Sak Yant Bamboo Tattoo Ceremony
Thailand tattoos come to life during Wai Kru
The Wai Kru ceremony at Wat Bang Phra has got to be up there with one of the most intense ceremonies I’ve ever been part of. Imagine a temple’s grounds filled with over 15,000 people under the scorching sun, who have all come to observe or take part in an ancient practice where the result may include becoming possessed! With people acting out as Hanuman (the Hindu God of war), crocodiles, tigers, frogs and a handful of other spirits, it was one of the most animated scenes I’ve taken witness to. Many of them rise up and start running full-on through the crowd towards the front stage! Injuries are commonplace during Wai Kru, as the force compelling them towards the stage does not restrict itself to the small areas of free ground open between them and the front of the temple’s open space. I came out fairly unscathed with only a ripped pocket from someone crashing into some of the security near the front platform. He was kicking wildly as some of the security team tried to calm him and bring him out of his trance. Wat Bang Phra’s Wai Kru’s security is there mostly for the possessed’s safety, as well as for some of the media who for the most part gathers behind the front line. I saw many feet flying around where their owners head should have been as the possessed’s body hurdled at near-light speed velocity, sometimes uncontrollably toward the front stage.
Starting the evening before Wai Kru, with many tattoo masters present, up to 1000+ people come to get a new Thai bamboo tattoo. These sacred bamboo tattoos are locally known as a Sak Yant. This process goes on all through the night, until the festivities commence early the following morning. A stage is set up at the front of the crowd where Thai Buddhist monks will sit and perform their rituals. Most of the Thais (and a few of the foreigners) have come to have their Sak Yants “recharged” of their protective qualities. Various chants and Buddhist prayers are repeated by the monks and devotees alike. Throughout the morning, many of the audience members fall into what appears to be a state of trance.
Periodically, someone may start mildly convulsing, screaming or even rising from their seated position. They take on the forms of the Thai tattoos they possess. Some are quite harmless, such as the old man who just slowly meanders through the audience, and are allowed to pass the security line right to the stage where they fall out of their trance. Meanwhile, others like Hannuman are the ones whose body gets hurdled through the seated crowd, often toppling over someone. Nothing is done in anger towards anyone else, and injuries are accepted as a risk of being there and partaking in the Wai Kru Sak Yant ceremony. In fact, this is one of the most peaceful gatherings you can find, in the sense that everyone from street food vendors, to “working-girls”, to Thai gangsters, to blue-collared office employees all come together. I did not see anyone act out with any spite or aggression, even if there may have not been so friendly to each other outside of the event. You must still, as in any large gathering, be mindful of your belongings. Money belts are encouraged (as are helmets, if you plan to sit somewhere in the line of the runners – I’m kidding, but only sort of).
Please Note: “Wai Kru” is a name used to describe this festival, though this may confuse some Thais if asking for this. Wai Kru is a general term used to describe a Thai ritual in which students pay respects to their teachers in order to express their gratitude and formalize the student–teacher relationship. It is used in Buddhist based schools in Thailand, in classical music institutes, and also for a ritual performed with Muay Thai kick boxers before a match. It may be best to ask for it as the Sak Yant festival, or some combination of the terms Wai Kru, Sak Yant, Bamboo tattoo, festival, etc. Of course, you can always just refer to Where Sidewalks End for details or questions regarding any of our posts.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Although this festival happens all over Thailand, and various temples, on various dates, I would say that the Wai Kru ceremony at Wat Bang Phra is one of the most accessible from Bangkok, and also the largest gathering of its kind. If you would like to make your way to this temple, full directions can be found in the post where my brother and I went to get our very own Sak Yant at Wat Bang Phra.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Stay – Accommodation
Eat – Restaurants
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
This festival happens annually, though is not on a predetermined date until only a few months (or sometimes weeks) before it happens. Generally, it occurs sometime around mid-late March. It is best to check online around mid February to see if there’s been any updates to the exact time of the event, if planning to attend.
