In May of 2018, I traveled to Thailand and Cambodia with My father, brother and sister for our annual family adventure. I do a lot of travel research on instagram as I can find great restaurants and locations that way, often off the beaten path. I believe this is how I came across the Federation Khmer Sak Yant, which is a small organization that does traditional holy tattoos in cambodia. It is located in Siem Reap, which is the main city you stay in while visiting Angkor Wat and the surrounding area.
We went on this trip with Intrepid, whom we had toured with to Peru two years before. Intrepid is fantastic as they always have small groups and focus on giving back to local communities and locally-owned hotels and businesses. You avoid being part of those huge tour groups with big flags leading them like sheep (no offense to sheep).
One day in Siem Reap our plan was to do a cooking class and later go to dinner and a acrobatic show that is put on by an organization that trains underprivileged and homeless youth for free, helping them have purpose and resources while developing their amazing acrobatic talents. Katherine and Ben didn’t feel like going to the lunch cooking class, so dad and I went. It ended up just being us with the chef, and he first took us to the market, getting some of the main ingredients, many of which I had never heard of before. Lots of different types of eggplants, fresh peppercorn, and morning glory which is kind of like the spinach of SE Asia. Then at the cooking class we made an outstanding vegetable soup with a khmer spice base (ginger, lemongrass, many other that i cant remember), fish amok (the national dish of Cambodia) which is like fish sauteed in coconut milk and khmer spice, and morning glory sauteed in garlic which was so delicious. We also made a tapioca and coconut milk desert, but I didn’t get to try that because my appointment at the Federation Khmer Sak Yant was at 3pm. So I left my dad and said I would meet him later for dinner.
I went outside to find a tuk-tuk to take me to this place. The tuk tuk drivers didnt recognize the name of the place so said they could take me to a much better tattoo studio- i told them it’s ok, i have an appointment here. So for 4 dollars we drove outside the main city and tried to find this place- it ended up being behind a construction sight down a dirt road that was almost too hard for the tuk tuk to drive down- a bit sketchy but this is how locals live- dirt floors, mostly outside as it is beyond humid and hot at all times. But we found it, and my driver gave his number to on of the people there in case I needed a ride back- it would be close to impossible hailing a tuk tuk back just from the road as we were not in a tourist area anymore.
I immediately was met by one of the sak yant artists and said hello, slightly bowing with hands in prayer at my chest as is the custom in cambodia. I wasn’t sure how high to place my hands as I didn’t think the tatttoer was a monk, he was definitely younger than me, but was undoubtedly someone to show respect. They were expecting me, but he was in the middle of tattooing someone else so I would have to hang out until he was done.
I sat down at the table and said hello to the older man who was sitting there. He looked SE Asian, possible Cambodian, but was wearing a polo and khaki shorts and spoke perfect english with a faint accent. He smiled and said hello, and helped to translate as the tattooer brought me the holy books with the sak yant designs, which I was instructed to bow to before opening. I was directed to look through and point out designs that spoke to me, after which the artist would tell me the purpose of the design and what kind of mantra it depicted. I was a bit overwhelmed so after explaining that i wanted something that would fit on my forearm that was for good fortune and health, he suggested a design and I agreed.
He said the tattoo would be $140, and another $20 to pay for the flowers, fruits and incense offerings i would need for the ceremony. This was a bit more than I was expecting, as you can get a normal tattoo in Cambodia for $10-$20! But this tattoo was done by a holy practitioner and included a blessing from the master of the federation. Also I’m a white lady from America. So I had them call my tuk tuk driver so i could go get more cash from an atm, and gave $20 to their cousin who went to the market to get the flowers and fruits for the offering.
For about 3-4 hours, I stayed in this small, partly outdoor area while the other young man received his tattoos. I talked for a bit with the older man at the table, and found out he was there with two of his students from San Francisco. He was an MMA coach and the two young men were his fighters/students, and they were in the region for a big MMA convention. The older man’s name was Kenya, and he was originally from Cambodia. He was incredibly calm and serene, and was so nice to talk to while I was in this quite amazing and unfamiliar situation. His one student, lets call him Adam, getting the tattoo, was getting two designs on each shoulder blade. His other student was actually dating one of the federation’s family members, who was an actress and stunt performer from Cambodia. She was on the other side of the space with her boyfriend putting a henna sak yant on him- he wasn’t allowed to get a real sak yant yet, not until his coach approved it. The other student getting the tattoo had a thai sak yant of a tiger in the middle of his back, gotten the year before. He must’ve been a bit more advanced in his practice, being allowed to get a sak yant. I believe the federation (which also has a martial arts branch) traditionally does sak yants for cambodians and martial artists, and also for foreigners like me who just admire the culture and are lucky enough to pay for the experience of getting a holy tattoo and blessing even though they are not part of the community and culture.
