By Guest Blogger Adam Baird
I abruptly awoke in a hotel in Bangkok, after about two hours of sleep the night before, still buzzed from the night on the town. My buddy, Trav, was gently shaking my shoulder.
Thailand can and will destroy you…
“Come on man, we have a ride to the temple. Its gonna be a long trip, so we have to get going.”
I sat up. “You did? I thought tour buses don’t go out that far?”
“Nah man, the girl I met last night, she has a cousin, or brother, or something, I dunno. Anyway, he’s a taxi driver, he’ll take us there and back. She’s coming too, to help us translate.”
Trav, like me, was from California. We had met, and eventually became roommates, in a bungalow/hostel at a Muay Thai training camp in Phuket. How I got to Thailand in the first place, and why I was here, well, that’s another story for another time. Suffice it to say, I had been living in Phuket for a month now, with two more to go. Phuket is a peninsula connected to the mainland by a small bridge; technically an island, but the second largest population center in Thailand after Bankok. We had taken a vacation from our vacation, to revel in the damp neon chaos of the legendary city for about a week. The night life, and the city itself, was but a bonus, secondary objective to our intended purpose.
We wanted to get traditional tattoos from Buddhist monks.
Granted, Buddhist monks don’t have tattoo parlors in Bankok, or anywhere. Even the typical images and ideas associated with monks sharply contrast with those relating to tattoo culture. Nonetheless, several sects have practiced this tradition for a long time, and still use traditional methods of tattooing themselves, and others. We did some research as to where we could go, and how we could get there, but information was sparse. No tour buses, no official website, just a few first-hand accounts. We figured, if they could find it, so could we.
In Bankok, Trav and I set ourselves on meeting locals, and through that we could get contacts and info. Language was indeed a barrier, but many Thais speak English well enough, and we had learned enough Thai to get around. Learn the who, what, where, when, why and how in ANY language, and a whole new world opens up, in more ways than one. We met some girls at a bar/club (yes, MET them, and while prostitution is legendary in Bankok, it is not the only way to meet girls, although a popular way) and fortunately (before the buzz kicked in) we secured travel arrangements.
We get up, and still on a semi-drunken adrenaline rush, I get my backpack, coffee and we head to the streets. Trav’s friend, Om, and her “relative” were waiting by a small taxi. Om speaks English well enough, so she comes with us as a translator. Taking a taxi for a 2-3 hour trip may seem excessive, but many taxi drivers are willing to act as “personal tour busses and guides.” If one wanted to travel clear across Thailand and back, it wouldn’t be hard to find a driver to make arrangements with, as we did.
“Ok man, this temple is a few hours outside of the city, so you’ll have time to rest on the way.” I think he notices my happy-go-lucky delirium. Rest? Hell no. I had walked around Bankok for a couple of days, seen the day-life and night-life, and it still dazes me. Again, another story, another time.
The towering pinnacles of the city slowly faded to vast, open countryside. We sped past small towns set amidst clusters of trees, with no end in sight. As the distance increased, so too did the electricity of the city. My delirium eventually transformed into a dream, until the car slowed down and turned into the temple.
One of the Many Buddhist Temples in Thailand.
“Dude, we’re here. You were OUT man!”
I rubbed my eyes. “What time is it?”
“We’ve been driving for two hours. We’re here, lets do this.”
Trav, Om, and I get out, and take shots of canned coffee as we walk up. The temple itself is much different than the lavish, ornate temples in the city. Trees envelope the stone buildings, flowers, grass and bushes grow where they feel like. No gift-shops, no tour busses, no “fun-fact” signs. Om tells us it is a local temple, not for tourists. Funny, I thought, aren’t WE tourists.
“No, tourists can come. But you are the first farangs (foreigners) that I know who ask to come here. Long drive, temples in city are closer, more flashy, easier.”
Trav and I soak it all in. The temple isn’t set in a jungle, mind you, but rather in an area of woodland in the countryside. The temple itself, and the adjacent buildings, are reminiscent of old, European churches, with a Thai flavor. I see a few monks in saffron robes walking around, with locals in shorts scattered about.. Om is talking with some of them, and turns to Trav and I.
