Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival
Saturday, 27 February, 2010
5am (starting time) – 9am (main presentation from the head monk)
If you visit Wat Bang Phra during a regular week, you can pretty much expect peace and quiet. And as I’m a softly-softly type of gal, that’s what my previous post was all about: Wat Bang Phra: Tattoo Temple Time Out.
But if you show up during the Tattoo Festival, everything changes. For a few short hours, the Wat is flooded with thousands of followers attending the historic ไหว้ครู (wâi kroo ceremony). Some devotees are hyper, some are not. Others are overcome with the spiritual power garnered by their tattoos of tigers, monkeys, and snakes. And last year, all this jumping around culminated in a photographer getting his arm broken during the fracas (yet another reason why you won’t see me there… this time).
Thailand’s temple of tattoos: The centuries-old Thai tradition dates back to the time when schools were located in temples and teachers were monks. Once a year, students would make obeisance to past and present generations of knowledge bearers — a hierarchy of ancient Brahmin gods represented by colourful masks on a multi-tiered stage. Nowadays, the wai khru ritual is performed rarely, except in a condensed version at schools or boxing matches. And at this unusual temple.
Richard Barrow states that he arrived one year at 7am and: “by 9 a.m. there were literally thousands and thousands of people packed into every available space”.
Btw: The final dates for the festival came from three separate phone calls to the Wat. If you are arriving from overseas, please check back here and/or with Richard’s Paknam forum before booking your ticket.
Your tattoo of choice does not stop there, as Khmer script makes an entrance too (Tip: Khmer script is pronounced Kom in Thai). My research gathered the following (but don’t hold me to it):
อำนาจ (am-nâat – personal power)
โชคลาภ (chôhk lâap – luck and fortune)
ตามความ (dtaam kwaam – power over people, law)
จากนาง (jàak naang – paralyzing, stunning spell)
เเคล้วคลาด (kleow klâat – evasion and invisibility)
คงกระพันชาตรี (kong grà pan chaa-dtree – protection from harm and danger)
เมตตามหานิยม (mâyt-dtaa má-hăa ní-yom – lucky/popular in love)
มหาเสน่ห์ (má-hăa sà-này – charm and attraction)
สัตว์หิมพานต์ (sàt hĭm-má-paan – animal powers)
ยันต์กันไฟอุบัติเหตุ (yan gan fai ù-bàt-dtì hàyt – protection from fire and accident).
So from the looks of it, the ยันต์กันไฟอุบัติเหตุ (yan gan fai ù-bàt-dtì hàyt) will protect travelers. But with the possibility of five to nine lines to fill, it looks like party time! Ouch!
Note: I am obviously not an expert on Thai tattoo so please ask around before choosing your tattoos. In addition, each tattoo artist/monk/teacher will have their own twists and turns, so be sure to discuss it with them too.
I do have a fat book by อาจารย์หนู Arjan Noo (arjannoo.com – no longer online), the Thai tattooist responsible for working on Angela Jolie. The book is called หมื่นยันต์ (mèun yan – ten thousand magic symbols).
Arjan Noo points out that the drawings in his book are merely representative of the Khmer tattoo prayers he uses. He goes on to say that the designs have already been copied by disreputable tattoo artists, and as the Khmer script shown mean nothing, neither do their tattoos.
I’m of two thoughts about going to the tattoo festival, and both of them are a no. The enormous crowds and real physical danger is a worry. Last year, a photographer got his arm broken in the frenzy of it all. Crowds + danger. Hmmm… tattoo me chicken.
Wat Bang Phra is roughly 63 km from where I live in Bangkok, which took under an hour and a half to drive straight through. We arrived at the Wat around 11.45, just in time to stand around waiting for the tattooing monk to finish his lunch.
While I wandered around clicking, Khun Pissout got the local flavour of the Wat from a lottery ticker seller born and bred in the area.
Now remember, this is oral history… so…
Before he was known, the monk Luang Phor Boon tattooed four men with protective symbols. At some point after the tattooing, the men drank whisky, got drunk, got mean, and shot each other.
None died. Ok, except for the one who died from a bamboo shoved in a very painful place. But he only died because (apparently) the symbols protect skin-covered body parts, but not the ones with entries.
So anyway, the newspapers got hold of the story and made Luang Phor Boon famous for being the monk with magic tattooing skills.
