Definitions and Terms for Sak Yant tattoos

Sak Yant – Also commonly referred to as ‘bamboo tattoo’, are sacred blessings said to have enchantments and magic powers, native to several countries in South-East Asia.
Ajarn – An Ajarn simply means a master of something – this can be applied to people in education, the arts, martial arts, and in this case, Sak Yant. They have practiced and studied the ancient rituals and beliefs for many years to master the powers and significance of giving Sak Yant. They are not just a tattoo artist copying an old design – they understand its meaning and have been bestowed the ability to perform the magic associated with it by their own master, or Kru (headmaster).
Khem Sak – These are the metal rods, specially designed to administer the Sak Yant. They are often custom-made or hand-crafted for the Ajarn, if not passed down to him from his own master. They are designed to replicate the shape of a bamboo stick
Amulet – Often a small figure or symbol in an encasing that can be worn on a necklace or a belt loop. They are said to have magic powers and protections, not dissimilar to Sak Yant
Samnak – The ‘tattoo studio’, often filled with statues, figurines, incense and joss sticks, and other relics and wall hangings. This is where the magic happens – literally, and figuratively.
Sangha – a word in Pali and Sanskrit meaning “community” and most commonly refers in Buddhism to the monastic community of ordained Buddhist monks or nuns.
Travel Guru – These are your WSE Travel specially-trained guides, tour leaders, translators, facilitators of cultural exchanges, and hopefully by the end of your experience – your friends! They are there to make sure you are comfortable and informed about everything that you are experiencing. Use them to dig deeper while on your sacred journey!

Frequently Asked Questions about Getting a Sak Yant

If there are questions we missed that you’d like answered, please feel free to Email Us at any time!

What does Sak Yant mean?

Sak Yant means to tattoo a yantra. The yantra was adopted from Indian tradition and is a geometric design with magical properties. The practice of Sak Yant has been used in various countries in Southeast Asia such as Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia.

Who gives the Sak Yant?

Sak Yants can be administered by monks and laymen (both referred to as Ajarn) who are trained in the practice of Sak Yant. An Ajarn must be trained by a master Ajarn to learn the ancestral practice.

Why are some Ajarns monks and others not?

Being a monk is not necessary to the practice, though most laymen who do Sak Yant were once initiated into the sangha (monk training).

Please Note – it is commonly expected that EVERY Buddhist man in Thailand and neighbouring countries will undergo training to be a monk at some point in his life. This can be for 2 weeks, 2 months, or even 2 decades. It is up to the individual to choose if they stay or not. Of course, this does mean that those who have studied and learned the ancient practice of Sak Yant may not be a monk forever, and in essence, 2 types of Ajarns evolved. Those who remain in the temples (monks in saffron robes), and those who practice outside of them (often wearing white robes). As long as they have undergone adequate training, both should be bestowed the power to give Sak Yant and their enchantments.

There has been an emergence of tattoo artists who have copied designs and learned how to wield a Khem Sak to give bamboo tattoos – though these are not Sak Yant and the artist often does not understand the code which they have copied or know the deep meaning behind the Sak Yant they have given. If unsure, it is best to consult with an expert if they are legitimately trained or not, if you seek a traditional experience.[/fusion_toggle]

Can a woman get a Sak Yant?

Some Ajarns will not tattoo women, not because it’s forbidden in the practice (as commonly rumoured), but rather because of personal preference. There are actually no written laws or rules against a woman getting a Sak Yant, though many Ajarns have chosen not to, as they feel they should not make physical contact with a woman’s skin who is not their wife.

WSE Travel’s Ink Experience: Every Ajarn that Where Sidewalks End works with believes that Sak Yant should be made accessible to anybody regardless of gender. We have strived to find open-minded Ajarns who can transcend gender in their beliefs and recognize this is not a sexual act in any way. This being said, some still prefer not to have photos taken during the process, and we ask that this is respected at the Ajarns’ wish.

How much notice do I need to give before booking?

Most Ajarns have a ‘drop-in’ policy, where it is on a “first-come, first-served” basis. That being said, some days can get quite busy, and guests wait upwards of 6 hours in the hot Samnak, just to get their turn. If arriving on your own, you should learn the general hours of operation within that Samnak and then attempt to arrive at least an hour prior to that to assure you position in line to be one of the first on that day.

WSE Travel’s Ink Experience: Ideally, you should make your reservation as soon as you know your dates, and then plan your other activities around that. As this is not a daily group tour and is fully customized to your own needs, there is a fair amount of planning and coordination with you that needs to be made. On your behalf, we will be confirming Ajarn’s availability, securing a personal travel guru to accompany you, and also managing your own expectations through questions and your personal preparations. We can prepare experiences on a last-minute basis, though these are not guaranteed as the Ajarn or travel gurus may not be available on short notice. It is advised to book as far in advance as possible to avoid disappointment.