“To get tattoos, you must give offering to the temple, I show you.”
We walk to a small building, where some children and locals are preparing round baskets filled with flowers, incense, canned coffee, and packs of cigarettes. Trav and I are somewhat taken aback by the contents. I mean, coffee and cigs? Really?
“You very lucky, famous monk from the north is here today, he will tattoo you. You buy one of these, and present it to him for respect. Then he tattoo you.”
The baskets cost about $10 USD. Charitable donation and a tattoo rolled into one? Good deal.
I already have a tattoo on my shoulder. Trav has none, so he is much more anxious then I am. Sure, a tattoo gun is one thing, this is a little more….archaic. I look closer at the monks, and notice most of their bodies are covered in them. I look at the locals, and most have them too, maybe a sleeve, or a leg, but everyone has tattoos. I look at Trav, and notice the apprehension draped across his face.
“Don’t worry, its just pain for a bit, all these guys got ‘em all over their bodies, you’re just getting a couple.”
He gives me a sideways glare, as if to say “speak for yourself.”
We get the baskets, and follow Om and a few locals to an alcove on the side of the main temple. A monk is sitting at the back, surrounded by local men in shorts and pants, their torsos variously tattooed in different stages. One young man is seated before the monk, facing away and hunched over. The monk is tattooing his back with what looks like a long, wooden, old-fashioned fountain pen, with two sharp spikes at the tip. He holds it much akin to how one would hold a pool-stick, and jabbing his back in the same motion as hitting a cue ball.
The romantic fantasy and the painful reality have merged.
Such is the life of a traveler.”
I went first. I wanted to reassure Trav, and as I have had work done before, I was somewhat prepared (somewhat). A tattoo gun is one thing. A metal spike jabbed into my back 1,000 + times? Carpe Diem.
I walked between the two rows of seated, shirtless men to the monk, bowed, kneeled (out of respect, not worship) and lay my basket before him. I looked up and met his eyes.
I have had mystical experiences in my life, and this is one of them. I feel naked, he sees right through me, right into me, and….he smiles. His eyes have so much power and depth, like a crystal-clear lake of unimaginable depth. Not a conquering, forceful power, but this intense power of…love. It is the only way I can describe it. He smiles, beams rather, and asks me something. After a minute of gesturing and laughing, he calls over one of the shirtless, tattooed men. The man shows me his back, which in this context, can be likened to a book of images to choose from. I wanted the monk to choose for me, and he chose one I will call “8 directions.” It looks like a mariners compass, except in Thai script, and is intended to protect travelers. Sounds good to me.
I sit before the monk, and lean forward. The men seated to my side gently hold and stretch the skin of my back. I feel two swipes, like a paintbrush drawing a cross, and it begins.
It hurts, like a tiny monkey with a tiny knife repeatedly stabbing my back, relentlessly. But the endorphins and mindset kick in, and I try to meditate with it, not to separate myself from the pain, but to feel it completely. Again…Carpe Diem.
My Buddhist Tattoo of 8 Directions (Top) & Hanuman (Bottom).
Suffice it to say, it was over before I knew it. He had done it freehand, no stencils, just those two swipes as guides. It is part of their unique tradition, to tattoo themselves and others, for reasons that could take up a whole other article. It is beautiful, and I feel wonderful; endorphins, lack of sleep, mystical experiences, and something to show for it. I ended up getting another later that afternoon, by an apprentice monk, watched and supported Trav go through his tattoo trials (which in hindsight is hilarious), and sat around the temple with the resident monks, smoking cigs, drinking coffee, and talking about women.
I’m not shitting you.
However, space and length is of the essence, so I plan on making a Part II of this story. Stay tuned as the time I spent there has set a tone for my life since, and I am more than willing and excited to share the experiences, in a huge part to encourage and give insight for others to draw from for their own travels.
It is said that one can see the entire cosmos in a single drop of water. In turn, I believe an entire life of travel can be seen in a single inspiring trip, and thus, I intend to draw from my first to give perspective on travel, as opposed to tourism, to other current and future travelers.
Carpe Diem, thanks for reading!