For a modern, technologically advanced country, Thailand shows exceptional adherence to the old ways and folk customs when it comes to the occult. Spirit houses stand in the parking lots of high-rise residential buildings. Secret spells are employed to boost careers. Amulet markets compete for space with those for second-hand cellphones. And many urban Thais spot one or more Sak Yant – magic tattoos. These sacred patterns have to be inked into the skin using special tinctures, to the accompaniment of recited mantras, by the ajarns (“teachers” – Buddhist monks believed to have supernatural powers). It can be done in many monasteries, but in the vicinity of Bangkok, one temple has gained particular fame for this: Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Pathom, just 50 km or so from the capital. Once a year, usually around Gregorian March, this monastery also stages a massive festival. Pilgrims from all over the country attend it to get the magic powers of their Sak Yants recharged, but there is one bizarre side effect: some of the worshipers become possessed by the animal spirits encased in their tattoos. This results in a stampede of entranced men who have forgotten they are men, running, leaping and crawling towards the monks. Think zombie apocalypse with a holy flavor.
The official idea behind the festival is Wai Kru - a homage, a ceremony of showing respect to a great teacher. In Wat Bang Phra, it is Ajarn Luang Pho Pon, a highly revered monk. But as he was a master of Sak Yant tattooing, so does the festival revolve around the sacred patterns. It starts effectively on the previous night, when a large group of ajarns ink pilgrims one by one, all night long. Then, early in the morning, the main ritual begins: monks chant from a stage, next to the monument of Luang Pho Pon, and the worshipers, sitting cross-legged in the open courtyard, meditate to this sound. Energy flows, tattoos recharge, until a sudden surge in the invisible current jolts the pilgrims, and dozens of them get possessed at once. Tigers, monkeys, crocodiles and frogs in human bodies rush towards the stage, to be tackled and brought down by a platoon of soldiers, encircling the monks just for this purpose. The madness ceases, only to occur again a few minutes later. Asia has no shortage of spirit possession ceremonies, but this one is among the most exceptional.
Wat Bang Phra is located close enough to Bangkok to travel straight from there. Public vans to Nakhon Pathom would drop you off at the right junction if you locate it first on Google Map and forewarn the driver. From there, it is either a taxi or hitchhiking. The best way to see the ceremony would be to arrive in the evening, observe the inking of Sak Yants at night, sleep on the temple grounds (which means literally on the ground - be prepared), then watch the festival in the morning. A warning: when the worshipers possessed by animal spirits stampede to the stage, they ignore anything and anyone in their path. The smart thing to do is to hide behind the soldiers, close to the monks. Take care of your camera gear and keep your ears open: if you hear growling from behind, duck!
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