
Where Sidewalks End
WSE is a community based, ethics focused company that really puts their money where their mouth is. WSE has identified Ajarns and Monks that have the utmost levels skill and, just as importantly, hygienic practices so that you don’t have to worry about anything going wrong with your Sak Yant. I have read stories of people going to temples and being just one person in a long line all getting tattoos using the same needles and ink.
This will never happen with WSE. Our Ajarn showed us the new needles and inks before he opened them, and used fresh latex gloves for each of us. I know that Sak Yants are traditional and a cultural experience, but there really is no need to be unhygienic.
Part of the reason we chose to come to Chiang Rai was specifically to get a Sak Yant from Ajarn Ton. WSE has quite a few different Ajarns that they work with, and I have no doubt that all of them are amazing, but it was their description of Ajarn Ton’s work that took us to Chiang Rai.
Described as having a Lanna style of Sak Yant, with delicate and intricate line-work, Ajarn Ton seemed the perfect fit for what we were looking for. He was also described as being a gentle personality, with a good sense of humour, so obviously, he was the Ajarn for us.
Having now met with him and seen his work, he was even more amazing than we could have hoped. Without WSE, I would have had no idea how to choose an Ajarn, or even how to find one!
WSE also provides a local guide to travel with you and walk you through the whole experience. I can’t tell you how important our guide, Khun Meai, was to us, and how much she added to our experience. Not only did she take care of all the procedural elements (more of that below), but she was also our translator, making sure that we could communicate with our Ajarn, and that we could come away with tattoos that really represented our personalities and individual needs. It is not exaggerating to say that we would have been absolutely lost without her!
The Sak Yant Process
Our guide picked us up from our accommodation in Chiang Rai and we traveled to Ajarn Ton’s samnak,or studio. On the way she explained to us a little bit about the process and what we were going to do. She also showed us the offerings that she had organised for us: candles, incense, tobacco, matches, and flowers. These are the items that you’ll find in any offering before a Sak Yant, and are a really important part of the process.
Meeting Ajarn Ton was really cool, he is a quiet and gentle person, and even though his amazing artwork adorns every corner of his samnak, he is incredibly humble. We gave our offerings, which Ajarn Ton offered in prayer with us, and then it was time to talk. We told him a little about our lives and what we were worried about, stopping to clarify exactly what we meant.
The Ajarn let us look through some of his folders of designs, and explained the meanings that each had. When we had settled on two or three, he advised which one he would recommend for us, given what we had told him. The whole process was informal and comfortable, we didn’t feel rushed or pushed in any way, and it felt like a collaborative journey to our designs.
Ajarn Ton then spent some time adjusting the designs we had chosen to our specific needs. After a quick round of ‘rock, paper, scissors’, we decided that Chris would go first, and the Ajarn showed him the needles and ink pots so that we could see they were new. He then positioned the template on Chris’s back, and adjusted it until we were happy.
Different Sak Yant designs are meant to go in specific places, often quite high up on the body. You can ask for your design to be placed in a specific place, but there are numerous rules that need to be followed, so please don’t expect your tattoo to be put on your booty or your ribs, rather follow the Ajarn’s advice: this isn’t just body art, it has cultural and spiritual significance.
The Sak Yant is tattooed freehand, and the Ajarn only used a template to make sure he had straight lines to work from. It really is the most fascinating process to watch, as the Ajarn works free hand at incredible speed to make the most intricate designs. It was also pretty painful.
This was both of our first tattoos, so we have nothing to compare it with, but yes, it was sore. I can liken it to tiny bee stings, an intense, sharp pain, but really quick as well, so it doesn’t ache afterwards. But, be prepared, it was not a pleasant experience, and although the Ajarn works fast, it can still take time, mine was about 25 minutes, and Chris’s took nearly an hour.
Our guide was sweet enough to see the pain in our eyes, and disappeared to buy us water and Thai whiskey, and Ajarn Ton had a good laugh while we did shots. It really did help though! After the tattoo is done, the Ajarn chants a blessing, rubs oil on the tattoo, and blows onto it to breathe life into ink. Sak Yants are believed to be alive in your skin, rather than a piece of static art. The Ajarn finally places the offering on your head and offers a final blessing, and after that, you are done!
I followed Chris (after my whiskey shot) and our guide helped to hold my skin so that the Ajarn could make sure the lines were straight. I tried to zen out and go to my happy place to help with the pain, but it is such a sharp pain that I ended up just gritting my teeth and waiting it out. It wasn’t the most painful thing I have ever done, but it was the most sore thing I’ve ever paid someone to do to me!
