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  • Writer's pictureDeb Smithers

Sak Yant tattoo - An Ancient Tradition.

Yantra Tattooing

Tradition Cambodian tattooing on a mans back. Gently covered in Lotus flowers.
Pic by Bamboo Sak Yant

I admit, that tattoos are not desired by all, it's often you either love them or hate them. I guess from my hometown of Byron Bay, tattoos and piercings are just normal, it has always been this way here, unlike these days it has become such a swanky and fashionable thing to do. There are not many who haven't tried it, and not many who can say that it is not addictive, after one you are already pondering the details of your next piece of art.

My tattoos have always come with a great deal of thought, considering significant meanings and representations, but none will I ever regret as they all have their story. Many of my tattoos have been done in Southeast Asia, there is so much tradition, beauty, and inspiration to receive something magnificent. Having had my most meaningful tattoo experience only months ago in Cambodia. It is where I received my first Sak Yon tattoo, and there was another one to tick off the 'To do list'.

Sak Yon is an ancient practice of traditional religion and magic practiced within the container of Buddhism. These tattoos are considered sacred and have been in practice for more than 2,000 years. Receiving a traditional tattoo is believed to bring peace and happiness, which is enough in itself. For those seeking even more potent magical powers, additional ritual reciting is often required. The ritual words in Pali from beginning to end, no matter how long the tattoo takes to finish.

I had studied this ancient tradition of tattooing followed by a blessing from the honorable Master which involves a traditional ceremony to have your body and tattoo blessed. I had been told of a man on the outskirts of Siem Reap, he had been a Buddhist for 15 years and now was the respected Sak Yon master, allowing many to train under him and study his expertise. I traveled to the province in search of a respected student he had raised, and taught, for he would be the one who would design the tattoo in relation to its meaning and significance.

% cambodian men receiving  certificates . All very tattooed . The master wears red.
The master and his students

A cambodian man sitting on the ground practicing his Sak Yon tattooing skill.
At last, he is found!

The traditional Cambodian Sak Yon (or Sak Yant in Thai) sacred tattooing has been a part of spiritual practice and traditional life, long before the existence of Angkor Wat. Each symbol and each position provide special meaning and protection.

Sak Yon tattoos are typically a combination of Buddhist and Hindu sacred images, Pali script, Buddhist Sutras, sacred geometry, and other unique symbols and designs in Cambodia and central Thailand. They use the old Khmer script that was used in the Khmer Empire and it is said that it evolved from the ancient animist tattoos and grew when Hindu and Buddhist religions came to South East Asia.

Traditionally Cambodians get Sak Yon tattoos for many purposes including protection from dangers, attracting love, bringing success, bringing power to life, strengthening connections to the Buddha, increasing beneficial relationships and removing obstacles.

It is a combination of Tattoo design, Prayers administered as the tattoo is being created, and a final blessing to charge and activate it with the power of the Sak Yant Masters. There are specific Sak Yon symbols for almost any purpose and your design will not only be powerful, but beautiful.

Tattooed men practising Sak Yon tattooing.
Photo 'Federation Khmer SakYant '

Yantra tattoos are believed to be magic and bestow mystical powers, protection, and good luck. There are three main effects of the Yantra tattoo. 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, and another type 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.

There are five main Sak Yon tattoo rules to follow after the tattoo and blessing have been performed, but for a monk, there can be over one hundred rules. Failure to follow these simple rules will result in the loss of any spiritual power attached to the receiver or the wearer.

The five basic Sak Yon tattoo rules

  • Do not kill another living creature. This includes any sentient being from a human all the way down to the smallest of creatures and insects

  • Do not steal or lie.

  • Do not be unfaithful.

  • Do not become intoxicated.

  • Do not speak ill of your family.

Let's do this!

My experience with designing, applying and blessing this Sak Yon tattoo was nothing short of incredible, and well worth the days spent searching in the Cambodian heat to trying to locate the man himself. Eventually after asking among the locals, and several very well-paid tuk-tuk drivers, he was found in a quaint little room at the front of the family home.

Buddist man placing the design of the Sak Yant tattoo against the body.

We sat together and drank tea while discussing the significance of the tattoo, taking his time to sketch out the design while making me aware of the rules associated with wearing the tattoo. I had decided well before where I wanted the tattoo to be, but as all symbols represent different meanings, they also have rules on where they should be placed on the body. Hence my tattoo had to be positioned above the hips.

The designing took almost an hour and the tattoo about 40 minutes, adding that my tattoos were not large. The next day I could swim as usual and the healing process was very fast. The pain was minimal in comparison to regular tattooing. At the beginning of the session, he writes a chant on a scrap of paper, "Momol Arak Hang" I am to repeat it in my mind until the tattoo is complete. It was a great way to calm you and take your thoughts away. The tattoo is done with a long steel or bamboo needle dipped in ink and punched into the skin.

When the tattoos are complete, he tells me to sit and wait while he collects the gifts for the ceremony.

The traditional blessing must be that of 7 different fruits, 10 lotus flowers, 5 candles, cigarettes and a box of incense, and fondly enough we stopped on the way to pick up a takeaway cappuccino for the master, apparently it was his favorite gift.

We travelled by tuk-tuk to the area of Angkor, passing many fields and I had no idea where we were, I started to get an odd feeling when we turned onto a path that led into denser fields.

The path was lined with old posts that had been decorated with cattle skulls and after some time we arrived at a small old shack hidden away under the trees, with the beautiful smell of incense in the air.

An old farm fence with cow skulls placed on the top of each post following down the path.

Cow skull mounted on a post in a green field.

With our gifts in hand, we enter the pagoda, I am told to place the fruits in the bowl in a certain position, and I am to remove all the petals from the lotus and place them in a basket. I am to light the incense, take them outside, close my eyes and imagine what the significance of the Sak Yant tattoo represents for me.

One the floor of an old wooden hut, a woman sits cross legged and a Sak Yant Master sits behind her performing a blessing.

A womens next adorned with a traditional Sak Yon tattoo in Cambodia

Once finished I was to sit on the wooden floor, crossed-legged in front of the shrine with my back pressing against a small wooden table, close my eyes and here I wait. The master arrives and sits behind the small table. He begins chanting softly and it is mesmerizing. I feel I am being flicked with warm water; it is an experience that is hard to put into words of how surreal it was. He chants louder and I can feel the falling of lotus leaves over my shoulders and to the ground. The perfumed smell of the Lotus is divine. When the ceremony is over, you see him only for a moment as he bows in front of you, holds your hand, smiles and slowly walks away. Hopefully to enjoy that cappuccino.

The price of the Sak Yon tattoo, blessing, fruits and lotus flowers was $150, but indeed the experience was priceless.

Sak Yon tattoo should only ever be applied by a holy man, it is considered extremely disrespectful to get a Tattoo if the person is not trained in the magical traditions of the Sak Yon Tattooing.

The mist over the mountains and temples of Cambodia. Pink sky with a pale mist.

Let us all practice

Love, Kindness, and Gratitude.

Girl facing the month praying and showing her Sak Yant Tattoo.

1 Comment

Unknown member
Sep 09, 2023


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