So, you want to get a magic-infused tattoo blessing by a monk in Thailand? There are a few things to know about how to get one, where to get one, and how to get a Sak Yant bamboo tattoo safely.
Below I will cover:
What a Sak Yant Blessing actually is
– The difference between a Monk and an Ajarn
– The safety benefit of choosing an Ajarn over a Monk
– My backstory on my two Sak Yant blessings and their meaning
– What it feels like to receive a bamboo tattoo and the pain level
– Sak Yant Blessing cultural importance and rules
Here’s my guide on the matter, from experiencing the bamboo tattoo blessings twice.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
All of my tattoos have meaning, a story, or moment in time attached to them — but only two tattoos are bound with magic. The first sak yant I received was by a monk a few days after my birthday in 2012. That trip to Thailand followed a major turning point in my life after nearly a year of deep depression and alcohol abuse.
I felt stronger and more alive than ever. I felt more clarity than ever before. I let go of things in my past that haunted me and encumbered me. It was time to move forward with my life and chase that crazy dream of traveling again, and this sak yant would mark that moment.
It did. The experience at Wat Bang Phra was one of the most memorable of the trip through Thailand. To this day I get excited when people ask about it, half because I forget that I wear that memento on my skin, and the other because it was such a profound (though quick) experience that tied into an important period of self improvement and growth.
It would be only fitting that the next time I was in Thailand and in another chaotic period of transition in my life that I would replenish the magic of the original sak yant by getting another blessing. And would bring yet another memorable experience.
What the heck is a Sak Yant Tattoo?
The sak yant, also known as sak yan or yantra, is mystical tattoo of geometric, animal, or deity designs and blessings inked by a monk or an ajarn to bestow different spells for protection. There are over 75 blessings relating to Buddhist and Dharmic cultures from all across Asia dating back 2,000 years, but the art of sak yant is now mainly practiced in Thailand.
Often, you’ll see Thai people and monks covered head to toe in various blessings, and each one holds a specific power and rules to follow.
Or you spot plenty backpackers donning these blessings — many of which are done in tattoo shops offering the sak yant which don’t hold the magic that the monk or ajarn blesses you with. The purpose of the blessings is to offer protection, strength, luck, guidance, and more, and to have the full meaning and magic in the sak yant, it’s important to get it done by a master.
Nowadays, most people have seen a type of this tattoo because it was made famous by Angelina Jolie worldwide, but when I received my first sak yant, I didn’t know much about the experience, history, or cultural importance. Now, I have 2 sak yant blessings for two different periods of my life — one from a monk, and one from an ajarn.
And both experiences were vastly different and hold a different story.
I sat under the metal awning attached to a row house indistinguishable from the rest on the road in the outskirts of Bangkok. Everything was the same as the rest except for the long bench I sat on and the elephant-headed god Ganesh statue before me starring outward.
My guide JJ emerged from the sliding glass door and told me it wouldn’t be long. We were outside Ajarn Neng’s home and his Samnak (studio) where he give the blessings. Under the gaze of Ganesh and the smoldering ruins of spent incense and prayers there was a lot on my mind. A wimper of a dog broke my thought and I looked over to see a chihuahua in the doorway.
“Ajarn Neng loves his pets, just wait and see” JJ said with a laugh.
I laughed and went back into my daze. The past week in Thailand had been one of the most trying times of my travels. Just days before, I had been living on crumbs in the bottom of a Pringles container for 3 days after an ATM ate my only bank card and left me in Bangkok without a dime.
That had been the icing on those stupid metaphorical cakes of disaster and I had been thinking of giving up traveling for a while after. I was fed up with certain aspects of life on the road, and frustrated from all of the events that had happened that week.
I was just worn out.
After getting past that stressful experience, I got a tattoo from a local shop to commemorate overcoming another obstacle of the road, but I wanted the sak yant to take with me into the new unknown that was about to happen the next day when I flew out to Europe.
A man came out of the Samnak and waved me to Ganesh.
“Repeat the prayer he says to Ganesh” JJ said.
I held the incense and repeated the prayer as best as I could and hoped it wouldn’t botch the blessing if I hadn’t repeated a word correctly.
