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
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

    £15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Advisor is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Plant Fitter - Construction Industry

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This well established construction equipment d...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

    Recruitment Genius: Factory Operatives

    £7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer ba...

    Day In a Page

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003