Time: The tattooing for Wai Kru begins the night before the event, in the late evening. It is possible to get your own Sak Yant here, though perhaps recommended to wait until a day when fewer are being done in a row, as your risk of contracting Hepatitis is higher during an event of this nature, as there is more of a rush to get them done (though quality did not seem to diminish whatsoever). As well, traffic is BAD getting here, especially as you approach Wat Bang Phra right before the Wai Kru. The best time to arrive in the morning is early. The time at which the climax of the event changes from year to year, as does the date, though it’s generally relatively early. The climax is when the monks finish a prayer and hundreds of the devotees seem to become possessed simultaneously and start charging the stage in mass. It is bonkers! Absolute chaos! Incredible.
Safety – Possible risks
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Admission to the actual event of Wai Kru is free. This being said, you will need to arrange transportation to and from Wat Bang Phra. If you would like to see the tattooing the night before as well (highly encouraged!!), you will need to find a hotel nearby so you may get a few hours rest before heading back to the event. I’d suggest somewhere decent, as you’ll want a good sleep beforehand (however short that sleep might be!). Transport to and from the hotel should also be factored, as well as water and food. All of these may be quite inexpensive alone (depending on your taste), though should certainly be thought of before leaving Bangkok, as I did not notice any ATMs in or around Wat Bang Phra.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Reality Check – Be Aware
I cannot stress enough that this seriously was one of the craziest, most intense events I’ve ever witnessed (and I’ve seen a few in my time). The sun is as its hottest, energy levels are turned up to 11, and adrenaline regularly surges through your veins as you hear screams of oncoming ‘runners’ flying in from behind you. I’m not sure how many Thais were hurt during this Wai Kru event, though I did hear on the intercom that one foreign woman was hospitalized from a collision. I’m not saying this to scare anyone off, though you must go with proper awareness of where you are and what risks come along with being there. The Wai Kru Thailand tattoo festival was culturally intriguing, ancient, and most importantly, it was fun. This Wai Kru ceremony is still very ‘off-the-beaten-path’, as from what I observed there was an incredibly low ratio of foreigners present, apart from a dozen media present and the people I went with.
I was very fortunate enough to take part in the festival with Tom Vater, journalist and author of the best selling book “Sacred Skin: Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos“. He has spent 15+ years living and travelling in and around Asia, 1 of which was spent researching the topic of the Sak Yant tattoo. From my time spent with Tom, I would personally assume him to be one of the most educated people in the art of the Sak Yant in the world, as he has accumulated data from all over Thailand, much of which came from various tattoo masters, both of the Buddhist lineage, as well as the Risshi lineage. By piecing together the info collected from various sources, he was able to bring together information and paint a picture of the history and practice not available anywhere else. His wife, Aroon, took some of the most beautiful photographs of those who are deeply involved in the ritual, and documented each of their tattoos. If you’d like more information on Sak Yant, I’d highly encourage you to read Sacred Skin. A very special thanks for the time I was able to spend and learn from him.
JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages
This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!
Want to witness people becoming possessed by the spirits of their Sak Yant in mass? Wai Kru festival at Wat Bang Phra allows you to do just that! Joined by one of the world’s leading experts in the art of Sak Yant, you will delve deep into the sub-culture of those blessed with this ancient, sacred skin art.
We offer a very personalized package where you are able to meet with an ajarn and discuss options that best suit your life and needs. The studio is sanitized by western standards, and you will be joined by a leading expert in the art of Sak Yant, who will be able to discuss the ancient art in great depth, along with receiving a signed copy of their book, Sacred Skin.
Click on this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.
If you are interested in attending Wai Kru, but not sure if you would like to try it alone, please Contact Us for details on how to have your arrangements made to go with a group. We also organize a group tour with one of the world’s leading experts as our Travel Guru. Check it out here Sak Yant Festival.
Have you ever seen someone in a trance or become possessed? Have you ever been to a festival or ceremony with ancient animistic beliefs such as this? Please feel free to share your own stories and feedback in the comment section below!