High on my to-do list for Thailand was to get a Sak Yant tattoo. I’m sure I could be accused of cultural appropriation; I’m not Buddhist, and I mainly wanted one because Anthony Bourdain got one in his classic Chiang Mai episode of “Parts Unknown.” I spent much of my trip to Chiang Mai walking in Tony’s footsteps – including seeking out the Cowboy Hat Lady for some delicious Khao Ka Muu.
The Yantra tattoo tradition goes back over a thousand years to the Khmer people of Cambodia. The tattoos purport to convey protection and good fortune, and I could use a little protection and good fortune. So I did a little research and booked ahead of time on sakyantchiangmai.com.
There were only about $30 in booking fees, but I was kidding myself to think that was the paid-in-full price. Once I arrived, there was another $100 or so dollars in fees that I was charged, so my dreams of this being the world-record least expensive tattoo on my body were in vain. Still, it was worth it for the experience.
Because it sounded the most authentic, I booked a visit to a temple to be tattooed by a monk. It turns out this is not the most venerable Sak Yant tradition. Many monks are avid students of the art of Yantra tattoo, but the oldest Sak Yant tattoos were administered by Arjans, pre-Buddhist shamans. You can still get tattooed by an Arjan in a ceremony full of pre-modern mysticism.
Instead, I began my experience at a typical-looking tattoo parlor on the west side of the Old City of Chiang Mai. From there I was driven in a Toyota by a friendly 20-something female employee with limited English, 45 minutes to the tiny village of Lumphun. In the quiet, peaceful temple I was guided to a small office where a monk who spoke no English seemed to be sitting … just waiting.
We discussed my tattoo, with my female guide acting as translator. He looked at me and immediately wanted to do a Gao Yord on my back. I was leaning toward that one as well. You may have heard that the monk or Arjan gets to pick which tattoo you get and where it goes. They definitely have thoughts, and you could offend them by being a dick about it, but it’s actually more of a mutual conversation about what is best for you. You have input.
I was scared. I have about ten hours worth of tattoo work on my body, acquired over the years using the modern technology of tattoo guns. They all hurt. Sak Yant tattoos are still done in the old method. Stainless steel has replaced bamboo, but you still get the tattoo with individual pinpricks from a needle at the end of a rod that the monk or Arjan uses like a pool cue. I can confirm the scuttlebutt that this process is MORE PAINFUL – all-around 7 with spikes of 8 or 9. But I can also confirm that the healing process is a lot easier than a gun tattoo. Mine was done in about 30 or 40 minutes, and if you get the Five Lines instead of the Paed Tidt or Gao Yord, it could be as little as five to ten minutes. My point is, you can do it. Pain pills are available. I didn’t take one. My female guide kept going on about how tough and masculine Thai men are. Thanks a lot, lady.
After the tattoo was over, the monk recited blessings and blew on my back. I held prayer hands, and exhausted and overwhelmed, I wept.
After that I was hungry and had to pee, but my guide stayed an extra 20 minutes, pouring her heart out to the monk, in Thai, about all the problems she was facing in her life. I wished I could understand. More than that, I wished we could have left sooner. I was getting hangry. But this was her confession time and I didn’t want to be too big a jerk. Monks are apparently good listeners when you’re Thai and don’t have a therapist.
The scripts on Sak Yant tattoos are usually Sanskrit and don’t have a literal translation. They are mantras, alinguistic syllables passed through the generations and considered to have great power.
If you are considering getting your first Sak Yant Tattoo, you will likely get one of these three options first:
Hah Taew (Five Lines)
This is the one Angelina Jolie got, bringing Sak Yant tattoos into mainstream consciousness (or at least celeb-watching consciousness). Depending on the size, it goes on the quickest and looks great in many different positions on the body.
The lines are as follows:
1. i ra cha ka ta ra sa: protects against unjust punishment; tilts the odds in your favor when in gray areas; cleans out evil spirits; protects your dwelling place.
2. ti hang ja toh loh ti nang: protects against bad horoscope influence and bad fortune.
3. soh ma na ga ri tah toh: protects against black magic and curses.
4. pi sam lah loh pu sa pu: promotes good luck, success, fulfillment of ambition, and lifestyle.
5. ka pu bam too tahm wa ka: promotes charisma and romantic attraction.
Paed Tidt (Eight Directions)
The Eight Directions usually go on the back. The mantras are actually in the ancient Khmer script of Khom and are meant to be chanted when you go out. The image features eight Buddha images, one for each day of the week plus an extra one for Wednesday. It protects against evil spirits, whatever direction you are traveling in.
Great tattoo for travelers, but this one seemed the most Buddhist and general of the first Yants, so I did not consider this one.
Gao Yord (Nine Peaks)
This is the one I got. The beautiful design features nine spires that start out jagged and then straighten out, representing the progression from a troubled mind to enlightenment. The back is the most popular placement – it fits nicely between the shoulder blades and tapers up to the nape of the neck. Since I had no back tattoos and I liked the look and meaning of this one, it was my first choice even before the monk suggested it.
The script below each peak, plus the two mantras beneath, convey the following benefits:
Klaeoklad: Protection from injury.
Chana Satru: Defeat of enemies.
Ma Hah Amnat: Authority and influence over others.
Awk Seuk: The will to fight for what is right.
Kong Kra Phan: Protection and invincibility.
Oopatae: Correct and smooth business practices.
Ma Hah Saneh: Popularity and romantic appeal.
Ma Hah Lap: Good luck and fortune.
Noon Chataa : Improved fate and destiny.
Pong Gan Antarai : Protection from accidents, natural disasters, and violence.
Nah Tee Gan Ngan Dee : Improved professional circumstances.
If I ever feel like I need a boost in any of these areas, I am to touch my tattoo.
What are your thoughts on Yantra tattoo tradition? Would you get one?