Possessed By Tattoos: Sak Yant Wai Kru Festival

Tattoo Festival Thailand

Nakhon Chai Si, Thailand

Hordes of screaming men possessed by their magic Sak Yant tattoos run wildly towards a shrine, crashing into the human shield of soldiers protecting it. Welcome to Thailand’s bizarre Wai Kru Festival.

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Each year over 10,000 people gather at Wat Bang Phra, a large Buddhist temple about an hour outside Bangkok to recharge the magic of their sacred Sak Yant tattoos.

Sak Yants are traditional Thai tattoos etched into the skin by Buddhist monks for protection & luck, blessed with magic powers. Often applied by hand using a long metal or bamboo rod with a needle attached to the end, dipped in special ink made from ingredients like charcoal & snake venom.

However the supernatural power of these tattoos wears off over time, requiring them to be re-blessed and recharged. This is the purpose of the Wai Kru festival, paying respect to the teacher, and infusing new magic into thousands of Sak Yants at once.

The result can only be described as absolute mayhem.

Sak Yant Tattoo

Sak Yant Tattoo

Traditional Sak Yant

The evening before Wai Kru, a group of Ajarns (tattoo masters) and Buddhist monks gather at the temple to apply 1000 fresh tattoos on those who want them, working long into the night. I received my own Sak Yant a few years ago right here at Wat Bang Phra, so returning for this tattoo festival was special for me. After 2 years it was time to recharge the magic of mine.

The Sak Yant was originally used by warriors seeking protection and strength in battle. Often covering their entire bodies from head to toe in magic symbols to prevent knives and arrows from piecing their skin. These days Thai people from all walks of life get them — doctors, lawyers, taxi drivers, prostitutes, actors, and mafia criminals.

Wat Bang Phra Thailand

Sak Yants Thailand

Possessed by Tattoos

Possessed By Tattoos

Thousands of devoted have gathered to renew the powers of their tattoos at the Wai Kru, and for some, the power overcomes them. Sitting cross-legged under the hot sun they enter a trance called Khong Khuen and become their tattoos — the Tiger, Crocodile, Old Man, or Hanuman the Hindu monkey god.

The Old Man slowly ambles up through the crowd hunched over with an invisible cane while laughing maniacally. Hanuman the monkey god leaps up screaming, sprinting full-speed towards a statue of their former master Luan Por Phern, tripping over others on the way. A wall of soldiers & paramedics stops them from reaching the shrine, pulling them out of the trance by rubbing their ears.

Sak Yant Tattoo Festival

Wai Kru Tattoo Festival

Tattoo Festival Thailand

Wai Kru Festival

At first the trance only afflicts a handful of people, but as the morning progresses, the energy builds. Eventually hundreds of people are running for the shrine in total chaos, arms flailing wildly, crashing into onlookers with clouds of dust in the 90 degree heat. Monks then lead the crowd in prayer, recharging the magic powers of everyone’s Sak Yant tattoos.

I spot Master Luang Pi Nunn among them, the monk who tattooed a Gao Yord design on my back. Even during prayer, a few more possessed jump up and sprint for the shrine. However once the incantations have been recited, the ceremony ends and a crowd of 10,000 pushes up to the front while monks spray everyone with holy water. This was probably the scariest part of the whole morning, as you have no control of your own movement. It’s a suffocating sea of bodies, and you’re forced to flow with the tide.

Tattoo Festival Soldiers

Tattoo Festival Thailand

Sak Yant Tattoo Festival

Sak Yant Tattoo Magic

While I didn’t end up in a trance by participating in the ceremony, the adrenaline kick I received from standing in the middle of this mayhem was powerful. Attempting to dodge Monkeys, Tigers, and Crocodiles flying by in all directions certainly keeps you on your toes.

This sacred Wai Kru tattoo ceremony at Wat Bang Phra has recharged the magic of my own traditional ink, and I look forward to the renewed luck & protection that comes with it. ★

Watch Video: Sak Yant Tattoo Festival


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Possessed By Tattoos: Sak Yant Wai Kru Festival! More at ExpertVagabond.com
Possessed By Tattoos: Sak Yant Wai Kru Festival! More at ExpertVagabond.com

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Hi, I’m Matthew Karsten — I’ve been traveling around the world for the last 9 years as a blogger, photographer, and digital nomad. Adventure travel & photography are my passions. Let me inspire you to travel with crazy stories, photography, and money-saving travel tips.
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Comments (31)

  1. It is a very interesting customer. I come from a country that does not allow tattooing, but it allows me to understand that my country is very close-minded. This beautiful!!

  2. Matthew, great post, and a nice tattoo.. HA! HA! i love those rules! why didn’t you visit Sri Lanka? you’ve missed the paradise BRO.
    Jhone

  3. wow! the video shows the insanity of the event! I have got to see this someday for myself. I was recently in Thailand getting my very own Sak Yant tattoo, following all of your advise from your previous post on how you got yours. I will have to be brave and go to one of these festivals to renew the magic! thanks for sharing your crazy adventures!

  4. I’ve been lucky to see some crazy festivals like this in Asia too. I’m mostly based in China, which has pretty much banned “superstitious activity”. You can find people still doing this kind of stuff on a very small scale though, in remote rural areas.
    If anybody is going to Malaysia, Penang holds two big festivals, the first is held by local Chinese communities to venerate the Jade Emperor, and has huge feasts, temple ceremonies and parades (where you can see Taoists getting possessed), and the Tamil Indian community has a piercing festival (sorry I forgot the name) where people put huge nails through parts of their bodies to cleanse themselves of sin.

  5. Hi Matthew, wanted to check and confirm the address of Wat Bang Phra. According to the above map the location is shown south of Nakhon Chaisi railway station. Others have indicated it’s location north of the town, about 15km. Which one is the correct location of Wat Bang Phra? Thanks

  6. I have gotten a couple of tattoos but never felt possessed although after one I think my face looked like the old guys in picture #8

  7. Wow! So amazing, that has to be a sight to see. Do you know what school these Buddhist monks are from? How often does one need to recharge the magic in their tattoos?

  8. woah, Kinda scary when someone sitting beside you suddenly jump and do crazy things but I can say say their festival was also cool because it is extraordinary.

  9. Hey, I love your blog and all the photos are so cool. I am Thai and never heard about this festival. It’s so interesting! And makes me want to go to เทศกาลสักยันต์ next year (and maybe get a tattoo!). Thank you for sharing with Thais as well na kha.

  10. Oh wow. Between the photos and the video, I felt transported. I find the festival very interesting, but it’s definitely scary to be in the middle. The part where you say that you couldn’t control your movement would bring me to tears of fear. You’re very brave!

  11. Dang, that sounds like a crazy event! It must have had your adrenaline pumping as well. Glad to hear you made it through the tattoo mosh pit unscathed. :). Truly a one of a kind experience. Thx for sharing!

  12. This is crazy. Once I saw a documental about Thai Vegetarian Festival, where people penetrate their bodies with random stuff. It’s pretty painful to see but at the same time it’s unbelievable how they go to trance like this.

  13. Wow!! Great reporting on the event, good to know the “rubbing the ears” trick if I run into anyone possessed. Your video had the affect of making me both want to go and avoid this event at all costs.

    • Thanks! It’s a bit dangerous being out there in the middle of it all, you have to keep your head on a swivel. I watched many people get knocked down. A local man saved me when he pulled me aside at the last minute.

  14. This seems like such a fascinating (and slightly bizarre) festival! I watched the video before reading your post, and was wondering why people were running like mad in the same direction.