Getting a Sak Yant Tattoo in Ayutthaya, Thailand
“Ajarn Wao says you have a mole or a growth in your groin area that worries you,” my guide Valentino says through nervous laughter.
My eyes nearly popped out of my head.
How could he know that? I had just made an appointment the night before to see my doctor when I eventually returned to Calgary, and unless he had my phone tapped, there’s no way he could have known that kind of information. Or is there?
Continuing the translation, Valentino adds, “He says there’s nothing to worry about — everything’s going to be fine.”
This was my introduction to getting a Sak Yant Tattoo in Thailand.
Admittedly, I did not know much about getting a Sak Yant tattoo in Thailand, or anywhere else for that matter, until I put my nose to the grindstone and started seriously researching it. This post is the culmination of that research plus my two cents worth thrown in for good measure. Learning’s a wonderful thing isn’t it? So here goes…
Okay, I ain’t gonna sugarcoat it for you — getting a Sak Yant tattoo in Ayutthaya in Thailand hurt like a sonofabitch. I like to think I have a pretty high threshold for pain — I’ve had a few tattoos done before, and even fell asleep during one of them (in self’s defense, self had been up for about 22 hours when the tattooing began.) I even “slightly” enjoy my turn at the dentist in a twisted, perverted, sort of way, but this, well this was a whole different stratosphere of pain. Perhaps it was the placement of the tattoo — in the centre of my back directly over my spine — but you know what, the pain was well worth it.
Table of Contents
- 1 Getting a Sak Yant Tattoo in Ayutthaya, Thailand
- 1.1 What is Sak Yant?
- 1.2 Sak Yant Tattoo by Monk or Sak Yant Tattoo by Ajarn?
- 1.3 What You Need to Know
- 1.4 Where in Thailand can I get a Sak Yant Tattoo?
- 1.5 Can I choose the design of the Sak Yant tattoo?
- 1.6 Can I choose the location of the Sak Yant tattoo?
- 1.7 What is the Cost of Sak Yant Tattoo in Thailand?
What is Sak Yant?
Sak Yant means literally to give a yant, or yantra. Sak = give. Yant = yantra. A yantra is a sacred, geometrical design said to have magical properties. In this case the form of the yantra is a tattoo. The yant, along with the blessing from the monk or ajarn, carries with it protective powers and good luck.
Sak Yant Tattoo by Monk or Sak Yant Tattoo by Ajarn?
If you get a Sak Yant through a monk, you are generally only expected to make an offering — usually cigarettes, incense sticks, and flowers, plus a donation. The Sak Yant is carried out in a temple, and you will have to wait sometimes hours for your turn. There is also sometimes questionable sterilization of the instruments used for tattooing.
The term ajarn refers to any learned person, in this case, a Sak Yant Ajarn is someone who has devoted his life to carrying on the ancient tradition of Sak Yant. Most Ajarns are former monks, but have now chosen the art of Sak Yant as their career. If you get your Sak Yant through an Ajarn, you will generally be given an appointment time, and if you go through WSE Travel (the company I used) a guide will assist you with the details and the translation, and the Ajarn has been selected not only for their experience and reputation, but because of their adherence to cleanliness and the sterilization process.
What You Need to Know
The ajarn will draw on your body to indicate the placement of the tattoo, but unlike with many modern-day tattoo artists, there is no stencil nor machine used. This is freehand. Just the artist and you — his canvas. Historically ajarns used sharpened bamboo to tattoo the yantra, but nowadays most use a sharpened metal rod called a khem sak. It is designed to replicate the traditional bamboo, and many are custom-made specifically for the ajarn.
Where in Thailand can I get a Sak Yant Tattoo?
Although WSE Travel also offers the Sak Yant Ink Experience in Bangkok and in Chiang Mai, I opted to get my Sak Yant tattoo in Ayutthaya for a number of reasons.
First, I had a read a number of accounts of the experience in both Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and I thought that might have clouded my experience. I wanted an experience all my own. And since I couldn’t find any account online of getting a Sak Yant in Ayutthaya, then I was definitely going to be treading new territory.
Second, Ayutthaya just seemed more…and I hate using this word…authentic. It’s older than Bangkok (founded in 1350), it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, and it once served as the capital of Siam until the Burmese had their way with it and burned it to the ground.
I had been to Ayutthaya on a couple of occasions previously, and, in my mind, its ancient city vibe lent itself more genuinely to such a traditional art form.
Can I choose the design of the Sak Yant tattoo?
