Sunday, July 7, 2013


I met my wife in 2001 at a party in Bangkok after a sleepless night of travel from Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia.  I was traveling as the personal physician of the iconic movie star, personality, martial artist and lawman, Steven Seagal.  I was yet to become the seasoned jungle-and-bush doctor sitting currently in the middle of a remote Indonesian island.  Back then I was living out another thrilling, yet less dangerous medical career as a Hollywood Doctor to the Stars.

But that story is for another chapter.  The point is that I was in Bangkok in August of 2001 when I first met the woman who would become my wife.

The ultimate Doctor Tattoo (Not mine.  Mine would
have skulls)
At this party, as people do at parties, she asked me what I do for a living.  I told her I was a doctor.  She looked me up and down and shook her head.  I was in ripped jeans and a tight tank top.  My hair had metro-sexual  LA blonde highlights and I was tattooed on both shoulders and a calf.  She shook her head.

“I do not believe you.  You are not a doctor.  You cannot be a doctor."
"Why can't I be a doctor?"
"You have tattoos. Doctors cannot have tattoos.”

She said this with a sense of absoluteness that was culturally unquestionable in her Thailand.  In Thailand, according to her, doctors do not get tattoos.  It is an unwritten rule of conduct.  It was an SAT corollary:  Doctors do not have tattoos.   Erik has tattoos.  Erik is not a doctor.

“How can you say that?” I asked.  “They wear long white coats covered from neck to toe.   They could have tattoos and you would never know it.”
“No.   That is not possible,” she said.  “Thai doctors do not have tattoos.  They cannot have tattoos.”

Another proper medical tattoo you
won't find on a Thai doctor
I can see where this comes from.  I've met and worked with a number of Thai physicians during my years in Bangkok.  They are old school.  Short hair.  Clean pressed shirt.  Always with a tie.  Bad Asian haircut.  Small round glasses.  They have true prestige in Thai society which, unlike my USA, still puts doctors on a pedestal.  Oddly enough (you can research this on your own) there is a higher percentage of transvestite and transsexuals (AKA Ladyboys) in the Thai medical fields than in the general population—which is also exceptionally quite high.  I asked my wife about this.  She said it was okay for doctors to be long as they didn't have tattoos.

Since then I've lived in Thailand for nearly 12 years.  My wife and mother-in-law are Thai.  My children are half Thai.  I've grown to appreciate and stop questioning this sense of unproven logic.  There is no satisfaction in doing so.

This year I found myself in Thailand during a challenging stretch of life.  I was on a “forced” vacation.  I had accrued time off and my contract year was ending.  If I didn't take the vacation time, I would lose it.  I don’t really enjoy taking my vacation time anymore.  I never thought this could happen (as  my last name is Travels).  Vacation satisfaction diminishes when you have a twitchy six month old son and parents with serious medical conditions. Thus, simple vacations have inherent stress built into them. Add to this that I live in a true paradise surrounded daily by beautiful empty beaches, tropical weather, coconut trees and lush jungles full of all sorts of beasts.  

I've become city and travel phobic.  I don't want to go anywhere.  I tried to cancel my vacation, but the office wouldn't hear of it.  They’d booked my replacement and I had to go.  Reluctantly, I made my travel plans.  There’s a saying I use often that refers the folly of starting off with bad directions.

The Motorcycle Taxi Driver:
You transport option when an ambulance
is not an option
Two days before leaving I received a call from New Jersey.  My father had another heart attack.  One day before vacation I received another call from New Jersey.  My father had another stroke.  I proceeded on my trip to Thailand with the caveat that I’d be heading back to the US sooner than later if my father didn't recover.  Age and fragility in our parents is not a new concept to those of us easing out of middle age.  It is a reality and an unenviable rite of passage.  Day two after arrival in Thailand my son fell  from playground monkey bars and broke two bones in his arm. This happened at the height of Bangkok’s traffic rush hour. The only way to get him to a hospital quickly was to pack the both of us on the back of a tiny Honda 50cc motorcycle taxi. The taxi driver moved well up front on his seat, my son behind him and me behind my son with my ass hanging completely off the motorcycle. I held the jacket of the driver tightly to keep my son packed “safely” in between us while he weaved dangerously between cars through Bangkok traffic.

