Wat Bang Phra
Sak Yant Bamboo Tattoos
Getting a bamboo tattoo (known as Sak Yant in Thailand) has been something of interest to me for over a decade now. From the moment I learned of them, I felt that there was something alluring about this ancient art. The branding of one’s body using natural elements seemed much more in tune with something natural than that of a sterile stainless steel needle and synthetic inks. Mind you, ever since Angelina Jolie had her bamboo tattoo done in Thailand, their foreign popularity has soared and they’ve almost become more trendy than spiritually significant. If I was to get this done, I’d need to go somewhere the locals still go for spiritual purposes.
When I learned of Wat Bang Phra just outside Bangkok, it sounded like exactly what I was looking for. The name translates to simply “The temple of some monks”, but naming temples isn’t their specialty. It’s been a traditional Sak Yant bamboo tattoo temple essentially since it’s creation. Hundreds of Thais go to get their blessings there each week. The Sak Yant is traditionally chosen by the monk giving the bamboo tattoo. He has a long list of protective symbols to choose from. Each symbol offers a different type of protection or blessing. He decides what best suits your needs, and will give it to you without any prior discussion. The positioning is determined as well… though the majority will end up on ones back.
Upon arriving at the grounds, you should proceed to a booth outside the temple which is selling offerings. The offerings consist of some incense, flowers and candles, and a pack of menthol cigarettes. The total cost of this donation package was a whopping 50 Thai Baht (THB). You are encouraged to leave an additional donation with the offerings. If you see inside the bowl, you will see scattered bills and envelopes as a bonus alm/donation made by other patrons. We played it safe with an extra 3000THB each (more on this below, in the ‘Cost’ section). These offerings will be donated to the temple, by placing them in a bowl inside the room with the monk doing the Sak Yant bamboo tattoo. Later, all the offerings are then brought back outside and resold to future visitors. It’s actually a very smart business model, ensuring that the donations are consistent, allowing the Thais to make their offering, and being environmentally sustainable by reusing them.
Next is just the waiting game. Depending on how early you arrive, will determine how many people are in front of you. We counted 2 monks performing the Sak Yant bamboo tattoos in this samnak throughout the day. Our monk had a line-up of nearly 10 people in front of us, and we arrived at 9am – roughly an hour after doors opened that day. That being said, you would never find a tattoo artist anywhere else in the world who could have 10 people lined up for the same day. I was getting my Sak Yant bamboo tattoo by 11am, only 2 hours later!
You approach the monk having already taken off your shirt (or preparing your exposed back in a respectable way, if you are a woman – and yes, the monks were giving Sak Yant bamboo tattoos to women). Most people had to lean over a triangular pillow, and then have a person on either side hold them down, and stretch the surface of their skin where the Sak Yant bamboo tattoo is to be placed. The monk quickly and precisely guides the elongated piece of sharpened bamboo in the shape of the Sak Yant blessing, tapping it faster than hands should be able to move into your back. I’m not going to lie.. it hurts. It hurts a lot more than a needle tattoo. With this in mind, though, it only lasted at most 15 mins. I practiced breathing techniques, meditation, counting sheep, ANYTHING to get my mind off the pain. It was pretty futile. The pain is sharp and deep, but it’s over quickly. Afterward, my brother Taylor took a quick photo of my back to show me the new ink job. It was incredible! Just the size alone was something you might expect from a 3-hour tattoo in a shop somewhere. After a short lunch break, my brother’s bamboo tattoo was just as quick! By the time we were leaving, mind you, the room was packed. I imagine there’d be a lot of people who wouldn’t be leaving with a Sak Yant that day. I’ll re-stress the importance of going as early as possible – even if it means waking up at 5am.
We ended up getting matching Sak Yant protections. It’s the Paed Tidt – similar to a compass, this Sak Yant offers protection from the 8 directions. It’s intended to give protection in whichever direction you are travelling (pretty handy in my line of work). For more information on this particular tattoo, here’s a handy website which can explain it in full detail (along with other Sak Yant bamboo tattoos and their meanings).
For details on a festival in which people become possessed by these Sak Yant bamboo tattoos, visit this article on the Wai Kru Festival.
