GET A SAK YANT TATTOO FROM A BUDDHIST MONK:
I have to be a smidge cheesy for a minute to say that I first learned of the Sak Yant tattoo because of Angelina Jolie. I saw photos of her being tattooed by a Buddhist Monk with a giant needle and I was intrigued. I figured that if I fell in love with Thailand as much as I assumed I would that I should definitely get one (or two as it turns out…).
Sak Yant is a form of tattooing that originated in ancient Tai peoples of southwestern China and northwestern Vietnam over 2,000 years ago. Also known as Yantra tattooing, it consists of geometrical, animal and deity designs accompanied by Pali phrases that offer power, protection, fortune, charisma and other benefits for the bearer. Today it is practiced in Thailand and Myanmar, and to a much lesser extent in Laos and Cambodia. Sak means “to [tattoo]” in Thai, and yant is the Thai pronunciation for the Sanskrit word yantra, meaning “magical design” or “mystical insignia”. Hence the Sak Yant Tattoo is a “Magical Tattoo. They are believed to be magic and bestow mystical powers, protection, or good luck. There are three main effects: one is that which benefits the wearer, such as making them more eloquent, another is that of protection and to ward off evil and hardship (commonly used by people in perceived dangerous professions or that are in or going to jail) and lastly is that which affects people around the wearer, such as invoking fear. The tattoo only confers its powers so long as the bearer observes certain rules and taboos.
I just thought they looked snazzy… magical or not.
Sak Yant designs are normally tattooed by Buddhist Monks, traditionally with a hollow metal rod sharpened to a point. They are not sterilized in between tattoos and whether or not the recipients are in danger of blood transmitted diseases is hotly debated. Because the rod is hollow it does not actually retain any blood, so theoretically it should be reasonably safe (I hope…). You can get these types of tattoos at many tattoo parlors around Khao San Road in Bangkok… or you can opt for the authentic experience from an actual Monk at the Wat Bang Phra temple.
So, enough history, back to my tattoo story. Nick flew back to the states early for a bachelor party so I was alone in Bangkok and having a blast. I was on the fence as to whether or not to get the tattoo on my own or wait for Nick to accompany me. I woke up really early and slightly hungover one morning and thought, “what the hell?” I had done a bit of research on how to get to the Wat Bang Phra temple which is located 40 minutes outside of Bangkok and I found a pretty informative blog that outlined how to get there via public transportation (of course you can opt for a taxi if you’d prefer). So I hopped on a motor-taxi to Victory Monument which is an insane hub of public transportation. It took some wandering around and asking dozens of people before I finally found the Nakhon Pathom bound minibus. I asked to be dropped off in the town of Nakhon Chaisi where they literally dropped me on the side of a highway (FYI I had these town names written down for me in Thai by the hotel receptionist prior to heading out – had I not it would have been nearly impossible to get out there). I flagged down yet another motor-taxi to take me the remaining 10-ish miles to the temple.
In the courtyard area there is a small stand selling the offering that you must make to receive the tattoo. You should at least purchase flowers, incense sticks, a pack of cigarettes, as well as include a small amount of money. Some people give more (of course the Monks just turn them around and resell them but it helps to cover temple upkeep). I ended up spending about 120 baht ($4 USD).
I arrived around 11:00am and already the temple was packed. There were probably 40-50 people already sitting on the ground inside in some sort of makeshift line that snaked around the room and didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. I removed my shoes and took my seat on the floor in the back (always with my feet pointing away from the front of the room as it is considered very rude in Thai culture to point your feet at anyone but especially toward a monk or Buddha). I waited in that hot room for a LONG time. 4 hours or so in total. But it was very interesting – the room is pretty much silent the whole time and photos are not allowed. I watched as one-by-one the people in line got their actual tattoos, or their “invisible ink” tattoos that are done with oil, or not-at-all tattoos that involve the Monk tapping the sharp metal rod on the recipient’s tongue and wrists. Each tattoo took about 10-15 minutes and the Monk took several breaks along the way. As I scooted closer and closer to the front I realized that I didn’t really have to understand the line logistics, everyone around me helped in directing me where to go.