In the Thai hospital  the doctor (white coat, bad Asian haircut, nerdy glasses, not a Ladyboy)  was giving me, a fellow doctor, wishy-washy, unsatisfying advice on how the break should be handled. I was not finding the confidence I was looking for and I was becoming openly frustrated.  Suddenly this vacation had become more stressful than my worst day of work ever. And there were three more weeks of vacation ahead.

Eventually I stopped feeling sorry for my mother, my father, my son, my wife and  myself.   In a never-say-die way I decided  there were still options for redemption.  The first option I considered was a world class Bangkok Bender—a week long pub and gogo bar crawl of epic proportion.  I still had a few unemployed friends lurking around Bangkok who would happily join me on this quest.  Misery loves company every bit as much as it hates asking for it.  Ultimately good sense prevailed and I decided against this.  The problem with epic benders is that they ultimately turn south on you.  There's always shrapnel and regret.
"Daddy, when can I get my first tattoo?
What I really needed was to get out of town.  The stress of being stressed and being back in a big crowded city was wearing on me.  I was becoming  jumpy, short tempered and aggressive.  The previous night I was at a local Bangkok pub with a few friends.  I drank a few beers, smoked an expensive Montecristo cigar and participated in some good barroom conversation. That’s really all I've ever needed  to relax.  I was giddily calm for the first time in weeks.  Good friends, good booze and a good Bangkok night.  Simple enough. Then a crusty, horrible, middle-aged German man walked over  sat down next to me.

He was an acquaintance of a friend.  He was drunk, sweaty, dressed in clothes from 1970 and he stank.  He was carrying the largest, cheapest bottle of beer sold in Thailand and the cheap bastard had brought it with him into the bar.  He was the model Bangkok Expatriate.  I didn't  care. There’s room for everybody, right?  Ten minutes later he was having a conversation with a waitress and became agitated.  He raised his voice and rhythmically poun-ded-the-tab-le-with-each-syl-la-ble!

“Dude, calm down,” I said calmly.


“Buddy, calm down,” I said.


The Bangkok Expatriate:
Handsome and hard at work
I had enough.  I stood up and took the neoprene beer cover off my bottle (it is the civilized habit in Thailand to serve  beer with a soft, neoprene cover--called a beer cozy-- to keep the beer cold.  It makes no sense to leave it on the bottle when you are planning to hit someone with it.).  


I was going to preface this with ‘I’m not usually a violent man’, but that’s what people always say before or after they get violent.

The German man must have seen blind rage in my face.  He  sat back, apologized and pouted like a child lost at the mall.  Another guy at the table said, “Are you sure this guy is a doctor?”

I called it a night.  So no bender.  There were other options.

I decided to head to Northern Thailand.  Old Thailand.  The ancient, spiritual, magical  heart of this exotic country.  I would put myself on a regimen of daily yoga classes, temple visits and hours of meditation for nearly a week.  I would actively avoid drunk, crusty expats and pursue as nonviolent a course of international life as was possible.  I went to the airport the following day and found a random flight to Chiang Mai.

This was a good plan.  I dug right in.  I got a random hotel room in central Chiang Mai and plotted my course to the innumerable temples and meditation sites all around the city.  Chiang Mai is not the unmanageable, traffic heavy, filthy metropolis that is Bangkok.  Nothing in the city is more than fifteen to thirty minutes away.  The air is clean and a drive to the country is only two kilometers outside the city.  Conveniently there is a slew of extortion taxi drivers everywhere willing to reasonably extort money for a simple taxi ride. Yoga centers have sprung up in Chiang Mai like McDonalds franchises in the Jersey suburbs.  Hippies, Trustafarians, Granola Heads and various other unwashed free-thinking slackers have found a haven of freedom and commonality in Chiang Mai.   

