The Fading Tradition of Khmer Magical Tattoos

It’s a well-known story by this point, but Nhiek Bun Chhay still tells it with plenty of verve: July 5 and 6, 1997-the coalition between ruling Funcinpec and the CPP has broken down, and soldiers from the two camps fight it out in the streets of Phnom Penh. Overpowered and out-gunned, Funcinpec forces were in a desperate position and had to beat a hasty retreat.

A commander of the royalist resistance fighters since the 1980s, Nhiek Bun Chhay was an obvious target during those two days of combat.

Surrounded by CPP forces in Phnom Penh, Nhiek Bun Chhay jumped into a small bush, he said recently, wrapping his arms about his face to mimic that cramped hideaway. Not far away, his fellow Funcinpec officers were being captured-a number would never be seen alive again.

Nhiek Bun Chhay said that he had only one avenue left: to call on the power of his magic tattoos and sacred mantras that activate their power.

“There is a magic that in Pali means ‘cow hide a calf’…. I recited that magic and they did not see me,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said with an emphatic nod. “About three soldiers came to look for me and got about 2 meters away, but they could not see me.”

Sill free, Nhiek Bun Chhay fled for the Thai border in the northwest, dodging CPP patrols along the way. He told of one moment where his “magic of invisibility” saved him again on that journey: out of the group of 43, only he and a man that stuck close to him escaped apprehension during a raid.

Nhiek Bun Chhay’s almost supernatural escape after the 1997 fighting cemented his reputation in the minds of many as not being so much a lucky man, as one with powerful magic.

Protective magic has long been a facet of Cambodian life, likely predating the construction of Angkor Wat by centuries, if not millennia. And there is perhaps no more explicit display of belief in those mystical powers than Khmer magic tattoos.

The geometric patterns of writing and images that crisscross the bodies of many older soldiers and fighters represent a unique arena where religious faith meets superstition, valor confronts fear, and the grim realities of a life of combat often give way to the tall tales of mythic heroes.

And though they may have been drawn to spare a man from a bullet, the complex arrangements of some tattoos and the folk-like quality of more crudely administered examples are often beautiful artworks in their own right.

Now the secretary-general of Funcinpec, Nhiek Bun Chhay still has the marks of his tattoos running along his prominent jawline (to more effectively bellow orders to masses of troops), on his forearms (“great gravity” magic to make his fists into heavier, deadlier weapons) and across his chest and shoulders (general protective measures against all manner of dangers).

Typically displaying a stern, if not gruff demeanor that seems to match his bulldog appearance, Nhiek Bun Chhay becomes animated when speaking of his wartime days and magical prowess-talking with his hands and recreating battlegrounds with utensils on a Chinese restaurant’s table during a recent interview.

His descriptions of the types of powers he possesses often step beyond the realm of the plausible, but he is far from alone in recounting his magic-filled past with a sense of personal myth-making. A number of soldiers and former soldiers interviewed-most having been resistance fighters from the northwest during the tumultuous 1980s-gave accounts that similarly stretched the limits of credulity.

But Nhiek Bun Chhay is, as one prominent resistance fighter put it, “the most magic man.”

Magic tattoos always begin with a magic man. There is little benefit to be gained from merely being marked with the appropriate scripts and images; they must be transmitted to the skin by specially trained individuals known to already possess magical abilities. Essentially, it becomes a transfer of power from the magic man to the recipient of the tattoos.

These magic men are typically Buddhist monks or laypeople that have built up some renown for their devotion and piety, as well as their knowledge of magic spells. Many of those interviewed said that the relationship between the magic man and the person hoping to be tattooed was akin to that of master and disciple-the magic man would not tattoo just anyone, only those found worthy.

RCAF Major General Lay Virak, formerly a guerrilla leader for the republican Khmer People’s National Liberation Front in the 1980s, said he scoured the Cambodian northwest as a younger man in search of magic men to learn from and be tattooed by. Funcinpec lawmaker Khieu San received his protective tattoos from his father, a well-known local magic man, when he joined the army in 1965. According to Khieu San, his father could plunge his hands in boiling water without receiving injury.

