This year started off quite rocky for me and I’ve continued to have to overcome unexpected obstacles the last few months. In challenging moments of my life, I tend to commemorate my struggles with tattoos that remind me of the person I want to be and what matters most to me in life. I believe in the healing power of art, especially when worn on the body.
I received my first two Sak Yant blessings 11 years to the date after I was raped as a 15-year-old virgin to reclaim what’s the darkest day in my own personal history with an empowering new memory. I was bestowed with a triangular yantra that represents respect for Buddhism. The second tattoo is a section of a powerful mantra trailing down my spine. The holy ink is considered to be bulletproof, which symbolizes my need to protect myself, and other young women, from sexual assault.
The spiritual experience was such a transformative and healing moment that when I found myself back in Chiang Mai, Thailand for a few months this year I wanted to add to my collection of Sak Yant with a new sacred mantra. I tried twice to make appointments to see Ajarns to be given a new magical tattoo, but both times fell through. Apparently, the time wasn’t quite right in my life to receive a new yantra tattoo. Fortunately, in May, the universe aligned with my desires for a new blessing and I set off to visit Arjun Rung with Where Sidewalks End.
Before going to Arjun Rung’s Sannak, the sacred open-air space where Sak Yant blessings are performed, we stopped by a local amulet market to pick up Buddhist talismans. My English-speaking guide, khun Lowey, is a Chiang Mai local who’s also received magical incarnations from Arjun Rung who is his Buddhist master. Lowey met many monks before finding Arjun Rung who he connected with as he could sense the strong energy of serenity and compassion of the Buddhist monk and knew they were meant to be bonded. As we strolled through the amulet market and he showed me different symbols and explained their meaning he picked up a tiny golden Ganesha and said that he thought this was the symbol I should carry with me. I literally laughed out loud. Little did he know that I feel a deep connection with Ganesha. When I lived in India for six months I started to learn about Ganesha and the Hindu Gods power of removing obstacles and bringing good fortune. This symbolism matters deeply to me, especially after the hardships that I’ve faced this year.
I had been seeking information about the Hindu gods importance to Thai Buddhists as I kept seeing Ganesha statues everywhere. Thailand is a Buddhist country–there isn’t a large Hindu community. Some new-age Buddhists worship Ganesha, or Phra Phikanet in Thai, and see the Hindu God as one who brings wealth and success. Lowey explained Ganesha is a gatekeeper for creative people and brings them strength, a sentiment I had never heard before, but fully embrace. Lowey also handed me a second amulet, a tiny golden Buddha with many faces, another odd coincidence as one of my Sak Yant blessings represents this imagery of Buddha.
Arjun Rung is a practicing Buddhist monk who’s been giving Sak Yant blessings to his followers since he was a teenager. He comes from a long family of Sak Yant masters and is one of three masters currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Arjun Rung was a vagabond monk and traveled across many countries in search of a Sak Yant master to teach him. He became a solitary sage who lived alone in the forests and studied Sak Yant methods and deepen his meditation practice.
I visited Ajarn Rung in early May during a time of the year that is considered auspicious to those who’ve received Sak Yant blessings from the monk. I waited patiently and enjoyed the unique opportunity to see local villagers visit Arjan Rung with offerings as they received blessings–it’s believed a Sak Yant should be blessed annually to keep their magical powers alive and well. Many Thai people wear Sak Yant as totems for protection, good health, luck, love, and success in addition to Buddhist amulets.
When it was my turn to be blessed by Arjan Rung Lowey helped me communicate my desires, fears, and dreams to Arjun Rung. Inspired by my recent meditation retreat at Wat Suan Dok a major theme in our conversation was my desire to learn how to let go of suffering, a major component of Lord Buddha’s teachings, and something I struggle deeply with.
As I’ve already received Sak Yant blessings before and have researched the spiritual significance of various designs I already had in mind which mantra I desired. I was seeking the Sa Lik Ga yantra which represents good fortune in business and features two birds. As we spoke Arjun Rung began to sketch a customized design of two birds and explained to me that he felt that the birds should face outwards as they’d represent success in a social business, such as being a journalist. He told me that it was important for the bird’s heads to be at the top of the design in order to help me reach my goals and make the path of my life bright.
Although the design was much simpler then what I’d originally desired the custom mantra fits in beautifully with the other tattoos on my back. They’re all pulled together with the curved prayer that Arjun Rung wrote for me to give me the strength of courage both physically and mentally, the bravery to let go of suffering in order to find true peace, and to never have to sacrifice love, happiness, or freedom for success. This deeply resonated with the path that I want to be on. I’ve recently left an unsatisfying relationship with a man who didn’t support my personal or professional dreams. I’m suffering from an unbearable heartbreak but know that ultimately I’ll come out stronger and am worthy of being with someone who loves me wholeheartedly and unconditionally. Arjun Rung joked that he felt I was already fearless and had all of these capabilities within me. I love my new Sak Yant blessings from Arjun Rung, I find them to be very aesthetically pleasing with their delicate balance.
