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Wat Bang Phra: Tattoo Temple Time Out

Wat Bang Phra

Wat Bang Phra…

This weekend is the first three day 2010 Bangkok International Tattoo Convention. Ever. Not being up for a crowd (and full of caffeine), I called Khun Pissout (my fav taxi driver) to see if he was free for the day. He was. So as a tattoo substitute, we drove to Wat Bang Phra (วัดบางพระ) in Nakhon Chai Si (นครชัยศรี).

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 PhraWat 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.

Wat Bang PhraMy 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?

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.

  1. Do not kill.
    เว้นจากการฆ่าสัตว์ตัดชีวิตทั้งปวง
    wáyn jàak gaan kâa sàt dtàt chee-wít táng bpuang
  2. Do not steal.
    เว้นจากการลักทรัพย์
    wáyn jàak gaan-lák-sáp
  3. Do not be unfaithful to your spouse.
    เว้นจากการประพฤติผิดในกามทั้งหลาย
    wén jàak gaan bprà-préut pìt nai gaam táng lăai
  4. Do not lie.
    เว้นจากการพูดเท็จ
    wáyn jàak gaan pôot-tét
  5. Do not take drugs or drink alcohol.
    เว้นจากการดื่มน้ำเมา
    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.

Monk tattooing…

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.

Wat Bang Phra braceletsI 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.

Wat Bang Phra

Wat Bang Phra

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My passion is promoting the Thai language. Fullstop. Oh, and traveling. I'm passionate about that as well. And photography too.

36 Comments

  1. What a great post Cat…and the videos are excellent. I have been fascinated with the Monk tattoo’s for a while now and have done a lot of research into them. At some point I plan to get at least one which will probably be the 9 peaks yant or the pali/sanscrit yant on the left shoulder.

    The very large steel needle is a bit off putting but you only live once right?

  2. Thanks Talen! I’ll be working on my video skills for a long time but it was fun. I do have one of the Jungle monks where I panned too quickly. Pity. Great subject, but panning fast is hard on the eyes.

    After watching the lovely lass get tattooed, I was thinking about a protective tattoo on the neck. Right under the hairline. But it is not going to happen.

    If you do get a tattoo, I’ll volunteer to hold the camera (I should have a tripod and better camera by then).

  3. Well done, Catherine.

    Alas, the tattoo. I’ve never been big on them. Not because of the tattooing process. It’s mostly because of changes in attitudes, associations and beliefs over one’s life. What seemed to be a good idea 30 years ago, might not seem so great en-blazed across one’s arm, back, or other body part now. Plus, the stunning, delicate flower on a lovely 20-something’s chest tends to turn into a wilted hodge podge of faded color when she’s 70.

    None the less, the practice has been going on since Neolithic times, so there must be something to it. I find the relatively recent upsurge in tattooing interesting. And it’s not just the “rebels.” People who seem rather shy and reserved have them. Curious. It’s even spawned a group of tv shows here in the US. I find that even more interesting that getting a tattoo. People are actually tuning in to watch some other person get decorated.

    Perhaps, at the even of the day, people feel that getting a tattoo will somehow make them unique … just like everybody else. :-)

    Thoughts?

  4. I have the same worries as you because tattoos do fade. Thai protective tattoos are only in black. And while the black fades too, does it look as bad as faded colour?

    When I was in high school the peeping butterfly on the top of the butt was popular with girls. But only the bad girls got them. I guess these days it’s a free for all. The good. The bad. And, like you say, the shy.

  5. Neil, Speaking for myself, tattoos have nothing to do with being unique.

    I have one tattoo at the moment and it has a very deep meaning to me and marked the passing of a period in my life. My tattoo is also covered and usually only seen by myself.

    The monk tattoos hold significance to the wearer and are seen as quite different than the everyday tattoos given at tattoo parlors around the world.

    There are many people these days getting tattooed because it’s the in thing to do though but these people for the most part would never seek out a monk spiritual tattoo…the one big needle used will clear the room of the weekend enthusiast rather fast.

  6. Catherine I do have a small tattoo on the back of my leg but if the tattooist had pulled out that massive needle I’d have been off. That’s frightening.

    ..’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’…..your quote reminds me of an incident on my recent holiday. I jumped on a songthaew bus (two bench bus) one morning and sat next to a white robed shaven headed monk. The monk immediately leapt up and sat on the other side facing me. Startled I glanced at the monk and saw it was a female and at once I realized the mistake I had made. Monks can have no physical contact with the opposite sex, not even the passing of money.

