Getting the obligatory tattoo has almost become a rite of passage for travellers in Thailand. Only a few countries are renowned for the skin altering artform, and Thailand is the most famous of them all. The unique Buddhist form of tattooing known as Sak Yant has become modern backpackers’ “I’ve been to Thailand” souvenir. Everyone wants to walk in the footsteps of Angelina Jolie and have their tattoos blessed by a Buddhist monk. So did I!
Unlike a quick drunken trip to the tattoo parlours of Magaluf or Bali, Sak Yants have a much deeper meaning with their rich spiritual symbolism. It’s worth understanding a little more about the magic behind them, so let’s see what makes them so special!
Table of Contents
What is a Sak Yant
Sak(to tap or to tattoo) Yant(meaning “mantra” or “prayer“) is a method of tattooing sacred scriptures into geometrical designs. The designs include Buddhist psalms and spells which are written in Thai or in the ancient Khmer or Lanna scripts.
What Are They For?
Thailand has always had a strong belief in magic and the supernatural. The art of Sak Yants uses a mix of traditional philosophies and Buddhist prayers to help fulfil a desire and to create a powerful form of protection.
Sak Yants are designed to protect against illnesses, physical harm, bad luck and even black magic among other things. They’re also thought to be able to change personalities, lifesituations and the achievement of goals by improving yourpower, charisma, fortune and authority.
A Brief History of Sak Yants
Sak Yants have been influenced by many different religions, especially Hinduism. Over centuries, different prayers and shamanistic spells were adapted and incorporated into the belief system of newly forming Buddhist countries, particularly Thailand, before they were included into Sak Yant art. Though Sak Yants aren’t used in every sect of Thai Buddhism, generally all Monks accept they’re valid.
From the days of Ayutthaya (the ancient Siamese kingdom) up to World War II and the Vietnam war, Thai warriors were renowned and feared for the magical markings on their skin that they believed made them invincible. Even today, many Muay Thai fighters look for similar protection with their own Sak Yants!
Up to the 19th century, the body art was only popular with rural communities and people working dangerous jobs. Yet in 2003 Sak Yants hit the international stage after Miss Angelina Jolie showed off her own designs. Since then Thailand has been known throughout the world for spiritual Sak Yant tattoos and have had a boom in tattoo tourism.
Who Gives Sak Yants
The most important part of a Sak Yant isn’t just the design, it’s the prayers and blessings they’re given by the Sak Yant Masters! It takes years of studying the highly secretive ancient texts and magical arts to have the expertise and ability to create a Sak Yant.
Sak Yants are only given by Buddhist monks or Sak Yant Ajarns, which are both highly respected in Thailand. Ajarns are former monks (it isn’t actually a life-long commitment for many) and learned the art during their studies. This gives them more freedom to develop their artistic skills and study different magical systems.
For a Sak Yant to be real they have to be done by a qualified Sak Yant Master, so you can’t get one from a tattoo parlour. Think of it as David Beckham’s autograph being written by a completely random person…it has no meaning.
What Do They Mean?
So obviously you’re dying to get one, but which design should you get? It would help to know what these beautiful spiritual tattoos actually mean! Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. These are some common problems:
1 – Translating the Magic:
To learn the magical languages and the blessings associated with each design takes many years of training and study. Even Thai speakers don’t necessarily understand the symbolism of the tattoos!
2 – Different Styles and Schools of Thought:
There are different traditions of Sak Yant, each with its own unique design and meaning. A slight adjustment to the text or position of a design can completely change the meaning. So even an experienced Master might not understand what a design from another Master means!
3 – Tattoo Parlours Designs Are Meaningless:
Images of Sak Yants you find online are wrong on purpose! Sak Yant Masters can easily spot mistakes in the text. Essentially a Sak Yant from a tattoo parlour has no meaning and basically gibberish!
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Why Each Sak Yant Is Unique
After years of study, the design of each Sak Yant can be altered slightly depending on where the master has learned. Designs can also be personalised for each individual based on a person’s desires and spiritual requirements.
It’s another reason you can’t get an authentic Sak Yant from a tattoo parlour, as the sacred blessings and designs of a Sak Yant you find elsewhere were meant for another person!
