Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival

In my younger days (I am getting on a bit now, so I am allowed to say that!), I never dreamed that one day I would get a tattoo. Actually, I never imagined that I would find myself living in the tropics in the Far East, but that’s a whole nother story altogether …

More to the point, I would never have dreamed that one day I might attend a Tattoo Festival in a Thai temple!

Well, this morning my wife and I woke up outrageously early, and went with two friends to the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival.

So how did that happen exactly?

A little background:

Last year in January, my wife and I went to Ayutthaya with her family to ทำบุญ (tham boon, ‘make merit’). While we were there we went to several temples and also to the monument of King Naresuan. At the end of the day we went to Wat Ayodhya where there was a monk doing tattoos for some of the locals. We got talking to the monk, and he explained what the tattoos symbolised, while touching up the (huge!) tattoo on the back of someone who was very obviously a regular visitor.

In the room with us were a couple of other people who had waited all day for this monk to come and do their tattoos. It turns out this monk only visits that particular temple infrequently, as he is a teacher at Wat Bang Phra (วัดบางพระ) in Nakhon Pathom province. Since there are literally thousands of temples of varying sizes in Thailand, I had of course never heard of this particular temple, but it turns out to be famous for tattoos.

While we were in Wat Ayodhya on that day, the monk gave three of us (my wife, her brother and myself) each an invisible tattoo, using a clear perfumed oil instead of ink, and a needle that does not go very deep into the skin so the tattoo is only visible until it heals. Please note, don’t think this means it is not painful! On a pain scale, I would say it stings – hard. We took the monk’s phone number in case we wanted to visit his own temple, and we all thought that would be that.

Well, a few weeks later after a few discussions, my wife and I decided that we would like a ‘proper’ tattoo. I was basically saying “I’m game if you are”, partially because she has a pretty low pain threshold and mine is fairly high. She was in quite a lot of pain when she had her oil tattoo done, and the monk said the ‘real’ (ink) tattoo was much more painful. So it was with some surprise that she said she wanted to go and have a tattoo done. We both decided that we wanted the ห้าแถว (ha thaew, five rows), as it supposedly brings prosperity and good fortune, as long as you follow the five ‘rules’ (precepts?) it describes.

So my wife called the monk, and surprisingly he remembered us. Possibly because there aren’t that many foreigners that visit and chat in Thai about the tattoos. He said we could go to his temple at the weekend and get our tattoos.

On the Saturday we went to Wat Bang Phra, which is a large temple about an hour’s drive West from central Bangkok. When we got there he was in a little air conditioned room surrounded by hordes of people, most of whom were covered in tattoos. Little did we know that Wat Bang Phra is actually famed for its tattoos, and that this monk is one of the teachers there as well as doing tattoos for visitors.

I don’t think I need to tell you that getting a tattoo by hand (as opposed to by the more modern machines) with an 18″ (45cm) needle is an extremely painful experience. And my wife wisely let me go first – although she had no idea how high my pain threshold is, the fact that it bled quite a lot and I whimpered from time to time allowed her to prepare herself for hers.

It took about 45-60 minutes for him to do mine, which is actually quite large (I have a large frame [note: this means I am fat], so a small one would have looked a little odd), and my wife’s smaller version took about 30 minutes. But trust me, it felt a whole lot longer!

Since we had them done, we have visited the temple with friends of my wife who also wanted tattoos – usually the invisible ones, but one of her friends had an ink one too. We also had ours retouched on the advice of the monk, to make sure they were just right.

And then, at the beginning of this month (February 2010), the monk called us and said that they are having a festival at the temple, and he would like us to come. We had no idea what it was all about, so we said sure!

Back to this morning – the Tattoo Festival!

So this morning we woke up at 4AM and got ready. Two of our friends who had previously gone with us for tattoos also arrived, and we drive to the temple.

We arrived at 6AM, and there were already many people there. Several hundred people were already getting themselves prepared for the festival which started at 09:39 AM, and finding themselves a spot to sit on in the large forecourt.