Our guide and the Ajarn also went through the rules for our tattoos with us, which are pretty simple: live a good life, don’t eat dog, the magic of our Sak Yants will be lessened if we eat gourd vegetables (just until we digest them), and there is a day that we must remember the Ajarn and give offerings on high ground once a year.
I have read a number of other rules online, such as respecting your mother, not getting intoxicated or high, etc, and it seems that really what a Sak Yant is about is making a change in your life for the better. It is setting a clear and very visible intention to live a better life, and really to manifest all the things that your Sak Yant is for.
So, for example, if my tattoo is giving me good luck and charisma, I believe that it is also a way of reminding myself that I have chosen a life that is good and that I need to make choices that reinforce that idea. In a way, for me, although I am not a particularly spiritual person, psychologically the magic of the Sak Yant makes sense to me as an intention setting device, and a painful turning point in starting to create the life you want.
As a drama therapist, I can really see the value of the entire ritual of getting a Sak Yant. It was, for me, an intimate and personal process of marking my body with strength and calm, and it was all the more empowered by being surrounded with people who believed these things for me. It is my hope that my tattoo will stand as a reminder for me of the strength I must keep choosing, even in my most anxious and dark moments.
After we received our tattoos and thanked the Ajarn, we went for lunch at a coal restaurant. It was so great just to sit back and have our guide sort everything out for us, as we were still feeling a little shaky and a bit out of it after the experience. Of course, nothing gets you back in the body faster than super spicy Thai food! After lunch we visited an awesome local coffee roaster, and had the best coffee in Chiang Rai overlooking beautiful green rice paddies. It was an intense and tiring day, but so rewarding and awesome.
Our Sak Yants
The design that Chris chose is called a Gao Yord or 9 peaks design. It is one of the most sacred Sak Yant designs, and is often chosen as a person’s first, as it offers powerful and general protection. The 9 vertical lines represent the 9 peaks of the mythical mountain of the gods, Mount Meru. 9 Buddhas are also represented, each with special powers. The 3 lines at the bottom of the design also hold the names of the 9 Buddhas.
My design is called a Hah Taew, and this 5 line design dates back around 700 years. Each Ajarn likely has their own unique design for the 5 lines. From left to right, the lines represent: 1. Preventing unjust punishment, leans events in your favor in the advent of a grey area, 2. Reversing bad fortune, 3. Protection from black magic and curses, 4. Good luck, success, fortune, and 5. Charisma and love.
I chose 2 colors for my tattoo, the black ink represents power, whilst the red is for charisma and love, which the Ajarn says is good for teachers as it helps to get your class to listen to you.
I would absolutely recommend taking the WSE Ink Experience to any one of their amazing Ajarns. This was one of the coolest and most intense experiences of my life, and throughout it all I felt listened to and looked after. Every time a catch a look of my tattoo in the mirror I feel so grateful for the experience, and I’m already thinking of getting another one. If you are looking for a unique, hand crafted tattoo that has the potential to have a huge impact on your life, I can think of nothing better than getting a Sak Yant.
Things to know before you go:
- Eat breakfast before you get your tattoo done. It is a painful experience and you don’t want low blood sugar to hit you too!
- Wear comfortable clothes, and girls, bring a scarf so that you can cover up your front as your back is tattooed.
- Bring some extra cash in case you want a bigger Sak Yant, your WSE fee covers a hand sized tattoo, but bring some cash in case you find you want or need a bigger design
- Bring some cash to leave a tip for the Ajarn. WSE makes sure that the Ajarns are paid fairly, but there is nothing wrong with showing your appreciation to masters of their craft.
- Afterwards keep your tattoo dry and out of the sun. A little clean water is okay, but definitely no salt water or pool water. Plan your holiday with this in mind!
- These things itch like crazy for days afterwards as they heal, don’t scratch! Vaseline can help with the itchiness.
- Please be respectful and educate yourself before you get a Sak Yant. This is not a normal tattoo, but a part of a very specific culture, don’t be pushy or expect perfection. If you want a tattoo, go to a tattoo shop.
If you want to find out more about getting your Sak Yant through WSE, you can find them here, I highly recommend them and would do it all again in a heartbeat!
We’re currently writing all about our amazing experiences in Chiang Rai, you can read more about our experience at Elephant Valley elephant sanctuary here, look out for more coming soon!
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