There are hundreds of different designs that incorporate thousands of different yantras and geometric shapes. The most common of which for both locals and travellers are the three Master Yants. These come with a wide range of blessings that cover the majority of people’s desires:
Hah Taew (Five Lines)
Has to be the most recognisable of all the Sak Yant thanks to Miss Jolie. The Hah Taew Sak Yant dates back over 700 years to the ancient Kingdom of Lanna which later became Northern Thailand. A Buddhist Monk who lived in a Chiang Mai temple designed the Sak Yant around the time the city was founded in 1296.
Over the centuries, the original 5 lines have gone through several changes. Many masters have completely replaced the original lines with some of their own! Each row is a spell that benefits the receiver:
Protects against unjust punishment, protects your home and cleans out unwanted spirits.
Guards against bad fortune and bad horoscopes.
Protects against curses and black magic.
Improves your success,good luck and fortune.
Helps to gain charisma and attraction to the opposite sex. It also boosts the fourth row.
Gao Yord (Buddha Peaks)
The Gao Yord is the most sacred of all Buddhist tattoos and is considered is the Master Yant with its wide range of powers. The design represents the nine peaks of the mythical mountain which was the home to several Gods, Mount Meru.
The 3 ovals represent Buddha, which is a feature of many other Sak Yant designs. The Gao Yord also represents the 9 Buddhas, each giving their own power. The abbreviation of their names may be a part of a mantra at the base of the peaks.
The centre of the design has the magic box, (some designs may not show the outlines) with an abbreviation for the names of the protection spells inside:
Maeta Ma Hah Niyom: People will treat you with kindness and compassion which improves your popularity and help you to gain preferential treatment.
Klaeoklad: Protects from serious injury.
Chana Satru: Helps defeat the enemy.
Ma Hah Amnat: Gives great power, authority and control over others.
Awk Seuk: A willingness to go to war or to fight battles for loyalty and what is right.
Kong Kra Phan: Provides protection and invincibility.
Oopatae: Ensures you will do work correctly and that everything will run smoothly with whatever enterprise you’re in.
Ma Hah Saneh: Gives you charm,increases popularity and attractiveness with the opposite sex.
Ma Hah Lap: Brings good fortune and luck.
Noon Chataa: Improves your destiny and fate.
Pong Gan Antarai: Protects against accidents including natural disasters and violent acts.
Nah Tee Gan Ngan Dee: Improves work situations.
Paed Tidt (Eight Directions):
The Paed Tidt is a geometric Yant that has eight mantras written in circles in the centre of the design. It also represents the eight Buddhas with its 3 ovals, with each set dedicated to each day of the week (there are 2 Buddhas for Wednesday, morning and evening).
The Paed Tidt gives the wearer protection for whichever direction they’re travelling (North, North-East and so on around the compass) as well as being able to ward off evil spirits.
Other more complex Sak Yant designs, such as those that have animals, are thought of as advanced talismans for more serious and dedicated believers.
The twin tiger Sak Yant is a common design for anyone looking for extra power in their lives. They’re especially popular with people working dangerous jobs such as soldiers, police officers and Muay Thai fighters. The tiger represents strength, power, protection and conviction, as well as authority over others.
The tigers also offer help in business! The design is a favourite for entrepreneurs and even politicians to find the mental toughness to find success in their business.
Do You Get to Choose Which Design and Where?
You might have read online (as did I) that the Monk or Ajarn will choose the design and placement of the Sak Yant for you, but that’s untrue, for the most part.
They can decide everything for you if you want, but you still have control over which design you have. After all, having a tattoo is a lifelong commitment, so naturally, you have a say in the matter!
Getting to choose where the Sak Yant goes is another matter. Certain Sak Yants must be placed at certain points of the body e.g. the Gao Yord should be at the base of your neck. So if you pick a particular design, you won’t get to choose where it goes, at least not with a genuine master. But with other designs, you have more freedom to pick where.
Receiving a Sak Yant is a ceremony with certain steps that have to be followed. It’s important to know what to do as you wouldn’t want to cause offence to your Master!
Greeting and Offering
When you meet your master you should greet with a “Wai” by putting your hand together (as if you’re praying) and bowing as a sign of respect. During the entire process, you should keep your body lower than theirs to be polite.
