The Magic Tattoos of Bangkok’s Sacred Monks
AN UNFORGETTABLE TRAVEL ADVENTURE
By Kristin Addis
The sun rises like a red orb in the sky over the rice paddies as the wind whips past the hair and grazes the skin. Hands grip the handles of the motorbike, as the driver weaves between the occasional truck or tuk tuk. The early morning dew, still wet on the blades of grass, bids a glossy good morning at the gates of Wat Bang Phra outside of Bangkok. A statue of Luang Poh Pern, the monk who started the sacred act of tattooing at the wat, smiles just behind the entrance. He is the welcoming party.
A small Thai man notices the pharangs (foreigners) awkwardly lurking in the doorway of the main building. He knows why they have arrived. They seek a magic tattoo from Luang Pi Nunn, the most famous tattooing monk in Thailand, and Luang Poh Pern’s protégé. He guides them to the table where a young monk wrapped in orange sells flowers, cigarettes, and incense. At a cost of 50 thai baht(about USD$1.50), the bundle is the offering to the monk, and the only payment sought for a magic tattoo.
In most cases, the tourists will then wait, sometimes for hours, for a turn to have a magical Sak Yant tattoo performed and then blessed. Tourists from all over the world, as well as numerous local Thais, flock to this particular Buddhist monastery for these tattoos, which serve as protective blessings. When the time comes for the tattoo to be applied, the monk will consider which Sak Yant is the best fit, apply the stamp and get to work without any discussion. While there are over one hundred traditional designs to choose from, there are a handful of common ones that are typically placed on newcomers, and, unless there is no longer room, they are almost always placed on the upper back. The meaning varies from yant to yant, but, for the most part, they are meant to bring luck and happiness to the wearer.
The tattoo is applied, as two people on either side, help to stretch the skin, while the recipient bends over a triangular pillow. The monk selects his instrument, cleans it with alcohol, dips it into the ink and begins the process. Amazingly, the tattoos are applied in a matter of minutes, as a result of thousands of rapid taps made by the monk wielding a bamboo needle. In situations where he is tattooing a woman, a piece of paper will separate his fingers from the skin, to prevent him from touching female flesh.
Sak Yant tattoos are said to have magical spiritual properties. Drawn with ink often made from snake venom, ash, herbs, and oils, and applied with a bamboo rod, they are meant to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck, but only if the receiver follows a strict set of rules as set forth at each monk’s wat. Each has his own rules for the wearer to abide by, but the usual rules involve not speaking ill of other’s mothers, abstaining from certain things, such as alcohol, drugs or, in some cases, leftovers.
Is it Clean and Safe?The main concern of many who consider receiving a Sak Yant from a monk is the fact that he does not use a new needle on each recipient. The needle is sanitized between each tattoo, however it is not replaced. There have been no reported cases of HIV as a result of Sak Yant tattoos, which is credited to the lack of opening in the needle, compared to that of a typical tattoo needle. As with all tattoos, however, there is certainly risk involved, which should always be a consideration.
How Do I Get There? While one could easily hop in a cab, the real fun is in taking public transport. The best plan of action is to get the earliest mini bus from a roundabout near the Victory Monument in Bangkok. Ask for the bus to Nakhon Chai Si. If you are able to catch the six a.m., you just may be the first person at the wat (as I was) and have the honor of getting the first tattoo of the day. Though the vans leave every half hour (give or take), traffic in the area can get heavy, and the waits at the wat can get long, so the earlier, the better. From there, the drop-off point will be along the highway across from a shopping center. There should be a bridge across the highway, which will take you directly to motorbike taxis and tuk-tuk drivers, all of whom have a pretty good idea of why you have arrived. Ask for Wat Bang Phra, a journey of about twenty to twenty-five minutes. By the time the tattoo is done, busses will likely be running, so catch a bus back to the city.
How Much Will It Cost? The only compulsory cost is the donation to the wat of 50 Baht, in exchange for the flowers, incense, and cigarettes, which are then recycled and sold again. One can certainly donate more in provided envelopes (which I elected to). The cost of transport totals about 250 baht, for the day (under USD$10).
Kristin Addis writes bemytravelmuse.com, a website geared towards independent female travelers, who like to head off the beaten path in Asia. A native Californian and former investment banker, she has dedicated her foreseeable future to seeking off-beat travel and a better understanding of cultures around the world.