Blessed By A Monk: My Magic Sak Yant Tattoo

Wat Bang Phra Thailand

Tattoo Temple: Wat Bang Phra

Nakhon Chai Si, Thailand

Over 40 people watched in silence as this famous monk repeatedly penetrated my flesh like a sewing machine. His needle sent waves of hot searing pain into my back.

Traditional Sak Yant (also called Sak Yan, or Yantra) tattoos are hand-etched onto the skin using ancient geometric designs mixed with Buddhist prayers.

They are believed to give the wearer magic powers associated with healing, luck, strength, and protection against evil.

Sak Yant tattoos have been around for over 2000 years.

Buddhist monks originally engraved Sak Yant into warriors seeking protection and strength in battle. Often covering their entire bodies from head to toe in magic symbols to prevent knives and arrows from piecing their skin.

Wat Bang Phra Thailand

People Will Wait Hours for a Sak Yant

My Very First Tattoo

I’ve never had a tattoo before. If I ever received one, I wanted it to be special. Not some drunken challenge in the middle of the night. So when I learned about the magic-infused tattoos given out by Buddhist monks, I was intrigued.

The more I learned about them, the more I wanted one.

No machines are used to create a Sak Yant design. These traditional Thai tattoos are engraved into skin with a long metal spike or bamboo sharpened to a point.

The needle is dipped into ink and repeatedly jabbed through your flesh by hand.

Monks will often choose a sacred design as well as the location of your tattoo based on your aura. This sounded perfect! I’ve had trouble picking a tattoo, so why not let a monk choose for me?

Donations Sak Yant Thailand

Donations of Cigarettes, Flowers, and Incense

Wat Bang Phra Temple

The best place in Thailand to receive a Sak Yant tattoo is a Buddhist temple called Wat Bang Phra. It’s located about 40 minutes West of Bangkok.

For hundreds of years the temple has been a pilgrimage site for Thai people wanting to receive the protection of a magic tattoo.

It’s also home to the most famous Sak Yant practicing monk in Thailand, Master Luang Pi Nunn.

The grounds of Wat Bang Phra are composed of a series of beautifully ornate temples surrounded by colorful statues. I made my way towards the tattoo building located in back.

Luang Pi Nunn Thailand

Master Luang Pi Nunn

Cigarettes As Payment?

Outside the entrance I purchased a temple offering consisting of orchid flowers, incense sticks, and menthol cigarettes for 75 baht ($2.40 US) before removing my shoes and heading inside.

Everyone is expected to present these simple gifts to the monk as payment for a Sak Yant tattoo. The items are then recycled so the process can be repeated, with money from the sales helping with upkeep of the temple.

An old man led me into a dark room filled with dusty golden Buddha statues. Photos of Thailand’s King Rama IX and elder monks adorned the walls.

Ceiling fans slowly whirred overhead, but the room was still hot — as there were 30 to 40 people packed inside.

Sak Yant Full Back Tattoo Thailand

That’s a Lot of Magic!

Waiting For My Turn

It seems I’m not the only one wanting a tattoo today. Master Luang Pi Nunn is in demand here, and etches up to 50 Sak Yant tattoos a day. If you don’t visit the temple early enough, you may not get one.

Due to some miscommunication with a moto-taxi driver that morning, I arrived about an hour later than expected. I’d just have to wait my turn and hope for the best!

So I found a spot on the floor and attempted to make myself comfortable over the next 4 hours. The long wait allowed me to witness many others receive their own tattoos.

Eventually Luang Pi Nunn took a break while the rest of us continued to sit in silence, listening to bird song and cats meowing outside. By now I was up front though, with a great view of his tattoo workspace — and I have to admit it was a bit shocking!

Tattoo Workspace Thailand

Not Exactly a Sterile Workspace…

Sak Yant Tattoo Safety

The safety of Sak Yant is debateable. It can be a risky practice. The needle itself is usually wiped with an alcohol pad after each tattoo. Or it might be placed in a bottle of alcohol while a separate needle is used for the next person. But the same pot of ink is used with everyone, and blood can mix with the ink.

This opens up the possibility of contracting HIV or Hepatitis. There are no hard statistics though.

After getting a close look at his tools, I got a bit nervous and briefly thought about backing out. The workspace consisted of a few cushions surrounded by bloody rolled-up pieces of toilet paper, a nasty bucket of inky water, old plastic bottles full of rubbing alcohol, and grime caked onto the walls…

I’d also just watched at least 12 people get jabbed with the same couple of needles. And who knows how many went before I arrived.

But then I realized that if it was truly dangerous, there wouldn’t be so many people waiting in line to get one. Right?

