I first visited The Siam in October 2011, when Krissada Sukosol Clapp and his wife Melanie gave me a tour of the hotel while it was still very much under construction. Even then it was clear from the rising edifice that in spite of the relatively small number of guest suites and villas that it was to be a grand undertaking.
Nine months later, with The Siam still in the final phase of construction, the ambitious project, directed by Bensley Design Studios, was nothing short of stunning, with abundant use of black-painted steel, large glass panels, and white walls to allow plenty of natural light in and to provide a simple black-and-white background for over a thousand antiques from Krissada’s personal collection.
When The Siam finally opened in 2012, after three years of construction, a proud but weary Krissada told me, “It turns out that building a hotel is like building a little town.”
One corner of the compact but sumptuous fitness centre is given to a muay thai training ring, surrounded by old photos of Thai fighters from nearly a century ago. The Siam’s muay thai training package, which includes boxing instruction along with a special diet and massage programme, has proved to be a solid success. And so now the town that is The Siam has integrated another ancient Thai tradition with the recent opening of a specially consecrated space devoted to the inking of sacred tattoos.
Known as sak yan in Thai (and popularly spelt “sak yant” even though the “t” is always silent), the magico-religious designs in black ink can be traced back to their use among animistic Tai tribes in southwestern China and northwestern Vietnam two millennia ago. Along the way the intricate patterns, which run the gamut from purely geometric sigils to vivid animal or deity figures, picked up Brahmanist and Buddhist content as well.
Less than six months old, The Siam’s sak yant programme has been personally guided by its general manager, Jason Friedman, who received his first sacred ink designs from Pathum Thani’s needle master Ajahn Noo Ganpai, famed for having tattooed Hollywood star Angelina Jolie in 2003 and 2004. Friedman witnessed an increasing number of guests who wanted these sacred tattoos but were unsure of where to get them. After organizing sak yant expeditions for several guests (most notably Cara Delevingne and Michelle Rodriguez), he began looking for a more direct way to connect disciple and master.
About a year ago, The Siam’s restaurant manager,Nitisak Jirakitanan, took Friedman to Wat Bang Phra, a temple in Nakhon Chaisi with a strong sak yant lineage propagated by the late abbot Luang Pho Poen, the most famous and influential sak yant master of the 20th century.
Poen ordained at Wat Bang Phra at the age of 25 and studied with abbot Luang Pu Him Inthasoto, an accomplished sak yant master. In 1953, feeling he needed further withdrawal, renunciation, and solitary meditation, Luang Pho Poen went on foot to a remote area of Kanchanaburi Province on the Myanmar-Thailand border.
At the time, villagers in the area were beleaguered by wild tigers that had mauled or killed several locals. After Luang Pho Poen arrived in their midst and learned of the villagers’ predicament, he offered mantras and sak yant to protect them. From that point forward, no one who received the monk’s protection was ever attacked by a tiger or other wild animal, earning Luang Pho Poen a powerful reputation as a master of incantations and tattoos.
In Nakhon Chaisi, Jirakitanan introduced to Friedman Ajahn Boo, a former novice monk at Wat Bang Phra who worked out of a small samnak nearby. Ajahn Boo learned the sacred tattoo arts from one of Luang Pho Poen’s chief disciples, Ajahn Somchai, with whom he has travelled to Hong Kong and Singapore to serve the demanding Chinese market.
Friedman ended up receiving sak yant from Ajahn Boo, and was so impressed with the spiritual results that he decided to create a studio for the master at The Siam. Realizing the match between luxury hotel and sak yant might appear unorthodox, even exploitative, The Siam insisted on preserving every aspect of the tradition, including the correct placement of colorful khon masks (believed to protect the space from malevolent spirits), Buddha figures, and other sacred images.
“We consulted with the abbot at Wat Bang Phra to make sure everything was done in the proper way,” says Friedman. “We took no shortcuts and made no compromises.”
Ajahn Boo inks all tattoos by hand using traditional khem sak (tattoo styluses) rather than machines. To address concerns about hygiene, he screws disposable needle tips onto the traditional needle shaft. Sterile ink is consecrated with extensive mantras and other ceremonial practices.
Other than the fact that the studio is air-conditioned (and exceptionally clean), it also mirrors the calm, powerful ambience of any traditional samnak sak yant.
Once tattoos are applied, clients may elect to have them blessed at Wat Bang Phra itself. Fees for sak yant from Ajahn Boo at The Siam run from B30000++ for a smaller design to B60000++ for a larger one. The cost includes tattooing supplies with new needles, offerings for the master, and simultaneous translation between Ajahn Boo and the client.
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