06 Feb 2018 Getting A Sak Yant Tattoo in Chiang Mai, Thailand
A slow moving stream of tears rolled down my face toward my chin. A single drop hung there waiting for its partner to make the journey down to the cool concrete floor. The tears land with a quiet thud joining a handful of others that had fallen before. I have never cried during a tattoo, but today I am. It’s not an uncontrollable balling with shrieks of pain, just silent tears… It doesn’t even hurt that much!?! Why am I crying?
About halfway through the Sak Yant tattoo the corners of the monk’s face roll up into a grin and he says with the innocence that only a monk could possess “You are not crying because of the pain, you are crying because of the magic.”
Maybe he was right, it hurt, sure – but I wasn’t crying from the pain. I honestly don’t know why I was crying, it only lasted a few minutes and before I even realized, he was finished. I wiped away the tears and a few more taps with his needle and my tattoo was finished. Did I really just get tattooed by a monk? In Thailand?
Five years ago if you were to tell me I’d be living in Thailand I’d call you crazy, and if you said I’d be getting tattooed by a monk I’d tell you to seek help. Isn’t it crazy how life changes and how travel can change you?
My Sak Yant Tattoo Journey
Why I decided to get a Sak Yant tattoo
Thailand is more than just a destination to us. Adam and I first visited Asia on our Thailand honeymoon in 2012, and have been drawn back to Thailand over and over again. We’ve spent over a year traveling around Thailand and have made Chiang Mai our second home. I’ve always wanted to get a tattoo in Thailand to remember our time here. Sure, I could have gone to a bamboo tattoo shop and gotten a tattoo of my choosing, but I wanted my tattoo to mean something.
I wasn’t sure what kind of tattoo I wanted to remember our travels here in Thailand, but when I heard about a magical tattoo given by a monk, I knew. A tattoo with a meaning, a story, history, and possibly some mystical powers. I have met a handful of other travelers who had gotten one and had amazing stories. A Sak Yant tattoo will be a permanent reminder and something to always hold on to the time we spent in Thailand.
What Is a Sak Yant Tattoo
Sak means to tattoo or to jab, Yant is the Thai word for Yantra or a type of mystical diagram.
When I told my mom I was getting another tattoo she wasn’t super happy and I think my dad told me to sleep on it. Well, Dad, I slept on it and I would do it all over again. I had to explain to them what was this magical tattoo and why I wanted one.
Sak Yant is also known as Yantra tattoo or Sak Yan (the “T” in Yant is not pronounced in Thai). A traditional Sak Yant is done by a Buddhist monk or Ajarn with a metal rod (no machine tattoo gun here). Yantra tattooing is an art, the Ajarn hand-etched my tattoo.
Another term to explain: Ajarn means a teacher or master of something, we visited a Sak Yant Phra Ajarn aka Sak Yant master monk
The monk who did our Sak Yant tattoos had been giving these magical tattoos for over 20 years. At just 14 years of age, he started training under the most well know Sak Yant Ajarn in all of Thailand. He studied for many years and now he practices out of his samnak which is a traditional sak yant studio which has been built at his home, so he can care for his aging parents.
His years of practice were apparent with the speed at which he worked. Ajarn Rung literally drew five lines and the rest was freehand. More on Sak Yant designs below.
You will notice some monks in Thailand are covered with Sak Yant tattoos. Yantra tattooing has been around for over 2,000 years and is still practiced today in Thailand. Sak Yant tattoos are believed to give magical powers such as luck, money, good health, family, protection, etc. Originally Buddhist monks tattooed warriors who needed protection and strength during battle, but now anyone can get one. Some people would say this is similar to a witch doctor or even a psychiatrist who will prescribe something to help you.
If you have ever seen Angelina Jolie’s tattoo on her back shoulder and wonder what it was, it’s a Sak Yant tattoo. And no, I didn’t get the same one as her.
After a little convincing, a magical tattoo to protect me while traveling was approved by mom.
Sak Yant Designs
Depending on where you go to get your tattoo will determine your Sak Yant design options. There are still temples around Thailand that offer “free” Sak Yant tattoo (offering is ALWAYS expected see below), where people line up daily to visit the Ajarn (master monk performing the tattoo) to get their magical tattoo. If you go to one of these temples the monk will most likely not speak English. You will have no control over what tattoo you are getting or where on your body it will be placed.
We booked the Lanna Ink Experience in Chiang Mai where we had an English speaking guide there for us to translate our whole experience. We were able to tell Ajarn Rung what we would like protection from and what we are struggling with. He then had binders of Sak Yant designs for us to look at, our guide explained the meaning of designs that interested us. I opted for a design that wasn’t in the book. Ajarn Rung was able to take the general idea of one of the designs I liked, but then customize it to what I needed protection for. I told the Ajarn anywhere on my back was ok, he asked me if I was right or left handed and chose to put my Sak Yant on my right shoulder.