In a tale worthy of Joseph Campbell, the well-known American mythology professor, Nhiek Bun Chhay said that his magic man was a devout hermit that lived in the forests of present-day Banteay Meanchey province.

As he tells it, one night in the early 1970s a flame burst from a banyan tree outside his family home, striking the spire atop the house. Soon after, his younger brother lost consciousness and stopped breathing for five hours before finally being revived by his grandfather using a powder made from the roots of the tree.

From that day forward his brother suffered regular seizures and fits, prompting the family to take him to a number of hospitals. His brother was even subjected to shock treatment at a psychiatric facility in Phnom Penh, but to no avail.

Nhiek Bun Chhay then went looking for a monk to bless his brother, hoping to find a spiritual cure now that the doctors had failed. In his search, he says he came upon a hermit that lived in the forest. He convinced him to go to his house to conduct the blessing, but his brother recoiled when the hermit tried to douse him with blessed water. It took six men to hold the ill boy down.

“Perhaps the spirit in him was afraid of the hermit monk,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said.

For several months the hermit returned frequently to bless his brother-who always violently resisted, requiring that he be restrained. Eventually the blessings seemed to take hold and the boy’s seizures ceased.

“[My brother] still lives to this day. That’s how I got to know the hermit monk, and I followed him in the forest for two years,” Nhiek Bun Chhay added.

“During that time I learned a lot of Pali magic from the magic monk,” he said. Pali is an ancient Indian language still serves as the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism.

Nhiek Bun Chhay said that about six months after the Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975, he and the hermit fled from communist-held territory to join the resistance. “When I fled with the monk from the Khmer Rouge we were surrounded three times, but we could not be captured because the monk was very powerful,” he said.

It was shortly thereafter, in 1976 that the monk agreed to tattoo his disciple as he joined the “White Khmer” resistance forces, granting him magical protection to take on the Khmer Rouge.

Reut Hath first learned the art of inking magic into the skin of another in 1971. His father-a farmer and martial arts trainer-was a “powerful magic man” in the northwest, having learned magic and tattooing from the Venerable Hem, a revered monk that Reut Hath said had even blessed members of the royal family.

“Many people came to [my father], so he gave some of the work to me,” the 51-year-old said. “So, I had to learn magic.”

Reut Hath started tattooing soldiers in 1977 when he fled Khmer Rouge executioners to join the resistance in the Tonle Sap lake area. A native of the northwest, he came to Phnom Penh to join the Vietnamese backed military in 1979, but was taken for a Khmer Rouge supporter and rejected. He then decided to take up with the republican KPNLF, tattooing comrades and fighting the Vietnamese occupation forces and the Cambodian government until the Paris Peace Agreement of 1991.

Those capable of applying Khmer magic tattoos still tend to punch them into the skin by hand rather than by the gun used in most modern tattoo parlors. Reut Hath said that the main implement for tattooing is a thin handle about 30 cm long with two syringe needles at one end. String is wound round the needles so that only the points are exposed, which prevents the needles from piercing too deeply into the body.

Nhiek Bun Chhay said that the black ink used to make his tattoos was prepared from special tree barks, but Reut Hath said that any old ink would suffice. During the early years of the resistance fighting, however, ink was in short supply, so he would create his own by mixing the material inside alkaline batteries with rice wine. Later on they were able to get access to printing house ink from China.

Before being tattooed, the recipient would have coconut oil rubbed on his skin. Reut Hath explained that the oil worked to prevent the ink from spreading on the skin and creating a mess.

Once prepared, Reut Hath said he would grip the needle end of the tattooing implement from below with the fingertips of his left hand and the tip of the opposite end with his right hand. Then with short, swift movements-so fast that they nearly escape the eye-he’d punch the ink into the skin, guiding the needles with his left hand and rapidly poking them in and out of the skin with his right.

In a quick demonstration, he was able to punch out a Khmer letter in less than 15 seconds on a piece of paper, but some people have veritable essays written on their bodies, requiring days of painful prodding to produce.

Lay Virak said that the pain from getting the tattoos was so intense that he had to give up on the protective design that was being done across his chest before it was finished. Even so, he believes the completed tattoos he received served him well on the battlefield.

