Sak Yant: A personal experience
Having lived in Thailand for many years, I have encountered Sak Yant tattoos on numerous occasions. I have lived among Thai people and this revealed that most Thai men become monks for at least one month, perhaps longer and it is during this time that they are introduced to Sak Yant. Indeed many of these newly ordained monks become Sak Yant disciples while staying in the temple. Muay Thai is a sport that intrigued me as it is a Thai national sport. Almost all the Thai boxers, especially in the South of Thailand, have Yant tattoos on their body for either protection or good luck. Endurance is also an attribute that the Yant is designed to strengthen. I would say that Sak Yant is firmly embedded in Thai culture at all levels, women especially are turning more and more to Sak Yant as a way to improve different areas of their lives.
While living in a small village about 50km south of Nakhon Sri Thammarat, I witnessed a Thai man eagerly explaining something to his friends (I couldn’t understand Thai then) and one of them went into the house and produced a small piece of red cloth tied with thin white string. The men closely gathered around and as I peered over the top, I saw this weird geometrical shape with strange symbols around it. Suddenly an agreement of some kind was reached and we all set off in a convoy of motorcycles towards the local temple. The Yant was shown to a monk and he then tattooed this onto the back of the anxious man. This was followed by long chanting and continuous blowing of air by the monk onto the back of the tattoo bearer. Finally after a few hours we returned to the house and it was explained to me that the man’s wife had a secret lover and he wanted a Yant to ward off male admirers. It turned out that one of the men had a Yant for that very reason and when he located it they took it to the local monk to have it inscribed on the man’s back. As far as I know, the man’s wife didn’t stray again so it must have worked!
Also while in the south, I witnessed an old Thai boxer who was literally covered in Sak Yant tattoos. He easily won his fight and one of the other boxers explained that this guy felt no pain and he wore down all his opponents because he had so many Yants on his body that he felt invincible! Many young men who hang around with dubious company are also well adorned with different tattoos designed to protect them from gunshots and knives.
I befriended an elderly Thai man in that same village I was particularly interested in the past and how they lived in days gone by. He told me that when he was a boy, the Ruesi would come to the village once a week and would attend sick people, handing out potions made from things in the forest and offer Yantras as protection against a
multitude of things. The Ruesi was indeed the equivalent of a modern day physician and probably the only option the villagers had at that time.
On other occasions in North East Thailand I have encountered Sak Yant. I recall one such incident where a procession of people were moving from the temple to a villager’s home. Once there a Monk nailed a small piece of cloth above the main doorway and began to chant. I was then told that this house had been visited by evil spirits that night before and this Yant would protect the house from future evil doings.
Indeed I would encounter men that had many amulets hanging around their neck, each one offering a type of protection. One old man was often ridiculed and people wanted him to remove his amulets just for a short time. When asked why he explained that unless he took them off, he would live forever!
While all the above experiences reflected the poor rural community, I have also had experience of well-educated Bangkok Thai people having Sak Yant and taking great care to follow the precepts. In business there are certain things, such as the direction your place of work faces and having certain Yantras placed in different locations of the building. Certain present day politicians and leading figures are believers of Sak Yant.
One particular incident amused me greatly,
In this village in the south, the headman (Poo Yai Bahn) had a PA system which was used to tell the people important news about the community. This particular headman liked a drink and would be inebriated most evenings. If he was really drunk, he would turn on the PA system and rabble on to the whole village at the highest volume imaginable! One of these times, I asked a local what this guy was saying as he blasted his slurred voice across the jungle. The man listened intently for a few seconds then explained that the headman was upset because his wife had spilt water on his bed. Obviously tired of his rantings, she had retired to bed leaving him to rabble on to the entire village! This carried on for a few minutes until one old woman produced an old piece of cloth and started to chant as she spread it onto the table. The man explained that she would invoke a Yant to stop him talking and much to everyone’s amazement, the noise abruptly stopped. Suddenly everyone burst into laughter and it was explained that the sudden silence was not brought on by the old woman’s chanting, rather the wife had woken and crept round the back of the amplifier and pulled out the speaker jack!
I spent a few months close to the border with Cambodia during which time I got to know some Cambodian labourers. They told me that Sak Yant was much more for the men in Cambodia. Soldiers and government officials, as well as convicts were tattooed but in mainstream society, Sak Yant was not so common. The Cambodian Yantras are slightly different as Khmer script is used and they have their own version of things, much the same as Thailand does.
Another strange phenomenon I noticed was that many young Thai men had small wooden phallic symbols tied around their waist with thin string. I never really found out what for, other than some kind of protection against evil. Thai people will never walk under a washing line and generally regard the head as the most sacred part of the body, while the feet are considered dirty and to be of low importance. It is considered improper to touch a Thai male on his head, with perhaps the exception of a young boy being patted affectionately by an elder. If you ever see a Thai bank note on the floor, NEVER put your foot on it as this is considered a big sign of disrespect (The King’s head is printed on all bank notes).
Sak Yant is alive and well and flourishing within Thai society.
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