I’ve got my traditional Thai tatto, it’s hours old and I love it. It’s about hand sized, in the middle of my back and it holds a deep meaning. It was created by a master ajarn with a traditional metal spike. It hurt, a little. Want to know more? There is a lot more to the experience than just turning up at a tattoo shop and picking your design. Sak Yant, the ancient tattoos of Thailand and nearby parts of South East Asia, should be a bit more special than that. This is how I got my traditional Thai tattoo in Bangkok, from a master, with personal consultation, blessings and prayers, and how you can too. I’m a 50 year old woman, a mum, this isn’t just for men and it’s not just for the young. If I can do it, you can too.
My interest in tattooing goes back decades, I started collecting the odd piercing in my 20s and simultaneously began reading about traditional body modifications, cultural and religious practices from around the world. I’m not heavily tattooed, I had, this morning, 2 small concealed tattoos, one for India, one for Nepal, my favourite places and cultures. I wanted one for Thailand. I also liked the idea of the tattoo being applied by a monk and of receiving the traditional blessings to make the experience a spiritual or magical one. I started researching and promised myself a Sak Yant, the Thai traditional tatoo, for my 50th birthday. After all, my mum can’t tell me I’ll regret it when I’m 50 now.
A friend asked why I’d want tattoos in hidden places, well, they’re for me, not for everyone else. It’s about the experience and the meaning, not fashion. For the record, this has nothing to do with Angelina Jolie’s 5 line Sak Yant. If you want her Arjan, you’re looking at a $1000 bill these days.
First Do Some Research on Thai Sacred Tattoos
If you know something about the culture and history associated with these ancient designs, the experience will be all the more special. Click through our Amazon affiliate links to take a look at this book.
How to Get a Traditional Thai Tattoo in Bangkok ( Chiang Mai too!)
Getting a Sak Yant at Wat Bang Pra
Many visitors to Thailand line up to get tattoed at Wat Bang Pra, that’s what I expected to have to do. Customers have to wait in line here after a very early start and they don’t use fresh needles for each person. So, it sounds neat, but I didn’t fancy sharing needles and dragging my whole family over there to wait in line was not going to win me any popularity awards.
Read more about getting a Sak Yant at Wat Bang Pra here.
Getting a Sak Yant at a Tattoo Shop
You can also buy a Sak Yant design in just about any tattoo shop in Thailand, and there are many. Tattooists apply them with either machines ( guns) or bamboo, you’ll probably get a great looking tattoo, but you wouldn’t get the full experience.
Getting a Sak Yant, the Best Way
My research led me to Ian Ord of Where Sidewalks End Travel. He can organise your Sak Yant, send you to a master Arjan (or Ajarn, Thai spelling seem to have endless variations) with a great history and reputation and also provide you with a translator and guide to pick you up from your hotel and take you back again. He makes the whole experience very stress- free and simple. I liked his plan.
It took me a while to organise a date, our 6 weeks in Thailand saw us hopping from north to south by train and plane far too often, but I finally found a day that worked and confirmed it through the Where Sidewalks End Travel website. They do need a few days notice and they do get very busy , so if you really want your Sak Yant, book it as soon as you possibly can. A few major celebrities have used this ajarn and Ian’s service, that reassured me more.
Our Day, Getting a Sak Yant.
We’re staying at the most beautiful guest house in Bangkok. Shanti Lodge it’s in Khao San area, about 15 minutes walk from Khao San Rd, but on a quiet, Thai street just footsteps from the flower market and river jetty. This is a guest house to fall in love with, and it’s cheap. But I’ll post about Shanti Lodge some other time.
Our chaperone, guide and translator met us at our lodgings at 9.30am. A nice young man, fluent in Thai, English and Italian, he would get us to the arjan, introduce us, help us discuss the process and generally baby-sit us for a few hours.