Boung Thoeun, a 49-year-old RCAF sergeant major and former KPNLF captain, is tattooed pretty much from head to toe. He said that after receiving his tattoos his skin was so swollen and painful to the touch that he couldn’t bathe for days.

After getting the tattoos, the recipient is taught special mantras to activate their powers and a set of rules to ensure that their magical potency doesn’t wane.

“The main thing that maintains the magic to defend you is to recite the Pali words the magic man has given you,” Lay Virak said.

The words and the passage of knowledge are important elements of the tattooing process, which is not so much an act as a ceremony. Nhiek Bun Chhay said that for maximum effectiveness, it is best to have that ceremony on a Buddhist holiday or during a full moon.

Reut Hath said that the tattoos he did were almost entirely spells written in Pali, but done in Khmer characters, and Sanskrit, although these characters are sometimes drawn in a stylized manner to create spires and medallions that one would scarcely recognize as letters.

He does draw some designs that move towards more pictorial representations, such as figures like ziggurats that he says are a sign of respect for one’s ancestors (to draw their protection), as well as a common protective motif tattooed on the upper arm consisting of stylized coils called a “five Buddha statue” design.

“I have done this work for a long time, so I don’t need to lay out the design first,” he said. “I just needle the magic in.”

Some draw images such as lions as part of their magic tattoos, but Reut Hath said it was outside his knowledge and he was skeptical of their ability to provide real protection.

Reut Hath learned the tattoos by memorizing a bible of designs created by his father. That book is long since lost, but Reut Hath said he is hoping to recreate it from memory and have the images scanned onto a computer so that they can be preserved for the protection of future generations.

As an interesting twist, Reut Hath said that he actually has no idea what the Pali and Sanskrit words he etches into the skin of others mean.

“I cannot read the Pali, but I know what letter is what letter, so I know what to write according to the formula,” he said.

“I learned it, but even I don’t understand why the magic is so powerful,” he added.

Beyond invisibility, boosting one’s voice and creating punishingly heavy fists, the list of powers that can be bestowed through these tattoos and associated magic mantras seems nearly endless.

Most obvious-and useful for a soldier-is the supposed ability to deflect bullets, one that every tattoo recipient said they, at least at one time, could do.

Reut Hath mentioned that the circular medallion designs that typically adorn the shoulder near the collarbone are meant to repel metal projectiles in general. Another Pali and Sanskrit tattoo drawn around the ankle is meant to ward off damage from landmines.

A number of soldiers spoken to said that one of the dangers of the tattoos making your skin impervious to damage is that it can be difficult for doctors to treat you if you fall ill-hypodermic needles apparently have a tendency to just bend or break on contact with the skin.

“When you have tough skin and you get malaria, it is very dangerous,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said earnestly. “I must have gotten malaria 100 times while fighting.”

Lay Virak said he knows of magic that prevents a person from getting lost in the forest. He also met a monk that knew the secret of magic that allowed you to walk through fire.

“During the war, we believed in the magic. We knew a lot, including magic that prevents you from being tied up or hurt by torture,” Lay Virak added.

On the battlefield, one even has to worry about an opponent that might have more powerful magic.

Boung Thoeun, the heavily tattooed sergeant major, is covered primarily with dense patterns of text-particularly up and down his arms-but surrounding his navel he has the image of Attan, a deity that is both male and female, which he said is meant to prevent another’s magic from sapping his own power.

Boung Thoeun said that he twice stepped on a landmine, only to have both of them fizzle rather than explode. He also recalled getting caught in a nighttime ambush in Kompong Thom province that should have meant certain death, but he came away unscathed.

“The enemy sprayed a lot of bullets at us,” he said. “It was a dark place but there were so many [tracers] flying about that it looked like the daytime.”

“I completely believe in this kind of magic,” said Reut Hath, who not only drew protective tattoos, but had a number drawn on him following his father’s designs.

“I was captured once by the Vietnamese,” he said. “They said to me, ‘We fired a lot of bullets at you but you didn’t die, so you have to pay us back for all the bullets.’ I could not pay, so they took my clothes and magical items-maybe so they could do research on them.”

