Festival at Tattoo Temple

Tattoo Festival

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.

Tattoo Festival

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.

Tattoo Festival

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.

Tattoo Festival

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?

Tattoo Festival

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!)

31 responses to “Festival at Tattoo Temple

  1. Wow what a trip. A great example of the true “amazing Thailand” as opposed to the pedestrian “Amazing Thailand” promoted by the TAT. Loved the video which really gave off the energy of the ceremony.
    Tattoo art has been a rage in the west for years now, mainly as a fashion statement – but its amazing how effete tattoos of this nature appear once stacked up against its meaning in Thailand and for that matter other cultures.
    I also take your point about keeping ceremonies like this under the guidebooks radar. Some of my best experiences in Thailand have been attending (what appears to me as a Farang ) quirky ceremonies either by accident or after the benefit of local knowledge.
    Bill

  2. Great post and amazing video. Some of my most enjoyable experiences when living in Thailsnd were also under the radar events. The attraction of Thailand to me was often found in the experiences that semed so completely unwestern. It is hard to think of a similar western event … maybe speaking in tounges at a spiritual rally? It is funny though how many see such creedence and authenticity in such an event in an Asian culture but would scoff at a similar event in their home countries.

  3. Great story Richard!

    I had known about this temple before and the goings-on but this was the first time i had the opportunity to read a serious account and get a decent insight!

    A lot of Thais and foreigners take the authenticity seriously but wouldnt go as far as saying the latter would be more likely to scoff at such a ‘kind of spiritual event’ back home.

  4. You can now download a second video clip on the same page linked to before.

  5. Those videos are quite shocking. In the second video, the expression on their faces were so serious. I would have been scared for sure. It looked like they really believed that the animal was possessing them. You said that people go there to have tattoos done. is it possible for foreigners to go?

  6. truely amazing thailand.

    i’m a thai and i didnt even know this existed!

  7. Oceanic Experience

    Hi Richard,

    Just to check with you regarding ‘ Ramayana ‘. How true is it that it is Thai epic? As far as what I know it is Indian epic from ancient hindusim.

  8. Sorry, I should have said the Thai version of Ramayana which is called Ramakian.

    @Sandy – Foreigners can get tattoos done at this tenple.

  9. This would be a good temple to go to for a tattoo.

  10. After reading your post, it is very impressive and thoroughly detailed….
    I am visiting Thailand next year and would like to get a tattoo from a tattoo master, where he chants or bless the inked tattoo afterwards.
    Your response is very much appreciated. Thank’s

  11. Thank you so much! I really appreciated your response….
    Is it easy to find an enterpreter once I get there to Thailand?

  12. hi Richard, im from singapore and i love to read your blog. Nevertheless, Wat Bang Phra should be made famous by Luang Phor Pern, and not Luang Phor Poon. if im not wrong, Luang Phor Poon is the famous monk of Wat Pailoom of Nakhon Pathom. i myself have a few sakyant of my own but i have never gone into trance. May i also request for a article on Thai magic tattoo (sakyant), the orgin and history in your blog? cause im not able to find much info online. thanks a lot 🙂

  13. that’s interesting about the thai magic tattoo….

  14. Sebai Di mai…

    For Sak Yant info, visit this website http://www.sensiseeds-online.com/

  15. Hi Richard,

    Just to add, I have been to Wat Bang Phra many times over the last 15 years and had known Luang Phor Pern personally when he was still alive. I have been there with friends who had done a sakyant by Luang Phor Pern’s eldest disciple, Ajahn Nok. I have heard about the Wan Wai Khru but have neve seen a real live one. Great work.
    Cheers,
    Hoon2

  16. hey everybody,

    someone of you knowz when start the wat bang praw festival in march 07 ???
    i have to buy my flight ticket before this event….

    thanks for the article. and hope one of you can tell me….

    cheers.

  17. holle !!!!
    my name is jeena from thailand
    but im work stay korea south
    i love thai tattoo my father make
    tattoo 20 years im from nakhonsawan
    i want make tattoo much
    i live thailand
    have a nice day
    bye bye

  18. Hi there Richard,

    Great story on the festival. I have been to Wat Bang Phra on a couple of occassions and have been tattooed by the monk. I have been trying to get to the teachers festival for a few years but never quite made it. This year I will be in S/E Asia through March and am very keen to get there this time. Any help with exact dates would be much appreciated, as my thai friends haven’t been able to tell me anything yet???
    Cheers, Dave.

  19. hey – great story, do you know the date of the 2007 fest? I love the tattoos and really want to attend

    Thanks

  20. You already missed it. The dates were posted over at our ThailandQA.com forums.

  21. hi richard
    just asking there is a common
    tattoo of a temple that alot of men in thailand have i realy liked it in was
    on the back of the neck wondering if u
    knew what it was or had a picture
    thank you bec

  22. how can i watch the tattoo vidoes?

  23. next time

  24. hello, I wanted to go to Thailand next year in March for my birthday to receive a Sak Yant tattoo and more specifically a Yant Ongk Pra symbol as well, but I do not know anyone in Thailand and its hard to know where to go, what to do and what temple I should go to, I live in the U.S and I prefer to not go to a regular tattoo parlor and would rather have my tattoo be blessed and done by a monk. Is there any way you can help me? thank you.

  25. I suggest you post your question on the ThailandQA Forums linked to this blog. Many people post there about tattoos.

  26. If you do not want everybody to know, why did you post it on the net? Such a comment exposes one as a self centered exclusionist prick.

  27. I see a lot of Men in the photos can women also get Tattoo’s done as well???

    I’ve never had a Tattoo but I’d like to have one done by a Master at Wat Bang Phra Next year.

    Please help me out thank you this Blog is very informative and Tattoos I see are Masterful in Creation.

  28. Yes, tattoos for women are done at the Wat Bang Phra. Note: The monks are supposed to wear gloves when dealing with women.

  29. Thank you Catherine

  30. These actually are originally called Chak Sak or Chak yant (Khmer tattoos). They are not thais’

  31. This year the festival is on 19th March 2011.