Man at His Best

First Person: I Went To Bangkok And Got Stabbed In The Back, Literally

Lestari Hairul recounts her experience of getting a traditional Thai tattoo from an ex-monk.

BY Lestari Hairul | May 12, 2016 | Travel

A rush of thoughts erupts in a single, split-second moment. Just before the needle touches the skin, and the body somehow senses this, everything slows to a crawl and all the conviction in my decision flies away. That old familiar fear is back again, even after eight tattoos most of which have been on agonising locations. 

But clarity pierces through anyway, swiftly followed by further jabs. The flood of adrenaline knocks out the last vestiges of opposition and I sink into comfort. Well, in any case, there’s no turning back. Not when the whole point I’m here is to do what would normally cost THB30,000-60,000 for an actual paying guest. 

It starts with picking a tattoo with Ajahn Boo, an ex-monk from Wat Bang Phra who was scouted by the staff of The Siam Bangkok. Set up in the spa at the hotel, in a room beautifully decorated with antiques and Buddhist paraphernalia, it is a vastly different world from the more traditional temples where you could get spiritual tattoos in Thailand.

In those temples, you don’t get air-conditioning and swanky service. Well-fed dogs and cats will weave in and out the various tattooing rooms while whirring fans half-heartedly bat away the somnolent heat. Monks with cigarettes hanging off their lips jab away at the skin of Thais and farangs alike, the only form of hygiene is a perfunctory dip in buckets of alcohol before the needles are re-used again using the same pots of ink. And make no mistake, these are indeed for the specific purposes enmeshed in mysticism and not for merely fancying up your body with designs.

Of course, with the higher price tag comes the privilege of choice. Unlike the experience of paying just about THB150 worth of offerings and being at the mercy of the artistic talents of whoever monk on duty, guests at The Siam could dictate the kind of tattoo they would like. As long as Ajahn Boo agrees with it. 

I went with the more traditional option of getting 5 lines tattooed down my back. In the temple you either get this or the 9 spires gao yord for your first. The tigers, the monkeys and heads of gods only come later. 

Standard stuff, for good fortune, luck, attractiveness. But knowing that is part of the problem once the pain gets in the way of whatever meditative state you may choose to get through the pain with. The needle goes down my back and I’m damned sure it is for the line about being mega-attractive to the opposite sex but it maddeningly goes back up to the top again. We’d started with prayers, offerings and chanting whilst being splashed by holy water. But even with that and my own effort at meditating, the pain demands to be acknowledged. 

I’ve done a stick and poke tattoo before. To distract from the pain, which was minimal, I sat through The Grand Budapest Hotel and part of the first episode of Hannibal. There’s no other distraction this time around so I try to ease into the pain, using that as the focal point. Luckily for me, Ajahn Boo works fast and in less than 30 minutes, it’s all over. A beautifully-made tattoo, far intricate than the stuff I’ve seen on many a backpacker hoping for an authentic experience. And all that done in a safe, hygienic environment too. Never underestimate the importance of fresh needles and ink.  

A piece of gold leaf is placed on the wound and further prayers followed by the master blowing on it, “charges” the tattoo with power. I’m now ready to conquer the world. Provided of course that I don’t eat starfruit, green gourds, don’t cheat on my partner or be the cheating party, and, much to my chagrin, never again insult someone’s mum.

But fret not all ye accidental eaters of strange fruit, cheaters and mum-insulters. Once a year, the tattooed devotees will descend upon Wat Bang Phra to get their tattoos re-charged with more power, just in case you break any of those rules. I’ve just about missed the boat on this one, held in March and involving tons of possessed individuals acting out the various qualities of their tattoos. Fun stuff.

The tattoo heals far quicker than any done by the conventional tattoo gun. And in a week I’m swimming again, no longer confined to a schedule of Vaseline-smearing. But as for powers, well, Ajahn Boo puts it diplomatically: If you have the belief that it’ll work, it’ll likely work. But I suppose if it doesn’t, there’s at least a cool tattoo with a story to tell.