Finally it was my turn. I awkwardly bowed 3 times to the Monk (sit on knees with hands together as if praying and then put your forehead on the ground and repeat, 3 times). I was given a triangular pillow to hug and two local men held me down. The Monk did not touch any of the women that I saw (according to the Monk code of conduct, they are permitted to touch women, so long as it does not create lust. So most opt not to, just in case), so he used a sharpie to push my head into the direction that he wanted me to go. The pain was far greater than I felt with all of my other tattoos as the needle was much larger. But it was also quite a bit faster – like I said it was done in about 15 minutes. After the tattoo was complete he blessed it and blew a sacred Kata (Ghata) on it to infuse it with power. And then I did another awkward bow and left the room, dripping blood all over my tank top (he doesn’t actually use any type of tape or bandage). While in line I made a few new Thai friends who gave me a ride back to town (which was awesome since I had NO IDEA how I was going to get back).
A few months later I repeated the process a second time with Nick. The first several tattoos are done in a standard format and it differs between men and women (no, Nick and I didn’t choose to have matching tattoos). Once you get through those apparently the Monk just reads your spirit and goes rogue. There were men there whose bodies were literally covered with Sak Yank tattoos – front and back.
It’s a crazy, amazing, strange, unforgettable experience and I’m really crossing my fingers that I didn’t get Hepatitis C!
GET SOAKED AT SONGKRAN:
On April 13, 14, and 15 of each year, Thailand celebrates its New Year with Songkran which is arguably the biggest water fight in the world. The best places to experience Songkran in Bangkok seem to be the Silom and Khao San Road areas. If you find yourself in one of these spots during pretty much anytime of the day for those three days, you have no chance of staying dry. The festivities started everyday around noon; we would finally find the energy to conquer our hangover, fill up our water guns, buy beers from the corner 7-11 and hit the streets in search of lunch. We happened to be staying in a hotel near Khao San on a particularly festive side street so before we made it 20 feet from our front door we were pelted by buckets of freezing cold water. Some people are quite nice and use warmer water in the mornings and evenings when it’s not particularly hot outside – but most do not.
For some strange reason I decided to start everyday by fixing my hair and putting on some make-up but within a few minutes I ended up looking like a drowned rat. And we remained wet for the entire day, no matter where we were. We were sprayed by water guns while eating lunch, driving in a tuk-tuk, even while unarmed and just trying to run errands.
The use of chalk is also quite common during Songkran as it originated by Monks to mark blessings. So while some people are spraying you with ice cold water, others are rubbing chalk on your face, in your mouth, on your sunglasses, and in your hair. Don’t get offended when someone runs by you and shoves chalk in your mouth and up your nose – they have the nicest of intentions.
If you need a few minutes away, you probably shouldn’t go to your hotel room. Every time we came and went we left a trail of wet chalk sludge and drenched all of our towels so nothing in our room was every really dry. We did find some solace at MBK – the giant 8-story mall where the floors near the entrance were wet and slippery but water fights are not allowed inside.
In the Silom area they had hoses connected to fire hydrants and were blasting tons of water down the street that was closed to traffic and filled with people. Unfortunately for some tourists who must not have done their homework prior to visiting, if you happen to be in the Silom or Khao San Road areas, even if you aren’t participating in the water fight you will not be spared. We were sitting at an outdoor bar, enjoying a bucket (alcohol+Coco-cola+Red Bull in a child’s sand bucket) when we witnessed a few poor tourists walking down the middle of the street with their suitcases in tow. A very hilarious but mean person (okay, it was me) gave them a few squirts which prompted a very un-celebratory response. Bah humbug. You can’t even escape the fight in the evenings – the nightclubs in the RCA area have giant barrels filled with water to continue the festivities until the wee hours of the morning.
