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 ones 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.
( For more photos from inside temple, and it’s grounds, please check out my Photo Essay!)
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 temple essentially since it’s creation. 100s 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 to 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). These offerings will be donated to the temple, by placing them in a bowl inside the room with the monk doing the Sak Yant. 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 throughout the day. Our monk had a line up of nearly 10 people in front of us, and we arrived at 9am – only an hour after doors opened. That being said, you would never find a tattoo artist anywhere else who could have 10 people lined up for the same day. I was getting my Sak Yant 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 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 skin where the Sak Yant 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. Afterwards, my brother Taylor took a quick photo of my back to show me the new ink job. It was incredible! The detail and precision was something you might expect from a 3 hour tattoo in a shop somewhere. After a short lunch break, my brother’s 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 protection. It’s the Paed Tidt – similar to a compass, this Sak Yant offers protection from the 8 directions. Its 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 and their meanings).
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 do 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.
Now getting to this place was half the adventure! Wat Bang Phra is not well known by the tourist crowd, and so there’s 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.
View Where Sidewalks End in a larger map
Transport total time: 1.5 hours
Transport total cost: 80+60 (we both took the same moto-taxi) = 140THB
That’s it. Leaving is almost easier. We walked out to the front gate and caught a local bus for 18 baht, which drove us to an area we could catch another minivan for another 60 baht each. That said.. the minivan dropped us off in the middle of Bangkok, on the wrong side of the river, 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 & Money
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)
Offering to Wat Bang Phra (in exchange for the Sak Yant) = 50 THB
Total time for the day = 6 hours
Total cost for the day = 268 Thai Baht (roughly $9 USD)
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.
For more photos from inside temple, and it’s grounds, please check out my Photo Essay!