Erik Travels:  Calm The Fuck Down Retreat was underway.

Erik Travels:  Calmer, less violent
All was going as planned and within forty-eight hours I was feeling better. I was healthier, less stressed and longer of fuse.  I had problems, problems could be managed would be managed and life would  take care of the rest.  My body felt good.  My muscles had the delightful ache of daily yoga classes.   I was spending hours meditating in local temples at the feet of golden Buddhist statues.

But something was missing:  A symbol or a commitment.  Something more than a charitable donation, but less than drinking fresh cobra blood.  Then it came to me.

Sak Yant.
Sak Yant is the ancient art of magical symbolic tattooing done with  needle-sharp sticks by the hand of an adept Buddhist monk.  To some, Cobra blood cocktail may sound  like a more reasonable option.  

(Speaking of Cobra blood, I have some experience with this.  During the fledgling trip to Bangkok with Mr. Seagal a number of Thai body guards were assigned to protect the Hollywood hero.  One morning they led everyone to a snake farm outside of Bangkok.  At the snake farm a young Cobra was chosen, held by the head and sliced open to reveal his still beating heart.  As with tradition, his blood was drained into half-filled bottles of Vodka and his heart removed for consumption by the bravest man.  Later, as we sat around with the body guards, the bottle was passed around with each man gulping a mouthful of the bloody vodka.  The men explained that drinking the blood makes a warrior bulletproof.  The bottle was passed to me.  I looked at the crimson mixture, grimaced and handed it back to him.  I told him as long as he drinks this crap I won't have to.)

Fully protected (from
everything except Hepatitis C)
Sak Yant started over two thousand years ago in Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.  The Khmer warriors used this method to cover themselves from head to toe believing it made them indestructible.   King Jayavarman VII of the Khmer empire tested this theory on himself by placing his tattooed body as a target for multiple arrows from his soldiers.  Allegedly each arrow merely bounced off his chest.  I was personally looking for nothing this dramatic from my own tattoo experience, but indestructablility is an awfully cool side-effect.

There are over fifty different styles of Sak Yant.  Each is specific in its design and  purpose to the bearer of the tattoo.  Each one is unique and confers magical protection and powers.  Some portend power and authority.  Some are for wealth and good fortune.  Some ward off illness and danger.  The choice of tattoo must be made with careful contemplation of one’s needs, wishes and faith.

I set off in search of a Master.  Where do you start such a search as a foreigner in a foreign land?  Internet?  Lonely Planet?  Crusty drunk Bangkok local?  No.  You turn to the source who possess not only street level smarts, but also vast local knowledge:  the thieving, extortion taxi drivers parked across the street.  Not only will they know who to see and where to go, but they will have an extortion price of transport to get you there.  With a good working command of Thai language and a keen sense of negotiation I had the information I needed within fifteen minutes.  One driver knew the location of a temple and the name of a famous Sak Yant monk who lived there.  He would not tell me, though.  He would only take me.  A transport price was agreed upon and five minutes later we were on our way out of Chiang Mai city.  I had no verification of this temple, the monk or the vehicle that took me along the dirt roads that led me further away from the highway.  I only had the word of the extortion Taxi driver.  This was a trip of faith.

