A Magical Thai Tattoo

A girl friend and I are walking around a suburban looking neighborhood in Chiang Mai, where our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off about thirty minutes prior. We have been wandering around lost, up and down each street, unable to find anything that looks like it could be the place where we are trying to go. Disappointed, we begin to mentally give up and start wondering how we are ever going to find a tuk-tuk to drive us back to our hotel.

If you haven’t noticed yet, most of my travel stories seem to involve a similar version of this situation. Wandering around lost in a foreign country. Walking in circles. Finally thinking I am on the right track, only to pass the same building for the four hundredth time. A sense of defeat filling my soul as I sit down on the curb and pout about it for a moment. Then out of no where, like clockwork, a random stranger boy usually appears and whispers, “Psst. Follow me.” Which at that point, I gladly do, because what other choice do I have. I mean I guess I do have other, safer choices, but the whole, “Am I going to get robbed/kidnapped or not” adrenaline rush seems to make the experience more exciting. Kidding. But really. I actually do usually decide to follow this stranger boy because at least there is a chance he will lead me to my destination. And I obviously cannot find it on my own.


So a few months prior to getting lost here in Chaing Mai, a friend and I had decided to take a trip to Thailand together. It was the first time either of us had been to Asia so we wanted to do something special to commemorate this milestone in our lives. After some researching, we found an article about traditional “magical Thai tattoos”. What better way to remember our first trip to Asia than to have it branded on us forever?

This magical tattoo is more formally known as a Sak Yant and involves the tattooing of sacred geometrical designs and ancient text on the skin by Buddhist monks or other holy men. A sharpened needle is screwed into the end of a bamboo stick, dipped into ink, and then basically hammered into your skin. These tattoos represent customized magical and spiritual reminders and have become known in the Thai culture as a way to provide both protection and good luck to those who wear them.

It takes years of training to become a Sak Yant practitioner (often known as an “Ajarn”, or learned master) and an in depth study of the magical arts is required before you can begin tattooing. Throughout their lives, these masters must practice meditation techniques to help them harness the magic that is used in this sacred blessing, enabling them to transfer it to those they are tattooing. The years of study involved allow the Sak Yant master to customize each design and sacred blessing specifically for each individual.


So yesterday we contacted an Ajarn and told him we would be coming to see him. We had both selected to receive the most common design, the Hah Taew, which is a five row yantra (basically lines of text that can be chanted during worship or meditation). I decided to get mine in one long line down my spine and she went with the more common five line sequence on her shoulder blade. This design is said to encompass every aspect of one’s life. Each of the five lines representing a different area, protecting from unwanted spirits, bad fortune, and black magic, while bringing good fortune and success.

The Ajarn agreed to these designs for each of us, confirmed we could come in the following day, and sent us his address. Which catches you up to why we are lost in this random neighborhood. So here we are. Right then, as if on cue, we hear a stranger boy’s voice whisper from the abyss. “Psst. Follow me.”

Startled, we look up and see a man peaking his head around from the side of a house. Where did he even come from? And how did he know where we were going? Regardless, we head in his direction and he points to a house a few down from where he is standing. “There.” We look at each other. Sure, okay, why not.

We walk around to the back of what looks to be a one bedroom house and open the sliding glass door in front of us. We step into a large open room with dozens of beautiful Buddha statues on the far end. Inside sit about seven people. In front of them is the Ajarn master with a man in front of him, sitting with his legs crossed. The man is facing us, so we can’t see the tattoo being done on him but his overall demeanor is pretty calm. So calm, it is as if he barely notices the long, sharpened bamboo needle being repeatedly jabbed into his back.


We take a seat amongst the others and watch. When the tattoo is finished, the Ajarn master turns the guy around and starts chanting, performing some sort of blessing on him. We can now see this guy’s back and what is strange is that there is no tattoo at all. Just a bunch of red dots where the needle punctured his skin. We are a little concerned but then realize he had been using clear ink. I remember reading that these tattoos are received by many locals for the sole purpose of their meaning. I think this is pretty sweet because it shows how much they believe in their magical powers and aren’t just getting it because the ink looks cool.

The man stands up, pins some bills on the donation tree, and walks out of the house. The Ajarn master then looks over at me, directly into my eyes, and nods for me to come forward. Welp, I guess I am next.


