A Year in Bangkok – Sacred Ink

23 07 2011

Typical Sak Yant tattoo.

Some years ago, I went to Pattaya for a weekend. I have never seen a place where the sex industry is so ‘in your face’ and I’ve never been back to Pattaya. Like Patpong in Bangkok, the industry apparently grew from the demands of U.S. troops calling there. Apparently, Angeles City just outside a U.S. base in the Philippines is similar, again feeding the demands of the same clientele. Shortly after my visit, the then Thai Culture Minister visited Pattaya and was quoted in the newspapers as saying that she had seen no evidence of prostitution. I guess she gets around with the aid of a white stick.

It's common to see them on monks.

Prostitution is illegal here although you would never guess. I haven’t been there since before the tsunami but I understand that the sex industry on the holiday island of Phuket is now thriving. Enter the outgoing Culture Minister who, at a recent emergency meeting, ordered the Ministry’s Phuket officials to start patrolling the tourist zones of the island as something insidious is going on there which is apparently totally against Thai culture.

A simpler one.

As you can probably guess by now, there are certain things tourists do on Phuket which are a bit naughty and offensive to traditional Thais. You may not know this, but Angelina Jolie is to blame! In 2004, she was over here for some filming (Lara Croft I think) and she ‘discovered’ an already well known tattoo artist called Ajarn Noo. Interestingly, at about the same time, my wife was translating for a Scandinavian film company who were making a documentary about Thailand which included an interview with Ajarn Noo. He seemed to think it necessary to keep them waiting a long time when they arrived for the interview. I have heard from other people that this guy regularly seems to keep people waiting or, occasionally, not bother to turn up at all for appointments. And, if you are a westerner, he will apparently charge you 200,000 baht (four thousand pounds) for a Sak Yant, or temple tattoo that you can get done the traditional way in a temple for around 500 baht (ten pounds). Or so I am informed. Actually, it’s not just on Phuket – it’s all around Thailand. Thanks to that actress, traditional Thai tattoos are very fashionable in certain parts of the west now and the Culture Minister is concerned that people are getting them done on inappropriate parts of their bodies – hence patrolling the tourist areas.

Ajarn Noo

The tattoos are called Sak Yant. Sak Yant is the Thai name for sacred geometrical designs inked into the skin. Sak is the Thai word for tattoo and Yant, or Yantra as it is known elsewhere in the world, is the Thai name for a geometrical design believed to posses magical powers of protection. They can be done in ink or in sesame oil. Traditionally, women often had them done in oil because they were invisible yet still offered the same level of protection. A 17 year old boy, called Boy, was recently stabbed in Saphan Phut – not the nicest part of Bangkok – but escaped serious injury because, he said, of his Sak Yant.

Some of them take several days to do.

The Sak Yant tattoos are traditionally done by Buddhist Monks or Brahmin holy men. Each different design is believed to carry a certain protection and many people believe that when a design is inked onto your skin by a Buddhist monk you then become imbued with that protection. Some designs are meant to give the owner the power to charm a lover or get rich while others offer protection against enemies. I’m not sure what getting rich has to do with spirituality!


Yant tattooing is practiced in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. The prayers tattooed around the Yant are written in Pali Sanskrit, the original language of the Lord Buddha, using ancient Khom or Khmer lettering. The use of magic Yantras and the sacred alphabet to write them has been a common practice with the Khmer race for thousands of years.

A monk again.

Sak Yant tattoos have a very strict application method that must be adhered to and takes many years to master at the training of Yant masters. The tattooist must concentrate very hard while inscribing the tattoo as he must silently chant a mantra that changes with each new element of the design while inscribing the ancient words. The recitation helps to pass on the magic onto the Sak Yant tattoo.

They can be beautiful.

The tattoos the ministry is so upset about are those depicting three particular religious images – the Lord Buddha, Ganesh and the cross so in reality this is about much more than Thai culture as those images are from India, India and Calvary in that order. Worse still, people are getting them on the “arm, leg, ankle and chest, places that are not suitable to the beauteous Thai culture or Thai society’ said the Minister. Hmmm………



A Year in Bangkok – Teaching, Go Go Bars and….

13 08 2010

I work as an English teacher and, when I first came here, I made up my salary by working in an expensive, air-conditioned private school on Saturdays, teaching spoiled rich brats who didn’t want to be there. It was a nightmare and the brats were totally out of control. When I raised this with the manager, he just said that’s how it is here. I soon decided that if the students didn’t want to be there then nor did I and packed that in. Shortly after, the school contacted me to offer me a full time job but I reasoned that if I didn’t like being there for one day a week, there was a fair chance that I would dislike five days even more.

