Modernity casts spell over magic tattoos in Cambodia

It's much harder to get a magic tattoo in Cambodia than it used to be, laments Chey Cham.

"I do have one tattoo of a python on my right upper-arm but it's for beauty, not magic," says the 30-year-old from the outskirts of Cambodia's capital.

"That's because I can't find anywhere in my town to get a magic tattoo."

Over centuries, Cambodians have endured hours of procedures to obtain hand-drawn mystical tattoos believed to give them magical powers, but the tradition appears to be fading in this increasingly modern country.

Miech Ponn, advisor on mores and customs at Cambodia's Buddhist Institute, says magic tattoos are believed to bring good luck or popularity but are mostly used by soldiers seeking to become invisible to enemies or repel bullets.

"Tattoos were really popular among Cambodian men in the past. Almost every Cambodian male was tattooed," Miech Ponn says.

These days, he adds, superstitious people in rural areas are usually the ones who believe in magic.

"Until now science can't break this superstition. I don't know why it cannot."

Tattooist Chan Trea notices the number of customers seeking him out in the belief they will obtain special powers has dwindled over the past decade.

"Usually, the Cambodian customers are police, soldiers, and fighters like boxers and martial artists," Chan Trea says.

"But there is a decrease of people coming for magical reasons. I guess, in the future, things like magic will be very rare in this country."

The tattoos usually feature images of supernatural creatures, Hindu gods or characters from Pali and Sanskrit. Cambodian fighters are often adorned with intimidating images of a dragon, tiger or the monkey king Hanuman.

Chan Trea notes the tattoos can be administered by any traditional healer or Buddhist monk who has strong spiritual beliefs, but only a few remain alive who know how to use traditional long needles and recite magical spells.

These esteemed tattooists draw magic tattoos by hand with two or three sewing needles tied together, poking black, blue or red ink into the skin.

But for those seeking powers, the process isn't as simple as getting poked by a few needles, says the Buddhist Institute's Miech Ponn.

Those who drink alcohol or have extramarital affairs risk decreasing the magic from their tattoos, he says.

He adds that people getting the tattoos also must refrain from eating purple potatoes, gourds or star fruit to ensure the spells work - while for soldiers on the battlefield, stealing breaks a tattoo's magic.

A national hero, Cambodian heavyweight kickboxing champion Ei Phuthong, says he owes part of his decade-long reign to his magic tattoos.

With a mystical flying creature and the Hindu god Vishnu on his back, as well as a "Great Weight" Pali symbol on his right hand, he believes he gets more power in his punch.

"Of course I believe in magic tattoos, though it is inexplicable," he says. "They have helped me win. With them, I feel more than a match for my opponent in the ring."

The belief in the power of tattoos is most evident among hardened Cambodian troops stationed near the Thai border, where a territorial dispute over the past year has erupted into skirmishes which have killed seven soldiers.

One soldier near the area at the centre of the dispute, a 46-year-old who gives his name only as Oeurn, says he and most of his comrades have magic tattoos for protection.

The value of the magical Sanskrit patterns tattooed on his back and chest was proven, he says, during an April gunbattle which killed three Cambodian troops.

"At that time, many bullets were showered toward me," Oeurn claims, "but magically they were averted away."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

    £13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

    Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

    £19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

    £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

    Recruitment Genius: Developer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Day In a Page

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future