Traditional Cambodian tattoos

I have many tattoos, but one of the most special ones I have is from when a visiting monk from a near by temple turned up at a friends guesthouse, Our Best Western. I’ve heard about traditional bamboo tattoos often on my travels around South East Asia and I’d said to myself that one day I would get one. In Cambodia traditional tattoos are done by holy men or monks, and consist of magical Khmer script that protects, or grants luck to the person receiving the tattoo. For example, if a soldier was going to war he would get a tattoo so that he would not get shot or stabbed during battle.

bob's tattoo

Our Best Western Guesthouse owner getting his tattoo

Yantra tattooing, as it’s called in South East Asia, originated in ancient Cambodia during the Khmer empire when warriors would get all of their bodies covered with tattoos to ward off danger and make them impervious to harm. And still to this day many soldiers and policemen still receive Yantra tattoos, for the same reasons as the ancient warriors. So, on this day I mentioned, one of these holy men came to my friends guesthouse with his tome full of magical scripts, I felt now is the time to get one. Now, it’s not that I’m going to war any time soon, but who knows what one might get up to traveling around a foreign country.

The holy man, an elderly gentleman maybe in his 70’s, took out his book and started to look through it. I was slightly worried when I found out that you don’t get to pick your own tattoo. He comes over to you and inspects your body, takes a look at your palms and chants some ancient prayers. He then decides what he is going to tattoo on you. Just like that. Oh, and yes, he is a fortune teller too, hence the palm reading.

aly palm read

My wife having her palms read

Traditionally he would use a sharpened piece of bamboo called a mai sak, but nowadays they use a khem sak, which is a long metal spike. After a bit more chanting and blowing on my arm to cleanse it, he took out his khem sak wiped it with alcohol and placed on the table, then he took out a piece of charcoal and some palm oil, which would become the ink. 10 minutes of rubbing the charcoal into the oil, the black fluid that would be my tattoo was ready. After several more prayers and a little bit more chanting he took the long piece of metal and started the gentle rhythmic process of tattooing, continuously blowing and still chanting, which apparently is just as important as the actual act of tattooing.

After half an hour he had finished the tattoo on my left arm. I was just about to stand up and take a look, before thanking him, when in broken English he said, “now your right arm.” I had to get the same tattoo on my other arm, to protect both sides of my body. So we went through the whole ritual again, which I actually didn’t mind at all because the blessing of your body, along with the gentle chanting almost put me into a trance.

tattoo trance

In the trance

I don’t know if I believe in all the magic and stuff but I do feel blessed and honoured to have been inked by a traditional Cambodian tattooing monk and if the opportunity ever arose again I would most definitly get another, or two, as the case may be.


Written by J.

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