As the money started rolling in from the followers of the now famous Luang Phor Boon, buildings were added to the original compound, making Wat Bang Phra what it is today.
So, even if you are not into tattoos, it is a worthwhile trip for anyone with an interest in architecture and Thai spirits, as they seem to have one or a row of everything.
My plan for the day was to interview a tattooing monk, but his student suggested that he be a substitute instead. It made sense as no one could figure out how we could extract the monk from his scheduled tattooing (and I did not want to wait). And that is who you will find in the first video – the loyal student.
And please, please, please do not ask me for the names of either the loyal student or the tattooing monk. In a total muff, I forgot to ask. Ah… the shame…
Btw – The videos for this post are shot with a PowerShot SX1-IS (my first attempt). For privacy, I avoided most direct face shots of the people in line and the lovely (and brave) girl being tattooed.
Tattoo interview at Wat Bang Phra…
Transcript for the tattoo interview…
Please note: This is not a word for word translation of the interview. It was done this way because there is a lot of repeating going on. The Thai script was injected to share the interesting words and phrases. Some were used for my Thai lesson on Friday with Khun Phairo (yes, we have fun!) Khun Pissout is doing the honours (thanks Khun Pissout).
Why do people come here to have tattoos?
To receive kindness from people (เมตตามหานิยม – mâyt-dtaa má-hăa ní-yom), to have power over people (มีอำนาจ – mee am-nâat), to be a leader (เป็นผู้นำ – bpen pôo nam).
And how about protection from being physically harmed (เเคล้วคลาดปลอดภัย – khaelu klâat bplòt pai)?
The people who have that (ลงยันต์ – long yan = mystic symbols) tattoo (สัก – sàk), will be protected (ป้องกัน – bpông gan). But they must be moral (มีศีล – mee sĕen), and follow the five precepts (ศีลห้า – sĕen-hâa).
The work they do must be legal (อาชีพ สุจริต – aa-chêep sùt-jà-rìt).
And alcohol is not forbidden?
What kind of designs do the people get?
Tiger (เสือ – sĕua), bird (หงษ์ – hŏng = bird symbol of the Mon people from Indian mythology – a mythical goose), magpie with a golden tongue (สาลิกา – săa-lí-gaa), nine peaks (เก้ายอด – gâo yôt), eight directions (เเปดทิศ – tít bpàet).
How about the protection symbol (เเคล้วคลาดปลอดภัย – khaelu klâat bplòt pai)? What does it look like?
The protection design mostly uses Pali/Sanskrit characters (อักขระ – àk-kà-rà). Would you like to see an example?
Is this called àk-kà-rà (อักขระ)?
Yes. It is called àk-kà-rà (อักขระ). The design (on the guy’s lower back) is called yan gròr pét (ยันต์เกราะเพชร = mystical symbol + armor + diamond). The design (higher up) on his back is called hâa tăew (ห้าแถว = five rows).
If the guy with the tattoo is good (เป็นดนดีมีศีล – bpen don dee mee sĕen), the tattoo will really work. If you do good things, it works. It will cover all you asked for.
How long did this tattoo take?
Almost one year (เกีอบปี – òp bpee).
He is a good person. If you are a good person and you have a tattoo, your income will grow and your business will be good. People will trust and believe in what you say. If you are a boss, people will respect you as a leader. So we consider that if we are good, and we also have a tattoo, the tattoo will support our life to success. Mostly the people who have tattoos will have a good personality (more confidence).
The five precepts…
I’m not 100% sure about the five precepts (ศีลห้า – sĕen-hâa) as there are different versions floating around. The part about being able to drink alcohol or not sticks out (and one that I will not mention here). Below is (I am told) a trimmed down version of the official precepts.
Do not kill.
wáyn jàak gaan kâa sàt dtàt chee-wít táng bpuang
Do not steal.
wáyn jàak gaan-lák-sáp
Do not be unfaithful to your spouse.
wén jàak gaan bprà-préut pìt nai gaam táng lăai
Do not lie.
wáyn jàak gaan pôot-tét
Do not take drugs or drink alcohol.
wáyn jàak gaan dèum náam mao
Tattoos.com has a Law of the Tattoo list which is much more interesting than the one I’ve posted above. The bit about fruit and the onethatwillnotbenamed has me stumped. Hmmm.
