Tattoos – Getting Free Bamboo-Style Thai Tattoos Done By A Monk

Getting tattoos in Thailand is part of the experience and, before I came, I had virgin skin whereas now I’m pretty much covered. Just make sure you are ready for the commitment’; getting one tattoo always leads to getting three more. There is a temple about an hour away from Bangkok called, Wat Bang Phra. I found a taxi driver that spoke decent English and arranged for him to pick me up early the next morning, so I could get there at 8am. I don’t remember exactly what I paid but it was less than 2,000 baht ($66US).

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For that he drove me there, translated for me, waited around for a few hours while I got my tattoo, took me to dinner, then drove me back home. The tattoo itself is free but you are required to buy cigarettes and flowers as a donation for the upkeep of the temple for 70 baht ($2US). I know it’s a bit random to buy cigarettes – for a monk – but this is Thailand. The Monks only tattoo men; as a female you get a tattoo with clear oil that disappears after a few days and still get the blessing and protection. You start off by choosing a tattoo from a big binder; most people are encouraged to get the standard one – for protection and good luck – on their upper back as their first.

I chose to get two that day and, it turns out, that’s all I could handle anyways. It was painful and I mean really painful! Imagine getting stabbed by a pin 6,000 times and never getting used to it. The tattoos are done with traditional bamboo sticks and a homemade ink – a mixture of palm oil, Chinese ink and possibly snake venom. The needles are reused and sanitized only by dipping them into some alcohol for a second. In retrospect, it wasn’t the most sanitary. The only good news is there’s never been a report of someone getting HIV in Thailand from bamboo needles since there is no reservoir like normal tattoo needles have. After getting the tattoo the head monk sits you down, then performs a sacred ‘kata’ that is supposed to seal in the magic and protection of your new tattoo. It was a really spiritual experience for me even though it wasn’t my intention.

I ended up donating an additional 1,000 baht to the monastery. The monk gave me a list of rules to keep, mainly not going around thinking I’m now invincible – because of my protection tattoos – and a random one about not spitting into a toilet, something I haven’t done since – just in case. If you’re thinking about getting a tattoo in Thailand, I would only recommend going to the temple if you want the monastery experience. Even though the tattoo was technically free, by the time you add up the donations and taxi fare, I could have just paid for the same tattoo somewhere else. If you’re in Koh Tao I would highly recommend getting a tattoo done by Bu at Siam Tattoo, which is up the hill from the Muay Thai gym. Bu does the best bamboo tattoos in Thailand and is one of the few people in the world that can do shading with it. Phuket also has some really good tattoo shops. Golden Needle is very well known for quality full-color pieces and sleeves but there are many other good ones as well. Prices are about 50% – 75% less than what you would pay back home. Be careful when negotiating prices, however, as it’s not worth saving a few dollars and getting subpar or rushed work. Instead ask what they charge for an hourly rate and base your financial decision off of that instead.

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