After I placed my incense in the pot and left it to disintegrate into the world of the gods bringing my prayer with it, I entered the dimly lit Samnak where Ajarn Neng awaited.
Why you SHOULD choose an Ajarn for your safe Sak Yant Tattoo
I removed my shoes and was motioned to it down on the floor. Before me, still and calm and quiet, sat Ajarn Neng, covered head to toe in sak yant blessings. All around the room statues and idols stared at me. Sak yant designs and images of the late King Rama IV decorated the walls. Birds chirped from a cage on a nearby table, and two dogs skidded about on the tiled floor sniffing at me curiously.
Ajarn Neng smiled at me. His presence was definitely commanding, and the energy in the room palpable.
On the way to the Samnak in the back of a songthaew truck JJ told me that Ajarn Neng is one of the most powerful in the world, and his presence definitely spoke to that. I had also been told by my travel buddy Ian who runs this special sak yant tour through his company Where Sidewalks End that just weeks before Ajarn Neng gave a sak yant blessing to the one and only Steven Seagal.
So I was about to be blessed by one of the most powerful ajarns that somehow pierced his titanium like flesh, AND infused with Steven Seagal’s invincible traits? Sounds good to me.
My Sak yant and its story
Two men sat on the floor close to Ajarn Neng in silence as ink and needle were prepared. The long metal rods, or khem sak, hung on the walls like swords — the tools of the ajarn to bestow the magic. The practice used to be done by bamboo, but would often break or splinter and cause problems in the process. Now the use the metal rods, passed down to the ajarns by their master or designed specially for them.
The guide told me to remove my shirt and show Ajarn Neng my previous sak yant. In 2012 on my first trip to Thailand I received my sak yant blessing by a monk in Wat Bang Phra, a temple outside of Bangkok. That tattoo, the Hah Taew or 5 lines, is one of the most powerful generic blessings given to most as their first sak yant. It offers protection against black magic and curses, helps with good luck and good fortune, and boosts guidance and ambitions.
Ajarn Neng spoke to JJ, who asked when I received it and where. The ajarn also wanted to know where I was going in the immediate future as well which JJ translated for me.
“He has chosen the Gao Yord sak yant for you, one of the most powerful protection spells.” JJ said after the ajarn spoke again.
I nodded, trusting the judgment of one of the most powerful ajarns to read my needs and select one that fit. After all, my next journey into the unknown was taking me to Europe to live at sea for 5 months, and I’d probably need as much protection as I can get!
He waved me forward and after giving Ajarn Neng my donations, the two strangers scooted forward and held my shoulders. I took a deep breath, knowing well the feeling of the first needle strike. Ajran Neng placed the gao yord sak yant design on my skin and the two men held my skin tight.
“Are you ready?” JJ said, holding my camera so he could capture the experience for me since I couldn’t take photos of my first sak yant experience in Wat Bang Phra.
“Yes, as ready as I’ll ever be” I said, and laughed nervously awaiting the first impact.I could hear Ajarn Neng dipping the needle into the small vials of black ink made of charcoal, oils, and rumored to be infused with snake venom. I tried to breathe slowly as I waited, hunched over and hugging the triangle pillow.
And then it hit.
The weighted needle hit my back for the first time, and it was a sensation I’ve never felt before. I guess you can say that about all tattoos, but I guess the placement of the tattoo, and the thinner area of muscle and skin on the spine and neck amplified the sensation.
The ajarn went to work. Thousands of expertly aimed jabs strike over and over working the ink into the sak yant design. But, as you can see, the sak yant was a blank guide and the blessings are coming straight out of Ajarn Neng’s mastery.
Does a Sak Yant tattoo hurt?
I will admit, compared to the first sak yant I received on my shoulder, the neck area fast became more painful. My pain threshold is pretty high, but it was an odd sensation mixed with the sensitivity of the area that had me gritting my teeth. Hit after hit and I delved into my head, trying to convince myself that the pain was a part of receiving this special protection spell.
That I had to go through an ordeal to get the protection.I gripped the pillow tighter and held on for the duration.
The last few minutes were brutal.
Given the size of my gao yord sak yant and the fact that I wasn’t in an assembly line structure with 50 people waiting to get blessed like my first tattoo at Wat Bang Phra, it took much longer to finish. I think somewhere in my head I figured all of the blessings would be a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am quickie like before since my Hah Thaew took only 10 minutes.