We were a party of 5, 2 kids, so he called an Uber taxi. For groups this big, taxis are cheaper and easier than public transport in Bangkok, even without Uber. The Arjan Where Sidewalks End uses lives in the Sukhumvit district, that’s where the big Bangkok shopping malls are on the other side of the city. We were going to the Arjan’s house and workplace in a quiet residential street. This is real Bangkok, a place no tourist would ever go unless to see Arjan Neng.
As soon as we arrived the process started. The Arjan’s assistant led me in prayers and offerings of incense to Ganesh. The Hindu god Ganesh, sak yant are pre-Buddhist and portray the wonderful mixture of faiths in Thailand’s history, Buddhism, Animism and Hiduism. You’ll often see Ganesh at Buddhist temples in Thailand.
You can see video of Arjan Neng at work below. I have my own that we will add in time.
Prayers completed, I stepped into the Arjan’s room. It was rather like meeting a celebrity, this softly spoken Sak Yant master can be found on YouTube and has a big reputation. I knelt before him, careful to keep my head lower than his and my feet pointing away. Chef and the boys came into the back of the room and sat quietly to watch. He asked a few questions about me and my needs. He asked how many followers my blog had, 40,000 seemed to go down well with him although he’s not accustomed to social media. He picked my design and showed me. Our translator told me the name and explained it’s meaning but right now I can’t remember, it’s a bit blurry. I’ll email him, he’ll jog my memory. I liked the design, so we proceeded. I think if you don’t like the sak yant you’re given you can discuss this and change it around, there are hundreds the ajarn can chose from.
I gave the ajarn an offerring of flowers and incense, this had been arranged and prepared by my guide, I bent myself into the required position ( which was actually very comfortable, even with 50 year old joints), and off we went.
I wore a vest T shirt with the shoulder straps tucked under and a linen shirt for my sak yant appointment. For the tattoo I put the shirt on back to front as bare flesh still isn’t cool in Thailand. Don’t wear shorts or anything too revealing.
Two assistants pushed me into a firm crouch at the arjan’s feet and held my skin tight. It was slightly worrying that two people were holding me down and I wondered what I was in for. I felt the first few jabs of the needle, no pain, just a sensation and waited for it to start hurting. It really hardly hurt at all. I’d been told that it was 4x as bad as a machine tattoo and that some people found the pain unbearable. Well, I was fine. One little part hurt like crazy, but only for moments, it passed. Mental relaxation, self-hypnosis, meditation, I do these things to get me through pain and anxiety and I find they help a lot. I’ve delivered two boys without drugs, at home, the Sak Yant was a walk in the park.
The ajarn’s ultra-fluffy cat wandered past, my boys adored and stroked her. His pet cockatoos squawked and talked, all the time he jabbed, his assistants mopped, the process was over in no time. I’d estimate the whole tattoo took no more that 10 to 15 minutes, but I didn’t time it. He worked incredibly fast, almost as though he was writing on my skin. He was joking and laughing, Chef and our translator were shooting photos and video. It was a cool experience.
Once done I received another blessing or magical incantation, a good sprinkling in what I hope was holy water and he finished the job off with a little magic, which he blew into my design. He put his hands on my shoulders for the final chant, it was one of the gentlest, most calming touches I’ve ever had.
The usual vaseline and cling film slapped on and it was done. I left with a prayer on a slip of paper and a little Buddha statue. Our translator bought us some excellent duck noodle soup and took us home.
So that’s my Sak Yant story. I’m very glad I did it, the whole experience was good, other than maybe the Bangkok traffic. But you can’t have everything.
How to Book Your Sak Yant Experience
If you’d like to book the same Sak Yant experience, just use my affiliate link to click-through to Where Sidewalks End Travel and reserve a date . I’d highly recommend you do. They offer other tours and experiences, including the now-famous Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, and can also arrange a Sak Yant for you in Chiang Mai if you’re heading north.
If you have any questions, please put them in the comments. I can answer most questions or you can go to Ian’s FAQ page at the above link.
To take a look at Shanti Lodge click through here.
Back to our main Travel in Thailand page
Did you follow us on Instagram yet?