    This reference in your story surprises me as I would have thought such a high ranking monk and his pupils would have adhered firmly to the no contact rules. Like you I’m a little curious as to why they blatantly ignore this code.

  7. Martyn, watching that needle was scary, but it was also mesmerizing. The chanting, the offerings, the stabbing, it was all part of a ritual. So I do see why some would opt for Thai protective tattoos as they are more than pretty pictures. But you won’t get me on the end of an 18″ sword!

    There is a lot of rule bending going on in Thailand. Either the rules are being relaxed, or outright ignored. I always disliked the no contact between females rule as it assumes guilt. So if they do away with that one, I’m on for it.

    I read a story years ago about a monk (perhaps it was Buddha) who had no qualms about touching females. When asked, he replied that it was not wrong for him to touch because he did not have lustful feelings towards women. But it would be wrong for him to mislead others who might.

    Btw – thank you for getting me in contact with my cousin. We fired emails back and forth, catching each other up on our lives. A lot has gone on since we saw each other last (I was 14 and he 15). We are now connected via Facebook (ah, the wonders of the internet world).

  8. Neil Tortorella

    January 18, 2010 at 8:45 am

    Hi Talen,
    I agree with you regarding tattoos having deep meaning for some people. A friend of mine and her friend from childhood had the same tattoo put on their shoulders shortly after her friend found out she had cancer. After the friend passed on, the tattoo became a very deep connection for my friend.

    Things like that, spiritual meanings and such are profound. I was talking more so about getting them simply for fashion or because it’s trendy.

    And, I have a deep respect for those who get a tattoo in a “traditional” manner rather than with an electric gizmo. That seems to me to be a tradition and/or right of passage in come cultures.

  9. Niel, Can’t disagree with you there, out of nowhere tattoos became acceptable and now everyone from soccer moms to bikers have them and they are usually nothing more than a whim because everyone else has them.

    My father, who has terminal cancer, shocked the family recently when he went out with my niece and came back with a tattoo of a cardinal on his chest. My mother passed away a year ago and loved cardinals and that was his way of staying close with her. Never thought I’d see that.

  10. Neil Tortorella

    January 19, 2010 at 8:36 am

    Hey Talen,
    Sorry to learn about your parents. I can understand the rationale behind your dad’s motivation. I’ve
    wrestled for years with getting a tattoo. I’m sure I’ll cave in at some point. Especially given the huge number of tattoo places around here. I live in Fort Lauderdale and it seems they’re on every corner. :-)

  11. Catherine I’m pleased you and your cousin have made contact, you must have such a lot to talk about. It seems just about everybody uses Facebook, myself included but I do wonder why at times.

  12. A lot of years have gone by so it’ll take some time to catch up. And the really wonderful thing about making contact – thanks again! – is that his mother is researching her/our family tree. So we will share information to sort out where different people fit. Great fun.

  13. Hi,
    I’m an italian girl. Yesterday night I saw tattooed monks that draw the ancient 8-pointed compass. I love it !!!! I’m looking for a clear picture, but I don’t find it … Can you help me??

  14. Hi Patty, the only one I could find is here: Magical tattoos of Thailand’s Mahouts (no longer online).

    If you are in Thailand, stop by Wat Bang Phra and ask.

  15. Hi Catherine, I ‘ll in in bangkok this coming Feb for about 4 days and am thinking of getting a sak yant tattoo at Wat Bang Phra. Can you kindly advise the means of transport to Wat Bang Phra? I’m thinking of renting a taxi( preferably with a driver who can speak english). Do you have anyone whom you can recommend and the cost? Thanks very much in advance.

  16. Nicholas, I can recommend an English speaking Thai driver. If you contact me via my contact form, I will send the details.

  17. Patty, an Abbot gave me a gift with the tattoo symbols printed on it (just today). IF these are the same 8-pointed compass designs… then there are more than one as each have different protection aims. The Abbot patiently explained each one to me, and if I get the time, I will scan the designs and write out my notes for a post on WLT.

  18. Catherine, thanks for your time !!!! I’m interested to symbol that protects the traveler
    Let me know if you need my e-mail address to send me something
    Thanks again for your willingness
    Maybe I’m in Thailand, I hope to return next August, but I think is very difficult have a tattoo from a monk … Do you know about people (not Thailand) that are tattooed from a monk ???
    Sorry, what is WLT ??