One hit to a specific area and I couldn’t hold in the puny mewing sound I let out. Then Ajarn Neng spoke.
“He says it’s almost over” JJ told me, and the two men holding my back smiled in assurance. I closed my eyes and held on for the ride and Ajarn Neng went back to the blessing.
Blessed to be finished, happy to be blessed
Just as Ajarn Neng said, he was done in minutes. The whole gao yord sak yant took about 30 minutes to complete, and though it was painful at times, the moment he stopped it subsided. He placed a cloth over my raw and newly blessed skin and began to chant.
Even though he was finished with the tattoo, the blessing wasn’t. I sat cross-legged feeling at peace now that it was done and and even more so as he chanted the blessings to breath life into the Sak Yant.
It was done, I was blessed with the gao yord sak yant by one of the most powerful ajarns, and possibly given some of Steven Seagal’s roundhouse kick skills.
As the slight burning feeling warmed my back at the spot of the tattoo, I bowed to Ajarn Neng and thanked him for the blessing. I was going to the sea for 5 months working as a photographer on sailboats and I had no clue what the future held — but this gave me comfort and confidence after it faltered the week prior.
I felt ready to continue my journey and a new chapter in my life.
What does my sak yant mean?
The gao yord or 9 spires is brought to life by the monk or ajarn giving the blessing and breathing the magic into it. The 9 spires of the gao yord are broken into different protection spells, and though designs can vary based on who is doing the sak yant, it generally has the same meaning.
Maetda Maha Niyom: Offers the bearer compassion and kindness in their dealings with others. Increases popularity and influence.
Maha Amnat: This offers the bearer power and authority in dealing with others.
Awk Seuk: This enables the bearer to fight adversity and to always fight for correct and noble reasons.
Oopathae: This offers the bearer a smooth path in business activities.
Kong Khra Pan: This offers the bearer magical powers of invincibility.
Maha Lap: This will offer the bearer good fortune.
Bong Kan Antarai: This will offer the bearer protection against natural disasters, accidents and acts of violence toward the bearer.
Natee Gan Gnan Dee: This will offer the bearer favorable circumstances in their work.
Bong Kan Win Yan Chua Rai: This will offer the bearer protection against unwanted spirits.
Much of the meanings behind the different blessings can be interpreted different ways, but overall it matters how much you take the experience and belief seriously. Obviously I don’t think it’ll grant me invincibility, but can feel empowering to believe that might help with conquering fears.
With natural disasters, this did get added on after I’ve been through 5 earthquakes including ones in Thailand and India, so I hope that helps ward them off!
Though my body is how I collect memories while traveling, this sak yant and my first wasn’t just a tattoo. It has a purpose and a personal meaning aside from what the sak yant is said to hold magically.
It is an experience that should be taken lightly because it is a connection with a culture and beliefs. I’m not religious nor do I follow Buddhism, but I believe the sak yant tattoo has magic given by the people who believe in it.
Following the rules of the sak yant
Every sak yant blessing has a general list of rules to follow if you want it to work to its fullest potential and to not taint the magic that is believed to be filled in each.
For myself, I haven’t adhered to a strict set of rules from my sak yant blessings, but most of them align with beliefs I already have. And most of the rules in a general sense are basic rules of compassion, caring, and responsibility.The research into each of my sak yants had me go, “oh, maybe I need to focus a bit more on this” which was an interesting aspect.
Rules of my Gao Yord Sak Yant:
- Do not kill a person with intent.
- Do not steal for own personal gain.
- Do not lie to harm others. We all tell white lies and there is a difference.
- Do not have sexual relations with another’s partner.
- Do not spit in the toilet. The toilet should be a clean place and not to keep it so, shows disrespect to oneself and others.
- Do not swear at or disrespect your parents in any way.
- Do not speak about people behind their back in a manner likely to cause harm.
- Do not over consume alcohol and become troublesome to others. Keep in control.
- Do not walk under female underwear. The reason for this is to avoid temptations and distractions that the opposite sex can bring. Monks themselves are not allowed to touch a woman’s skin for this very reason and when a monk tattoos a female, he will wear surgical gloves.
