“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life, and travel, leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks, on your body or on your heart, are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.” -Anthony Bourdain
Chiang Mai and I weren’t off to the best start, but that really isn’t indicative of the city at all, it was Thai Lying Air’s fault. I stayed up all night last night updating this blog and listening to the guy in the room next to me heaving loudly for hours (guess he went too hard last night, I kept thinking I’m so glad that’s not me right now), so I was exhausted and running on about an hour of sleep. I booked a sak yant tattoo for 1:30 (they suggested arriving at 1:15), and it was only a 10 minute walk from my hotel. A sak yant tattoo isn’t supposed to be like an ordinary tattoo at any old tattoo parlor, it’s a Khmer tradition in Southeast Asia that’s been around for 2,000 years originally done for warriors to offer protection. It should be done by a monk or ajarn (basically, a more experienced monk), and it’s performed with a sharpened metal rod (it was traditionally done with bamboo), rather than a tattoo gun. Angelina Jolie has several, and is probably responsible for making it popular amongst westerners.
Sak Yant Chiang Mai: I booked with this place because it was one of the few that offered the tattoo for females, and it also had good reviews. No matter where I get any kind of tattoo, I want to know the facility is hygienic. You pay a 1,000 baht ($30) deposit online via a PayPal invoice they send you, then the remaining balance is due when you arrive for your booking. It was also very convenient because you can book online. There was a little confusion about what I booked, I thought it was an “in house” tattoo which they do at their facility for 2,000 baht total ($60), but apparently I booked the temple tour, which was 4,000 baht ($128), with the remaining 3,000 due there. You give the facility 2,000 and then 1,000 baht as an offering to the monk. I was a little dismayed at first just because of the communication error and I didn’t realize it would take up 4 hours, but it wasn’t their fault and for $128 it was a totally worthwhile experience. Honestly, if you do this, don’t do the “in house” tattoo, spring for the temple tour. They also changed my original booking from 2/19 to 2/18 (which I was informed about via e-mail a couple of weeks before) because the 19 is a Buddhist holy day, Magha Puja. I think this also should have been noted on their calendar because I was only in Chiang Mai for a few days, but fortunately I was able to do it on Monday instead.The Chiang Mai location, you have to take your shoes off before entering.
The tour: So I’ve said I hate tours, but this kind of experience definitely has to be done on a tour if you’re not a local. First of all, driving in Thailand really isn’t for the faint of heart (for that matter, everything in Thailand isn’t), although the driving once you get outside the Chiang Mai city limits isn’t as bad. They drive on the other side of the road here (like in the UK.) I had a female guide who was probably around my age and she was excellent and informative. She drove me on my own personal tour since there were no other females going that day, described the process fully, and answered all of my questions. Her English was very good.
The monk: Like many other religions, Buddhism has different sects. In Thailand, the official religion is Theravada Buddhism. We first visited the monk at his home, where the tattoo was to be done. There were a few locals there giving offerings to the monk, who in turn blessed them and said prayers for them. This was a really interesting cultural experience because I didn’t know that monks only eat what’s offered to them, so not all of them are vegetarians, and they can only eat solid food from dawn until around 11am, after that it’s liquids only. I asked if yogurt was allowed, which my guide translated, and the monk laughed and said no.My guide said I was allowed to take pictures. Here you can see some locals who were there to bring offerings and receive the monk’s blessing. When it was my turn, he asked about my life and things I wanted (translated by the guide.) I was able to look at pictures of his designs, and since I travel frequently, scuba dive, and am a water sign in western astrology, we decided I would get “Yant Prajaow Perd Maha Samoot” or “the Buddha opens the ocean.” This tattoo was meant to offer protection from land and water dangers, physical injuries, accidents, black magic and bad energy; kindness and compassion from others towards me; peace, love and happiness; mental clarity and calmness; success, wealth and luck; health; and family protection. I have other tattoos so I wasn’t nervous about the process, I was excited.Before arriving, my guide gave me the offerings I’d give the monk, which included flowers, chewing tobacco, and incense to be placed on an alter where the incense was lit.The correct way to greet a monk is to put your palms together as if you’re praying, then bow down to touch the floor. You do this three times. Here and at the temple you must remove your shoes and cover your shoulders and legs. The only exception is during the tattoo, where the shawl was wrapped around my chest.
My guide and myself making the offerings at the alter and to the monk.Everyone’s biggest question is “Did it hurt?” Honestly, not really, but I have a high tolerance for pain when it comes to tattoos. It stang for the first couple of minutes, but then your body just adjusts to the pain like with a regular tattoo. I actually thought it hurt less than a tattoo gun because it’s not as deep and dark, and you don’t feel that repetitive needle in the same spot over and over. Before I knew it, it was done in about 15 minutes. You sit on a chair in front of the monk, and they give you a pillow to bury your head (or cry into.) This is in Sanskrit, an ancient language of India that is no longer spoken but used in religious ceremonies (much like Latin or Ancient Greek.)
Wat Si Don Mun: After the sak yant tattoo, my guide took me to a well-known Buddhist temple she said many Thai celebrities and politicians have visited. The grounds were very impressive and utterly beautiful. You truly feel at peace here, when she was explaining the meaning behind the art work in the temples and Buddhist beliefs, it actually gave me the chills.Buddhist depiction of heaven.Buddhist depiction of hell.
I’m not a practitioner of organized religion, despite my many years of Catholic school and being raised as a Christian. I do believe in a higher power and life after death or rebirth, and I definitely believe in karma, so this was important to me because I agree with much of the Buddhist philosophy. My guide was better able to explain this to me in depth. While Buddhists believe in heaven and hell they are temporary, as is life; the ultimate goal is nirvana, which is the escape of the cycle of rebirth. Hell is reserved for the worst of sinners; suicide is apparently at the top of the list, because it is utter disrespect for life and your parents (this is not my belief, it’s theirs.) She told me next are adulterers and murderers, depending on the reason for murder. But everyone has the power to be reborn, and it is your journey in your next life to correct the errors you made in past lives. You will repeat this process until you reach the ultimate goal of nirvana or choose to stay in “hell.”I’m obviously a fan of Anthony Bourdain, he inspired much of my travels and opened my eyes to a broader world. When my guide was explaining this depiction of a Khmer lantern festival tradition to me, I told her I saw this on his Parts Unknown Laos episode. It was a truly moving, beautiful scene at the end of the episode, and even she knew who he was. This goes to show his lasting impact on not just Americans, but the greater world. A depiction of a traditional Thai wooden house on stilts to prevent flooding.In my Bangkok post I spoke briefly about the minority Hindu population in Thailand. This is why travel really opens your eyes. At this temple I learned that Buddhism and Hinduism share a common origin (much like Judaism and Christianity), and they share many of the same beliefs in karma, dharma, reincarnation, and many of the same gods.
I really can’t recommend this journey enough. Bangkok has its pros, but traveling to a Chiang Mai was enlightening. It was honestly one of the best things I’ve ever done, and taught me a lot about life, purpose, and gratitude. I tipped my guide 300 baht (I actually would have given more if I had it on me) because I think she did a great job and it was a really personalized experience. She bought me a coffee and offered me food during the trip, and transported me in her own car. So this really wasn’t like a tour with 20 other westerners with fanny packs and selfie sticks (like the Grand Palace), it was a one on one experience that really delved into Buddhist culture and Thai history.