**WARNING** Descriptions and photos in this post may be disturbing to some. Please preview for young children.
We rolled down the windows on the car, as we crept into town, so that we could hear the drum beat.
The pick-up truck in front of us was loaded with young men, stripped to the waist, wearing white fishermen’s pants, armed with big knives, and axes. In front of them walked a dozen men carrying two bright red shrines on their shoulders. Yellow and red flags lined the road. People gathered along the fringes of the roadway and we found ourselves part of the procession we’d come to observe.
Nothing quite prepares you for the sight of four grown men in the middle of an intersection engaged in self-mutilation.
One man whipping himself, while another man runs his tongue back and forth, and back and forth, over a razor sharp knife; blood running from his chin. A third man self flagellates with a knife the size of a machete, shredding his own back and the fourth man beats his forehead agains the sharp blade of an axe over, and over, and over, cutting a wide gash from his hair line to between his eyebrows. As the men walk on their bodies are shaking, they sway their heads from side to side in a trance.
The idea of a Vegetarian Festival seems tame enough.
A time to overhaul our diets, perhaps engage in a physical cleanse from the inside out. An opportunity to celebrate all of the different sorts of fruits and vegetables we can put on our tables. In Phuket, it is all of those things, but it’s also a religious festival.
It’s history dates back to 1825 when a troupe of traveling Chinese performers became very ill on the island. They decided to observe a vegetarian fast; praying to their gods they were miraculously healed. The modern day festival has grown out of that. For most people, the vegetarian festival is a time of purification in which they abstain from sex, alcohol consumption, smoking and eating meat. But for the “ma song,” the experience is taken to a whole different level. It is believed that these people, who enter a trance like state, some say spirit possession, will be protected by the Chinese gods. They pierce their bodies with skewers, knives, rods and other items. They participate in fire walking and climbing bladed ladders. They injure themselves in a variety of ways in devotion, sacrifice and worship to their deities.
I get taking a break from stuff that isn’t good for you and eating more veggies. I’m on board with that. It’s the self-mutilation that is harder for me to wrap my mind around.
This morning we stood at the Chinese shrine on Mae Kao beach and watched as beautiful ladies dressed in flowing red robes, embroidered with gold, tied string bracelets around the wrists of kneeling supplicants. Behind them drums beat and men covered in their own blood paraded through wood smoke and incense being blessed by the older men and given fruit from the alters. All I could think about was the risk of that sort of blood bath in light of the HIV epidemic and risks of other blood borne illnesses.
We were the only farang at this particular shrine. Further down the island there are processions and ceremonies that foreigners flock to for the carnival-sideshow like atmosphere and the novelty of what seems like such a barbaric practice to the Western mind. We’ll head down to one of the “big” events later this weekend, but we wanted to start more locally. We’re not here to see the circus, we’re here to learn and try to understand.
Being the only foreigners in attendance was a good start.
We stood in the temple after the procession had moved on and the drumbeat-pulsed shouting had faded. Left in in its place was beautiful pentatonic Chinese music, wafting softly through the clouds of incense and out over the beach into the Andaman blue.
We spoke with young women. Grannies pinched the cheeks of our friends’ little boys and we found ourselves the center of attention for a few moments. It seems that everywhere we go to learn about something new we find people who are as eager to learn about us. We talked. We watched a man brought out of his trance in front of an alter. More incense was lit by a supplicant. We found ourselves invited back for the evening festivities: “You come back! Tonight, fire walking on the beach, 8 o’clock! You come!”
Smiling faces surrounded us, a stark contrast to the glassy-eyed swaying men who had just blown through on a foul wind. The unsettled feeling in my stomach began to lift. Ezra’s death grip on my hand eased up a bit, and we accepted the invitation for the evening’s event.
Standing on the Sarasin Bridge pedestrian walk, licking the remnants of a new kind of crab from my fingers and breathing the fresh salt air felt surreal after the morning’s cultural excursion.
- Jellyfish jetted placidly along the surface layer of the aquamarine blue.
- Great clouds of tiny silver fish sparkled in the sunlight.
- A cinnamon skinned man laughed and tossed his boy, waist deep in the water.
- We played for a long hour on a clutch of giant turtle eggs at the Phuket visitors center, which seems to have been abandoned as soon as it was built.
- The children amused themselves by lighting up the various beaches on the miniature map model of our tropical home.
Today is our first day of attendance at the nine day festival.
It’s taking place all over the island in various locations. My friend, who’s lived here much longer than I have, referred to it as “magical.” I’m not sure I share her assessment, but perhaps I’ve just not seen enough yet.
So far I’m just confused, and saddened, and I can’t help but have a sea-sick knot in the bottom of my stomach when I see these beautiful young men (who could be my sons, in another life) mutilating themselves. There is a lot I don’t understand.
The only thing I can tell you for sure, is that I have much more to learn.