The family who lived there had a dog who had recently had a litter of puppies that were maybe a few months old. Fully grown dogs and cats in the places we visited were not especially friendly. They were kept because they had jobs to do, not often for companionship. So the adult dog was not friendly, but her puppies had not yet learned their place in the world and were very friendly and adorable. They played, napped, explored, fought with their siblings, and napped again. It was really fun to finally interact with some friendly puppies so I was a very happy girl.
The MMA student Adam was finished with the first design on his left shoulder, so was able to take a break before finishing the other side. He was a bit worn out from sitting through it, and looked a little woozy. Fortunately they had a basket with coca-colas on the table so I told him to keep his blood sugar up and drink one- I had experience with that feeling. He felt a bit better after that. The artist then applied the stencil and we all looked at it to make sure it was even to the other design on his left shoulder blade. He then took another hour or so to finish the tattoo (hand poked with a metal wand-like object about a foot and a half long, with a fresh needle screwed into one end.) I could see on his face he was losing adrenaline and feeling the pain. But he powered through it (big tattoos are hard for anyone, even MMA fighters, and men are not as tough when it comes to enduring pain as women are.) Throughout this time I talked with Kenya, observed the family members go about their daily life (one had a new baby), played with the puppies, walked around the property, admired the altar, watched the other student get his henna tattoo from his girlfriend, and just was incredibly present for probably the longest time in my life, nothing to read or look at on my airplane-mode phone, but not bored in any way whatsoever. In a place I’d never been before, completely different from my home country, city and culture, and just soaking it all up.
Then it was my turn. From getting in and out of the tuk tuk earlier, my fabulous black cotton wrap pants i bought at a memorial sight the day before had ripped to hell. It was also around 90 degrees with 99% humidity. I had taken off my sandals and walked around the dirt floor, but put them back on when i used the squat toilet, washing my hands in a big bucket with hose water. This was just normal for Cambodia. So here I am, perpetually shining with sweat and sunscreen and dirt, ripped up wrap pants tied around each thigh. Ready to walk down red carpet.
The artist set up the new needle and ink, and remarked to me I shouldn’t keep my cell phone in my sports bra because of radiation ( these lovely shreds of fabric i called pants didn’t have pockets) so I set it down on the pallet nearby. then he started to put the stencil on my arm- i stopped him and asked if he was going to clean my arm first maybe? He said “oh, do you have sunscreen on? That can prevent the stencil from staying on. Good thinking”
“Yes…sunscreen. That’s why I would like it if you cleaned my arm before sticking a needle into it repeatedly.”
So he cleaned it then proceeded. What kind of bacterial EDM festival had been happening on my arm, that he was about to just starting tattooing on?? Otherwise everything was fine, and I of course wasn’t expecting the sanitation practices of the US.
Before beginning that tattoo he wrote down a mantra that I was to repeat in my head for the entire time I was getting the tattoo. I was instructed to kneel before the altar, and was given 9 incense sticks. I was to make a wish with each one, and place it on the altar. Then I went to the pallet to the side of the altar and was given my tattoo, all while repeating the mantra to myself in my head, to ensure the strength of the symbols he was inscribing in my skin.
It took about 45 minutes. After it was done, i joined Adam at the other pallet where the Sak Yant master would give us our blessing. we handed him baskets with the lotus flowers and fruits, and sat before him in prayer. He sprinkled us with holy water while chanting and anointing us with flower petals. Our sak yant experience was now complete.
I was really fortunate to have gone on a day when Kenya, Adam and their group were also there- they were so nice and also helpful as kind of guides in the experience, as they had ties to cambodia but also America. After everything was finished, I asked them if I could get a ride back with them to their hotel, where I could get a tuk tuk to my hotel. They agreed and i was so happy I didn’t have to find my own way home in the pitch black, as it was after 8pm by now. (I had turned my cellular service on earlier to tell my dad I would have to miss dinner- and the circus!).
I kept my tattoo clean, washing it with filtered water and soap often, protecting it with aquaphor I had brought from home. It healed very quickly as most hand poked tattoos did. A few days later on a home-stay the father of the home remarked that while he didn’t know exactly what the tattoo said, it was in both a khmer dialect (balese) and Sanskrit. Camboida has a history of switching back and forth from Hinduism and Buddhism, so most monuments and buildings have references to both. And it would then makes sense my tattoo Incorporated two different languages and symbology.
I love to travel to different countries to get out of my comfort zone, as cliche as that sounds. I feel like learning as much as you can about other cultures and human beings make you realize you live in a bubble. You owe your life to everything that has come before it- you are owed nothing. You own nothing. You are a child of the planet, existing because of pure chance. It is a miracle. these experiences help me to put my existence in the world in context. This day in Cambodia was one I want to remember forever, which is why i wanted to write it down. I don’t believe in god, but I believe I am blessed, and am determined to recognize my blessings and be thankful for them.