SEE – Photos & Videos
For more photos from inside temple, and it’s grounds, please check out my Photo Essay!
GO – Getting There
Now getting to this place was half the adventure! Wat Bang Phra is not well known by the tourist crowd, and so there are no ‘tourist buses’ heading out that way. Your best bet is to go to Victory Monument. If you’re arriving by BTS (sky train), you’ll want to leave the exit towards the monument, and turn left to go down the stairs towards the roundabout. Almost immediately, you’ll see a series of food stands and bus stops. Ask one of the people working there for a mini-van heading to Nakhon Chai Si district, Nakhon Pathom Province, Thailand, about 50 km west of Bangkok. There are vans leave every half hour or so, but my suggestion is to get there as early as possible (I arrived shortly after 6 and caught the 7am bus… this seemed to be ideal situation). The mini-van cost 80 Thai Baht per person, and the ride is about an hour, depending on traffic. If you can catch the 6am van, you’ll avoid any gridlock getting there, but note that the BTS won’t be running yet! If you leave any later than 7am, you’ll wind up stuck in traffic for hours, and risk having too many people in line ahead of you that you may not be able to get your Sak Yant done that day. It really is THAT busy, even just among locals.
The mini bus should drop you off across the highway from a massive Big C shopping centre. You must cross a foot bridge across the highway, and turn left. Almost immediately you will be approached by motorcycle taxi guys and tuk tuk drivers. Your choice, though the motorcycle is a great experience (and cheaper) driving past the fields on your second leg of this journey. It’s about a 20-25 mins ride further, and should cost about 120 baht if you go the route of the motorcycle taxi. They guessed why we were there, and should all know exactly where Wat Bang Phra is.
Transport total time: 1.5 hours
Transport total cost: 80+60 (we both took the same moto-taxi) = 140THB
Leaving was even a bit easier. We walked out to the front gate and caught a local bus for 18 baht, which drove us to an area near the highway where we could catch another minivan for another 60 baht each. The minivan dropped us off in the middle of Bangkok, though on the other side of the river from central Bangkok, and we had to take a taxi the rest of the way back. It’s probably best to make sure they agree to exactly what station they will drop you off at prior to leaving.
Transport total time: 1.5 hours
Transport total cost: 18+60 (+50 for the taxi, but this shouldn’t be necessary) = 78THB
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
There are no officially posted hours, though it is suggested to arrive quite early. I believe they aim to open doors around 8am each day, but this can also depend on the mood of the Tattoo Master. The cue fills up quickly as well, and it’s a first come first serve basis. If you can arrive as closely to 8am as possible, you will have a very good chance of having your Sak Yant given that day. If you arrive around noon, there will probably already be such a big lineup that you won’t be able to get it done. In the chance that you can, you’ll probably end up waiting up to 5 hours as he gets through the group in front of you (and do you really want a tired monk giving your tattoo by hand?).
Safety – Possible risks
I tried researching this as much as possible prior to going. My results were fairly inconclusive. Though the bamboo does get sterilized with rubbing alcohol, I’m not sure it would meet western standards. This being said, an exceptionally large percentage of Thais have this done. The spread of STDs and disease as a result of the Sak Yant are unconfirmed. In one article I read, it stated that unlike a tattoo needle, there is no opening for the blood/disease/virus to get trapped in. This greatly reduces any risk, when compared to regular tattoos. It does not eliminate the risk, mind you. Any decision to get a Sak Yant must be done with this in mind. There is a risk involved. It seems to me, all the good things in life have similar risks, so you have to decide if this is one of those ‘good things’ worth the risk.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate travel medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Transport total time: 3 hours
Transport total cost: 140+78 = 218THB
Total time at the temple: 3 hours (including 2-hour wait, getting Sak Yant, and having lunch)
Compulsory Base-Offering to Wat Bang Phra (in exchange for the Sak Yant) = 50 THB
This is where it gets a bit complicated though. You should first understand that Thais pay offerings like this almost every day of their life to temples to receive services from temples. This includes some wedding and funeral services, holiday services, as well as some ‘bonus’ services such as sak yant. To quickly consider that if a Thai person pays 50 baht every day to a monk, or temple, this means that in one week they’ve donated 350 THB. In a year, they’ve donated 18,250 THB. In a decade, that’s 182,500 THB. This works out to almost $600 USD per year for these types of services.