Is Sak Yant hygienic? Are the Sak Yant needles clean?

Every temple, studio and Samnak has its own hygiene standards – in fact, it can go down to every Ajarn having his own practices for cleaning his equipment. Overall, the standards across all work areas are too broad to give a definitive yes or no – just like you couldn’t answer “Are all restaurant kitchens in Europe hygienic?”. The reality is that some are fantastic, while others are haunting. If you attempt to go by yourself, and something feels wrong about the hygiene, it’s probably best to trust your gut instinct.

WSE Travel’s Ink Experience: Though standards do vary we have vetted the Ajarns we collaborate with to ensure that cleanliness is of their utmost priority. Clean needles, fresh inkpots, and a safe environment are always at the top of our priority list when interviewing an Ajarn to collaborate with. One of the best answers we’ve heard was “If I am giving a Sak Yant to protect someone and give them good luck, it wouldn’t make sense to use equipment to make them sick in the process”. This is the type of answer and value we seek when choosing who we will practice with, as not all Ajarns hold the same concern or attention to this vital detail.

Please Note: Most temples and Samnaks do have either cats or dogs living there, as part of the Buddhist philosophy is to treat all living things with equal respect – if they are hungry, they should be fed – which usually means they like to stick around the hands that feed them. If you do have an allergy, please advise us beforehand, and we can try to make sure they are at least not in the room you are in while you are there. If it is a severe allergy, please take the necessary antihistamines prior to your arrival.

Are bamboo needles still used in Sak Yant?

The simple answer is no – or at least very very rarely. Bamboo would break, splinter, and all the other unpleasantries that you likely wouldn’t want happening while getting a permanent tattoo. The Khem Sak that are used now are elongated metal rods designed to be of a similar shape to a bamboo stick – and the methodology is still the same. This just provides a cleaner, and less accident-prone medium to deliver the same result. The Khem Sak also now last for generations, being passed down from master to student (whereas bamboo has a much shorter lifespan).

Can I buy my own ink and needles to bring for a Sak Yant?

Unfortunately, this is not possible. Unlike a commercial tattoo studio, the ink and needles are not mass-produced. Each bottle of ink has been handcrafted by the Ajarn or his disciples, using an ancient mixture, often customized by the Ajarn himself, or of his lineage.

The inks are made from natural ingredients, such as charcoal, oils, flowers and herbs – some of which act as natural antiseptics which do add to the hygiene but can also add to the sting. The custom mixture has had special blessings bestowed on it, which are said to give it magic powers or charms.

Similarly, the needles (Khem Sak) have either been handcrafted by the Ajarn using them or passed down by their master teacher. Because the inks and Khem Sak are handcrafted, it is near impossible to buy your own to be used, or similarly, to keep the needle used as a souvenir, as they each have sacred value and much time invested in their creation and significance. There are generic needles that have been adapted for conventional tattoo studios now offering bamboo-style tattoos, though it would be inappropriate to ask an Ajarn to use one which is not his own.

How much does a Sak Yant cost?

Prices can vary greatly when getting a Sak Yant in Thailand. There are some busy popular temples that offer them for as little as a $5 donation, such as Wat Bang Phra, though this is often at the sacrifice of hygiene and quality, simply due to the sheer volume they deal with. On the opposite side of the spectrum, some Ajarns have become celebrities for tattooing celebrities and can charge upwards of $5000 USD or more to have the privilege of being tattooed by them.

WSE Travel’s Ink Experience: The Ajarns that we use do tend to charge a fair bit more than a busy temple such as Wat Bang Phra simply because they will take the time to give a full consultation with our guests, and this is their livelihood, so we also negotiate a fair price with them to benefit them without sacrifice, but also to give our guests a fair price. Built into the cost of the Sak Yant Experiences is the service of having a specially trained travel guru who can act as a translator between you and your Ajarn, but also help ease you into the deeper cultural connection we want each guest to feel during their experience. Again, we make sure travel gurus are paid a fair wage, as we feel it is very important that locals benefit from this exchange in a fair and ethical way. Additionally, snacks, a local meal (customizable based on your food preferences) and transportation to and from your experience are also included.

How much would it cost to get an extra Sak Yant tattoo?

Given that all Ajarns operate on a different basis (some are donation-based, while others are set fees charged by the Ajarn), this is really dependent on who you are visiting, and what their cost structure is.

WSE Travel’s Ink Experience: We have different bulk and group rate discounts available depending on if it is for yourself, or with a friend. Please contact us directly for details.