It’s only after my sak yants that the meaning truly took hold. It wouldn’t light up or hum all of the sudden if I needed to call on its power, nor did it make me feel superhuman or having special abilities. What it did was have me look at things I may be struggling with, or personal feats and things I may not be confident with, and try and overcome them or see it in a new light.
It especially helped to look back on it when I first arrived to my job in the mediterranean and hit a very rough depression period at sea.
When I’m asked by others that spot them, especially after a summer of working with my shirt off, it’s exciting to see them captivated and awestruck by the experience and to see the gears start turning in their own heads when you speak of the meaning and magic.
And the real magic is the experiencing this spiritual practice an important part of the Thai culture.
Monk vs. Ajarn Opinion
If I have received one from a monk, and one from an ajarn, what’s the difference?
It’s all in how the experience goes and what you want to take away from it. I will go in depth like this article into my experience at Wat Bang Phra with the monk, but there are a few reasons why I would choose to get a sak yant blessing with an ajarn.
It’s more intimate.
Going to see Ajarn Neng, I didn’t feel as though I was being shuffled through a conveyor belt and receiving a blessing as fast as the monk could get it done and onto the next. He inquired about my previous sak yant, my future plans, and a bit about my past to pick the right sak yant for me.
During the tattooing process, there was just my guide JJ, the two men helping Ajarn Neng, and the pets around.
It felt safer.
After my first sak yant, I had blood work done to make sure I was okay. Which I was. It varies per temple and monk, but most of the time the needles aren’t swapped per use. Often, they just wipe them with alcohol or clean them in alcohol, but the same ink is used. It’s strange to think such a popular practice in the culture hasn’t erupted into some disease epidemic, but I haven’t found much on reports of blood related illnesses transmitted by sak yant.
Still, it isn’t something I would do again given the risks involved and seeing that popularity of sak yant tattoos has grown.
A cleaner environment.
Ajarn Neng uses the traditional mixture of ink for the sak yants and the traditional tools, but they make sure to have fresh ink pots per person which made me feel much more comfortable. It also felt much more sterile (though not up to standards of a tattoo shop in the US) with the ajarn using gloves while making the sak yant and cleaning with alcohol. The samnak or studio was much cleaner than the temple I visited as well which doesn’t seem to have been cleaned for decades.
A better experience overall.
With the sak yant at the temple, the experience involved tons of preplanning and an entire morning of getting to the temple and waiting your turn.
Going to Ajarn Neng, I was the only one inside as others waited their turn outside. My guide JJ met me at the skyrail and took me all the way to the ajarn, talking about the history and answering questions along the way. Even though the sak yant took longer to complete, the experience went quicker and smoother since it was organized for me. I had the chance to ask questions, hear more about the culture and history, and if I wanted to, pick up a whole book written about my sak yant and the other blessings. And after the sak yant was compelte, we went over to a local eatery and had lunch.
You can also take photos and videos!
I wasn’t able to take any photos of my first experience at Wat Bang Phra, but going to Ajarn Neng, he allowed me to walk away with memories besides the tattoo. Given I run a travel blog and I’m passionate about photography, it felt good to be able to capture this moment and made the experience that much more memorable.
Would I get another sak yant?
In brief, I don’t feel at the moment I want or need another, but the time may come, and if it did, I’d definitely go to the ajarn. Looking back, this would have been the experience I would have wanted for the first, and I’m happy I got it.
As new adventures unfold, I’ll get new travel memories inked in, and I’ll have this one to remember the adventure as long as I live.
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My sak yant experience with Ajarn Neng was through a tour offered by my friend and fellow travel blogger Ian of Where Sidewalks End and his company that offers other amazing cultural tours.
Besides just a damn good drinking buddy, he’s incredibly knowledgeable about Thai culture after living there for years, and I trust him whenever I have questions or need advice.
This tour was originally meant for a friend who needed the blessing during a rough patch in their life, but they ended up not flying to Thailand and I took their place.
If you are thinking about getting a sak yant tattoo and want to have an authentic and knowledgeable experience outside of a tattoo shop that is also a much safer method than visiting a temple, this sak yant tour that I went on is something to look into.