When I boarded a plane destined for Vietnam I could only imagine what I would be met with on the other side. My insides felt like a ball of wool tangled up with treads of excitement, fear and anxiousness. If you had told me then that in 3 months time I would find myself face-down in a hut getting tattooed with a bamboo stick by two Thai men as they sang along to Bob Marley, I probably would have laughed. But since life is an endless comedy of surprises sure enough I found myself in that very predicament.
I began my journey with an empty backpack and a mission. My mission was, like many travellers, to experience life in another part of the world. I had made the decision prior to leaving Vancouver that I would immerse myself in the many rich cultures woven into the fabric of South East Asia. For me Asia was a full body experience; my tongue tasted many delicious flavours, my nose filled with endless flagrant aromas, my eyes witnessed sites no camera could capture and my body, coincidentally, found itself on the other end of a very sharp rod of bamboo.
I have always been fascinated by the art of tattooing, I myself have 4. So I should have known, or at the very least expected that I would end up getting tattooed in Asia. Especially since I know better than anyone how impulsive I can be.
Being a fan of the art of tattoo I knew a fair bit about its history, and how basically it all started with a piece of bamboo. As it turns out it is very difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of the bamboo tattoo because it is an extremely old practice with a history that is all but lost (sadly history is not as permanent as tattoo ink). Not surprisingly, like pasta, many countries claim to be the birthplace of this practice. However historians believe that the art form actually originated in the Khmer around 3000 years ago. This is because they have found mummies in the Philippines with, incredibly, still visible tattoos. I guess my mom is right, I will take my ink to the grave (if not further).
In Thailand tattoos and the art of tattooing is extremely popular and has a longstanding history. As I ventured across the country I saw many dragons, flowers, tribal designs, and those were just on the tourists. Bamboo tattooing in Thailand began in Buddhist temples where monks received religious text tattoos from their grand masters. These tattoos were believed to hold great power and thought to protect the wearer from evil spirits. Today the Sanskrit sutras, kata and mantras of the past still exist and are still tattooed in the traditional way, with bamboo. Unfortunately the art of bamboo tattooing is dying out thanks in part to the introduction of the much faster and easier to learn tattoo machine. But not is all lost. Thanks to increasing interest from the western world, travellers (like myself evidently) are finding themselves drawn to the ancient artform even going as far as getting one themselves.
This is how I found myself face-down in a hut, with the two Thai men (that looked more like boys if I’m being honest) hovering over me as they (one held my skin tight while the other tattooed) carefully tapped a Thai bodhi leaf design into my back with a thin piece of bamboo. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by how little it hurt as the needle was steadily tapped into my skin over and over again. The process only took an hour, but my memory of the experience will certainly last a lifetime (fittingly just like the tattoo).
Tattoos are permanent (no surprise there). For some they are a form of expression, for others a documentation of a specific point of time or person in their lives. I went to South East Asia to experience another world and left with a little piece of tradition. Will I regret any of my tattoos someday? Maybe, but there is one tattoo I will never regret; the tattoo that connected me to a culture and its rich history.