The body piercing rituals can be quite exhaust-ing.
Strange and unusual body piercings are just one facet of the nine-day festival, which also includes other forms of self-harm, firewalking, firecrackers, street stalls, temple offerings, and processions. The sights and sounds can be overwhelming, as both participants and onlookers crowd the streets. As Megevand says, this is not a place for “sensitive souls”.
Catching a ride
The name “Vegetarian Festival” may seem strange for an event that involves so much blood and self-inflicted violence. However, vegetarianism is an important part of the rituals. In other parts of Thailand, and indeed Southeast Asia, people of Chinese descent observe the “Nine Emperor Gods Festival”, as it is also known, mainly by abstaining from meat. However, nowhere else celebrates the festival quite as spectacularly as Phuket.
Firecrackers are actually the most dangerous element of the event.
The origins of the Phuket festival are unclear, but according to one legend it all goes back to a wandering Chinese opera troupe that visited the island over a century ago. Members of the troupe, it is said, were afflicted with malaria, a disease that normally meant death in those days. The group decided to purify themselves by sticking to vegetarian food and by praying to the Nine Emperor Gods. It worked, and they made a full recovery. As a result, the festival in honor of the Nine Emperor Gods is held every year.
Some participants go to great lengths to prove their devotion.
Participants in Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival must obey certain rules. Besides abstaining from eating meat, they must also go without sex and alcohol. They should also keep themselves as clean as possible and use different eating utensils to non-participants. And they should wear white – so nothing too radical so far.
The noise can be as overwhelming as the sights.
Wearing white and turning vegetarian for a few days is one thing; but piercing and slicing your flesh with various implements, walking on hot coals, and climbing up ‘blade-ladders’ is another. Only certain participants take part in these particular devotions. And these most extreme devotees are called “mah song”, which roughly translates as “horses of the gods”. It is believed that their bodies become vehicles for the divine during the rituals.
Here, skewers are one of the more conservative piercing implements.
Not just anybody can be a mah song. For starters, these practitioners must be morally “pure” and unmarried. They are called to the ritual for various reasons, such as a bad dream foretelling their deaths (which only the ritual can postpone) or because they are especially virtuous and were chosen by the gods. “Sometimes, the old people who work at the shrine ask me to invite the god to come into me because there are people who need to consult with him,” says Khun Uten, who has been a mah song for many years.
Sometimes, quantity makes up for size.
In some ways, the mah song tradition is similar to the Hindu body piercing ceremonies of Thaipusam, from which it is thought to have derived. Of course, many religions have practiced different forms of self-mortification, and some still do to this day. In Phuket, however, they seem to have taken it to another level.
We hope it’s not loaded.
On the day of the piercings, the mah song gather at Chinese temples around Phuket called “ahms”. For several days before, they will have observed the dietary and lifestyle rules required of festival participants, which are believed to strengthen them for the coming ordeals. This does not mean they don’t feel anxious, however. “Am I scared? Of course I am,” says Khun Uten, who has been a mah song since he was 15. “I’m 35 years old now, but this is not something you ever get used to, no matter how many years you’ve been experiencing it.”
Getting pierced by gloved medical staff
These days, medical staff supervise the piercings, which are performed using special instruments. Participants normally pierce their cheeks, but they may also puncture other parts of their bodies with fishhooks or pins. “I know that the spirit pierces my cheeks with the object, with no anesthetic, but I feel no pain at all,” says Khun Uten. “I want to run away. But, as I said, my body is not mine anymore and I cannot resist.”
A very different use for one of Phuket’s beach umbrellas
Over time, the size and weight of the objects used to pierce the mah songs has increased. As these photographs illustrate, these days, everything from skewers and swords to guns and motorcycle parts are used. And as you can imagine, these piercings are not without danger. As with any puncture wounds, there is the risk of damage to nerves or vital structures, which can result in numbness or even paralysis in some areas. Then, of course, there is the danger of HIV infection. Fortunately, though, regulations have been put in place to make the rituals as safe as possible.
Yellow flags are a symbol of the festival.
Devotees believe that the protection of the gods keeps the wounds from bleeding too much and helps them to heal quickly. The medical explanation is that the cheeks contain no large blood vessels, and thanks to the range of small blood vessels and capillaries in the region, a healthy person’s cheeks repair themselves quickly.
Festivalgoers surrounded by red light
Loud noises are another feature of the Vegetarian Festival. Drums are played and firecrackers are let off with abandon. People try to make as much commotion as possible in order to ward off evil spirits. In 2011, there were 74 injuries and one death reported during the festival. Perhaps surprisingly, it was not the self-mortifying rituals that led to most of these injuries but wayward firecrackers.
Those who find piercing too daunting can always run barefoot over hot coals instead.
Another, more sedate highlight of the Vegetarian Festival is, of course, the vegetarian food on offer. Street vendors sell dishes containing soybean and other meat substitutes. Occasionally, these substitutes are so good that it’s hard to tell the difference. And for spectators, perhaps meatless food seems particularly attractive after witnessing some of the more grisly practices.