  19. Hi Patty, no prob at all. I enjoy searching out the different mysteries of Thailand.

    I am sourcing a book on Thai tattoos this week, but it might be a week plus before I can decipher what is needed for a post. I looked for books yesterday but was told to go to a Wat instead of a bookstore.

    In Thailand it is quite easy to get a tattoo from a monk (even if you are a female) but I don’t know about elsewhere.

    For the tattoo… from what I understand, you tell the monk which design you want (lines/peaks, animals, etc), and what you want to protect. For instance, if you choose the 5 lines, you’d get 5 protections. Then the monk tattoos the Buddhist prayers to match (each line is a prayer = actual words). I’m not sure if they do just the one line for travelers (you’d have to ask).

    WLT = Women Learning Thai (I shorten it to initials because I’m lazy ;-)

  20. Hi Catherine, thanks !!! Where do you live? I’m waiting for your news …

  21. I live in a quite suburb of Bangkok (yes, there actually is one :-)

  22. Patty, my post on the Tattoo Festival and the different tattoos is now live. You can read it here –>> Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival 2010.

    For travelers protection, ยันต์กันไฟอุบัติเหตุ (yan gan fai ù-bàt-dtì hàyt) might be the one you need.

  23. forgive my bad English but I would like to know what kind of animals is an alternative to tattooing and what those animals symbolize?

  24. While I do have a book on it, I have not had the time to go into the different animals, and why. The book shows mostly diagrams.

    Perhaps check out the Sak Yant (no longer live) website?

    If you can’t find what you are looking for, I’ll see about compiling the information for you.

  25. Im sorry, but i cant find any meanings on animals.

  26. Give me awhile to ask around. All I know right now is that the person tattooed is hoping for the strength/trait of the animal. And then there are Himmapan animals (combinations).

  27. vural suleyman

    June 4, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    hi i really want to get a tattoo done at wat bang pra temple when i come to thailand again in august this year
    i was wondering what sort of respectfull mannerism i need to apply when visiting the temple?
    and do i pick what sort of tattoo i want or does the monk choose whitch is best for me ?
    and what sort of donations i need i.e ,money ,gifts?
    many thanks
    mr v suleyman

  28. Hi Catherine,r u live in bangkok?i and my wife wil come to bangkok on next 2 weeks,i wanna go to wat bang pra for sak yant,but i can’t find someone taxi driver who can speak english as well.or else u can intro some taxi driver who can speak english and honest one for me???and one more thing,do u know if anyone mind to share the needles for sak yant,actually can request monk in wat bang pra or someone make a new needles for ownself(but must be do a payment 1)do u know it??if u know it can u know who can arrange to make it??pls reply me recently thanks ! (sorry for my poor english)

  29. Vural – From what I’ve been told, you need to dress appropriately (shirts, no shorts). And after arrival, you will be instructed where to sit, how to sit, etc. When I was there I saw a poster of the different tattoo styles so I imagine you tell the monk which one you prefer. Because unless you speak Thai, how would the monk even know what would suit? The donations are small (50 baht or so) but it is up to you.

    Kenneth – Yes, I live in Bangkok. I have since lost contact with the taxi driver I was using. As for needles, I’m not sure. I’ve been told that some monks reuse so I’d be concerned as well.

    But as I don’t know a great deal about Thai tattoos, perhaps the two of you could ask at this site as it seems rich in knowledge: Sak Yant Thai Temple Tattoos.

  30. Blast! Youtube just won’t cooperate with my hotel server lately…interesting post though.

  31. When you get a chance please watch the videos as they are fun to watch. Especially when he roars!

    Ah, and rereading that post reminds me that I promised the girls I’d pick up more monk bracelets for their next care package from Thailand.

  32. Hi Catherine,

    I will be in Bangkok in March and am planning to visit Wat bang Phra. I would love to get a Sak Yant tattoo. I am hoping to get an ink tattoo but on searching the web it seems that the monks will only give women invisible tattos. Is this correct?
    Your help would be greatly appreciated.

    Theresa

  33. Theresa, women get both kinds of tattoos in Thailand. There might be ‘rules’ for tattoos but here, not everyone follows them. In one of the videos above is a monk giving a girl a tattoo. You’ll see that he’s not wearing gloves to protect his hands from touching her.

  34. The name of the monk is Hlwong Pi Phaew. I have 2 tattoos from him. Really nice monk!

  35. Thank you for his name Samuel – he does seem to have a lot of followers.

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