Wat Bang Phra Festival 2011 - Thailand

Published: 23 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 196, March, 2011

In Thailand, tattoos are more than just a skin-decorating art form. At Wat Bang Phra temple, monks wielding bamboo needles dedicate themselves to tattooing the bodies of those seeking protection from spirits, demons or even bullets. Every year, between the end of February and the beginning of March, one of Thailand’s most bizarre festivals is celebrated. Fervent supporters flock to the temple to recharge their magical tattoos.

Wat Bang Phra temple is situated some 50 kilometers west of Bangkok. The compound is presided over by the golden sculpture of the famous monk, Luang Paw Poen — an important figure who worked hard to preserve the ancient tradition of tattooing symbols and animals as a form of protection. It is curious that he himself did not possess any tattoos, but instead devoted his life to the study of protective tattoos and to decorating the bodies of those who required it. Luang Paw Poen died in 2002 and, since then his image has been worshiped, easily spotted on posters and medallions in many homes and businesses. His legacy has also been transmitted to other Buddhist temples, which still use the same technique. 

At Wat Bang, believers — Thais and sometimes foreigners — queue up daily at the temple to be tattooed by the monks. Tattoos hardly help with the economy of the temple, as small offerings are given in exchange for the tattoos. Tobacco, flowers, incense and a few banknotes are the most common contributions. Tattooing methods can vary slightly, but monks normally use long sticks (50cm) holding sharp bamboo needles (3cm) at the tip. The tattooist supports the stick between his thumb and index finger and gives small pushes with his other hand. With bamboo tattooing, the skin is punctured instead of torn, making the process less painful and the healing process much quicker than with machine needles. The subject is held down by a group of two to three people and before and after the ritual, the tattooist recites ancient incantations.

The selection of the tattoo here depends on what type of protection is required. Some symbols or animals will supposedly bring strength, prosperity or sexual power to the individuals who carry them. Others will protect believers from enemies, spirits or even bullets. Many women opt for an invisible tattoo that is done with oil. Interestingly, as a monk cannot touch the opposite sex, he must place a cushion between the woman’s body and his own.

The hygiene of the process varies. Sometimes the needle is changed, while other times it is just sanitized; in some cases the ink is taken from the same pot for everyone. In light of Thailand’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, it seems amazing that locals and foreigners at the temple do not seem very bothered about it. Perhaps some simple education is the key?

Most Thai men at some point in their lives became a monk — the majority do it for a few weeks, while others for the rest of their lives. Thus, many of the monks at these monasteries do not equate to the western idea of a Buddhist monk. Some are tattooed from head to toe, others seem to have lived a lot before deciding to give their lives to religion. In these times, it is easy to find monks shopping at one of the fashionable shopping malls in Bangkok.

At the end of February/beginning of March (depending on the year), Wat Bang Phra holds one of the most bizarre ceremonies in Thailand. Every year, around 5000 people attend this festival to pay their respects and to “recharge” their tattoos so they will continue having the desired effect.

At around 8 o’clock in the morning, thousands of people sit expectantly facing the shrine where the monks are already conducting prayers. Some of the crowd are policemen, army or mafia members - people with this type of career require some kind of amulet or protection to face the dangers of their daily activities.

Although the ceremony starts very early, the heat is unbearable. The monks begin with their prayers and as the ceremony progresses, some of the attendants begin to shout and make animal noises. They start moving as the animal they have tattooed — some of them jumping like monkeys, others moving their hands like claws. Their family members or friends try to calm them down by stroking their ears or head as they would do to an animal. In some cases it works, in others, it does not, and so the “possessed” start running towards the Buddhist shrine. The speed at which they run is amazing, requiring a line of army men to stand guard at the front of the crowd to stop them. Some do indeed look like they have achieved a state of trance. As the bodily spasms and animal sounds increase, the feeling of tension can be felt by the attendants. At one point, four, five and then seven people start running towards the shrine; some of them have their eyes white and are in a state of real tension. They scream and crash down as they reach the line of army men who grab and placate them.

There are many possible explanations for why these people enter this feverish state of subconsciousness. It could be the mixture of unbearable heat, a sleepless night, the fervor of the crowd, and even the use of drugs. It could even be exactly what it appears to be.

At one point, the monks stop their prayers and everyone calms down. Then, holy water is sprinkled at the crowd and we can hear animal noises again as the crowd starts pushing, trying to reach the sculpture of Luang Paw Poen and the atmosphere becomes very dense. Being in the center of the crowd is very dangerous, as the people cannot control their strength. Ten minutes later, the ritual is over; some go home, while others line up to get tattooed or gather around the temple to picnic with their families.
This truly is one of the most astonishing festivals in Thailand.


Text & Photography: Seiala Montes