Though Pali and Sanskrit—both Indian languages—are commonly used in Khmer magic tattoos, the tradition likely dates back far before the incursion of Hinduism to Cambodia in the 1st century AD, according to historian and ethnologist Michel Tranet.
The oldest solid evidence that Cambodians tattooed themselves is found in a 2nd century BC Chinese chronicle, which describes the Khmer-Mon of the time as being largely naked and tattooed.
However, there is indirect archaeological evidence that suggests that Cambodians were looking to give themselves power through tattoos far earlier.
Tranet, who was formerly a secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, pointed to a small figurine from 500 to 300 BC of a naked man with spirals on his pectorals and at his navel. A second figure from 2,500 BC found in Kampot province shows a torso with small dots carved in a circle around the abdomen. Tranet said that while the swirls and circles may just be decorative motifs, they at least suggest that the idea of decorating the body with symbolic imagery existed at the time.
He added that the use of spirals was particularly telling because in the animistic beliefs held by Cambodians at the time spirals represented the power of nature, which would have been both worshipped and feared.
“People observe nature and see its powers and seek to appropriate that power through the tattoos,” he said. “When you want it and you think it is powerful, you add it to your body…. By doing so, you become a superman: Nothing can destroy you and it inspires fear in others.”
Tranet said that as Brahmanistic beliefs entered the Cambodian mainstream from India, you then saw the addition of Hindu deities and Sanskrit to the tattooing tradition already in place. Likewise, when Buddhism made inroads a thousand years later, Pali script was incorporated.
Even if the mystical properties are at best dubious, Tranet said the tattoos have played an important role in Cambodian warfare, if only for the psychological edge.“Humans are weak, so we need a strong spirit…. The tattoos enable you to focus, to encourage your spirit and make you unafraid.”
He added that he believes this tradition to still be a very strong one in rural areas of Cambodia, and would likely hold up as a durable example of Cambodia’s intangible heritage.
Others, however, aren’t so sure.
“Now soldiers these days don’t have many [magic] tattoos or carvings on their skin,” said Nhiek Bun Chhay, who was co-minister of defense from 2004 to early 2006. “Now the younger generation just get drawings on their skin, not Pali magic.”
“I religiously got my tattoos, but now some guys—the gangsters—they get some flower tattoo or something—it’s crazy,” Funcinpec lawmaker Khieu San said.
RCAF Major General Lay Virak said he is concerned that the magic men of yesteryear are not as willing as they once were to share their knowledge.
“The problem is that Cambodians have the powerful magic from the old days, but there are some teachers that don’t want to give it to the new generation,” he said.
Reut Hath, the tattoo artist, is just such a teacher. He said that after the fighting stopped, he gave his tattooing implements to a pagoda as an offering and will not mark the skin of any more people.
“I decided to stop giving the tattoos because I cannot trust the young people these days. If they had tattoos, they’d probably fight,” he said. “Before, we thought about the liberation of our country. We had a good spirit.”
He said he does know of some magic men who continue to tattoo people, but their numbers are dwindling.“Many soldiers have [tattoos], but they don’t know how to pass them on,” he added.
But perhaps the biggest blow to the tradition of protective tattooing is the current Cambodian military. Though not in any way prohibited, soldiers and commanders spoken to said the tattoos are now quite rare among soldiers, and that even among those who fought in the 1970s and ’80s, it was only among the resistance groups in the northwest that it remained a prominent tradition.
“Usually it’s the fighters from the border that have tattoos,” said Chap Pheakdei, commander of the elite 911 paratrooper regiment, who added that very few of his soldiers have tattoos.
Defense Minister Tea Banh just laughed when asked what he thought about the protective qualities of magic tattoos. He added that he, too, had survived a number of harrowing encounters during the years of war and under the Khmer Rouge, but had a different answer for why he had survived: “I was lucky.”
“On the Phnom Penh side during the [civil] war, maybe two out of 100 would have [tattoos],” said one 911 soldier who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “Some guys go out with tattoos all over them and get killed, and a guy with nothing comes back fine—I believe in luck, not magic.”
“But maybe,” he added, “that’s because our side has tanks.”