On another occasion in 2002, Reut Hath said, a gunman pulled a pistol on him in a restaurant and pulled the trigger at point blank range, but the gun didn’t fire.

Khieu San recalled being in a protracted battle with Vietcong elements in 1968. Both sides were dug in he said, and supplies were running low. Desperate for food, he said that he made use of his magic to make his way over to the Vietnamese side and steal food from right in front of the enemy without them ever seeing him.

“I should have died about 10 times,” said Nhiek Bun Chhay, recounting one such incident when a number of fighters were making their way through a minefield near the Thai border. Someone set off a mine and the resulting blast killed five men surrounding him. Stunned by the explosion, he was rushed to a Thai clinic because of all the shrapnel tears in his clothing, but when they cleaned the dirt and soot they realized that he hadn’t been scratched.

With so much power supposedly at their fingertips, it would seem like a half-dozen tattooed soldiers could take on an army. But when it comes to magical Cambodian tattoos there’s still a catch-several actually.

“It is a question of your belief, your nationalism, and your devotion to the rules,” said Reut Hath, who would tell those stipulations to those he tattooed.

Basically, the rules for keeping your magic potent seem to be basic issues of morality and religiosity: do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, regularly burn incense and pray, recite the mantras, etc.

The rules establish a Buddhist grounding for the magic, taking what could be thought of as a selfish act to empower oneself and changing it into a promoter of moral behavior and faith-even if only because one believes their days will be bullet-free.

Of course, to the more cynical-minded, the rules also provide a reason why a man covered in Pali spells might be killed on the battlefield: “If only he hadn’t been so forward with his neighbor’s wife…”

All of those interviewed about their tattoos cited the basic rules of not killing, stealing, lying or committing adultery. Khieu San said that to keep his magic powerful he had to follow the five precepts of the Buddha, which include the four above and also a prohibition of alcohol. “It’s not like voodoo-this is the real power from the Buddha,” he said.

Lay Virak addressed the seeming contradiction of soldiers getting tattoos that prohibit killing, saying: “When we fight in a war, we do not aim at taking another’s life, we fight to defend ourselves.”

All said that regular prayer and purification was also an essential part of the process.

Often these prayers will include wishes of good will and fortune for the man that gave them the tattoos. Nhiek Bun Chhay said that he still starts and concludes each day with the same prayers to preserve his protective magic.

But beyond that, some of the rules given by some magic men seem pretty arbitrary.

Reut Hath forbids the men he tattoos from eating dog meat. The prohibition on certain meats extends to snake, turtle and pork for Lay Virak to keep his power. Khieu San risks losing his magic if he walks under a clothesline. And in perhaps the most unusual prohibition, Lay Virak could sacrifice his protection if he urinates and defecates at the same time.

Khieu San said he once learned the hard way that breaking the rules can be dangerous. Mere millimeters away from the fading tattoo on his right wrist is a small but prominent scar that the lawmaker said was the result of a close call with a Vietnamese bayonet.

He explained how he was wounded despite his magic tattoos: In a pitched battle in the early 1970s, he tried to urge on troops that seemed unwilling to engage the enemy. Screaming at his men, Khieu San said he used some very intemperate language. It was shortly thereafter that he caught the bayonet to the wrist and instantly realized that his vulgar outburst had left him vulnerable to attack.

“I immediately dropped and said a prayer to make things right,” he said, thus restoring his protection.

The end of fighting in Cambodia seems to have done much to reduce both the strict morality and magical potency associated with the tattoos: With easy living comes temptation.

Boung Thoeun said that since the fighting ended he’s enjoyed the nightlife and had an “outside woman or two,” so he cannot rely on the tattoos that cover most of his body to keep him perfectly safe anymore.

Reut Hath also believes that many of the men that received tattoos in the resistance days no longer carry with them the magic they once had.

“During the fighting, most of the fighters were powerful-the magic worked,” he said. “But with peace many came to the cities and starting drinking, sleeping with girls and the magic has faded away.”

And above all the magic of the tattoos, there is still fate.

Reut Hath said he had tattooed hundreds of men that came through battle after battle unscathed, but even so, “If it is your destiny to die, the magic cannot save you.”

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