I think one of the most bizzare festivals I have ever attended in Thailand was the Tattoo Festival this weekend. This took place at the renowned Wat Bang Phra temple in Nakhon Chaisi, about 50 kms west of Bangkok. This temple is famous for its magically charged tattoos and amulets which can protect its wearer against harm and even speeding bullets. The temple was made famous by Luang Phor Boon who sadly passed away a few years back. However his devoted followers still visit this temple every March to take part in a special “wai khru” ceremony and also to have their tattoos recharged. I had heard some strange and bizzare reports about this festival a few years back and so I was glad this weekend when an opportunity arose to go and see for myself.
The date for the Wai Khru ceremony (paying respect to your teacher) varies from year to year but it usually takes place in early March and always on a Saturday. We had rung the temple the day before to find out the time for the start of the ceremony. We were told that the auspicious time of 9.39 a.m. had been picked. The number “9” is deemed to be auspicious and should be used whenever possible. We were advised that we should arrive early as many people were expected. We were glad we did just that as the place was packed. We left Samut Prakan at 5.45 a.m., and due to only light traffic, we reached the turn-off from highway 4 to Nakhon Chaisi just over an hour later. There were plenty of bilingual signs for the temple so the journey along the backroads was quite effortless.
We arrived at the temple at about 7.15 a.m. We knew we had arrived even before we had seen the signs because there were so many people milling around. Despite the early hour, the temple car park was already overwhelmed and the policemen on duty weren’t letting anyone else in. I paused to ask where we could park and luckily he said, “you can park there”, right by the side of the road and opposite the temple entrance. Now that was good timing. As we walked into the temple grounds we could see that there was already a lot of activity. Hundreds of people were sitting on the ground facing a giant statue of a monk. This was the revered “khru sak” or head tattooist who had legendary powers. There was a long line of people with lotus flowers and incense sticks paying their respect.
As we walked into the temple we were wondering what we would do for the next two hours or so before the ceremony was due to start. There were certainly a lot of people here but what were they doing so early? That was when I heard the first loud, piercing scream. It sounded like a hyena. Then an answering call from a different direction. The growl of a tiger. We were standing at the front of the open area between the statue and the crowd. A marshal came up to us and told us that we should step to the side as it could get dangerous. Of course we didn’t take him seriously. Then it happened. Out of nowhere, what can only be described as a raging tiger, came charging straight towards us. I took two steps back but then stopped dead in my tracks. A loud scream had started up right behind me.
In Thailand, tattoos are not usually done as decorative art. It is a serious business. Many people believe that the tattoos are capable of giving them special powers. Anything from making you look more attractive to the opposite sex to being more powerful and even invincible. You also have to treat the tattoos with the proper respect, much the same as with amulets that you see dangling around the necks of Thai people. For the tattoo to be powerful you must not only choose a good tattooist (or khru sak) but also the design. Heroes from the Thai epic Ramayana are popular such as Hanuman. You will also often see animals such as tigers, panthers and snakes. These images are surrounded by magical signs and Pali script. As the khru sak makes the tattoo, he murmurs special incantations which gives the tattoo its special powers. These young men now believe that the tattoo can protect them against anything. Even in knife fights or against guns.
People come to Wat Bang Phra every day of the year to have new tattoos or old ones blessed so that their powers can be recharged. However, most of them make a special effort to visit the temple for the special Wai Khru ceremony once a year where they can pay respect to their tattooist. After paying respect with lotus flowers and incense sticks, they sit on the ground with their friends and meditate. It could be just the affects of the relentless sun, but a transformation then starts to take place. It is like they become possessed by the animal tattooed onto their body. Those with tigers on their backs, growl and act aggressively. Those with snakes, hiss and crawl along the ground. Monkeys jump up and down banging their palms together and making a chattering sound.
Sometimes they manage to calm themselves or a friend gives a helping hand. However, every now and then, one of these possessed people set off with a scream and ran towards the shrine and statue. Awaiting them was a long line of volunteers wearing white shirts. Their ranks were later strengthened with some soldiers. These people knew exactly what needed to be done. They knew the tricks of the trade of what to do when a man, who thinks he is possessed by a tiger, comes charging towards them. This actually might be a good tip for your next jungle trek. All you have to do is pick up the tiger so that its feet are off the ground and then get your companion to rub its ears. The tiger is then completely calmed and returns to its “lair”.
This method was satisfactory when these “possessed” people came charging towards the shrine in ones or twos. But, every now and then something set them off and what can only be described as a stampede then took place. It was chaotic and also a bit scary. Everyone was taking it so seriously. There were no giggles or embarrassed smiles. Everyone was deadly serious. I took a few pictures of the event while standing at the front, but out of respect for the proceedings, I decided to watch the remainder of the ceremony from the sidelines. In the pictures on this page, all of the people sitting on the ground were taking part in the ceremony. There were very few spectators. I counted only a dozen or so foreigners. This is not surprising as this festival is not featured in the Lonely Planet. In some ways I wish it wouldn’t be. Can you imagine what would happen once busloads of foreigners start arriving at the temple gates with their cameras?
Several hours later, at 9.39 a.m. the wai khru ceremony started with some chanting. Twenty minutes later it was all over. Everyone suddenly surged forward to be blessed with water. Usually monks do this with a brush and a bowl of water. However, there was an estimated 5,000 people here so the abbot used a hose pipe instead. After they had received a sprinkling, many of them went to visit their khru sak to have their tattoos blessed (usually done by blowing on the crown of the head). Others asked the monks for new tattoos. I was hot and tired by the time it was all over. But it was certainly worth coming here to witness this event. I urge you to come and see for yourself next year. But, please don’t tell anyone else! This is one of those events that it is best if it does stay out of the guidebooks.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But what about a video? Would you like to see some video clips? Go to page 2 and you will see where to download this amazing video clip. You will also see some more pictures of the people with tattoos. BTW, if you are reading this on a newsreader you won’t be able to see the video links or extra pictures. You will need to visit thai-blogs.com to see them.
(Driving instructions: From Bangkok, take highway 4 and head towards Nahkon Pathom. About 10 kms before this city you will see a turn off for Nakhon Chaisi. The route to the temple is well signposted in both Thai and English. Look out for the signs with a blue background. The temple is about 14 kms away from the main highway and 10 kms away from the city of Nakhon Chaisi. We left early in the morning and it only took one hour from Bangkok. However, it took nearly three hours to return in the afternoon. We were worried we wouldn’t find our way back to the highway afterwards but there was a traffic jam along the country lanes the entire way back!)