And the best part? Since you are soaking wet all the time, no need to find a bathroom! (You wouldn’t be able to find one anyway…) You can just make like a baby and wet yourself, all while walking around the massively crowded streets drinking beers and enjoying the greatest party in the world!
“BATHE WITH” AN ELEPHANT IN PAI:
While Nick was away at the bachelor party in the states, I also decided to take a solo trip to Chiang Mai and Pai since he’d already been to both. I took an epic train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and then a minibus to Pai on a a steep and winding drive, with 762 curves (that had one girl on our bus barfing into a bag). Once in Pai I made a few friends – once fantastic British girl, Krishna, who was also traveling alone and wanted to find random adventures and a few Thai guys in a leather shop who didn’t speak English but they let me hang out with them all day and make myself a leather fanny pack.
So Krishna and I heard about a fun excursion in Pai where you essentially bathe with an elephant. I’d been a fool in Chiang Mai and went to a dreadful elephant ride/show combo where it was clear that the elephants were not treated kindly. I was NOT interested in doing anything like that again. So we did some asking around and price checking and found our spot. It was $15 USD per person and our expectations were set pretty low – we just wanted to hang out with some elephants.
So we rode barebacked on the elephant to a fairly shallow river into maybe 4 feet of water. The elephant-whisperer-guide got off and stood off to the side and then started giving the elephant commands. The first command was for the elephant to sit – which caused me and Krishna to topple off of his back and into the water. That was not even remotely what we expected we would be doing so at first we were incredibly confused, and then hilariously entertained.
As the 30-minute or so “bathing” session progressed, the process essentially repeated itself. We would climb back on top of the elephant, it would stand up, and then proceed to lay back down and we would topple back into the river. At the end of the excursion we were thoroughly soaked and laughing hysterically that we actually paid money to be dumped into a river over and over again by an elephant. We thought we would be the ones bathing him, but it was really him who got to bathe us. Apparently we convinced the elephant-whisperer that we were able to handle bareback elephant riding on our own so he turned us loose on the ride back to camp. After a few bananas and snuggles we bid farewell to our new friends and a very entertaining day.
SLEEP IN A FLOATING BUNGALOW IN LAKE CHIEW (OR CHEOW) LAN:
Lake Chiew Lan (or Cheow Lan Lake, depending on who you’re talking to) is in Khao Sok National Park in the Surat Thani Province. It is a 64-square-mile artificial lake, created in 1982 by the construction of Rajjaprapha Dam by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand as a source of electricity. We loved it because it was one of the few places that we went in Thailand that wasn’t bombarded by drunk tourists. In fact, we pretty much had the whole area to ourselves. Our bungalow that sat right on the lake wasn’t anything special, in fact, there were no screens on the windows and big gaps in the walls so every night when we got back Nick had to go in first to go on a cockroach ass-kicking tirade. I think his record was 9 GIANT cockroaches killed in under 10 minutes.
But aside from the bug issue, we had lovely, romantic dinners on the deck at sunset and boat rides through limestone cliff walls and an evergreen rain forest jungle. It was so romantic that I was actually quite convinced that Nick was going to propose to me during one of our boat rides after we had fun swim sesh in the clear water during the heat of the day.
He asked our boat driver to take a photo for us and then stood up in the boat and looked at me and it seemed quite clear that he was about to get down on one knee and pop the question. He didn’t. So I cried and the rest of our time there was ruined. Just kidding, I’m not that lame. Plus we’re married now so there an even better proposal location that awaited me in the future.
So if Bangkok is making you nutty and you could use a little rest and relaxation away from the crowds… this is your own personal heaven. Get there before the secret gets out!
