The Siam Bangkok forms part of a new generation of hotels offering travel experiences that provide one-off cultural insights through art, community and spiritual ritual that you simply won’t find on a postcard.
I am lucky enough to participate in a ‘Sak Yant’ tattoo ceremony, in the other-worldly Opium Spa at The Siam hotel in Bangkok. A sacred and protective talisman inked into the skin, Sak Yant is a time-honoured, two-thousand-year-old ritual and blessing, conducted by a Sak Yant master, otherwise known as an ‘Arjan’ – who has undergone years of training and spiritual scholarship into its magical language, cosmology and symbolism.
As a recipient, you are unable to choose a design based on the aesthetic, you have to communicate exactly what it is you need protecting from, and how you place yourself in human society. It’s then up to the Arjan to bridge the gap between the transcendent and present in a literal act of blind faith. The ‘Wai Kru’ (meaning ‘honour thy teacher’) ritual in which the tattoo is applied – by tapping and piercing the skin with a bamboo needle inked with a mix of charcoal and snake venom – is beautiful and ineffable. I’m someone who is proud to sport some tattoos myself, yet I wince in unison with the recipient as each tap happens; the method of application is somewhat rudimentary. At one point midway through, tears roll down the recipient’s face, although he later claims it wasn’t because of the pain, but more that he was caught up in the moment. It’s easy to understand why. Sweetly fragranced incense fills the air and the Arjan and his disciples chant intoxicating katas and mantras while passing on advice on how to enrich life. The physical manifestation is beautiful too – a geometrical, five-line ‘Hah Taew’, each line with its own meaning and magical spell. The first is to ward off evil, the second aligns the stars, the third protects from curses and ill-will, the fourth invigorates positive energy aligned to health and wealth and the last line is for virility and luck in love, of course.
Admittedly this version of Sak Yant is also the best that money can buy, considering the sumptuous surroundings here and the meticulous attention to detail in which experiences are planned at The Siam, but nevertheless, the whole ceremony is wrapped in local history, Buddhist lore, mysticism and Thai culture, respectful of authenticity, but welcoming of outsiders to take part.
The alternative of course would be to have it done at a local temple. Arjan Boo, who presides over The Siam Sak Yant, is not a monk, and contrary to popular belief, nor should he be. The tattoo and the ritual around it are traditionally executed by a layperson. But as Sak Yant grew in popularity – along with Buddhism – more dexterous and perhaps savvy monks took up the practice as a way of generating income for their temples. This is how pious Thai Buddhists came to believe that the most genuine and merit-worthy way to receive a Sak Yant is from a monk.
If that’s the way you want it, or in my case, want to witness it, The Siam can arrange that too, via their partnership with expert experience-makers Smiling Albino. The hotel knows full well that their guests’ experience of Bangkok expands beyond the boundaries of the property’s grounds.
I’m taken to Wat Bang Phra, a temple just under an hour outside Bangkok, known for its powerful Sak Yant ceremonies. It’s a far cry from the luxury of The Siam – a rather grubby setting in fact, not anywhere I’d dream of getting a tattoo – but it’s popular, judging by the throng of thousands of locals there in the early hours of the morning before first light. They’ve come from far and wide, making a pilgrimage to top up the magic of their tattoos, add new scripture, or pierce their virgin flesh. Here, it is a large chorus of monks who chant and pray; and the enthusiasm and energy build as revellers join in, together moving into a trancelike state known as ‘Khong Khuen’, that I can only align to evangelical-churchgoers talking in tongues. Arms flail, mouths wail and the atmosphere is electric, albeit peculiar. They kick up dirt from the floor – the dust mixes with the thick incense smoke – and it’s almost as if they’re possessed by the smoggy air and their respective tattoos, ones far more elaborate than those I saw at The Siam. Here there are whole backs etched with gods and deities, tigers and crocodiles and the sacred five lines look more like a hundred. The event reaches its peak and we are sprayed with holy water from a hose to send us on our way. As I leave, a man steps up to me and rubs my ears, thinking that he needs to break my trance and bring me back down to earth as they have done for centuries.
For Smiling Albino, travel means participating in – not observing – culture. They strive to create unparalleled experiences that are unique, that go behind the scenes and are impossible to replicate. Other ways in which they collaborate with The Siam are to create ‘back-alley’ tours to hidden corners of the royal district of Dusit, where the hotel is located, taking guests on a journey that is immersive, sustainable and community-oriented. They call it “luxury meets local”. Their hosts pride themselves in helping visitors to explore the city’s landmarks, neighbourhoods, or creative districts filled with eclectic hole-in-the-wall galleries and trendy dive bars. Guests can opt to explore the spiritual and mystic side of Bangkok too, through its shrines and art.
All this is before returning you to The Siam at the end of each day, where the cultural immersion continues in luxury. I opted for a Thai cooking class, and, ambitiously, a Muay Thai boxing lesson with the personal trainer of the Thai royal family which knocked me for six. Hanging up my gloves, I made haste for the 25-metre riverside pool to relax with a delicious cocktail, while soaking up the atmosphere by the 150-year-old teak house on its grounds. Imbibing in culture has never been this fabulous.