Suea (The Tigers)
 Nearly an hour outside of Chiang Mai a small road led to a lush, green, idyllic acre of land. There I saw a number of small temples, Buddha statues and a small sign that read Wat Nong Khem (which when translated literally by a foreigner  means “salty child.”  I’m sure there’s a tone that I’m missing in the proper translation).  This was  the home of master Sak Yant monk, Phra Ajarn Gamtawn until his untimely death in 2010.  Since then his talented trainees still tend the monastery and perform the tattoos. They make no appointments, but entertain  visitors on their individual quests for their magical skills.  My extortion taxi driver was curious enough to join me.  We walked along the path to the covered pagoda where  the monk was working.  He was sitting cross legged on a  tiled floor.  Two men sat in front of him-one a monk and the other a lay person.  They  waited patiently.  This was  apparently the customer queue. As we got closer we took our shoes off, did the traditional three bows of respect and sat down without saying a word.  He knew why we were there.   He pointed to a blue weathered photo album on a bench with a cartoon of Mickey Mouse on the cover—his portfolio.  In this book were the various  hand drawn traditional Sak Yant. The Phra (which means venerable monk in Thai language) went on with his work on the client before me.  This man was getting a large Copper Pig tattoo on his thigh.  My eyes went between the book of tattoos and the Thai man upon whom he was plying his craft.

Sak Yant is old school tattooing.  No vibrating electric pen.  No standard colored ink.  Sak Yant is done by progressive movement of a single sharpened point of a large needle or sharpened bamboo stick.  The point is intermittently dipped into a black liquid used as ink.  The ink is a secret mixture rumored to be made from among other things, ash, cobra blood and human remains.  The monk used the nail of his thumb to act as the guide for the needle entering the skin and moved the pointed stick back and forth like a piston.  Sak Yant tattoos are intricate and delicate—the shapes of the ancient letters are integral to the meaning of the tattoo.  You could see that this Phra  knew his business.  And he was fast.  It was hard to conceive that anyone could move so quickly and create the most delicate, tiny, perfect figures every time.  There's not white out in tattooing.

Making the right choice for my own Yant was not easy.  Each had it's own beauty and property.  At first  I was drawn towards getting Suea, the Twin Tigers representing power and authority. But then there was Yord Mongkut for good fortune and protection in battle or Bpanjamukhee which could ward off illness and danger.  

Ultimately the choice became clear:  Gow Yord, The Nine Spires.  This simple, yet geometrically beautiful Yant represents the nine sacred peaks of Mount Meru, the mythological center of the Buddhist universe.  A single Buddha sits on top of each peak beneath the long spires that extend  to the sky.  This is a tattoo of spiritual dedication.  I presented my choice to the Phra and got the thumbs up. My extortion taxi driver also agreed.

The monk set a small stool on the ground before him.
He sat on a long wooden bench.  Along the bench next to him were his bottles of ink, needles, orange robes, small Buddhas, amulets and a few jars with powders I didn't recognize.  I  decided that now was probably a good time to ask about sterilization procedures.  I’d like my tattoo without the Hepatitis C, please.  I turned   around and was working on the Thai translation for “sterile."  He just put his hand up and showed me the needles submerged in a blue liquid.  He said:

“You not wolly.  Arkahol.  Evely time arkohol.”

Who knows?  The blue liquid may have been Scope or Detol or Vodka and Kool-aid, but it was good enough for me.  I was ready.

He put his hands on my upper back and began to pray.  The air was hot and heavy in the Chiang Mai afternoon.  It had rained and there was no breeze.   There was a single fan rotating ineffectively twenty feet away.  I considered asking the extortion taxi drive to move the fan closer, but decided not to change the scenery.  The guy before me sat silently taking his medicine. So would I. After the prayer the Phra pulled a needle from the “arkahol” and sharpened it on a gritty piece of black sandpaper.  He showed me the point.  It was like a razor.  He secured the needle to a long, thin metal rod until the whole unit was nearly two feet long.  He pressed his knee into the center of my back and said, “Okay.”

Let the magic begin.

