PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Magic tattoos begin with a magic man. Typically a Buddhist monk or adjar (essentially a deacon) and known for great piety, this Khmer magic man can draw scripts and images into another’s skin, granting with them supernatural armor against all kinds of harm. Understandably, such body art became popular with soldiers.
Reut Hath is one such magic man. He first learned the art of inking magic from his father, a farmer and martial arts trainer in northwestern Cambodia who was himself a "powerful magic man," according to the 52-year-old former soldier.
"Many people came to [my father], so he gave some of the work to me," Reut Hath said. "So, I had to learn magic."
Wherever Cambodian soldiers cluster, charms and amulets abound, from cloths scrawled with protection spells to bags of Buddha figurines to boar tusks — anything to gain a magically endowed edge over the enemy. And there is perhaps no more explicit display of belief in mystical powers than magic tattoos, geometric patterns of written spells and images that crisscross the bodies of many older soldiers.
The list of powers that supposedly come with the tattoos is long and includes: imperviousness to bullets, anti-landmine protection, invisibility, an amplified voice to address troops and “great gravity” magic to make one’s fists into heavier, deadlier weapons. The intricate arrangements of some tattoos and the folk-like quality of others are often beautiful artworks in their own right. However, it’s also a fading art, a system of belief that is disappearing from a military looking to recruit younger soldiers in place of aging veterans of the country’s recent decades of civil war.
Reut Hath started tattooing soldiers in 1977 after himself fleeing executioners from the murderous Khmer Rouge to join the resistance against the Pol Pot regime. (In its effort to create a Maoist agrarian utopia, that regime was ultimately responsible for the deaths of more than 1.7 million people. In early 1979, the Vietnamese military toppled the Khmer Rouge government, sparking a 20-year civil war in Cambodia.)
Reut Hath joined the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF), one of the main resistance groups that battled it out with the Vietnamese-backed Phnom Penh government throughout the 1980s. It is mostly former fighters from resistance groups like the KPNLF that have the magic tattoos.
Magic men punch tattoos into the skin by hand, using a thin handle about 30 centimeters long with two syringe needles at one end. According to Reut Hath, any old ink will suffice, but during the civil war, when ink was often in short supply, he would create his own by mixing the material inside alkaline batteries with rice wine.
It only takes a few seconds to punch a single letter into the skin, though some soldiers have veritable essays written on their bodies, which require days of painful prodding.
Casting the spell
The spells are written in two ancient Indian languages — Sanskrit or, more commonly, Pali, which is the liturgical language of Cambodia’s dominant religion, Theravada Buddhism. Reut Hath admits he can’t actually understand any of the spells because they aren’t written in his native tongue of Khmer.
"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."
The soldiers' stories
Sgt. Maj. Boung Thoeun is covered from head to toe in protective tattoos, his arms almost black from the dense web of Pali spells running up and down them.
The 50-year-old soldier, a former KPNLF captain, said that his tattoos twice saved him from landmines, which merely fizzled when he stepped on them. He also recalled getting caught in a nighttime ambush 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 [tracer bullets] flying about that it looked like the daytime." Cambodian army Maj. Gen. Lay Virak, formerly a KPNLF senior commander, said he knows of magic that prevents a person from getting lost in the forest. He also met a monk who knew magic that allowed one 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.
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 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 of how one keeps their magic potent.
The basis of belief
These rules are typically based on morality and religiosity: Do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery, regularly burn incense and pray, recite magical 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 promotion of moral behavior and faith. Of course, to the more cynical-minded, the rules also provide reasons why a man covered in protection spells might be killed on the battlefield: "If only he hadn't been so forward with his neighbor's wife," for example.
However, some of the rules might appear more arbitrary. Reut Hath forbids the men he tattooed from eating dog meat. In addition to dog, Lay Virak must also shun snake, turtle and pork, and in perhaps the most unusual limitation, he will sacrifice his protection if he urinates and defecates at the same time.
In addition, former resistance fighters say, the end of warfare in Cambodia has done much to reduce both the strict morality and magical potency associated with the tattoos — with easy living comes temptation.
"During the fighting, most of the fighters were powerful — the magic worked," Reut Hath said. "But with peace, many came to the cities and starting drinking, sleeping with girls and the magic has faded away."
This perceived decline in morality has driven Reut Hath to vow to never tattoo anyone ever again. "I decided to stop giving the tattoos because I cannot trust the young people these days. If they had tattoos they'd probably fight. 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. Though not in any way prohibited, tattoos are now an increasingly rare sight in the Cambodian military. Even among those who fought in the 1970s and '80s, it was only in the resistance groups based along the Thai border that it remained a prominent tradition. Resistance fighters who joined the military after the war have also typically found themselves relegated to positions with little authority or influence.
"Usually it's the fighters from the border that have tattoos," said Maj. Gen. Chap Pheakdei, commander of Brigade 911, the army’s elite paratrooper unit, adding that few of his soldiers have sought the protection of magical body art.
"On the Phnom Penh side during the [civil] war maybe two out of 100 would have [tattoos]," said one Brigade 911 officer 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."