You will present an“offering to the spirits” before the ceremony begins, which shows respect to the master and that you believe in their power and trust their skills. The offering usually includes flowers, incense, a candle and a small amount of money all arranged on a tray. Ideally, the amount of money will end in the number 9 which is a sign of success in Thailand.
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Getting the Sak Yant
Before starting the monk will briefly discuss with you which Sak Yant you want and where you would like it (if you have a choice). They might draw a rough template to follow or they might not even need it.
You’ll then be told (or helped by other Sak Yant receivers) to pull your skin tight to ensure the tattooing can be done properly. Then you simply sit there and let him work!
Not For the Faint of Heart
Speaking as a man that has many tattoos in some of the most painful spots, done by machine and by hand, this was by far the most painful tattoo experience I’ve ever been through. Some people need to take a break or even faint during the process.
As my guide told me, the process has always meant to be painful, as it used to teach Thai soldiers how to endure extreme pain!
The needle used is pretty thick, which needs greater force to puncture the skin. Thankfully the monks are so experienced that they’re almost as fast as a machine, so the process is relatively quick. But just be aware that it can be very painful, especially if it’s your first tattoo experience.
Rules & Etiquette
As the Sak Yant is a spiritual aid, it shouldn’t be done unless the person is committed to living a good life to ensure the magical power of the Sak Yant lasts.
Another important thing to remember is that regardless of how liberal you are, Thailand has a class system meaning you are NOT equal to a Monk. Thus you need to treat them with total respect.
Rules of Conduct
Each master has their own set of rules that they give their students (receiver of a Sak Yant), that they themselves were taught by their Masters.
All masters have a basic set of rules that the receiver must follow, which include:
No drinking or taking drugs.
Don’t desire another person’s lover or spouse or be unfaithful to your own
Other masters might give their own personal rules, such as:
Students of the same master can’t fight or compete.
Don’t claim to have protective powers because of your Yant.
Don’t think the Yant will protect you while using the powers for bad deeds.
You should always remember that a temple is a place of worship, and you should treat it as such. It’s important to know some of the dos and don’ts to avoid being disrespectful towards both the temples and the monks within.
Take your shoes off before entering.
Dress Modestly! Cover everything between the elbows and ankles.
Don’t get in the way of local people who are worshipping.
Back away from the Buddha statue rather than turning your back.
Don’t touch sacred objects in the worship area.
Do not raise yourself higher than statues of buddha
Get permission before taking photos and never do so during worship.
Don’t point, it’s extremely rude! Use your right hand with the palm facing upwards instead.
When sitting, never point your feet at a person or image of Buddha.
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Rules for Women
Sorry ladies, but different rules apply to you. Women shouldn’t touch or be touched by monks unless it’s been made clear that it’s okay. Monks are holy men that abstain from sex, and coming into physical contact with a lady may cause sexual thoughts. That’s why many monks refuse to tattoo females, particularly on temple grounds!
BUT this isn’t always the case. Many monks have “sufficient purity” that their minds can’t be corrupted, so some monks will still give girls Sak Yants. There are also companies and tattoo studios where monks give Sak Yants in-house i.e. away from the gaze of the public. Monks here are more likely to tattoo ladies.
Where Can You Get One?
Temples throughout Thailand are able to give you a Sak Yant. You have two options, go with a tour company or find a temple on your own.
If you try to arrange one yourself then you could be waiting in line for hours, with very little choice or explanation of what is happening. It can also be a little tricky finding out information on temples that perform Sak Yants.
By going with a company you have a guaranteed booking, an English speaking guide that can walk you through the process and, more importantly, act as a translator between you and the monk. Some of these companies also have in-house masters.
This is the route I went down to my own Gao Yord Yant from a Buddhist Monk. No company out there compares to that Sak Yant Chiang Mai, which I highly recommend if you ever visit Thailand!!
Are They Safe?
Many people are concerned with the safety of Sak Yants, and rightly so. In the past (still the case for some temples) masters would use the same needle in the same vat of ink, making blood born diseases a real risk.
Most masters these days use a replaceable steel tip rod and fresh samples of ink for each Sak Yant. They also prefer to use steel rods rather than bamboo needles, as they’re less accurate and can hold contaminants.
That’s another argument for going through a reputable company, as they select temples that use clean needles and have a much lower risk of contamination.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.