At around 7:30 we found ourselves a spot quite close to the back, which turned out to be a very sensible move indeed! At around 8:00 we got a taste of what was to follow, as we heard some screaming behind one of the buildings. We assumed someone was being over-exuberant, but then someone else did it. And pretty soon, we were seeing what was actually going on: some of the people who were covered in tattoos were being possessed by the spirits of the animals tattooed on their bodies! At first we thought this was bizarre, but then it started to become actually quite dangerous, as these people (who were genuinely possessed – my wife said that the people ไม่รู้ตัว, which literally means that they were ‘not aware of themselves’) would start screaming, then would stand up and run (still screaming) full pelt towards the raised area at the front where the monks would soon be sitting. Since there were by now many thousands of people sitting on the ground, this made for quite a few clashes and I saw at least one person slightly injured.

By 9:15 the place was so packed that you could hardly move, and the ‘possessions’ so frequent that it was difficult to avoid being collided with by someone who was only there physically. The most unnerving thing was that by now there were so many people there (we estimated well over ten thousand people) that it was not possible to leave. Especially since we were near the back and the exit was at the front!

I got trodden on only once, and four of the people immediately around us became possessed, but interestingly their companions (who are obviously veterans of this!) knew a trick that would calm the possessed person (possessee?) down and bring them back to this plane of existance – as soon as the people started screaming and waving their arms around, their companions would start grabbed the possessee’s ears and started rubbing them! We all tried to keep straight faces as we witnessed this, as it was too comical for words – I would like to say that we succeeded too, but it would be a lie.

After the devotions at 09:39 were over, the monks directed the crowd to move towards the front, where they could be splashed with water. While this is not unusual at a temple, it is terrifying when you find yourself standing in the middle of a crowd moving in a single direction, and about 10% of the crowd keeps getting possessed by spirits! I managed to avoid any damage to myself, and my wife and one of her friends who dared to come with us were similarly unscathed – but at one point the person behind me started going off on one, and then the person to my right started too! Honestly, I did not hit anyone, but the guy to my right did run into my elbow which I had raised to make sure we did not get barged into and knocked down in the crowd. Nobody was hurt in our immediate vicinity, thankfully – and I think less than a quarter of the people there attempted to get splashed by water.

After this, we went to ไหว้ (wai, the traditional Thai greeting) our friend the monk, and sat talking with him for half an hour in his room. This also helped us because his room has air conditioning, and we had been sitting in the morning sun until now. It was about 33C by then (91F), and we were all feeling the heat!

A new experience

So we were invited to this festival that we had never heard of, which turns out to be famous – and there are even sites from the West that mention it (see here, here and here, for example).

Was it interesting? Very much so! A completely new and totally unexpected experience.

Was it fun? In parts, yes – and in other parts it was terrifying.

Will I go again? I hope not! I expect that we will get a phone call again next year, and now we have been once we can either go again and avoid the crowds this time, or thank our friend the monk very much but be busy that day …

So last year when we went to a temple in Ayutthaya to ทำบุญ for the new year, and started talking to a monk who was tattooing someone … I had no idea that I would find myself at an exhilarating terrifying and very interesting Tattoo Festival this year! All part of life in Thailand, I suppose. There are new experiences waiting for us everywhere, and they are always hard to predict!

16 Comments

  1. Scott Earle says:

    Today I went to the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival in Nakhon Pathom – http://www.scottearle.com/2010/02/27/wat-bang-phra-tattoo-festival/

  2. RT @scottearle: Today I went to the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival in Nakhon Pathom – http://www.scottearle.com/2010/02/27/wat-bang-phra-tattoo-festival/

  3. Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival | Scott Earle's Website: Today was the annual Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival, and we … http://bit.ly/cbjySl

  4. Catherine says:

    Scott, you are far braver than I! I’ve read a lot about the Tattoo Festival but I doubt seriously that I would ever attend. Too man people, and too much activity going on. But I’m glad that I got to read about your experiences and I’m equally glad that you and your wife made it home without being harmed.

  5. kaewmala says:

    Wow, sounds really exotic, Scott! I’m still wondering what was the point of getting an invisible tattoo? Doesn’t that kinda defeat the purpose?

  6. Scott says:

    Well, that all depends on why you get a tattoo. Many people get tattoos because it gives them confidence, some people actually enjoy the tattooing process itself (Ouch!!), and some people get a tattoo because they believe it will help them in some way.