There’s a bit of a misconception about the whole consultation process with the ajarn. The ajarn does not read your aura and then all of a sudden declare, “Presto change-o, a-la-peanut-butter-sandwiches — you’re going to need a tiger tattoo on your back!”
It’s difficult to explain, but I felt like Ajarn Wao had a deeper intuition about things and people in general, and even speaking through a translator, was able to determine what was really nagging on my noggin.
We all have the built in judge of character where we pigeonhole someone into a convenient box shortly after we’ve met them. Earth Mother, Goth Kid, Preppy Guy. I felt that the ajarn was able to see past those obvious markers to gain a deeper understanding. He’s practiced this art for years, and has seen many people from all walks of life before me, and some way, some how, he was able to get to that one thing that was weighing heavy on my soul — that goddamned mole.
So yes, ultimately the ajarn does suggest the sak yant that’s best for you based on your needs, but it’s after a mutually agreeable consultation.
Can I choose the location of the Sak Yant tattoo?
Well, the ajarn is not going to put it on your forehead if that’s what you’re getting at. You can let the ajarn know where you’d like to get your Sak Yant.
It is worth nothing though that some yantra designs are intended to be placed in certain areas, so choosing a location will limit the selection the ajarn can suggest to you. Also to be noted, most yantras should be above the waist and never be placed near the groin or close to your feet.
What is the Cost of Sak Yant Tattoo in Thailand?
The cost of the Sak Yant Tattoo in Thailand will depend on a number of factors. If you go directly to Wat Bang Phra outside of Bangkok, the monk there operates on donations only. The pack of cigarettes and flowers generally given as a offering for the service will run you a measly $5 USD. Be forewarned though, you will have to wait up to 4 hours to get your Sak Yant, there is no translation provided, and you may be sharing that tattoo needle with those that have gone before you.
Here’s the thing though, if you’ve read my piece on Begpacking in Asia, you’ll know how I feel about white folks coming in and taking advantage of the kind-heartedness of locals. And that’s sort of what’s going on when foreigners waltz up to temple to get a Sak Yant tattoo. Thai people habitually donate money, food, flowers, etc. daily to the monks and their local temple. In return they are provided with spiritual guidance, prayers, comfort, and yes, even a Sak Yant tattoo if they so choose. Their donations span a lifetime in many cases. Now a foreigner shows up and just pays 5 bucks to get a tattoo? Think about it. Does that seem fair to you?
My Sak Yant Ink Experience through WSE Travel cost $250 USD, which included transportation from Bangkok to Ayutthaya and return, no waiting in line, and — most importantly for me — a very knowledgeable guide who translated the consultation with Ajarn Wao. It also provides a living wage for the ajarn and the guide.
If I had gone to Wat Bang Phra I probably would’ve still be happy that I received a Sak Yant, but would definitely not have had the level of consultation and understanding that came with having a private guide. Plus I would’ve probably felt a little shitty that I only paid 5 bucks for something so special.
To put it in perspective, Ajarn Noo — the ajarn who gave Ayngelina Jolie her Sak Yant — has rates starting at $1000 USD. I think $250 is a fair price considering all that’s involved.
Something quite unexpected happened during my Sak Yant Experience as well. I hemmed and hawed about whether I should share it or not, but I got to thinking, if I can’t be honest, then what can I be? Besides one of the “rules of sak yant” you’ll see posted online is that you cannot lie.
Anyhow, I’ve discussed previously the rough patch I’ve gone through this past year or so, and things just came to a head. I’d surrounded myself with people who were just there to get something from me, and here was this total stranger, giving me a blessing, wishing the best for me, praying for me, and it was a bit too much. I started bawling. Not tears of pain though. It happened during the blessing after the tattoo was completed. The tears just started to flow. Ajarn Wao sensed my emotion, and was compassionate and comforting.
Afterwards, I can’t describe how happy I was. It was like a weight was lifted.
As for my particular Sak Yant and its meaning, that’s something I’d like to keep between Ajarn Wao and myself.
I admit I googled “Sak Yant Tattoos” before my appointment with the ajarn to see what type of tattoo I wanted, probably much like you did. I’d suggest however to go into the experience with an open mind. Have a discussion with your ajarn, tell him what’s weighing on your mind, and trust in his suggestion. It will be a truly unique experience.
My guide told me that the book of sak yant tattoo designs that Ajarn Wao had were nowhere to be found on the internet. I received something truly magical, and walked away with an experience I will never forget. To say that I am happy with my Sak Yant experience through WSE Travel would be an understatement.
The final product.
If you have more questions, WSE Travel has a great FAQ section on their website that should have the answers.
Oh, and that mole? Ajarn Wao was right — it was nothing to worry about.