The Sak Yant Ceremony
After the monk sketched the perfect blessing for me it was time for the ceremony. We removed our shoes and entered. After speaking with our Ajarn we lit incense and were told to think about what we needed in our life from this blessing. A silent moment passed and we had our ideas in our minds on what we needed in life, and I decided something else too. I decided to have Adam get his tattoo first, that would delay my pain for another 15 minutes.
How Much Does A Sak Yant Cost?
The cost varies Ajarn to Ajarn, but if you’re visiting a temple then it would “free” with a mandatory donation. All Ajarns have a standard fee just like a tattoo shop, as this is how they make a living. The price varies on the size of Sak Yant design but ranges from 1,000 baht to 12,000 baht.
If you visit an Ajarn you will have a fee as well as an offering ceremony. Offerings can be big or small. On our Lanna Ink experience our guide had arranged our offering for us, but if you visit a temple on your own you’ll need to prepare an offering for the monk. An acceptable offering would contain:
- Incense sticks
- Some money (Thai’s believe the number 9 is lucky so an amount with 9 is best)
If you do visit a temple offering “free” tattoos please leave a large monetary donation. You need to realize that the local Thai people give thousands of dollars over their lifetime to the temples and tourists should not expect to just walk in and get a free tattoo. Think of it like this, the minimum price of a tattoo in the USA is at least $50 so you should donate at least this in my opinion. It’s wrong for tourists to go to a country and reap the benefits locals have been supporting themselves with for their whole lives.
We presented our offering to the monk and shortly after, Adam was on the ‘tattoo stool’. Naturally, I had him get his tattoo first.
Just One Thing to Note:
A monk is not supposed to be photographed giving a Sak Yant tattoo to a woman because he is not to touch a woman or see her exposed back. In respect to these wishes, you’ll have to just enjoy Adam getting his tattoo and not me! Adam also wanted me to mention that all that talk of crying at the start of this post was not him!
Does a Sak Yant Tattoo Hurt?
Do you think getting stabbed with a pointy steel rod for 15 minutes would hurt? Yes, it hurts. Does a Sak Yant hurt more than a regular machine gun tattoo? No, not in my personal opinion. This was my fifth tattoo, my other tattoos were all done at a tattoo shop in the USA with a machine gun. My tattoo on my ribs hurt way more and took three times longer. Everyone has a different pain tolerance and the pain level differs on what part of the body the tattoo is on. Many people say getting a Sak Yant on your shoulder is one of the less painful places, which is where mine is.
“Where Can I Get A Sak Yant?”
There are two options: go with a reputable tour company – or – attempt to go on your own to a temple. I got my Sak Yant in Chiang Mai with the company WSE travel. They have a tattoo tour in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I would highly recommend arranging your Sak Yant with them as opposed to trying to go about getting one yourself. We got ours at Ajarn Rung’s samnak, which simply means a salon for tattooing Sak Yant, aka his office.
The most popular Sak Yant temple in Bangkok is Wat Bang Phra, which is located 30 miles outside of the city. It is also possible to get a Sak Yant in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. If you are looking at getting a Sak Yant tattoo in Cambodia please note all the ajarns were killed during the Khmer Rouge. Those offering the tattoos now are self-taught and don’t come from ancient lineage. My friend Ian who runs the Lanna Ink Experience spent a month looking for a reputable traditional ajarn in Cambodia to do similar Sak Yant tattoo tours in Cambodia, but couldn’t find one.
Are Sak Yant Tattoos Safe?
We have contemplated getting one for years, but were always nervous about the needle and if it was safe. Whenever considering something that involves needles and blood you want to make sure it’s safe. It doesn’t matter if you are in Thailand or the USA always make sure you’re in a sterile environment. One of the main reasons we booked our Lanna Ink tour was because they visit a trustworthy Ajarn that uses clean needles.
If you visit one of the local temples like Wat Bang Pra temple in Bangkok, there will be tons of people lined up daily to get a tattoo with the same needle dipped into the same vat of ink. It’s risky and this type of Sak Yant is questionable when it comes to safety. I do however have a few friends that got their tattoos there and they are fine.
Most monks or Ajarns now use a steel tip rod as opposed to a bamboo needle. Our local guide said he hadn’t seen any Ajarn or monk use a bamboo needle. Bamboo needles are less accurate, they break the skin, and are known to hold contaminants. Steel tip needles are more hygienic and have replaceable tips. The rods are called “Khem Sak” which means Khem=give Sak=tattoo, a very appropriate name. Khem Sak rods are often passed down to the Ajarn from their master and are believed to be loaded with blessings and enchantments.
You may still see it advertised as a bamboo tattoo Sak Yant, but it will most likely be done with a steel rod. If you are specifically wanting a bamboo tattoo done with bamboo needle double check with your Ajarn.
Can Women Get A Sak Yant?