    Some people want a tattoo, but cannot get one because they are afraid of what others will think either at work or in the family.

    An invisible (oil) tattoo supposedly has the same ‘powers’ as the inked version, but it is temporary, and less ‘powerful’. Or so the monk told me :)

  7. Scott says:

    Thanks for the comment, Catherine.

    I would not say brave – I would say trusting. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for! Once I found out, it was with some trepidation that I sat still and watched what was going on around me. The bit at the end was the most scary though, with the very real risk of being crushed or bashed hard.

    But all in all, it was definitely worth it! A new experience.

  8. topsy_top20k says:

    Today I went to the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival in Nakhon Pathom – http://www.scottearle.com/2010/02/27/wat-bang-phra-tattoo-festival/

  9. Jared Earle says:

    Have a read of my brother's interesting tale of tattoos in Thailand: http://www.scottearle.com/2010/02/27/wat-bang-phra-tattoo-festival/

  10. Marco says:

    Please can you help me? I don’t understand when exactly is the tatoo festival: some people told me “at the end of march”, but here I read February!
    Please let me know, I’m really interested about that
    Thank you

    Marco

  11. RT @scottearle: Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival http://bit.ly/bCJEo0

  12. JesseRyan says:

    Hi, I really like your story ^_^

    I’m from Australia and would very much like to go to the festival next year to get tattooed. But do they tattoo foreigners?

    I do Muay Thai here in Melbourne but I don’t speak any thai.

    I’d be going with my girl friend, but the monk’s can’t Tattoo her, can they?

    Thanks for the blog, good work,
    Jesse.

  13. Scott says:

    Good evening Jesse,

    Well I am a “foreigner” (as in, a Pom!) living in Thailand, and I have been to the Bang Phra temple many times now – and I got my tattoo there, so they definitely will tattoo foreigners. Also, my wife got her tattoo there, as did several of her (female) friends. The monks are not of course allowed to touch women, and so they wear rubber gloves! I think that’s basically a ‘dodge’ to get around the ‘rule’, but everyone seems OK with it.

    Don’t worry about not being able to speak any Thai (although you might want to take along someone who does speak a little) – generally in Thailand the assumption is that foreigners won’t be able to speak more than “hello” and “thank you”, since Thai is a very hard language to speak if you are a speaker of a non-tonal language. The other assumption (which is both annoying and feels kind of condescending to those of us who have taken the time and trouble to try to learn) is that foreigners can not read/write Thai. So this means that in most places (road signs, shops etc.) you will see English written as well. This does NOT apply at places where foreigners tend not to go, so temples tend to have very little or no English.

    One thing though – I would not recommend trying to get a tattoo actually at the festival, since there are many thousands of people there. The simple act of parking at 6:45AM was an ordeal, and the festival was slated to start at 09:30. I would recommend getting a tattoo a few days before the festival. Several people had obviously done this, as I saw quite a few fresh tattoos while there.

    The festival does have some strong ‘energies’ for those who take such things seriously. Apart from the people being possessed by the animal spirits depicted in their tattoos, I saw some people whose tattoos were obviously not recent, which actually started spontaneously bleeding.

    One final thing – we were not made aware of this before we went, but to show respect it is recommended to wear white at the festival.

  14. jbl56 says:

    Hi Scott,

    I am very interested in reprinting this blog in an American publication. Can you please contact me at the above email address?

    Thank you!

  15. Scott says:

    Got an invisible one in Issan.
    It was quite painful and no one told me I was about to get one!

    An old monk did it while I had my back facing him for what I thought was to be a simple blessing!

    Something like a diamond-tipped metal scribing tool dipped in oil was used to ‘draw’ unintelligible gibberish all over my back.

    It took a couple of weeks to heal.
    Hopefully I didn’t get any diseases.

  16. Chris says:

    Thanks for posting this Scott! I plan to go to Thailand the last week of Feb 2011 or maybe first part of march. I’m going to avoid the festival, but will get a tattoo from one of the monks at the temple. I’ll be going there with a couple Ametican friends who have lived in Thailand 20+ years. Wonder if I should tell my family ahead of time or just show them the tattoo once I’m home?!? I’m going to bring alcohol prep pads for my skin and needles!

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