I leaned my head forward as the first stabs moved rhythmically into my upper back.  I thought to myself, 'Holy shit!  This really fucking hurts.'  I wanted to wince, but I’d drawn a small crowd of Thai men wanting to watch the white guy get his tattoo.  I felt obliged to save face for the white people that might follow one day.  I closed my eyes and controlled a whimper.  The needle was moving in and out one hundred times every minute.  Every few minutes he would scrape it across my back in a line to make the outline of the next section of the tattoo.  A handful of annoying black flies were circling my body and landing  on my arms and legs every few seconds.  I dared not move enough to shoo them for fear of disturbing the Phra. All I could do was move my fingers enough to make them fly for a few seconds before landing again.  I had no concept of how long this tattoo would take.  The pain from every short, quick stab into my skin seemed to get worse.  I've had a number of un-doctorly tattoos over the last twenty years. Even the biggest of them was never this painful.  I remained stoic throughout the process and hoped that this epic tattoo would soon finish.

A few deep breaths and twenty minutes later the jabbing stopped.  I heard the needle plunk into the arkohol.  Phra Ajarn closed his eyes, bowed his head and covered the tattoo with his hands.  He prayed, blew air on the tattoo and said only:


The extortion taxi driver took a photo with my phone and handed it to me.  Very impressive!  It was beautiful, delicate and nearly a perfect freehand reproduction of the photo in his Mickey Mouse book.  I felt small rivulets of blood drip down my back. There was no set fee for  work.  It was donation only.  Most donations were a few hundred baht or whatever people could afford.  I took two one thousand baht notes and placed them, as directed, in front of the small  golden Buddha on his work bench.  Both the extortion taxi driver and I knelt on the ground and bowed three more times to the monk. He bowed back.   I looked on the monk’s table for some tissue or tape or antibacterial cream, but there was none.   The taxi ride back to  Chiang Mai was a little bloody.

Back in town I was anxious to shower and clean my new tattoo.  If you don’t treat a new tattoo properly—especially one done under  less than pristine conditions-- it can be a mess.  I walked shirtless into a pharmacy and purchased some first aid cream but they did not sell   gauze or bandages. I took five plastic bags with me.  I would cut these up to  place over the tattoo to keep it moist.  Still shirtless and bleeding, I walked into the hotel, past the doorman, the concierge, the receptionists and the twenty odd loud Chinese tourists gathering there for an outing.  Nobody mistook me for a doctor.

Doing yoga with a fresh bleeding tattoo was challenging.  I had used my plastic bag containment system and did not bleed on anyone’s yoga mat. The tattoo healed completely in only two days.  Usually it takes at least a week.  I was told that the cobra venom in the ink has something to do with expedited healing.  

I flew home to Bangkok two days later, to my wife and to my sons.  I’d missed them badly.
My wife, still not a fan of doctors with tattoos, was slightly horrified that I’d gotten a sizable tattoo on my virgin back.  Then, being a good Thai Buddhist, said she it was beautiful. It is doubtful, but she might get one someday. 

It was a leap of faith and intuition that brought me through this experience:  Taken to the 
middle of the country by an extortion taxi driver I’d met moments before.  Jabbed by a holy 
stranger in an orange robe with pot-sticker sized needles dipped in ink that may have been 
mixed cobra venom and human remains.

I  believe that  leaps of faith are the essential pieces of a full and evolving life. We can all use a life that comes with adventure, resolution and experience.

Seriously, what could go wrong?

The final night in Bangkok I met a few friends at a local downtown pub.  We shared a few 
beers, chatted and laughed.  I lit a cigar and sat back in my chair.  From behind me I heard a 
commotion.  A drunk, crusty, middle aged Korean man was yelling at a small Thai woman sitting 
at his table.  He was becoming progressively louder and aggressive.

I turned around and said:

“Yo, dude!  Keep it down over there.”

No response.  The guy just got louder and more aggressive. 

I removed the neoprene beer cozy from my bottle.

Trust me.  I'm a doctor.


  1. Erik, when are you going to write this book? I will call that company of yours and demand they force you to take vacation -- so that we get more blogs like this one. It's been too long! Great job.

  2. Most of us lead lived of frustrating mediocrity. I'm glad that you are not.