What do I need to bring to get a Sak Yant?

We take care of everything from the moment you are picked up to the moment you are dropped off regarding your transportation, translations, cultural immersions, education, and food. All you need to bring is an open mind and an open heart. We are going to connect you on a very deep and personal level to a cultural activity that has ancient roots and significance. The more open you are to things that are different, and the more you let yourself become part of the experience, the more the experience will become part of you. Please note: if you require any medicine, special care or assistance, please advise us prior to your experience so we may adequately prepare the travel gurus as well. Please make sure your travel guru is aware of where your medicine or care items are kept in case of necessity.

What should I do to prepare for the day of my Sak Yant experience?

Make sure you get a good rest the night before. This is a spiritual process – coming in fatigued or hungover won’t allow you to have a clear head to truly appreciate what you’re getting – and it lasts forever-ever! Please eat a good meal prior to joining. You’ll need your energy for the day ahead! To get a truly personalized experience, you should also be accompanied by someone who can speak the local language and translate all your questions to the Ajarn for you, and to translate the Ajarn’s answers back to you. This can, at times, be difficult, as sometimes the language used by the Ajarn might use a different vocabulary than one taught in public schools for English, as many of the words, names and stories are not general conversational vocabulary someone would use in everyday life.

WSE Travel’s Ink Experience: You don’t need to learn Thai or any other local language for this experience – that’s why you have a personal travel guru accompanying you – so please use your travel guru! They are there to help with everything. If you have a question you don’t feel has been answered, or if something doesn’t feel comfortable, please express it to them – it’s much easier for them to deal with any situations as they happen than for us to deal with them after the fact. They are there to make this whole process make sense and to help connect you to this cultural experience as best as possible. We’re pretty picky too and made sure they don’t have a history of biting – so warm up to them. You may even end up with a lifelong friend!

What do I wear to get my Sak Yant?

Appropriate temple attire is the best way to dress while visiting the Samnak. Be sure to wear pants or shorts that fall below the knees and a shirt with sleeves. It is also good to bring a sarong for women to cover their front side while getting the tattoo. Please no short shorts or bikini tops – this applies to both girls AND guys! You’ll be removing your shoes/sandals before entering the Samnak. Please make sure you’ve cleaned your feet that day – you’re not the only one who will have to sit through any unusual odours during your tattoo (remember, your Ajarn needs to focus, not faint)!

How does the Sak Yant choosing process work?

The choosing of a Sak Yant is often a collaboration between the Ajarn and the person receiving the Yantra. Upon meeting with your Ajarn, your travel guru will give him information about you such as your age and birthday. The Ajarn will want to know about your life. What values do you find to be important? Are there things you feel like your life is lacking or traits you wish to reinforce? What are your goals, your fears, your passions, and your challenges? The deeper you delve into your own life, the better understanding the Ajarn will have about what is important for you, and what might be useful in your life.

After discussing these things, the Ajarn will suggest a Yant design. As this is a spiritual practice we suggest you allow the Ajarn to be part of this process instead of just choosing a Sak Yant based on the image. Something you may think to be “pretty”, may actually not have any relevance to you or your life. The magic of the Yantras is not in the picture itself, but in the script which surrounds it.

Please note: Unlike many perceptions of getting a Sak Yant which have been written all over the internet, the Ajarn is not supposed to ‘read your aura’. This has come about due to many foreigners not understanding what they were witnessing, and being unable to communicate with the Ajarn – as a result, the Ajarn has to choose a random design (often one which is basic or general protection), as they aren’t able to understand the needs of the person requesting a Yant.

Can I choose where the Sak Yant is placed?

It is usually ok to choose the placement of a Sak Yant though certain Yants must be put in specific places. Depending on the image, some Yants cannot be placed under the waist. For women, Sak Yant should not be placed on the breasts.

Sak Yant Tip: Though it is very fashionable, we advise against getting a Sak Yant on the ribcage unless completely necessary or suggested by the Ajarn. This is one of the most painful places to get a Sak Yant, and though some Ajarns will tell you ‘more pain = more power’, we think that’s just a tough-man game, and the Sak Yant will be just as powerful in a less painful placement. You have been warned.

Can I choose the colour of the Sak Yant?

Sak Yant consists of two colours: black and red. Each Yantra traditionally only has one colour. An Ajarn will suggest a certain colour based on the tattoo. Often it is possible to choose the colour yourself, but we recommend following Ajarn’s suggestions, as different colours can also change the meaning of the Yant.

What is the difference between Sak Yant and bamboo tattoos offered at a tattoo shop?

