Thailand in Two Days

I arrived at midnight on the other side of the world. Somehow, the fact that one can board a plane in one place and be transported to a completely new reality in 28 hours is still so excitingly novel to me. Stepping out of the cab and into this quiet little oasis was such a relief (Thank you to Abbey, trusted friend and travel partner, for the Shanti Lodge recommendation). My body felt tired and hungry from the trip but my mind was a bit wired and confused about the time change. The sweet man who checked me in made me the most amazing tropical fruit and homemade coconut milk yogurt bowl ever to be created.  

Shanti Lodge

The humble accommodations were perfect and I rested easy on the quiet back street somewhere in the chaos of crazy Bangkok. I woke the next morning feeling grateful and floaty and in slight disbelief of where I was. I spent the morning barefoot with my coffee and Thai omelet watching the street through the green leaves that camouflaged me from the city outside.

A much needed yoga session on the roof amongst the orchids and other tamed jungle plants. Then off to find the ferry to visit Wat Pho temple with my new Canadian yogi friends.

entrance to Wat Pho temple

Reclining Buddha

Buddha toes!

Thai massage

Wat Arun temple across the river
After the temple and coconut soup, the girls and I split up for some Thai massages. Oh how I had been waiting for this day! I was assigned to a nice plump woman with a sweet round face. I changed into a faded smock shirt and fisherman pants and laid down for 1.5 hours of pleasure/torture. My back cracked in ways I didn't know were possible. It was slightly painful at times but amazing. My only goals for the two days had been to eat as much as possible and get at least one massage a day. So far so good.

I floated back down the river and somehow found my way through the maze of markets back to my hotel where my new friends and I shared a spicy noodle meal and debated over Ashtanga yoga. Jason, an American ex-pat living in Thailand for 10 years as a massage therapist, joined our conversation, which drifted from yoga to mediation, to massage school, to sailing, to tattoos. He showed us his body which was covered in Buddhist prayers and symbols and said he was going to see his monk in the morning to finish tattooing his back in the traditional 'tapping' method of Sak Yant. This technique has always fascinated me so I decided I would join him for the adventure and watch how this ancient art was done.

We left around 5am, taking a cab into the main vein of the city. In the early morning light there were already people everywhere, setting up their stands for the day, hanging clothes, preparing foods. We breakfasted on mandarin juice and fried coconut milk pastries and hopped in a mini van headed for the central region of Sing-buri. After leaving the city, there wasn't much to see. Central Thailand is as flat as Kansas, but instead of the endless corn fields, the view is quilted with patches of rice paddies. I don't think many tourists bother with this part of the country. A couple hours later we are dropped on the side of the road and each jump on the back of a moto taxi that takes us to Wat Ko Poon.

The place is different than I had imagined. Simpler. More 'lived in'. More approachable than the grand Wat Pho had been. There were at least ten people already waiting around when we arrived. All there for tattoos. One of the monks said that it had been a late night and that Luang Pi Pant was still sleeping. It was about 8am and the sun was already hot. I wandered through the grounds and along the river and back to a shady spot where Jason was sitting with a group of boys and dogs. There were dogs everywhere. And roosters and cats too. And monks waking and bathing. We waited for a couple hours until our sleepy monk came out of his bungalow and down the stairs with a smile as bright as the sun and a menagerie of scraggly dogs at his heels. He came around and greeted everyone, laughing and making jokes that I didn't understand. He took a modest bath, watered some plates and blessed a couple of cars (which I was told is quite common) then the crowd ascended the stairs to his kuti.

The place was an absolute mess, dirty with years of hording strange things, and pet fur and the smell of dog piss and sweat. Twenty Thai bodies covered in inked prayers piled into the monk's room as the dogs wandered through making themselves comfortable and a clumsy kitten climbed over the mountains of things piled everywhere. The ceremonies began with the passing around of a donation plate and a blessing.The funds raised from the tattoos are used to fund the local school which is housed on the temple grounds and to restore the crumbling temple structures.

