Wat Bang Phra’s mystical Sak Yant Tattoo Festival
by Dave Stamboulis
I am standing in front of a sea of men (interspersed with a few women), most of whom are covered in prolific body tattoos depicting various animals, mythological creatures, numerological encryptions, and Khmer and Buddhist texts. The majority of the men are entering deep trances, and many of them are beginning to snarl and froth at the mouth.
Suddenly, the man in front of me leaps to his feat, stares me in the eye, and utters a guttural scream. Convinced he is a tiger, he comes charging at me at full speed, and I have to make like a matador, or more appropriately, like an Olympic 100-meter sprinter, to avoid being hit head on.
Imagine being at a Black Sabbath concert, with a thousand raving lunatics trying to rush the stage, being staved off by a squadron of soldiers, only with you being the buffer between the lunatics and the troops, and you will get the idea of what being a photographer at the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival entails…
Wat Bang Phra is a rural temple located in Nakhorn Chaisri, some 40 kilometers from Bangkok. The temple is famed for its previous abbot, Luang Phor Pern, who specialized in giving and activating talismanic “sak yant” tattoos, which purport to protect the wearer from harm, and can also bestow financial success, family prosperity, and other good luck to the illustrated elite. Luang Phor Pern died several years ago, but Wat Bang Phra continues on his traditions, which have their climax at the annual temple fair.
Young men make up a majority of the blessed (although, yes, this is where Angelina Jolie got her tats), especially those who are involved in dangerous occupations, such as drivers, laborers, stuntmen, and those with links to the mafia. This is because the tattoos are supposed to work very strong charms once activated, not to mention that they offer a relatively inexpensive form of insurance. To say that the crowd is somewhat akin to a heavy metal rock show attended by a bunch of parolees might not be too far from the truth. The monks at Wat Bang Phra use long metal rods dipped in a mixture of snake venom, ash, and various herbs to apply the tattoos. Wielding the needles like ice axes, they go about their grisly work, and given the size and details of the tattoos, and the pain the wearers must suffer to be engraved upon, the rest of the day’s tribulations must be easy.
In the early morning hours, the faithful sit cross-legged on mats in front of a platform that holds a large statue of Luang Phor Pern, as well as a spirit house and other religious paraphernalia. According to tradition, once the tattooed start going into trances, their tattoos “wake up,” and begin calling to their monks up on the stage. The men then begin to act like the animals depicted on their backs and chests. Lizards slither and crawl on their bellies, hermits inch along like old men, birds flap their wings and screech, and then there are the tigers, which the wat is most famed for, who growl, roar, and eventually charge in a frenzy towards the stage.
The troops of soldiers are waiting for them, often four to five men per charging animal, and they grab the followers in bear hugs and rub their ears, which is meant to calm down the madmen (“that’s a nice kitty, isn’t it”). There are open lanes between the rows of seated men, which attempt to give the entranced an unobstructed beeline to the stage, but in their stupor, these paths aren’t always adhered to, leading to a fair amount of tripping over bodies and head on collisions. I attempted to take photos from behind a row of seated men, thinking I was safe, only to discover while focusing that the fellow in front of me had decided to wake up and charge the stage. Looking around at the chaos, with men covered in dust and sometimes blood, it didn’t look too different from a mosh pit at some frenzied musical event.
Once the monks have finished their chanting and blessings, a signal is given, and the faithful get up and rush the podium in one final bout of chaotic madness. Everyone tries to reach the stage for a final blessing, and the monks spray water hoses over the crowd to cool things off. In typical Thai fashion, things are suddenly over, with nobody any longer in any kind of trance or acting weird. Vendors hawk som tam and noodles, couples flock to buy wat trinkets, people comment on how “sanuk” (fun) the event was, and it looks like any old temple fair. The faithful climb aboard buses home, convinced that they are safe and that their tigers are back in their cages, at least for another year.
Wat Bang Phra’s Tattoo Festival occurs each year in early March, with the exact auspicious date to be decided by the temple’s abbot.