Sak Yant – Thailand’s Sacred Bamboo Tattoos in Ayutthaya
As soon as we arrived in Thailand we started noticing people’s traditional tattoos. After a few internet searches, we learned more about the “Sak Yant” as they are called– magic bamboo tattoos. Sak Yant are beautifully designed and come with a blessing, their goal to grant protection and to give strength to the bearer of the tattoo. The sacred tattoos are given by Buddhist monks, or ex-Monk tattoo masters called Ajarns. The Ajarns dedicated their lives to learning the ancient art, passing the traditions down to their apprentices.
Our Sak Yant Experience in Ayutthaya
After the initial research we put in, we were turned off by the whole “free tattoo in the temple thing” as from the accounts we first read the process seemed crowded and rushed, with questionable sterilization practices. We searched for a more personable experience, and that is when we found Where Sidewalks End Travel. WSE’s owner Ian has spent years traveling all over Asia looking for the best Ajarns masters of the art of Sak Yant. He now offers the most authentic Sak Yant experiences for travelers by providing a translator/guide and making sure participants really understand the purpose of the tattoos they are getting.
On the morning of our appointment, our guide, Coco, picked us up at our hostel and we took a taxi to Mo Chit Bus Terminal in Bangkok. From there we took a mini van for the 1.5 hour journey north to Ayutthaya. We chose to go to Ayutthaya because of the amazing things we had heard about Ajarn Wao, the sak yant master there, and his psychic abilities. He seemed like the best choice and we trusted him to use his mastery to help us decided on the right sak yant tattoos for us.
Once in the city, we stopped to buy marigold wreaths as an offering. After getting the flowers we jumped into a tuk tuk that would take us to the “samayant” the studio/temple where the ceremony would take place. After driving past the temples of the old Thai capital, we arrived and were welcomed upstairs into the sacred space.
The room was open with many windows. At the far end was a tiered altar containing many images of the Buddha, Ganesh (the elephant god and god of art), and other sacred figures. Incense burned in the corner and the master’s apprentices sat patiently at the side of the room. While we waited for Ajarn Wao, our guide Coco told us some guidelines to follow in order to be respectful. These included never pointing your feet towards the altar and walking with bent knees, aiming to never walk taller than the Ajarn.
When Ajarn Wao entered the room, we kneeled at the front and lit nine sticks of incense each, nine being the most lucky number in Thailand. We then presented our marigold wreaths which were hung on the altar. Carrie decided to go first, since she had more tattoo experience. Through our translator Coco, Carrie answered questions about her birth-date, along with a few details about some struggles she has had and her desire to be more mindful in her life. Ajurn Wao made a chart in his notebook, which he used to explain her future and recent past.
Carrie’s Sak Yant Experience:
Carrie’s tattoo was decided; she would receive a tiger to protect her and give her strength. The tiger would be depicted looking over its shoulder at her past, which was difficult but would make her stronger. In the future her enemies will become jealous of her strength and success, and will try to take it from her, the Ajarn said. But in the end she will overcome, emerging stronger than ever. Thus that tattoo was also a reminder to stay in the moment, to not worry about the future.
Ajarn Wao worked fast, but Carrie’s tattoo was large and it took nearly an hour. It was amazing the precision of his needle strikes. After he wiped the ink away, intricate patterns were revealed. As he went he was constantly uttering blessings, his mantras calming. After a few more blessings were added, the tattoo was finished.
But Ajarn Wao wasn’t done. He wanted to give Carrie a special additional oil sak yant tattoo, invisible but still powerful. Our guide said that this was very rare. Carrie agreed and soon a design formed on her upper back out of small bits of blood. The oil yant would fade over the next few days, but it’s lucky magic would remain.
Zach’s Sak Yant Experience:
As it was my turn the calmness left me and my palms became sweaty. I sat in silence with plans to share about some of my struggles, my idea that I was my own worst enemy. I knelt before the Ajarn and before I could speak a word, he said to me (translated through Coco) “You need to decrease your ego. Try to think before speaking.” This was shocking because ego was what I already knew to be a problem and exactly what I had planned to bring up.
He then figured out the meaning of my birthday. In the Chinese calendar, I am born in the year of the rabbit. However, Ajarn Wao based his predictions on the Thai calendar. Under these dates, I was born in the year of the snake, and on Saturday, the day of the snake. This double snake made me very powerful, but my biggest enemy was my ego. The Ajarn then asked me about what I wanted to share, and I exclaimed that everything had already been said. I felt as if Ajarn Wao could see into my soul, which was scary but also calming in a way, as understanding your weaknesses is the only way to truly overcome them.
My tattoo was to be a blessing, with an emphasis on a chicken. The chicken would distract the snakes (my ego) and help bring my consciousness away from my ego’s control. It would help me to listen and think more before speaking, allowing me to choose the right words at the right time. After a blessing I bent forward, away from the master who began inserting the inked stick into my back.
Traditionally given with sharpened bamboo, present day Ajurns use sharpened steel poles called “khem sak”. At first it was just a few pricks, but soon I could feel the sharpness grind against my spine. My knuckles turned white and sweat poured down my face. I was warned that the placement would be difficult, and I was given a mantra to repeat when it got rough. I noticed that the others present felt my anguish and my reaction was laughter which engulfed the room. Soon I was able to relax myself and I became numb.
I noticed the apprentices, who where holding me still, stand and the sak yant sacred tattooing was finished. Ajurn Wao splashed me with cool water and a flood of energy flooded by body. I felt a great power come over me, as if I was new. A smile spread over my face as gold leaf was rubbed into the blessed tattoo.
After we were both finished we thanked Ajurn Wao and presented our donations to him for his services. He told us that in our relationship we needed to stop trying to one-up each other, to listen more and let things go. He was spot on again! This man has real wisdom.
We chose this experience because of the reputability of WSE Travel. Other options include going to a temple where the tattoos are given in exchange for an offering. In these places you will wait in line and receive a tattoo for very cheap, but it may be rushed and you will miss the personal experience. While the needles at the temple are sterilized, they are dipped into the same ink from person to person. Theoretically this could spread diseases and even though our research never found any confirmed cases, we decided that it wasn’t for us.
This was hands down one for the greatest, most spiritual experiences of our traveling lives, and the lessons we learned have immeasurable value. WSE’s Sak Yant tattoo experiences are definitely not the cheapest, but you get what you pay for and this is a lifetime commitment. With their inside knowledge and their commitment to sustainability and making sure the sak yant tradition continues in Thailand, WSE was the obvious choice for us. They also offer experiences in Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Chiang Rai, and Sukhothai along with ink-less blessings in Bangkok. We’ll write an update on our tattoos and how they are affecting our lives soon! Do you think Ajarn Wao’s predictions will come true?
Would you get a sacred tattoo to help you on your life journey?
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We are having a retreat in Thailand in 2023! Come along and get one of these tattoos as part of the experience!