It felt like continually being stung by tiny little bees. Or perhaps even like rolling around in a bed of fire ants. But then it would stop, and for a moment I could take a deep breath because just as quickly, it would begin again. This continued over and over — for almost three hours.
As painful and uncomfortable as that may sound, I quickly settled into the rhythm, alternating between focusing on my breathing and periodically asking questions of the man who was meticulously jabbing ink-covered sharpened bamboo into my flesh like a sewing machine – all the while concentrating on the need to remain perfectly still.
Witnessing, and possibly experiencing myself, a traditional Thai bamboo tattoo was on my list as I traveled through Thailand. Obviously this was an experience in which I chose to participate fully after learning about Thailand’s rich history with bamboo tattoos dating back almost 3,000 years.
It is not known exactly where bamboo tattoos originated – possibly Cambodia, but it is believed to have begun in the Buddhist temples in Thailand where religious texts would be tattooed onto monks for protection of the scripts. Buddhist monks also would engrave traditional Sak Yant (also called Yantra) tattoos into soldiers seeking protection and strength in battle, often covering their entire bodies to prevent knives and arrows from piercing their skin. The Sak Yant are hand-etched onto the skin using ancient geometric patterns, animal imagery, Buddhist prayers and magical ancient Kmer scripts.
This practice continues to this day, most notably at Wat Bang Phra, located about 40 minutes west of Bangkok. For hundreds of years, this temple has been a pilgrimage site for Thais looking to receive the protection of a magic tattoo blessed by a monk. Based on your aura, the monk will choose the sacred design as well as the location of your tattoo, in exchange for a simple offering which typically consists of flowers, incense sticks and cigarettes.
The Thais have even adapted to modern times for those who believe a tattoo may not be well received in their workplace. These tattoos can be done not with the traditional inks (which is rumored to consist of Chinese charcoal, palm oil and snake venom) but with sesame oil. The process, design, mantra and powers are all the same, but the outcome is an invisible tattoo, with none of the visible stigma.
While many travelers through Thailand do choose to receive a traditional tattoo and blessing from a monk, this practice is also typically found within most any tattoo shop throughout the country. However, this is a skill that takes years to perfect, relies on immense concentration and a steady hand. After all, a meter-long stick is being used to pierce the skin 2-3 times a second.
I personally chose not to receive a traditional Sak Yant, but still wanted the experience of receiving a tattoo in the customary style. After careful research, I chose a man in Chiang Mai whose brother is a monk experienced in this practice. And it didn’t hurt that he also grew up on a bamboo farm and has spent years perfecting this technique.
Before he began, I watched as he prepared his workstation. Removing a long piece of bamboo, he efficiently and effortlessly whittled one end into a sharp point. I was surprised when he then produced a small needle (from its own sanitary packaging!) that he carefully lashed to the bamboo. This was a small relief as I had some fear that I would wind up with not only a tattoo, but also a number of bamboo splinters!
After a quick prayer over the bamboo, he began.
I couldn’t see the progress as he worked, so instead focused on his reflection in the window in front of me. I watched his technique, fascinated at the efficiency. One hand directs the needle, cradling the tip as one might a pool cue, while the other drives the needle in and out of the skin. The sensation of being attacked by a swarm of bees never lasted very long, as he would stop to put more ink on the end of the needle every few seconds.
Hours later, I walked out of his shop, elated to have been a part of a process thousands of years old in Southeast Asia. While I ultimately decided not to receive a traditional Sak Yant from a monk, I was happy with my decision to instead choose what tattoo I wanted and where it would be placed, but still delivered through the ancient style.
This was easily one of the most magical parts of my journey through Thailand. I will forever remember the stories told to me by the artist. How could I forget? It will be carried on my body the rest of my life.