I also worked as a volunteer one evening a week, teaching English to bar girls as the language is a ticket to reasonable employment over here and, for those who want to, can help them escape from the sex industry. That was fun and it was a privilege to start getting to know some of the bar girls in this way. It was also great fun to hear what they really thought of their customers. They used to come to my apartment block and I taught them in a common area downstairs. They often noticed Stephen, a young and very good looking colleague of mine who also lived in my building and would tell me how much they liked him.

However, rapid promotion to Head Teacher meant I didn’t have time to continue that although I have occasionally gone and done a couple of hours teaching with the girls since then. Of course, I am not Head Teacher in a conventional English sense. We provide the English teaching in about fifteen different schools and I am responsible for all of our English teachers in those schools. My salary is less than thirty five per cent of what I was earning back home but you don’t need much to live well here and my standard of living is a lot better than it was in England.

That standard of living attracts a lot of people to this country. Coupled with that, Bangkok is not just the city of angels, it is the capital of sin. That attracts its fair share of people too. Richard, who has an apartment in the same block as me probably exemplifies such a person. He retired here two years ago at age sixty. He receives a pension of just under fifteen thousand pounds per annum. On that income, he maintains not just his Bangkok apartment but a bungalow upcountry in Isaan. He has a ‘wife’ in each residence and, in his own words, lives like a king. I asked him where he met his ‘wives’ and he replied “In the go-go bars, where else do you meet girls?” Whatever your views are on the sex industry here it is not difficult to see the attraction for people like Richard. And yes, those stories you’ve heard about Bangkok are probably true – it is hot and steamy in more ways than one. It does seem a pity though that so many western men only meet Thai women through the ‘sex for sale’ places.

One day, Richard decided to organize a ‘boys’ night out’ to some of the go-go bars and he asked me to invite Stephen. This I did, only to receive a lecture on how sad it is that people go to these bars. The two bar girls I taught work in Patpong, a particularly seedy area in my view but there are also places there not associated with the sex industry. For instance, somebody I know runs a music bar there and had invited me along several times. When I eventually did go, I realized it was very close to where the girls I had taught worked and, as they had often asked me to visit them at work, I went along and found their place of employment. I was invited to sit in the girls’ rest area which is a great vantage point for watching what goes on in one of those places. If a customer wants to take a girl out of the bar, he must pay a fee to the bar, called a bar fine and he must pay the girl a pre-agreed sum of money. I was fascinated, watching what was going on in the bar but the girls, for whom it was common place of course, couldn’t wait to tell me their news.

It turned out that, two nights previously, Stephen (who despises such places and their customers) had been in that bar and had tried to take not one but two girls home with him. He hadn’t wanted to pay the bar fine though so had waited outside the bar when it closed, thinking they might go with him because he was such a great catch. Imagine my delight at hearing this little gem and, even better, when I got home, I spied Stephen drinking alone in the downstairs bar. I ordered a pint, sat down opposite him and told him that I had heard he was in Patpong on Thursday. He denied it. I said that was funny as I’d heard he was in the such and such bar. Again he denied it, reminding me what he thought of those places and the people who go to them. So I told him about wanting to bring two girls home but refusing to pay the bar fine and waiting outside at closing time. To say he was shocked at my having such detailed information would be an understatement and, at this point, he caved in and asked me how I knew about it. “Stephen” I said “Nothing is secret here, Bangkok is just a big village.” I never did tell him how I knew.

The truth is that the go-go bars tend to be fairly unpleasant, sleazy places. The first time I visited Bangkok, it was with a tour group and it was decided that the guys would visit Patpong one evening while the women went for a massage. I think we all felt slightly embarrassed at what we saw but, when I went home, several people asked me if I had been to a go-go bar. When I said that I had, they wanted to know what they were like and I said that they were basically full of fat middle aged men watching skinny young women pole dance. Some of us had one of those silly conversations which are facilitated by plenty of beer and thought it would be a good idea to have fat middle aged men pole dancing instead. So was conceived a notion which transformed itself into reality for my fiftieth birthday party when two of my Harley riding friends, donned large Y-fronts, big black boots and lots of baby oil, and made their stage debut as the fat men pole dancing. We borrowed some rusty scaffolding for the poles which made interesting marks on the back of their Y-fronts when they slid down them. Unable to find a garter to push it in, one of the guests pushed a fiver down the Y-fronts thus fully entering into the spirit of things. I asked people not to buy presents for my birthday but instead to contribute hard cash and we managed to raise quite a lot of money which went to a Vietnamese charity working with street children enabling them to find real alternatives to working in the sex industry over there. The guys who did the pole dancing were great and it has to remain one of the funniest things I have ever seen.

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