Consider, as a foreigner, you have never donated anything (or very little) to any temples in Thailand to reap the services they offer. We are very fortunate to even be able to participate in their services with this in mind. So, now consider the value of your tattoo? What would it cost back home… or even in a tattoo shop in Bangkok?
To be a responsible and ethical traveller, and fair to both Thai people who have paid into this their whole lives and the monks who rely on those donations to support not only themselves, but also the maintenance of the temple, it is advised that you leave a donation substantially bigger. It doesn’t have to be 18,250 THB… but you might consider putting a few thousand baht into the donation bowl, as we did, if that’s what a tattoo is worth to you – not only for the tattoo… but also for the experience you have shared with this ancient practice and culture.
Of course this is not enforced, but it is worth looking deep inside to feel what is the right thing to do – for yourself, the karma you will receive from these ancient yantras, as well as the value it is intended to have on your life.
Total time for the day = 6 hours
Total cost for the day = 268 Thai Baht (roughly $9 USD) + whatever additional offering you make
Suggested Additional Offering to Wat Bang Phra (as a donation) = 3000+ THB (roughly $95+ USD)
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
First and foremost – this is a temple! Please dress respectfully. Wearing tank-tops, singlets, short-shorts, etc is not appropriate attire for any temple in Thailand. Make sure your knees and shoulders are covered to show respect to the monks, and that Thais of faith who are present.
When inside the temple, you should always try to keep your head below the head monk/ajarn giving the Sak Yant tattoos. You should not stand over or above him. When sitting in the room, you should also not point your feet towards him, or any of the main Buddha statues.
Treat the temple as you would a church, mosque or any other place of worship. When you show the monks and locals respect, they will appreciate it and show you respect in return.
To properly prepare yourself, this is a very thorough FAQ guide to Sak Yant tattoos.
Don’t forget about being ethical and fair to both the Thais and phra ajarns (monk tattoo masters) by making an adequate donation for their services provided to you.
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Reality Check – Be Aware
It was an awesome day! It was fun, getting there with all the madness of trying to work it out, and uncertainty of going to the right place. The process of getting the offerings (and how comical it is that Menthol cigarettes were part of it), and then waiting in the musty room for hours as others each go through the same process. Getting the Sak Yant itself feels like an accomplishment being able to make it through the pain. It is an ancient tradition and it’s a very special feeling being part of it, in a way that is still quite off-the-beaten-path and practiced by locals. I love that I was able to experience that with my brother, as well. Sharing the experience is something I would possibly suggest, as it’s really unique and will certainly strengthen any bond.
JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages
This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!
We offer a series of very personalized packages where you are able to meet with an ajarn and discuss questions with them you may have about this ancient art. These studios are far more sanitized than some temples such as Wat Bang Phra, and you will be joined by a local Travel Guru who is knowledgeable in the art of Sak Yant. You will be able to discuss the ancient art in great depth with the ajarn and get a yantra design which is fully customized to you, and not simply a generic design given due to lack of communication with the ajarn. This isn’t your typical visit to a tattoo parlour, these are real traditional samnaks (bamboo tattoo studios). This is the ultimate way of connecting on a deep level to the sacred art of sak yant.
Want to witness people becoming possessed by the spirits of their Sak Yant in mass? Wai Kru festival at Wat Bang Phra allows you to do just that! Joined by one of our experts in the art of Sak Yant, you will delve deep into the sub-culture of those blessed with this ancient, sacred skin-art.
Join the next small group Wai Kru Experience:
Please Note: It has come to our attention that the Ajarn listed in this post has since developed pain in his hand, and is often using an electric tattoo machine.
We have found alternative locations, with traditional ‘khem sak’ needles and higher levels of hygiene and quality. Visit our Ink Experiences section to see all the options around the country we have found and curated fully facilitated sak yant experiences in, for your very own sacred ink!
Have you ever been blessed by a holy person? Did you have any protective powers cast upon you? Have you gotten a tattoo that has a very special meaning in your life? Please feel free to share your stories in the comment section below!