Or is the whole room just full of crazy people with a death wish?

Sak Yant Needle Thailand

The Needle

Snake Venom Ink!

I didn’t have long to ponder though, as the monk soon returned and it was my turn to help hold the next person’s skin while he worked. This gave me an excellent view of the whole process. It was mesmerizing to watch.

Suddenly it was my turn. Pulling off my shirt, I respectfully bowed three times before turning my back on the man who was about to repeatedly poke a sharp needle into my skin.

Occasionally a monk will deem a person unfit to receive a Yant if they don’t take it seriously, refusing to work on them.

Two local guys held my skin tight as I braced for first-blood. Not knowing what image I was about to get.

Each monk concocts his own special blend of magic tattoo ink too. The recipe is secret, but is thought to contain Chinese charcoal, snake venom, palm oil, and even human remains!

Sak Yant Monk Tattoo Thailand

My Turn!

Taking The Pain

When the needle first punctured my skin, it felt like a bee sting. Followed quickly by a swarm of bees launching a full-scale attack.

My muscles tensed up and I began to sweat. Squeezing a pillow in my lap while attempting to look tough for the 40 Thais attentively watching the foreigner for any signs of weakness.

But surprisingly it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. Initially I was afraid my eyes would water, or worse, I’d pass out in front of a room full of people…

Yet after only 10 minutes and a thousand needle strikes later my new Sak Yant was nearly finished!

To complete the sacred tattoo, Luang Pi Nunn chants a Kataa (or magic spell), and blows it into the design unleashing its power.

Gao Yord Sak Yant Tattoo Thailand

Finished: Gao Yord (9 Spire) Magic Tattoo

Yant Gao Yord

So which tattoo did the monk give me? It’s called the Gao Yord, or 9 Spire. A powerful and sacred tattoo that protects the wearer from violent physical attacks and magic assaults. It’s also supposed to bring good luck.

The 9 spires represent the 9 peaks of Mount Meru — a legendary mountain from Buddhist and Hindu mythology that is thought to be the center of the universe.

Atop each peak sits a small Buddha, with the spirals above them representing the path to enlightenment.

Inside the boxes are symbols written in Khom, an ancient Cambodian alphabet, but the language itself is Pali Sanskrit. The same mantra is actually written on each side. A mirrored image of itself. It reads: Gu Ti Gu Ya Tha Saa Wae Taa Saa Gu – Gu Gu Ti Saa Tha Ya Gu Saa Taa Wae

Apparently there are also 11 special rules that go with my Sak Yant:

  • I cannot eat star fruit, pumpkin, or any other ‘gourd’ type vegetable. (no more pumpkin pie?!)
  • I cannot be anybody’s lover who is already married. (sounds reasonable)
  • It is absolutely forbidden for me to slander anybody’s mother. (no problem)
  • I cannot eat food from a wedding, or funeral banquet. (well that sucks)
  • I cannot eat left-overs. (I’d love to know why…)
  • I should not duck under a washing line, or an overhanging building. (um, ok)
  • I definitely should not duck under a Thaanii banana tree. (harvesting bananas isn’t a hobby)
  • I cannot cross a single head bridge; but large or small bridges are not forbidden. (have no idea what this means)
  • I should not sit on a ceramic urn. Especially a cracked, or broken one. (do toilets count?)
  • I cannot let a woman lie on top of me, or sit on top either. (shit!)
  • I cannot brush by the blouse or skirt of a woman, especially during the menstruation period. (how am I supposed to know?)
Sak Yant Tattoo Thailand

All Healed Up

Would I Do It Again?

Yes. Absolutely. I may get another one too. In fact I’ve learned that the magic needs to be replenished each year with a fresh blessing by the monk. So I’ll have to go back anyway.

Thai people from all levels of society take the practice very seriously, and many cover their bodies with Sak Yant tattoos.

You’ll frequently find the designs on soldiers, doctors, monks, actors, and politicians as well as criminals and mafia assassins.

Many women also get them. Angelina Jolie is probably the most famous. But because it’s forbidden for monks to touch female flesh, they use a cloth or gloves to prevent contact.

Some people choose to receive an invisible tattoo, using palm oil on the needle rather than ink.

I’m very happy with my new Sak Yant, it was an extraordinary experience that I’ll never forget. Especially with this permanent souvenir on my back. ★

More Information

Location: Nakhon Chai Si, Thailand [Map]
Cost: $2.40 US
Useful Notes: You’re encouraged to make an additional donation. An envelope with $3 (100 baht) placed in the monk’s alms jar is common. For detailed directions to the Wat, check out my friend Ian’s great post.