A nervous young woman went first. Her back was wrapped in a green towel turned black and a man sat on each side to hold her skin taunt as a monk cannot touch a woman. Luang Pi dipped a stick into black ink and made a quick grid just below the nape of her neck. He placed a tissue under his hand so as not to touch the skin and began tapping gently. This was the girl's first tattoo and as tradition goes, she was given the 'nine spires' which are meant to protect and bring good luck to the wearer. His hand is steady and moves with a confident ease that comes with 25 years of experience in the art. Luang Pi is one of the longest standing tattoo apprentices under the Master Hwlong Por Phern and has earned much respect throughout the country for his impeccable art and honest demeanor.
There was much interaction from the crowd. Much laughter and joke making and general merriment.  I felt comfortable with these people as we found ways to communicate in foreign words and exaggerated gestures. The smell of piss soon became unnoticeable and the air filled  instead with stories and tales of how these bodies came to be covered in black beseechings.

The first tattoo was done in less than twenty minutes and the girl bowed her head as the monk whispered a blessing and blew the magic into the ink. He kept looking at me, smiling, inviting me to come closer so I could see better. Several other women went and received the same nine spires. I wasn't there to get a tattoo, just to observe. But as the hours passed I became consumed by the energy of the place. And when the monk turned to me and asked if I was next, I simply smiled, nodded and took a seat in front of him. "Why not? It's only skin, only a body," I reasoned silently. "When else am I going to be in this situation? Surrounded by these beautiful Thai people, in the dingy home of this smiling monk." I laughed at myself as I sat down. The extent of my spontaneity surprises even me sometimes. Oh sweet impulsive decisions, how you have impetuously shaped my life! You may perceive this as either a strength or flaw of character but frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way. 

My friend, Jason explained that I was traveling to Bhutan the next day and that I liked the round, eight pointed star instead of the nine spires. There was some conversation that I didn't understand. Apparently he wanted to give me the spires as those are always the first of the sak yant. Typically the monk will decide what and where and how big the tattoo is so I was prepred to let him do what he felt best. But after a short bit and a lot of 'Bhutan.." "...Bhutan," he agreed to do the Paed Tidt.  He dipped the bottom of a tin can in ink and placed it between my shoulder blades, directly behind my heart. The pain was minimal at first but by the end my hands were sweating and I was singing a quiet Om to myself to try to stay calm. After a short twenty minutes I was told to hold my hands together and close my eyes. I heard a mumbled prayer behind me and felt a cool breath across my back. And that was it. I had been blessed.

The Paed Tidt represents the noble eightfold path and provides protection in all eight cardinal directions. It is especially powerful for travelers as it ensures safety and abundance on journeys. I assume this is the reason that Luang Pi decided it was appropriate for this to be my first tattoo. There are eight Buddhas represented by the three stacked ovals and contains eight mantras written in a concentric circle in the center.

"The noble eightfold path. Described as the way of leading the cessation of suffering and achievement of self-awakening. The traditional Buddhist tattoos are referred to as Sak Yant. Sak as the meaning ‘to tap’ or ‘to tattoo’. The Yant is the circular centre of the tattoo, representations of wholeness and concentration. The yant represents the unconscious mind and the outer eight points of direction are the physical universe. Each point has a hook at the bottom, representing some sort of danger. If you look at the point from plane view, it is believed to be viewed as a coil. Known as Unaalom, as each coil unravels it represents levels of the unconscious searching for resolution. The straight line is resolution in waking life and connection to the unawake self, it is considered the path to Nirvana." 

with my friend, Poo after our tattoos

 With the women finished, Luang Pi started on the men. His touch was noticibely stronger with them. And you will see in the photos that the ink of the men's tattoos is much darker than the women's due to how hard and deep the needle punctures the skin. Looks far more painful, judging by the faces of the men. I was grateful for his delicate touch on me.

that disarming smile, I will never forget you
So, in a matter of only 48 hours, Thailand has changed my body forever. Never, in all my travels, has my heart been won over so quickly by a people. I will be back, beautiful Thailand, 'Land of the Smile.'