After spending day one in Bangkok visiting a variety of Buddhist sites (and a few unexpected fashion marts) we got to talking with our tuk tuk driver and eventually asked him about his tattoos, which were visible under his shirt collar. We had heard about the Thai tradition of monks skilled in the art of tattooing Buddhist protection charms (which I had thought had a similar purpose as the pine needle stitch (called a semori) sewn on the neckpiece of a rakusu). The Thai tradition was confirmed by our driver, Hong-de, who told us he had been planning a trip to return to the Wat Bang Phra famous for the tattoo called Sak yant. He offered to take us along with him (in a car, not a tuk tuk) and we made arrangements to meet him and his friend Sam Prit at 8am on the following morning for a day-long excursion out of town.
We met on Samsen road as planned and Graham and I piled into an old Toyota beater, assuring Hong-de that we would be fine without AC. We also agreed to pay the petrol costs for the trip, and made our first stop at a 7-11 (seemingly ubiquitous in Bangkok) for some Hong-de specialty coffee (three times the coffee and a super saturation of sugar) and a fill-up. It took a bit of time just to get out of the city, but eventually we found ourselves driving past rice paddies and through the lush palm forests northwest of Bangkok. With the windows rolled down for the breeze we couldn’t talk much, so we sometimes drove along in silence or with music, gazing at the changing scenery.
We reached Wat Bang Phra in a little over an hour, made some offerings, took a few photos of some of the statuary and musical instruments (some of them quite large!) and made our way to a large courtyard where a sizable crowd of people were gathered around a monk who was giving a tattoo to one of the disciples. Several people seemed to be assisting by holding the subject’s skin taut as the monk worked on him with a long thin needle, spilt at the tip into two points like a piece of bamboo. We watched him work for quite awhile, seeing how he filed and cleaned the needles as well as the skin of his subject; how he marked the area of the tattoo, spoke a few words and began tattooing rapidly with the long needle, holding it loosely between two fingers and jabbing at a rate of about 70 per 15 seconds. A tattoo could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour depending on it’s size, but many of the people receiving tattoos seemed to stay around to help hold down the ones after them (for stabilization I presumed!). After a tattoo was completed the master would chant a kind of incantation with palms together and then he would open his hands and blow hard onto them and the tattoo together and it would be over, at least until the devotee (like Hong-de) was back for another.
After the tattoos (some of them quite grueling) it was a time for prayers (BROADCAST) and also for our lunch. We walked down to the riverside beside the Wat for some food, fed the catfish, talked with our new friends a bit more about the history of the place and the practice of tattooing as a form of Buddhist protection (and simply for “good luck”). Both Hong de and Sam Prit had been to the temple many times, starting from the time they were young boys. Sam Prit, who grew up in the old capital Ayutthaya, told us his mother was a devotee with tattoos covering her whole body. They told us about the incredibly famous former abbot of the Wat who was highly skilled both as a meditator and also for his ability to bestow protective measures on his monastic and lay followers. After taking a post-lunch walk around the grounds we went to a large hall to make offerings and prostrations to and receive blessings from an elderly monk (perhaps it was Hlwong Por Sam Aang, the current abbot?) and to see the famous but deceased former abbot of Wat Bang Phra, Ajarn Pra Udom Phrachaanaat.
It turns out there was quite a bit of excitement about the late Ajarn Pra Udom Phrachaanaat. He was encased in a glass coffin in the large open air hall of the temple, and we were informed that he had not in fact decomposed at all since his death over eight years ago. Indeed, just to look at the corpse of the former abbot it was hard to believe that his body was in such good shape for lying in such a tropical climate for such a long time! Such an example of his incredible powers were just a part of the Buddhist magic at work in Wat Bang Phra, the temple famous for the Sak yant tattoo.
I later found out that Ajarn Pra Udom Phrachaanaat was popularly known as Hlwong Por Phern Tithakunoe, or H.P. Phern for short. Having grown up in the relatively gang-ridden territory of Sorng Pi Norng province of SupannBurii (where a number of infamous Nak Laeng (Gangsters) and Highwaymen lived), H.P. Phern became very interested in Buddhist protection charms. He sought out and became a lay disciple of Hlwong Por Daeng, a highly respected monk at the time, who was in turn a disciple of Hlwong Por Hnoeng, a renowned master in matters of Buddhist sorcery. At 26 years of age H.P. Phern ordained as a monk by Pra Aajaarn Huem and went on to study Vipassana Meditation with utmost dedication for many years. Through these studies he became a disciple of Hlwong Por Oe Paa Sii, one of the greatest monks of the time, known for his powers of white magic. After this, H.P. Phern went on to practice “Dern Tudongk” (walking aimlessly through the jungle renouncing the comfort of the Wat), through Central Thailand and the thickest jungles of Burma, sitting in the midst of dangers as jungle fevers, poisonous snakes, and tigers in ancient graveyards and ruined temples. According to Thai beliefs, there were also the added dangers of “Naang Mai” (wicked fairies and tree spirits), Phii Phoeng and Phii Phaa (jungle ghosts) and all sorts of evil spirits.
The inhabitants of that mountainous jungle region were mostly from the Karen tribe and many of them became disciples of H.P. Phern, who seemed to be loved and respected for his transparent personality, great compassion and his power to help the folk with his Buddhist magic. He became the abbot of Wat Tung Naang Hlorg (Temple of the field with the lady ghost) for five years but then returned to the practice of Dern Tudongk for some time, also becoming educated in the art of the Sak Yant tattoo, the infusion of a Buddhist protective charm within an ink tattoo created by a split bamboo needle. In the late 1960s Hlwong Por Phern became the abbot of Wat Bang Phra where he lived and practiced until his passing in 2004. Unfortunately I was unable to procure a close-up of the encased venerable monk to share, or of the monk who gave us blessings (and inscribed a few symbols on the inside of our rakusu envelopes).
We left the Wat shortly afterwards and had an uneventful ride back to the city. We thanked our two companions, received Hong-de’s phone number in case we were ever in need of another ride (or tattoo presumably) and said our goodbyes for now. It was close to dark by the time we returned to the guest house, exhausted and sore but exhilarated from our second day in Bangkok.