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 – Spirits, Ghosts and Shrines.

30 04 2011

On the roof of the apartment block where I used to live is a concrete plinth, about four feet high, with a miniature building on top of it, sort of halfway between a house and a temple. On a small platform at the front of the building, people make offerings of food and water, burn incense sticks, place flowers and even place small ornaments. You see these all over Thailand, including on the housing estate where I now live, and many of them are Buddhist shrines. Some, though, are not shrines but spirit houses. Spirits are very much a part of life here and they are believed to inhabit trees, the ground and even the air around us. When somebody builds a house or some other property, it is believed that the spirits who inhabited the land are displaced so a spirit house is always built for those displaced spirits in order that they are pacified for having their homes taken over. Kind of a spiritual compulsory purchase order I suppose. And it works too. I am never troubled by angry, homeless spirits when I am in bed at night.

A shrine near my house.

It is not easy for westerners to differentiate between shrines and spirit houses. Thai people don’t shake hands like we do, they ‘wai’ each other instead. A wai is when the hands are pressed palms together in a sort of praying gesture. The position of the hands is determined by the status of the person you are waiing. So, to wai an equal, your thumbs will be level with your chin but to accept a wai from somebody of lower status, your hands are at chest height. To wai somebody deemed deserving of extra respect, such as your boss or your mother in law, your thumbs should be level with the bottom of your nose. And so on. A lot of Thai people will wai the spirits as they pass a spirit house in the street as a sign of respect for those spirits, which is probably why it is so easy to confuse them with shrines, which they also wai. The offerings are to try and ensure that the spirits are comfortable in their homes. Old trees which are inhabited by many, often very good spirits, are also decorated and have offerings for the spirits as people want these good spirits to stay there and not move to somebody else’s tree.

A comfortable home for the tree spirits.

When they stay in a strange place such as a hotel or somebody else’s house, most Thai people will wai and tell the local spirits they are there for the night and seek protection from them. On a roadside near where I live, old spirit houses are discarded. They are simply thrown there, often smashed up and left. Quite an eyesore. Every now and then, a taxi driver bringing me home will wai those discarded spirit houses…..hands off the steering wheel and turning to face them as he wais. We’ve not had an accident yet so there must be some protection still emanating from them.

So, what is the difference? Firstly it is in origin. The shrines here originated with the Hindu faith whereas the spirit houses originated with animism. Secondly, both items offer protection but shrines are usually bigger and offer more protection – kind of a stronger version I suppose. As far as I can tell, those are the essential differences.

A typical, small spirit house.

Somebody I knew had a small tree removed from her garden and put up a small wooden spirit house for the occupants of the tree. She also had a little ceremony when some monks came to the house and blessed the new spirit house.

Spirit house on somebody's balcony.

I have a friend in York who leads ‘ghost walks’ and tells ghost stories on the local radio station. He will be delighted to know that, here in Thailand, ghosts are every bit as real as spirits and as real as you and I. My boss, and yes I do have a boss despite being head teacher, is a lovely Thai lady. She used to go on holiday to Phuket regularly but she has not been since the tsunami six years ago. Why not? Because she is afraid of the ghosts that must be there. Unlike the spirits who get moved into little spirit houses, ghosts are generally feared and they are everywhere in Thailand. However, in Phuket there is a major concentration of ghosts. Other things we view as supernatural are also regarded as a normal part of life here. For instance, in an interview, Thaksin Shinawatra (the prime minister ousted in the last coup) stated in all seriousness that his political problems were caused by somebody using black magic against him.

Ground level spirit house.

One arid, windless day I was sitting on a step in a quiet corner of the school grounds. Opposite me and to my right was the school wall and, also opposite me, was a blue plastic waste pipe running along the bottom of the wall and around the corner, continuing along the base of the wall. As I sat looking at the pipe, what looked like a small whisp of smoke appeared from my left and seemed to dance along the pipe as far as the corner where it disappeared into the wall. Remember, there was no wind at all. What was it? I have no idea but, for a Thai person, logic would dictate that it was some kind of spirit. I have discovered that logic, too, can be relative to where you are.