Yes, I am proof of that. However, not every monk will give women a tattoo. Thai Buddhist monks cannot touch women and therefore most monks won’t tattoo women. A few Ajarns will give women a Sak Yant while wearing a glove in order not to touch them. Most Sak Yant specialists are Ajarns and have left the temple and now give Sak Yant & Yantra tattoos for a living. Our Ajarn wouldn’t allow any pictures of me getting the tattoo.
Sak Yant Rules Of Conduct
Every Sak Yant has their own “rules” and some are very strange. Such as: do not eat pumpkin (I love pumpkin soup), don’t drink alcohol (Ummm, well I don’t know about that one). Our Ajarn likes to see them as “life guidelines”. Each Ajarn has set their own as well. Here are the rules at Ajarn Rung’s samnak:
- Do not harm any living (or non-living) thing
- Show respect to your parents and elders
- Be a contributing member of society and never do anything that harms it
- You are not supposed to have any sexual relations with menstruating woman
If you are doing research online you’ve probably seen the most common set of rules are from Wat Bang Pra, which is not only a temple but a training for monks and Sak Yants. The rules of conduct are:
- Do not eat star fruit, pumpkin, or any other ‘Gourd’ type vegetable
- Do not be anybody’s lover who is already married
- Do not slander anybody’s mother
- Do not eat food from a wedding, or funeral (weddings just got a lot less fun, but they didn’t say anything about drinking here)
- Do not eat left-overs
- Do not duck under a washing line or an overhanging building
- Do not duck under a banana tree of the type thaanii (whatever that means)
- Do not cross a single head bridge; large or small bridges are forbidden
- Do not sit on a ceramic urn, especially a cracked, or broken one (got ya… I think)
- Do not let a woman lie on top of you, or sit on top either
- Do not permit a man to be brushed by the blouse or skirt of a woman, or crossed in front of; especially during the menstruation period
Some of these rules I will have no problem following and some of them are just not going to happen.
Wai Kru Festival Recharge Your Magical Tattoo
Some believe if you break these rules you may lose some of the power of the Sak Yant. Thousands of people attend an annual Wai Kru Festival, where you can pay respect to your Ajarn and renew the powers of your magic tattoo. So in case, I’ve broken any of the rules above I can attend the festival to restore the power of my tattoo.
Other Rules to Follow When Getting a Sak Yant Tattoo
There are a few other rules to take note of when getting a Sak Yant. The rules are mainly to not disrespect the monk.
- No photos or video of women getting the tattoo
- Do not stand above the monk/Ajarn
- Do not point your feet at the monk/Ajarn
- Women are to cover their shoulders & legs, only the shoulder can be bare when getting the tattoo
Sak Yant Healing Process
Sak Yant tattoos heal much faster than a regular machine tattoo. My tattoo was red for the day, raised for the first few days, and a little itchy for a few days. Four days after getting the Sak Yant it was nearly all healed. Here are a few other aftercare instructions to follow:
- Don’t go in salt water for 1 week
- Don’t use any healing agent they will fade the tattoo
- Avoid direct sunlight, if you burn easy make sure to cover your tattoo at all times
- Wash with soap & water and pat dry
Sak Yant Tour Company
Like I mentioned above we went with WSE travel who have Sak Yant tattoo tours in Chiang Mai and Bangkok. I highly recommend going with them. This is their specialty, they have sought out the best and safest place to get a Sak Yant tattoo. Having an English speaking guide will make your experience so much more fulfilling. You will learn about the history of yantra tattooing, be able to explain to the monk what magic tattoo meaning you would like, understand what your tattoo means, and being able to communicate with the monk makes it worth it.
Would I get a Sak Yant again?
Yes, without a doubt I would get one again. Who knows, I may get another one with different meaning and powers.
Have you gotten a Sak Yant tattoo in Thailand? Share your story below!
Other Chiang Mai Recommendations
If you’re heading to Chiang Mai check out our proclaimed best of Chiang Mai. Happen to be traveling during the Chiang Mai lantern festival? Here is the updated Yi Peng festival information. If you’re visiting between April 13-15th be prepared to get wet during the Songkran Festival Chiang Mai is the best place to ring in the Thai New Year.
Recommended Chiang Mai Hotels:
- 99 Heritage Hotel | Agoda | Booking.com | Trip Advisor
- Phusanfah Resort| Agoda | Booking.com | Trip Advisor
Other Bangkok Recommendations
Bangkok is our favorite city in the world and a great place to kick off two weeks in Thailand. We always suggest spending 3 days in Bangkok to get a good taste of the city. Make sure to check out our where to stay in Bangkok guide to find the perfect hotel for you. Some of our favorites things to do in Bangkok is to eat lots of street (read this street food safety guide first), watch the sunset at Red Sky Bangkok rooftop bar with great happy hour deals, people watch on Khao San Road, head to the bizarre Maeklong train market, and just get lost exploring in the city.
Recommended Bangkok Hotels: