My pink taxi glided through the trafficless city of Bangkok. It was 530 am, the nexus of the netherworld and the day dwellers. The bargirls huddled with their customers on the street slurping noodles and gulping their last beer before turning in after a long night. Intermixed were the street cleaners and the food hawkers beginning their long, hot day.
I was heading west of Bangkok, about an hour’s drive. I left the thickness of the city and later passed mist-covered rice paddies as the sun began its rise. At 630 am the taxi driver dropped me off at Wat Bang Phra, my destination.
An annual event takes place every March at this Buddhist temple. At this early hour, several thousand people had already gathered. A carnival like atmosphere pervaded the grounds. Attendees munched on snacks being sold at the food stalls, bought t-shirts and amulets, tried their luck with lottery tickets, fed a baby elephant, and snapped photos with their friends and family. Hundreds and hundreds of people had staked their space, sitting cross legged in a large expense in front of a stage with a large Buddha. You could feel the strength of the summer sun despite the early hour.
Why such a large crowd at Wat Bang Phra? This temple is legendary for its monks and their practice of giving Sak Yant tattoos to their adherents. Sak Yant tattoos provide a mystical and magical protection to their owners. Step one is acquiring a tattoo, but one must also activate and recharge it. Devotees must adhere to the precepts laid down by the monk providing the tattoo for it to be effective.
The Wai Khru Ceremony or tattoo festival takes place in the morning. Monks chant and pray from the center stage to bless and recharge the tattoos. These incantations recharge the Sak Yant tattoos providing them with special powers to protect their owners from danger. During the drive to the Wat, my taxi driver pantomimed that adherents would not even be harmed by a bullet with a Sak Yant tattoo.
During the ceremony, some devotees become possessed. I stood at the center of the large expense in front of the stage. My neighbors were split between other farang tourists/photographers and Thai volunteers. Many volunteers were dressed in blue EMT jumpsuits. I stood with my back to the stage and scanned the thousands of Thais sitting quietly. A maniacal scream punctuated the silence. A man popped up, looking bewitched. In a deranged sprint he rushed the stage recklessly, regardless of the safety for himself or his neighbors. When he neared the stage he was bear-hugged by the volunteers. Their vice-like grasp was only relaxed after they rubbed the man’s ears and he was restored to his normal state. He quietly returned to his seat with the masses.
This took place for several hours. Men blitzed the stage in mad bursts. Others plodded in a slow but determined pace. And finally, some men in a feral state crawled to the stage with hands clenched like talons. They would all be greeted by the volunteers who eventually calmed their maniacal state by rubbing and blowing on their ears.
During several epiphanies of the ceremony, a slight chill of fear ran down my back. Instead of the occasional man rushing the stage, throngs of howling men took to their feet simultaneously and hurdled their bodies like a meteorite storm. It reminded me of the television program, The Walking Dead, if the zombies were able to sprint. Standing at ground zero you were potentially subject to collision with one of these crazed men. Hence, you turned your back on the crowd at your own risk.
During some of the larger assaults, I tucked my camera by my side and took a knee in a protective stance. I rather be knocked to the hard ground while kneeling than standing up. On one occasion while scanning the crowd, I neglected to register the growling directly behind me. A previously subdued and mediating man had become bewitched, popped up, and knocked me over as he rushed the center.
The previous day a ceremony took place where the needles were blessed by monks that would be utilized to provide the Sak Yant tattoos. Traditionally in the past, bamboo sticks were used to create the tattoos. Over the next 24 hours, hundreds of followers are blessed with these sacred and mystical tattoos. I observed the devotee kneel and make an offering to the monk, including cigarettes. The monk apprised the man and selected a Sak Yant tattoo that befitted the disciple. Two other men stretched the skin of the back with their hands while the monk freehanded the tattoo with the long metal needle.
There are multiple variations of Sak Yant tattoos. Each one bestows certain powers upon its owner. Some examples are the twin tigers which represent power and authority. And a tattoo comprised of five rows of ancient Khmer script (made famous by Angeline Jolie) provides good luck and success. Each tattoo has certain tenets that the owner must follow for the tattoo to be effective. For instance, the five rows imply the wearer must not commit adultery, consume illegal drugs, and respect Buddhism.
Near noon, the festival came to an end with a final invocation from the monks on the stage. The crowd rose as one and marched to the stage. The monks sprinkled water in a last manic blessing.
I hope to be back next year.
Call To Action:
I would suggest leaving Bangkok at around 5 am for a 6 am arrival at Wat Bang Phra (วัดบางพระ). I paid 500 Baht for the ride out. But this was asking a half-dozen cabbies until one offered a reasonable price. Make sure you have the name and address written in Thai. There is plenty of food and water available at the temple as well as bathrooms. Make sure you bring a hat and sun tan lotion. Plan on spending 6 hours or so at the event. The ceremony takes place on Saturday in March every year. Check the web next year for the specific date. The ceremony will end abruptly and it is a madhouse when leaving. Finding a cab to take you back to Bangkok will take a bit of time and effort. Just head back to the street and wave your arms wildly until you find a cabbie.
If you think you need professional assistance and awesome guidance, check out my friends at Where Sidewalks End. They are experts when it comes to Sak Yant and can even help you get a Sak Yant tattoo. If you book a trip through them, I will earn a commission.