Do you have any tattoos? Would you ever consider getting a Sak Yant? Share with us in the comments below!


This adventure was made possible with help from Clearly Filtered. They make really cool filtered water bottles that will help you save money & ensure clean drinking water while traveling.

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Comments & Questions

155 Comments

  1. Gemma Two Scots Abroad
    November 23, 2014

    Well this is far more impressive than tweety pie on your belly drilled in by a drunk in Magaluf at the age of 17 for your first tattoo (this did not happen to me, I was more of an early 2000s Chinese symbols kind of girl – it ‘does’ translate to angel…)

    Welcome to the tattoo club, brace yourself – it’s addictive.

    Reply
  2. Rose
    November 20, 2014

    Um, i hope you don’t break any of those rules for the tattoo. Obviously you did not do enough research to know that the spirits will punish you if you break any of them. These tattoos are quite dangerous to get unless you stay faithful and take it seriously.

    Reply
  3. Brentlee Ryan
    November 18, 2014

    I LOVE THIS!!! I want to do this someday as well!! This is so cool, I don’t even know what to say! On the bucket list for sure!

    Reply
  4. That Dude Kurt
    November 16, 2014

    Hey, very cool story. I am currently living in Chiang Mai Thailand and am very interested in getting one of these tattoos and have a few questions. Though Bangkok is just a short trip away I was wondering if anyone could recommend a place up here in the north. I also have a lot of other tattoos and would hate for the monk to choose the 9 spires on the nape and after pulling my shirt off seeing a giant back piece. Though none of my tattoos are disrespectful at all they are not sak yaht tattoos.

    Reply
  5. Kieren
    November 13, 2014

    Hi Matt.
    I recently just received my sak yant in wat bang phra from the same master, so i guess we’re brothers in a way lol. However I’d just like to poi t out you only get a say in what you have or where you have it if it’s not your first yant. For your first one the monk choses. It is almost always the 9 spires on your nape, i tried asking for a different part of my body as i was severely sunburnt but the monk just told me to turn around. For some reason though he used a tattoo machine with mine, not a needle, so i presume he’s widening his skills? One other thing do you kniw much about the chances of catching an infection? There were only 2 guys before me and only one with the same needle, both looked pretty healthy to me but im still really worried about contracting something incurable.Any help you can give will be greatly appreciated. Cheers bud.

    Reply
  6. nikita shaw
    October 23, 2014

    where would i be able to get one of my own needles?? i am thinking of getting one with my partner next month when we visit but i don’t want to risk using a needle that someone else has used

    Reply
    • Calvinn Tham
      October 29, 2014

      Hi everyone. I just had my tattoo done by Ajarn Rong Pee Noi Wat Nok 2431 somewhere at Thonburi (40mins taxi to there). I got a Yant Phutson is regarded as Maha Yant (highest level of Yants). It is believed to support wearers to be loved, promoted, lucky and charming.
      Ajarn do it for you from 11am to 7pm. I was recommended by my Thai Friend.
      No long que just you and Ajarn.
      PS: Respect the temple and Ajarn. Thank you.

      Reply
  7. Alexander
    October 21, 2014

    Hye mathew, I wonder what gonna happen if unintentionally break the rules?

    Reply
  8. Sarah
    October 21, 2014

    I recently traveled to Thailand (Bangkok, Ayutthaya, and Pattaya). My last day in Bangkok I woke up at 530am and left the hotel at 6am to make the ~60 minute ride to the temple at Wat Bang Prha. When I arrived at about 710am I purchased the offerings (as listed above), removed my shoes, and headed inside where I expected to spend most of the day. According to my driver (who had several sak yant tattoos) the Masters and Monks don’t start until about 8. Since we arrived so early there were only two men waiting (they ended up holding the skin for the next several people- including myself). I presented the Master with the offerings and waited until the first two men were done- both men received more than one tattoo that morning, quite impressive!! The pain is tolerable but much different than a regular tattoo (I have 8 prior tattoos and thought the pain can’t be too bad lol). But as described in this article, the first poke felt like a bee sting, immediately followed by another and another and another. Your muscles tense up uncontrollably and you sweat more than you’d think possible! From start to finish it took about 15 minutes and then I, along with the 9 spires on the center of my back, was off to another room where I was blessed by a Monk. Both experiences were absolutely breath taking- but the tattoo aside, being in this temple and receiving such an amazing gift is an experience that cannot be replicated.

    Reply
  9. Lauren Hughes
    October 20, 2014

    If I ever got a tattoo, this is the kind that I would have. However, I am not sure that I would be cool with the risk that comes along with this type of tattoo…

    Reply
  10. Jai Dee
    October 5, 2014

    Hello this is a special thing for my people in Thailand. I respect farang who wish to get one and have no problem with it. I am just curious as to why if not part of your culture or religion you wish to have this tattoo.

