Hot! Tattoo Rave at Wat Bang Phra


By Seila Montez

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 located 50 kilometers west of Bangkok. The compound is presided 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 devoted his life to the study of protection 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.2-¦

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 tattooed is held down by a group of two or three people. Before and after the ritual, the tattooist recites ancient incantations.

The selection of the tattoo 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. As a monk cannot touch the opposite sex, he must place a cushion between the woman’s body and his own.

9-CROP¦The hygiene of the process varies. Sometimes the needle is changed, while other times it is just sanitized; in some cases the ink its 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.

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. Therefore many of the monks at these monasteries do not qualify with 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.11-¦

At the end of February or 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 place conducting prayers. Part of the crowd are policeman, army men or mafia members. In general, people with this type of lifestyle require some kind of amulet or protection to face the dangers of their daily activities.

13 copyAlthough the ceremony starts very early, the heat is unbearable. The monks begin with their prayers; 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, 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 look like they have really reached 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 try to grab and placate them.


Seila Montes

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.

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, the crown 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.

Once a year, superstition and tattoos become the center point at one of the most astonishing festivals in Thailand.



  1. I live in Thailand, and this article for the most part is not true at all. The festival spoken of here is in the South of Thailand around the area of Phuket, and it is called the Vegetarian Festival. They are losing this slowly due to the influx of Muslims, who are set on destroying Thailand as well as the rest of the world. Luang Po, the most revered Monk who is mentioned, did not believe in tattooing, he believed in meditation, in order to reach a higher level. Most of the tattooed monks joined the Buddhist temples after altercations with authorities or were/are running away from their life because of something that went wrong, eg., a bus driver who falls asleep while driving, has a accident and everyone on the bus is killed, will usually run away and change his name, leave his family behind and join the monkhood, in order to escape jail. A good friend of mine was tattooed by a monk with protective designs all over his body, and then had a head-on collision with a ten-wheeler truck being driven by a drunk, while he was on his motorbike ………RIP Loco!

  2. Hi Gary, What part of this article its not true?
    The vegetarian festival its held in Phuket, its something totally different to this event.
    They are two totally different festivals. The article in here, describes the tattoo convention held in Wat Bang Phra, a temple located an hour away from Bangkok, NOT PHUKET. The vegetarian festival its held during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, and its believe that will attract good luck to those who contemplate the ritual. During 10 days they follow a vegetarian diet, and perform “sacred rituals”, the purpose its a spiritual cleaning. I don´t see in that festival, nothing related to this feature, they are two totally different events. I also lived in Thailand for 4 years, and i know that some monks joined the Buddhist temples after altercations with authorities, but we can not generalise. We can´t question that in Thailand tattoos, beliefs and religion are linked, and monks do perform tattoos in some temples in order to protect people and themselves against bullets, spirits or bad luck. If they were Gansters thieves or runners before they joined the temple, i don´t know, maybe some of them were. I just wrote this article to portrait what happens in Wat Bang Phra every march, so please don´t mistake the vegetarian festival with this tattoo celebration.

  3. Gary, I Googled vegetarian festival on Google images. I doubt Seila was talking about Vegetarian Festival. I don’t see any tattoos being done in the pictures. I only see a bunch of large, metal equipment being shoved through the mouths of people… LOLOL

  4. Dear PEH:

    Try Googling Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival. They list 83,000 articles.

  5. But we can not generalize. We can´t question that in Thailand tattoos, beliefs and religion are linked, and monks do perform tattoos in some temples in order to protect people and themselves against bullets, spirits or bad luck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *