“I’m getting a tattoo,” I said over the phone.
The average response of the average Sri Lankan mother is to recoil in horror. Tattoos are bad. Tattoos are unclean. Tattoos belong on drug addicts, ministers, and those old men who function as the default odd-job men for any village. Honestly, I don’t mind being lumped in with the Mahathungs, as the old men are called. They’re a useful part of society. It’s the drug addicts and ministers that I object to.
Fortunately, if my mom recoiled, I couldn’t hear it. My phone chose precisely that moment to die out (I have to say, smartphones really are very smart). It also helped that le Hive Queen was on Sri Lanka, and I was in Thailand. To be precise, I was on a bus heading to the province of Nakom, armed with nothing more than a thousand baht and a companion, Dulitha Wijewantha. His phone was also dying.
I did not go to Thailand to get tattooed. I was there on roughly 10-day vacation, and we had an itinerary packed full of things to do. A couple of days into the journey, we heard of Sak Yant.
Sak Yant is part art, part religion, part lifestyle, part tattoo cult.
‘Sak’ means ‘to tattoo’ and ‘yant’ is an abbreviation of ‘yantra’, which is Sanskrit for holy diagrams. Sak Yant, in short, are sacred tattoos: geometric designs worked with intricate symbols and Pali sutras, combining Buddhist verse (which I’m fairly well-versed in, being a Buddhist myself) with cultural symbolism.
Each individual design has its own blessings and meaning: they’re believed to ward off hardship and evil, bring good luck and magic powers to the bearer, and even change destiny. It’s like the Tatau of Far Cry 3, except it’s real and you’re not a psychotic video-game character chopping off heads until the next cutscene shows up.
Sak Yant is an intrinsic part of Thai culture. At first you don’t notice it, especially if it’s the first time you’re visiting Bangkok and you’re wandering around (like yours truly) getting utterly lost in everything. Then you start noticing these symbols cropping up everywhere. On women’s shoulders. On men’s backs and arms. Lines of blue ink across golden-white skin. A design that looks like an inverted Dharmachakra turns out to mean protection from the eight directions. Five rows of text turn out to be a series of blessings for good luck. The tradition is roughly 2,000 years old.
It made sense to us. I don’t pretend to be able to read Pali, but blessings I can use in spades. Even Anjelina Jolie has one.
The downside? The process goes like this:
Yes, that looks painful. But to hell with pain, I thought. Dulitha agreed. Getting your first tattoo in a country where a) nobody speaks your language and b) you have no idea where to go and c) if done right, ends up with you coming into contact with ink that is rumored to contain snake venom? He was all for it.
So first, I got in touch with someone who really, really knew the subject: Ian Ord, professional adventurer, writer, and photographer. Ian runs Where Sidewalks End, and he basically ended up guiding two complete strangers (thanks, Ian!) through the whole process. And we did a lot of reading. And a lot more. Especially Yvonne’s blogpost on Just Travelous, which detailed a journey they’d already made. I learned that the tattoos were done by Ajarns (masters, some of whom are monks), each of whom seemed to have their own recipes for ink (ours reportedly uses snake venom). I learned that we had to get to a temple called the Wat Bang Phra, which is famous for being cult central for Sak Yant, in the province of Nakom, about 50 km outside Bangkok.
And while the infection stats (HIV, Hep-B, Hep-C) were almost non-existent, it was best to show up in the morning, make the offerings and get inked before infected skin could pass beneath that needle and screw up the rest of the assembly line for good.
Eventually, we ended up on the morning bus to nakom chai si.
It wasn’t easy, given that nobody spoke English, but it turns out you can express remarkably complex concepts when all you have at your command is a broken version of the Thai greeting, a calculator and a lot of fried chicken.
I’m not going to lie: we expected a village in the middle of nowhere. We ended up at Thailand’s version of Maradana – a place where the roads are the best part of the scenery. A row of men in orange vests waved to us. They, it seemed, knew where we were going. We had no idea. They were mostly old, had Honda scooters and wore gloves that looked like they’d be very handy in a fistfight. 100 baht each, they said, and off we went, weaving through a side lane through fields of grass towards Wat Bang Phra.
It was seven o’clock in the morning, I think. Thailand seems to have a late sunrise and a late sunset – at least, later than in Sri Lanka. The sun shone over straight roads carving through lush fields of rice. We ducked lorries, errant tuk-tuks, neatly weaving in and out of the few vehicles on the road at the time. We rolled up in front of an impressive-looking temple with snarling concrete tigers leaping out from the gate.
Inside, an aide smiled and pointed us in the direction of the – main residence? Workplace? We bought the requisite offering at a table just outside – flowers, battered-looking packs of cigarettes. 75 baht per person. I later learned why they looked so battered: the monks recycled them, sending the packs back unopened to the vendor outside, keeping the money flowing into the temple and letting the man make a living without needing to replenish his stock.
Smart. That’s Thailand for you.
Inside was a room with two monks in it. The walls were covered in ink stains (at the bottom) and – well, I’m honestly not sure what was above the ink stains, because most of my attention was diverted towards a young-looking guy who also looked like he was trying very hard not to cry. That may have been because four strong men were holding him down, or because a monk was chanting and poking his back with a very sharp, very long metal spike. Occasionally the monk would pause, dip the spike in a vat of ink (it was at least eleven inches long) and resume sticking the guy in the back with it.
This is the Sak Yant process. Some tattoos, I’m told, take 3,000 strikes of this needle. It’s painful. At first sight, it’s also fairly scary. For a thorough description of what it feels like, with photos of the venue, read Matthew Karsten’s post ‘Blessed By A Monk: My Magic Sak Yant Tattoo’. I’ll just say this: I now know what a block of marble feels like when someone picks up a chisel and starts tapping away.
When we walked out, we had (a version of) this on our backs
This is where the reading paid off. This is the Gao Yord, or the Nine Spires Yant. The spires represent the nine peaks of Mount Meru, which appears in ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Jain cosmology. In all three, it’s known as the center of the universe. The design is a grid mounted by spires; in between the peaks and the grid there are a set of circles meant to represent nine Buddhas. Inside the grid are symbols with blessings.
Often, this design is the starting point of the Sak Yant tattoo journey, which is one that devotees seem to take constantly; I’ve met people with the equivalent of their spiritual careers mapped out on their backs – the twin tigers, the circles of protection, the works. The Nine Spires is often called the Yant Kroo, or the Master Yant; perhaps it’s because of its importance as a starter. The grid changes from master to master, but the general blessings are similar: kindness and compassion towards others, power, authority, a willingness to fight for the correct reasons, good fortune, and protection from accidents and unwanted spirits; prime requisites, I would think, for a traveler, a missionary, or a businessman.
Matthew’s blog had a section where he asks himself: WOULD I DO IT AGAIN?
Yes (and that really is my back, by the way).
To me, the Bangkok trip was as much a vacation as it was a disconnect – a space to think things over and understand what I want to do and to be in the not-too distant future. It’s a long and complicated story, but this tattoo is a memento – a memory not just of a great journey, but a trek that fundamentally changed how I view the world (not an easy thing, given how stubborn I am about my beliefs). It’s a permanent reminder that no matter where I am in the world, or what I’m doing, someone out there once wished me luck and good fortune on the road ahead. I will forever be a stranger in a strange land; and perhaps, in time, this will be joined by others, subtle, life-long reminders of journeys that will shape me in the years to come.
And thankfully, once I explained this to my mom, she didn’t kick up too much of a fuss. Win-win, I’d say.