To claim an “authentic” cultural experience is one of the most prized trophies Western tourists bring home with them from their travels abroad, and luxury hotels the world over are engaged in a seemingly never-ending battle to give their guests the bragging rights they crave.
As far as Thailand is concerned, award-winning The Siam has recently landed a momentum-changing blow, allowing guests to dip their toes in one of the world’s greatest tattooing traditions.
The hotel has started offering guests the opportunity to permanently ink themselves with traditional yantra tattoos, known as sak yant in Thai, through its Opium Spa and the help of a revered local tattoo master.
A Ubiquitous Cultural Symbol
Those who have spent any amount of time in Thailand have probably seen evidence of the 2,000-year-old tradition on the arms and backs of Thais around the country. Consisting of sacred designs of animals, deities and geometric patterns, the tattoos are one of the most striking forms of body art in the world.
The Pali phrases that are often included in sak yant designs are thought to bring lauded benefits to the wearer, such as power, fortune and charisma, which has made it an integral practice among the Buddhist cultures in Thailand and Myanmar.
Sought After by Westerners
The tradition caught the eyes of the Western world over a decade ago when famed actress Angelina Jolie unveiled a sak yant tattoo performed by noted Thai master Ajarn Noo. In the years that followed, the tattoos quickly became one of the most sought after “souvenirs” by the more adventurous tourists to travel Southeast Asia.
It was this trend that led The Siam’s former general manager Jason Friedman to enlist the help of a local sak yant master named Ajarn Boo.
Friedman found Ajarn Boo at Wat Bang Phra, a temple in Nakhon Chaisi in Nakhon Pathom province with a strong sak yant lineage propagated by the late abbot Luang Pho Poen – the most famous and influential sak yant master of the 20th century. To this day, the temple remains one of the most respected hubs of the practice.
“Yantra tattooing has always been quite popular, but was kept quiet and underground for most of its history,” says Ajarn Boo. “As people and society have become more accepting of tattoos as an art form, the sak yant masters have become more comfortable showing their yants to the public.”
Maintaining the authenticity of the practice is paramount for Ajarn Boo, who uses a traditional khem sak (a long tattoo stylus resembling an arrow) and consecrates sterile ink with ceremonial practices before the procedure begins.
The process is a deeply spiritual affair. Guests go through a series of prayers and make a flower offering to the tattoo master before the session begins, called the wai khru ritual. Most choose one of two options: a five-line hah taew or a nine-line gao yord, each with differing designs and spiritual benefits.
The finished tattoo is covered in a piece of gold leaf and showered with water as the first of two traditional blessings.
Ajarn Boo then accompanies customers on a journey to Wat Bang Phra to experience the traditional monk consecration that completes the ritual.
It’s the same place where he rose to prominence as a protégé of one of Luang Pho Poen’s disciples, Ajarn Somchai, travelling with the master internationally to Hong Kong, Singapore and China to assist in performing the ritual on prestigious clients.
Sharing the Practice
When Friedman met Ajarn Boo, he asked for a sak yant himself, and was so impressed with the results that he offered to build a studio at The Siam – a clean, calm and inspiring space that maintains the traditional ambience of the best facilities in the country.
To this day, it is the only hotel-based sak yant facility in the world, and has attracted celebrities such as Michelle Rodriguez and Cara Delevingne.
However, recent Western taste for sak yant has some traditionalists worried about the practice becoming commercialised and culturally appropriated. Although Ajarn Boo refuses to give guests “any tattoo they want”, he maintains that sharing the culture is generally positive.
“Sak yant tattooing is a part of an older Thai culture that we should preserve,” he says. “I am very proud to do them for the guests and think it is something that should be shared.”