A Year in Bangkok – Road Trip to Krabi – Part 2.

13 11 2010

Our first waterfall of this part of the drive.

Well, sorry for the long break in my blogging. Knowing I would be manically busy on our return to Bangkok, I took the laptop on holiday to try and keep up to date. In our Best Western hotel in Krabi, I plugged in and turned on, all the while waiting for the creative juices to start flowing. Suddenly, the air conditioner burped and the laptop made a kind of gentle popping noise. It was a power surge. The air con came back no problem but the laptop had just blown up, albeit rather quietly. I suspect that is because it is rather old and therefore didn’t want to make too much fuss about exploding. The hotel’s IT person had a look at it and declared it to be repairable but we had to wait until we got back to Bangkok to have that done – hence the long gap as I have indeed been busy.

...and a close-up of that waterfall.

We left Ranong quite late in the morning but that didn’t seem to be much of an issue as I thought we only had about three hundred kilometers to drive. We headed south on route 4 which was busy at first but we soon left the traffic behind as almost all of it headed across the country to pick up one of the main roads on the gulf coast side. We saw waterfalls, waterfalls and more waterfalls. Then we saw some waterfalls. Because of the massive amount of rain, we also saw run-offs which looked like waterfalls.

A distant buffalo herd.

We saw herds of buffalo, an increasingly rare sight here. And, as we got further south, we saw more and more participants in the week long vegetarian festival which is celebrated throughout Thailand but is celebrated spectacularly in the deep south. Actually, it’s nine days rather than a week and, for a vegetarian festival, you can see an awful lot of blood. I first witnessed this event in Phuket six years ago – just before the tsunami and it is truly mind boggling.

I'm about to be blessed by the spirit of a Taoist emperor god!

This takes place during the first nine days of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar – in my limited experience that means October. It is the beginning of Taoist Lent and the nine Taoist emperor gods are brought to earth by mediums who act as hosts, entering into a trance state and making animal-like whimpering noises while they are posessed. I’m not sure what the whimpering noises represent but they seem to be an integral part of all this. They also move their heads slowly from side to side. While in this trance state, some pierce their cheeks with all manner of sharp pointy things like knives, spears and sharpened tree branches. Others beat their foreheads with axes producing torrents of blood which flow down their chests. And they abstain from eating meat – hence the name. The participants seem to be exclusively of Chinese origin.

...and now its the car's turn.

In one village, I stopped to photograph a group of them including three women who were possessed by the spirits of the emperor gods and received some sort of blessing. They then went on to bless the car. It worked too.

View from the roadside restaurant where we had lunch.

We had been driving along between the mountains and the coast and the road now took us back into the mountains. These mountains are called the Tenasserim and are basically a long granite ridge which is older than the Himalayas.

Optimistic sign at our lunch stop.

So far, we’d had rain showers and sunny periods but up in the mountains it rained. And it rained. The scenery was beautiful and moody but impossible to portray in a photograph. People had cut terraces into the mountains to use the land for agriculture and the road kept disappearing. Literally disappearing. The heavy rains this year have caused landslips in several parts of Thailand. I hadn’t thought of that when setting out on this trip but I was starting to think about it now.

It rained and it rained!

The first landslip we saw had taken away the crash barrier on the inside of a hairpin bend. Scary stuff. Then we came to another hairpin where the inside half of the road had gone. I didn’t look too hard at the massive drop as I was concentrating on staying on the bit of road which was left and also being immensely grateful to the spirit of the Taoist emperor god who had blessed the car a little earlier.Thankfully, it wasn’t long before we got back to a complete road. We found a lovely little roadside restaurant where we had a not so lovely lunch but, hey, the views were great!

We saw our first karst in the distance as we started to come down from the mountains.

Then, in the rain of course, we dropped down to Phangnga for our first view of the limestone karsts this area is famous for. What a pity I couldn’t take a photograph. Phangnga is ringed by karsts and is a beautiful sight. From there it was a straight forward drive to Ao Nang Bay just north of Krabi where we were booked in to a hotel for four nights. It had taken us about six hours to get here but we had made several stops so the actual driving wasn’t too long at all.

Home for the next four nights.

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