Getting the monks blessing…
Our interview was stopped as soon as the tattooing monk arrived. “My teacher! My Teacher!” Everyone waiting took off their shoes and lined both sides of a narrow veranda, facing the monk. I was repeatedly assured that I could film during the tattooing – we are used to photographers – so with three people pushing me forward, my shoes joined theirs.
The monk instructed his followers to line up in front of him… and that’s where this video comes in (please excuse my unsteady hands). I believe the man in the front has a tiger tattoo because that is the wild sound he makes during the offering. The suddenness of the tiger noises and dramatic hand movements startled not just me, but a little girl who took off running.
As you will see in the video, the monk is tattooing with a humongous metal rod. And if I didn’t want a tattoo before, I certainly do NOT want one now!
Daily Tattooing: Right before reaching the monk, the people next in line to the one being tattooed will assist the monk with holding the one receiving the tattoo still.
The monk uses a single long thin needle about 18 inches in length and about four millimeters in width. The tip of the spike is split into two (like a split cane), so that each stab of the spike produces two dots of ink in the skin. There are about 8 of these needles in a pot of a type of cleaning solution. Sometimes the monk will sharpen the needle with fine grade sandpaper before beginning.
The monk dips the needle into the ink about every 30 seconds. When complete, he blesses the tattoo and blows a sacred Kata (Ghata) on it to infuse it with power.
For men, the monk uses the charcoal ink. For women he uses a transparent ink and will use a glove in order to not touch the female body.
I did not see a glove used in the video so perhaps gloves are optional. Did you? I know, I know… I have many questions. Rules are meant to be broken, so it is not that. I’m just curious is all.
I am told that monks are not supposed to be in business or handle money. And that any monks at JJ Market or elsewhere who approach you for money are not real monks at all.
Yet after I gave over what I thought was a donation to the Wat, I was informed that it will go to the monk. A percentage of his take going to the Wat was mentioned, as was money being sent to support the monk’s family. It is a totally rational plan.
Before leaving the Wat we visited the building that housed the body of Luang Phor Boon. To the right of his casket, in the same room, was a gift shop where I purchased protective bracelets and tiger amulets. I handed the money directly to the monk behind the counter.
Yes, I have questions. Many, many questions. In search of the answer to monks and money, I discovered that the debate has been batted about for over 2,000 years so I’ll leave them to it.
For those interested in reading about the life of a monk in Thailand, Phra Farang (written by a former farang monk), is a worthwhile read.
There are many excellent book reviews and interviews around, so I won’t do a repeat here. Yet.
What I’d like to focus on instead is the remarkable SET Foundation, created by Peter Robinson.
And most impressive about SET is the money angle.
Every Baht you give goes directly to help our students: SET has very low overheads and administration costs – no staff wages, no office rental costs, no staff vehicles and no fundraising expenses. In 2008, less than 3% of income was spent on administration.
When I worked corporate, we were all encouraged to donate to United Way.
United Way organizations typically suffer from an administrational overhead of 10%-20% instead of 5%-15% that many other well-known charities have.
Some workplaces that donate money to UW do not follow commonly used ethical procedures when soliciting donations.
Employees may be pressured into donating through peer pressure tolerated or even encouraged by management.
I was one of those employees. And ever since, I rarely donate cash to established organisations such as the United Way. I offer of my time and skills to smaller charities instead.
But with the SET Foundation, I will make an exception.
The SET Foundation has a very specific aim: to make a difference. That difference is between a youngster being able to study at a vocational college or university, or instead having to labor in the rice paddies, on a Bangkok building site, or in some other mundane, dead-end job.
By giving scholarships and other practical support, SET is making the difference for an increasing number of disadvantaged Thai students. We’ve been doing it for fifteen years. We do it voluntarily, enthusiastically and very cost-effectively.
More than 3,000 students have already benefited from our Scholarship Program. Hundreds more have benefited from our Student Welfare Program, receiving cash grants to pay for uniform, books, tools, bus fares, lunch or dormitory accommodation.
To see where your donations go, check out: What does it cost to make the difference?
500 baht (US$15) will buy a pair of school shoes.
5,000 baht (roughly US$150) will cover one semester for a college or university student (accommodation, food and bus fares included).