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March 8, 2003

THAILAND'S TEMPLE OF TATTOOS
By JENNIFER GAMPELL
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, March 8, 2003

NAKORN CHAISRI, THAILAND -- Never stand in the way of a bare-chested Thai man possessed by the spirit of his body tattoo. While Thais rarely show emotion, apart from their ubiquitous smiles, on March 15 at Wat Bang Phra, several hundred men will transform into hissing, roaring and shrieking incarnations of the mythological Hindu creatures etched on their upper bodies.

Welcome to the unique wai khru (honour the teacher) ceremony held annually in Nakorn Chaisri, 50 kilometres west of Bangkok. The centuries-old Thai tradition dates back to the time when schools were located in temples and teachers were monks. Once a year, students would make obeisance to past and present generations of knowledge bearers -- a hierarchy of ancient Brahmin gods represented by colourful masks on a multitiered stage. Nowadays, the wai khru ritual is performed rarely, except in a condensed version at schools or boxing matches. And at this unusual temple.

From the mid-1970s until his death last summer, the "teacher" revered annually at Wat Bang Phra was the abbot, Luang Phor Pern. More magical than intellectual, his special skills involved applying talismanic tattoos and -- even more important -- activating them. His tough-guy students believe that empowered tattoos will protect them from danger (gunshots, knife thrusts, road accidents) and endow them with positive personality traits.

For example, Hanuman (the monkey god) is supposedly a great and clever fighter; dragons are brave and wise; geckos are loving. Since the empowering spells wear off over time, true believers like to recharge their talismanic batteries at least once a year.

This year, the abbot's monastic disciples and his successor, Luang Phor Ang, will preside over what promises to be the largest crowd ever. Heavily tattooed men from all over Thailand will start arriving at dawn. By 7 a.m., the dusty arena will be half full of men, and a few women, sitting cross-legged on old newspapers and sheets of plastic. Rows of plastic chairs near the stage will be reserved for visiting monks. Like their lay brethren, many of the saffron-robed bonzes also sport animals and primitive Khmer runes on their upper arms and semi-exposed shoulders.

Except for the absence of music, the ambiance resembles a typical Thai temple fair, complete with messages blaring out over loudspeakers and vendors selling food (and probably lots of Luang Phor Pern memorabilia). The general cacophony usually drowns out the first shrieks, but soon more and more men will begin trembling violently and contorting their bodies.

According to occult tattoo theory, the spirits of the men's tattooed images are calling out to their monkish creator embodied in the wai khru deities on stage. Some will leap up, flap their arms and pirouette toward the stage, screeching like birds (Garuda). One regular attendee is a wild-eyed hulk who roars like a prehistoric behemoth as he lumbers toward the stage.

Not a moment too soon, the announcer will summon a large contingent of uniformed soldiers to the front of the stage. Soon, scores of men in verisimilar trance-like states will be hopping (frogs) and racing (lions and tigers) stage-ward. Some will change creature in midstream, morphing from a raging tiger to a slippery eel. A useful tip if you're in the middle of this ensorcelled crowd: crawlers (snakes) and hobblers (the Rishi hermit) are the easiest to avoid.

Alas, the mesmerized tattooees never reach the stage. Instead, they run into a human gauntlet of soldiers and male volunteers who grab the flailing men -- sometimes it takes six ordinary men to subdue a single spellbound one -- and de-trance them. (Apparently the best method for bringing tattoo-covered bewitched men back to reality is by rubbing their ears.)

When the new abbot finally comes on stage around 9:30 a.m., the packed arena will resemble a religious mosh pit with soldiers, volunteers and many exhausted trancees (some have assumed up to 10 different animist personalities during the ceremony) covered in dirt and bloodstains.

After quieting the crowd, the new abbot will give a short speech. Then, using hoses decorated with bamboo stalks, his acolytes power-bless the ecstatic crowd by spraying them with water. Moments after, everyone is back to "normal." By 10 a.m., the only remnants of the morning's melee will be crumpled newspapers blowing across the hot dusty arena.

Throughout the rest of the day, scores of men will queue patiently at various temple outbuildings to receive new tattoos or have old ones re-blessed by the temple's resident monks. One roly-poly monk specializes in mumbling incantations, applying gold leaf to foreheads and reactivating the spirit energy. Next door, a heavily tattooed monk in ink-spattered robes uses 40-centimetre-long metal rods with split tips to create primitive monochromatic images. (The ink is a secret recipe of snake venom, herbs and cigarette ash.) Grasping the top end of the "needle" like an ice pick, he makes short rapid pricks, using wadded up toilet paper to wipe away the droplets of blood.

Though the monks at Wat Bang Phra create new tattoos and re-bless old ones throughout the year, devotees insist work performed on a wai khru day carries the greatest potency. For those with high thresholds for heat and chaos, it's the only time to visit.

If you go:

GETTING THERE
The easiest way to get to Wat Bang Phra temple in Nakorn Chaisri is to rent a metered taxi or van from Bangkok. The drive takes about one hour if there is no traffic. Visitors should plan to arrive at the temple by 6 a.m. and could be back in Bangkok after the ceremony by noon. The cost for a van is around $52 for the day.

INFORMATION
This year's wai khru ceremony will be held on March 15.

It is extremely hot in Thailand at this time of year, so be prepared, wear a hat against the sun, and bring lots of water. Dress respectfully for the temple. Shorts or halter tops are unacceptable. And do not carry a black umbrella against the sun. Other colours are okay, but black is not.

Copyright 2003 Jennifer Gampell