I walk over and show him the photo I had sent the day before of the placement I want (down my spine) and in a nervous small voice, ask if he could please use a new needle (I had heard that they don’t always change the needle and wanted to be somewhat safe). He looks at me blankly so I attempt to say this in a few different ways to try to get him to understand my English. He finally seems to understand as he nods and reaches for a new needle. I let out a sign of relief but this feeling quickly fades as I watch him pour more ink into a bowl he has obviously already used for someone else before me. Before I can object, he dips my needle in the bowl and is ready to begin. Hmmm. At least the needle is new. (Don’t worry, I have been tested for HIV and everything else since and luckily am okay.)

He motions for me to sit facing away from him, with my legs crossed, and to lean forward, so that my back is curved, vulnerable and exposed for him to jab the needle directly into my spine. I am nervous but that quickly dissipates as I remember how calm the other guy’s face had looked when we walked in. This thought quickly reassures me that this can’t hurt all that much. Right? 


Ummm, not at all. The first time the needle hits my spine, it immediately sends an excruciating sharp pain down through my body that is unlike anything I have ever experienced in my entire life. Did I just yell out loud? What the fuck was I thinking? Why would I ever choose my spine for this kind of tattoo? It hadn’t even crossed my mind that this would physically hurt me. Can I ask him to stop? What if I get paralyzed from the needle going too far into my spine? It sure feels like he is pounding it in pretty dang hard. Why so hard, dude?

The room around me is calm and quiet with excited people happily anticipating their turn. While this scene of serenity is taking place around me, screams are filling my head so loudly that I wonder if anyone in the room can hear them. A needle is being hammered into my back. Over and over and over. I began to pray to the Universe asking for help in getting through this. Pulling my palms together as I pray. Chanting anything and everything I can think of to possibly take this pain away from me. I close my eyes and squeeze a pillow that is on the floor in front of me. Clenching so tight that my knuckles turn white. I have to remind myself to breathe.

I need to open my eyes so that I don’t get lost in this pain. I manage to slowly lift my head up a few inches and look at my friend who is sitting happily with the others in front of me. She looks directly at me smiling, giving me the thumbs up sign as if she is excited for my current situation. I wonder if she can see the look of terror on my face. I don’t want to scare her since she hasn’t gone yet, so let out the best half smile I can and drop my head back down to look at the floor. The smile immediately leaving my face as I close my eyes again and feel my jaw clenching tight. Finally, after what I guess to be about fifteen minutes, he taps me in the back signifying that he is finished. Thank you, thank you.


Wow, okay. That wasn’t so bad. I mean I survived, right? I stand up and return to my seat on the floor with the others, and let out an audible sigh of relief. My friend is excited for her turn and as she stands up, asks me how it was. Hmmm, it is nothing you can’t handle for fifteen minutes. She looks confused and says fifteen minutes? Your tattoo took over an hour. What. I guess I blacked out from the pain. Maybe the Universe really is listening.

When my friend is finished receiving hers, we both take a photo with the Ajarn master and open the sliding door to leave. A random guy is standing there, apparently waiting for us on his scooter. Feeling all protected and shit with our new tattoos, we jump right on, not thinking twice about where he came from or how he knows where we want to go.

He drives us a few miles to the main road, stops, and motions for us to get off the bike. We start walking down the road, not knowing where we are headed, but also not caring in the slightest. The sun is shining down and now that the experience is over, we feel a new sense of confidence having just survived. Our tattoos also look pretty darn cool.


No longer in the midst of the pain, I realize at that moment that the whole experience wasn’t actually horrible at all. It was mentally empowering. And actually incredibly spiritual. I feel like I have grown closer with myself because I went through it and survived. If I could get through that, I am pretty sure I can endure and overcome anything that is thrown my way.

I think this can be applied to many situations. We can be in the middle of something that brings us great pain. Whether it be heartbreak or anything else that creates some sort of turmoil in our lives. During it, we become focused on and even obsessed with the pain we are feeling and maybe even angry at what we think is causing it. I certainly wasn’t happy with the Ajarn master as he was stabbing the needle into my back. Even though I willingly chose to be there. I didn’t think I would make it through. But now here I am walking in the sunlight. With the pain only a memory in the past.

This experience taught me so much about the power of the mind. And how important it is to remember that nothing you are going through will last forever, unless you choose to stay stuck there. Being branded on my body, this tattoo not only protects me in life and as I travel, but also serves as a reminder that I can make it through anything, no matter how painful. What a powerful way to remember my first trip abroad and to take with me for the rest of my journey in life.