DANCE THE NIGHT AWAY AT A FULL MOON PARTY:
… or a Half Moon Party, or Quarter Moon Party, or No Moon Party, or whatever other crazy moon shenanigans they are coming up with these days on the island of Koh Phangan. We attended this particular full moon party in 2013 so I have no doubt that it’s gotten even crazier since then. We’ve heard from a few people that the mid-moon parties are actually quite a big better because they aren’t TOO wild and crazy. The first Full Moon Party was in 1985 to give thanks to about 20–30 travelers. The parties gained fame through word of mouth, and the event now draws a crowd of about 5,000–30,000 (mostly tourists) every full moon evening.
Okay, so this one isn’t obscure at all. But I loved it and it’s my blog so I’ll write about what I want…
We purchased a package deal to get to Koh Phangan from Bangkok which involved a long bus ride and a ferry. We ended up staying for a few days on the island – we rented a motorbike and did some exploring. But the real reason that most people go is for the epic beach parties that used to take place once a month and now seem to happen at least once a week. We started the day with a long nap since we knew it’d be a late night (and we are old). We then groggily got dressed, grabbed a road soda, and got one of the many taxi-bus-tuk-tuk contraptions to Haad Rin beach. On the walk in to the beach there are loads of vendors selling all kinds of party favors including glow-in-the-dark body paint and “buckets” which are literally a child’s beach bucket filled with ice, a Thai version of Red Bull, a can of soda, a 300 ml bottle of liquor and 3 or 4 straws. One bucket costs about $8 USD. If you drink one all to yourself you are guaranteed to blackout and have a hell of a hangover the next day. We bought some body paint, did a little artwork on each other (as well as a few new friends), and started doing work on our bucket.
When I first stepped out onto the beach it was like the culmination of all the insane parties I’ve seen on TV and in the movies – but in real life and on a beach. Every square inch of beach space was filled with gyrating tourists covered in body paint, holding glowsticks, and drinking buckets. There were various stages along the beach that all played different types of music and had spotlights or fire dancers or laser light shows or all of the above. It was complete and total sensory overload and held the title of the craziest party I’d ever witnessed to date, until I went to Burning Man.
Nick and I joined right in – we put on our horse head and unicorn head masks, jumped on one of the stages, and had an epic dance party. Throughout the evening we wandered around to the various stages and in and out of the various bars. We danced our faces off until the wee hours of the morning when around 9am we finally hailed a taxi to head back to our room. If you only go for one night and only for the Full Moon Party, fear not! There is a dodgy-looking sleep area sectioned off on the beach with a few questionable cushions and even more questionable looking patrons.
So, if you’re looking for the biggest, most epic rager of all time… go to Burning Man. If you’re looking for the second biggest rager, go to Songkran (see above). And if you’re looking for the THIRD biggest rager, a Thai Full Moon Party is where it’s at!
PAMPER YOURSELF WITH A FISH PEDICURE:
Well… more specifically, put your feet into a giant fish tank so that hundreds of Garra Rufa fish (aka “doctor fish”), a variety of Turkish toothless carp, can eat the dead fish off of your feet. If you are overly concerned about your health and/or safety, this probably isn’t for you (actually, nothing in the blog post is really for you) as these doctor fish spas have been banned in the US and Canada since many believe the practice to be unsanitary; both for you and for the fish.
But here’s the thing – these fish DO like eating your dead skin and you can get it done in a spa where you know what you’re getting into OR have a few wild ones start feeding on you when you’re not expecting it (this happened to me in a lake in Laos). Because they are around and if they happen to share the same body of water as you they’re going to go for your skin cells. When you do it at a Thai spa it’s fun, it’s entertaining, it tickles, it’s pretty harmless, and I’d argue that it’s a must-do when you are bumming around Khao San Road in the wee hours of the morning.
A FEW OBSCURE-ISH THINGS THAT WE HAVEN’T DONE BUT WANT TO:
- Visit the Fish-filled flooded abandoned shopping mall
- Shop at The new conveniently located night train market – we’ve already been to the one in Srinakarin which is in the suburbs and takes a while to get to so we’re excited to check out the new one!