The image of a Sak Yant can be looked at as a canvas for the Kathaa (the magic incantation that is placed on it). The power of the Sak Yant comes from the incantation and the power of the Ajarn who administers it. A “Yantra” design from a tattoo shop is not considered Sak Yant. Instead, it’s defined as Sak Lai, which is a general fashion tattoo.

Is the quality the same for a Sak Yant tattoo as a tattoo done with a machine?

As Sak Yant is done in a hand-poke style, with a very long needle, they do have a little less accuracy than a tattoo machine with a collection of needles jabbing your skin as many as 200 times per second. Please understand that though we have done our best to find the very best artists and tattoo masters – you do run a higher risk of imperfections than you do with a tattoo machine. This is just the “nature” of this more natural and ancient style of tattooing.

By taking the appropriate care and attention needed for the following several weeks after your tattoo, to let them heal properly and fully, you will greatly reduce the risk of both blowout and imperfections – though the risk still remains. Read more on Traditional Tatoo Aftercare below.

If you are ok with this risk, you could be entering one of the most immersive and meaningful experiences of your lifetime.

Can I get a Sak Yant at a normal tattoo shop and then go get it blessed by a monk or Ajarn?

While some people choose to do this, we suggest getting the Sak Yant by an Ajarn. This is because the actual tattooing process is central to the invocation of the Yant. Also, an Ajarn trained in Sak Yant spends years cultivating their practice which is unrelated to normal tattooing. Many tattoos which are given in a tattoo shop do not have the ‘code’ or a script for magical protection, which is the enchantment of the Sak Yant (not the image, but the script written around it). To get one done in a tattoo shop where the script may actually not mean anything and then have it blessed is no different than blessing any tattoo, as the magic lies in the coded script itself.

How long does the Sak Yant tattooing process take?

The length of tattooing time is based on the size and complexity of the Yant design. Smaller Sak Yants can take as little as ten to twenty minutes, while large ones can take a few hours.

WSE Travel’s Ink Experience: During the Sak Yant Experience, we must also factor in travel time to and from the Samnak, any possible wait times once arrived, the time spent consulting with the Ajarn, and the time getting a local meal afterwards. A full typical experience from beginning to end will last up to around 4 hours with all things considered. This is the average and will depend entirely on the traffic of the day, how long your consultation lasts, and which design is chosen in the end too.

What are the rules for getting a Sak Yant?

The main rules (or guidelines) for getting a Sak Yant are to not do harm to any living beings, show respect to your parents and elders, and not do anything to create discord in society. While there are more nuanced rules for certain tattoos, each Ajarn also follows his own set of guidelines. You will hear of some which might sound a bit extreme, though the main reason behind them is that you are getting a Sak Yant to improve an aspect of your life. You wish to become a better version of yourself. If you are doing things that harm yourself or others around you, then your Sak Yant has no positive effort from which to derive its power. The main purpose is to live more mindfully. Don’t do things that harm yourself or others, especially for the wrong reasons (such as alcohol abuse) and your yantra should maintain its power.

What is the aftercare for a Sak Yant?

No matter where you get a tattoo in the world, you will get slightly varying suggestions to care. The way we look at it, this is an organic ink, performed handcrafted – the most natural healing is also suggested. This is a ‘scar’ in essence which you want to leave a mark on your body. Use of any healing agents may only lessen the depth or darkness of your Sak Yant. Direct exposure to saltwater or soapy water should be avoided for the first 3-7 days until any scabbing has healed. Sunlight should also be avoided in direct contact, especially sunburning – if your skin peels as a result of a sunburn, you may be losing the top layer of your Sak Yant before it has had the chance to heal into your skin fully. These factors should be considered when planning your trip if you have any beach time, getting a Sak Yant should be planned afterwards.

Read through our comprehensive Traditional Tattoo Aftercare guide, for tips on keeping your Sak Yant clean and healthy!

What are the food inclusions for the WSE Sak Yant Experience?

WSE Travel’s Ink Experience: We know food is one of the best ways of connecting to any culture. It’s something that we can universally appreciate across almost every culture in the world, which is why meals find their way into most of our tours – although our personal tastes and dietary requirements can differ greatly. If you have any specific dietary requirements or requests, please be sure to let your guide know at the beginning of a tour (if not in an email to us beforehand) so that they may adequately suggest things in line with your own preferences or needs. Though food is part of the itinerary, please try to eat a good meal before being picked up. It’s good to keep your sugar levels up, as both the physical pain and the overwhelming emotions which can sometimes result from the intimacy of getting a personalized Sak Yant can take a toll on your body. Good energy levels are usually enough to come out on top.

Join us in Thailand for our sak yant Ink Experiences

Can’t make it to Thailand?
Join us at one of our International Events!

If there are questions we missed that you’d like answered, please feel free to Email Us at any time!