As I was receiving my Sak Yant blessing the quiet Sannak began to erupt with the chipper sounds of birds. Lowey asked me how many different types of birds I thought I could hear. I looked around and saw at least seven different species of birds from roosters to chickens to pigeons to tiny birds that I couldn’t identify. He laughed audibly as did Arjun Rung. They told me that this was a sign that I was meant to carry this Sak Yant with me. The birds were celebrating and blessing my sacred ink. I’m a big believer in omens and was equally satisfied knowing that Buddhist believe in the power of 7 spirits of birds and that they were each singing to me as I received a tattoo that honors them.
As a traveler, birds hold special significance to me. They represent freedom, migration, growth, and community. I even want to name my children after birds some day. Ever since I received the Sa Lik Ga yantra I keep catching bits of lyrics about birds and can’t help but smile. From Nina Simone’s Feeling Good where she sings “Birds flying high you know how I feel,” to the Carpenters Close To You with the lyrics, “why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near?” I will cherish this memory forever and proudly honor my Sa Lik Ga.
Lowey was happy to answer my endless questions about the ancient traditions and superstitions of Sak Yant and also shared stories of his own blessings with me. He explained that only select holy monks who harness the energy and power of Buddha are allowed to give Sak Yant tattoo blessings. He told me how when he received his Sak Yant with the figure of a gecko a similar phenomenon happened, as Arjun Rung began to give him the blessing geckos started to crawl out from all corners and participate in the ceremony. What a lovely omen.
Traditionally monks aren’t allowed to touch or tattoo women, but Arjun Rung believes that Sak Yant the power of Sak Yant blessing shouldn’t be restricted to men and will bless women too. He does however not allow women to be photographed during the Sak Yant tattooing process but fortunately one of the villagers who was visiting Ajarn Rung invited me to photograph him receiving his Sak Yant. It’s a major misconception that Sak Yant tattoos are created with bamboo, instead, a sanitary metal spire is used to hand-poke freehand designs into the skin using natural ink. The precision of the art form is incredible as is the speed in which they’re applied. It took less than thirty minutes to complete my intricate yantra and mantra tattoos.
If you aren’t ready to commit to a Sak Yant tattoo but are still interested in receiving a blessing from a Buddhist monk you can get a Nat with gold leaf. Gold is honored by Buddhists, and many other cultures, because it is a rare and precious metal with many powers. My friend Nam who came with me was given the Nat blessing by Arjun Rung. He pressed gold leaf onto her forehead for wisdom, cheeks to make her charming, chin to make her beautiful, and tongue to make her a sweet talker. It certainly worked as Nam is lovely and one of my favorite travel gal pals. Nat blessings will soon be available to book on Where Sidewalks End.
I decided to get my third Sak Yant in Chiang Mai with Where Sidewalks End as they’re the only reputable responsible tour agency that works directly with genuine Sak Yant masters and honors the sacred tradition. WSE also operates the TRiP Foundation which stands for travel responsibly, impact positively and as the inspiring mission statement of travel that pays it forward. WSE donates 2% of the costs of each trip to local charities that focus on social and environmental issues in order to aid in their missions which have amounted to nearly US$6,000 in donations!
The WSE ink experience allows travelers to have an authentic and spiritual cultural experience that keeps the tradition of Sak Yant thriving by giving fair wages to the Buddhist monks who are artisans of the craft. I can’t recommend this experience enough to anyone who is considering getting a Sak Yant tattoo while traveling in Southeast Asia. Receiving Sak Yant blessings have been some of the most meaningful and immersive travel experiences I’ve had. Don’t just take my word for it though, read about the transformative tattoo experiences of 15 other travelers who’ve been blessed with sacred mantras. You can get your own authentic Sak Yant tattoo blessing from a Buddhist Arjan in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Bangkok, Sukhothai, or Ayutthaya with Where Sidewalks End.
Headed to Chiang Mai? Book flights two months in advance to get the best fare. If you’re already in Thailand you can book bus and train tickets to Chiang Mai from other cities with foreign credit cards without hassle on Baolau.
Thank you Where Sidewalks End for hosting me for this transformative experience. Thank you Nam of Laugh Travel Eat for taking the photos of me featured in this article. This post contains affiliate links. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.