    Reply
    • Kevin
      October 24, 2014

      I’m sure there are many different reasons why people want Sak Yant; I think it breaks down to two main reasons.

      1. One of us farang went to a foreign country and wanted to have something cool and exciting to take home with us. As Thai culture differs greatly from American culture, the Sak Yant look ‘cool’ and ‘exotic’, and provide an opportunity to brag about their life experiences. I personally feel like these are the wrong reasons to get any tattoo (especially Sak Yant), but to each their own.

      2. Someone has been exposed to Thai culture, and appreciate it. They respect it, and recognize Sak Yant as a method to integrate it into their life. They consider it an internal spiritual experience.

      Obviously there are other reasons, but I think most can be categorized into one of these two.

      Reply
  11. Jazza - NOMADasaurus
    September 30, 2014

    Hey Matt, how did you manage to get these photos? When I got my Sak Yant done in March there were big signs everywhere saying no photos. Rather than run the risk I just kept my camera in my pocket. Would have loved to have taken some snapshots though. Great experience eh!

    Reply
  12. Craig
    September 25, 2014

    Very cool tattoo (and a great story to boot!) If I ever get a tattoo, I’d want an epic story like this to go with it

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      September 28, 2014

      The story behind it was my favorite part of the whole experience.

      Reply
  13. Benjamin
    September 24, 2014

    I’m in Bangkok right now and thinking about following in your footsteps! I have a couple of questions I’m not sure you can answer for me!

    1. Can I choose the placement of the tattoo?
    2. Will having previous non religious tattoos increase my odds of being rejected?

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      September 28, 2014

      Each Sak Yant goes in a particular spot, so I’m not sure if the monks will let you choose a different spot. However you can probably place it anywhere you want if you go to a normal Thai tattoo artist. As for previous tattoos, I don’t think that will be an issue.

      Reply
  14. Sigurdur Bjorgvinsson
    September 23, 2014

    What a great place to get your first tattoo, If I am ever getting a tattoo it will be something unique and special similar to what you just did. I admire your strength to go trough with this even though the work space was not the cleanest and you might have caught some disease from the needle.

    A great post with a great story, and great tattoo.

    Reply
  15. Hrvoje
    September 16, 2014

    Remember to take your own needle next time :-)

    Reply
  16. Gunna
    September 12, 2014

    Hi i was just wondering,long ago i uad a monk from thailand came down to malaysia and did a prayers tattoo on me,its been many years now and its fadding off,am i allowed to do a cover up tattoo on it or is it a bad sign? Tq

    Reply
  17. Lily Lau
    September 12, 2014

    This vagabond Matthew knows how to take the best of every place he visits :) Thank you for your inspiring posts, I definitely need to travel more, and better if it’s like a vagabond!

    Reply
  18. Hadrien
    September 7, 2014

    Hi! do you know a Monk or a ajarn sak yant, able to make me a lucky tattoo next to phuket? it’s the end of my trip and I can’t go to bangkok or koh samui.

    thank’s you

    Reply
  19. diane
    September 5, 2014

    i have a tattoo that i need translating please as my husband has one done recently and it needs a bit more explaining as he forgot a little of it. would you do this for me if i send you the picture

    Reply
  20. KyleOlsen14
    August 17, 2014

    I wonder if the concept is the same as what is used in the Maori tattoos, though they’re less like pointalism, and more tribal in appearance. Buddhist concepts are a great thing to live by whenever possible, and it’s great that you took it seriously and have passed it along to all of us! Enjoy South Africa! It’s my home and absolutely gorgeous!!! (note: you are braver than I to have that done for sure)

    Reply
    • Matthew Karsten
      September 4, 2014

      You need to take it seriously, otherwise the monk will refuse to work on you. I’m not a practicing Buddhist, but I do relate with many of their philosophies.

      South Africa is wonderful Kyle, beautiful country you have here.

      Reply
  21. John Dow
    August 16, 2014

    Hi! Can you chose were the tattoo can be made? Like if a want it on my throat or hands and knuckles. Do you Think its possible?

    Reply
  22. Alexandra
    August 11, 2014

    Hello there. Can anyone please tell me what this Sak Yant is and what it means?

    Reply
  23. panzerthecat .
    July 26, 2014

    My luck has been shit my whole entire life. I wish I could go back with you and get one.

    Reply
  24. Epic Gap Year
    July 18, 2014

    If I were to ever get a tattoo, this would definitely be the route I’d want to go!

    Reply

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