Phuket’s famous festival is drawing ever-closer, but other than a bloody spectacle, what does it all mean?
I am in the pretty grounds of Jui Tui Shrine, a Taoist temple in Phuket Town. Around me Thais of all ages sit chatting and snacking. We could be at a picnic—if not for the succession of men emerging from the temple rapidly shaking their heads while whooping madly, as if in the grip of some face-wobbling reverie.
This is base camp for the Southern Thai edition of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, more commonly known as the Chinese Vegetarian Festival. The odd devotees of this annual spirit-rousing, luck-harvesting celebration are the mah song (entranced horses): locals offering themselves as vessels for godly possession before ridding of the streets of evil.
Chinese immigrants observe this nine-day holy carnival across Southeast Asia, though not actually in China. It begins on the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (usually in October on the Gregorian equivalent). In Thailand, the festival focuses in Phuket, where about 40 percent of the population claim Chinese origins.
If honest, I am unconvinced by the displays of supposedly spellbound gibbering. The symptoms of entrancement seem standardized; practically generic. Then a teenage Thai girl sitting nearby suddenly starts convulsing violently. Seconds later she is thrashing spasmodically with her eyes closed, alternately mewling and howling. Tears stream down her face.
It is shocking, like witnessing a real-life version of The Exorcist. According to cultural primer Very Thai, “A purported 80 percent of Thai believe in the supernatural.” This girl’s peers seem more embarrassed than worried. A few hoist her up and carry her horizontally out of the walled complex. They return moments later, still sheepishly lugging their frozen-stiff companion like a rolled-up carpet.
I wonder why, but a glance outside reveals even stranger scenes. A procession of mah song parades through billowing smoke, as hundreds of firecrackers discharge to the backbeat of drumming. Even from a distance, the unholy din is painful. Observers are tossing bangers directly into the human convoy. Those stripped to the waist and walking barefoot display fresh welts from the fireworks yet seem oblivious. And it just gets weirder…
Staggering, strutting or leering from floats, many mah song have speared their faces with all manner of implements: from swords to motorcycle exhaust pipes. Those heaving larger protrusions, like café parasols, require standard-bearers on either side to prevent the objects ripping their carriers’ jaws off. Despite their precarious balancing acts, they taunt the audience repeatedly.
A woman—there are female mah song, too—clad in a flowing white smock, her face pierced with crossover needles, pauses to pose for a photo. Presently, a hooting male disciple scampers over to press something into my hand. I gingerly open my palm to reveal…a boiled candy! (These, and the pieces of orange cloth being distributed, are supposed to bring good luck, I learn later.)
Mah song must be unmarried, either doomed with bad karma and looking to extend their earthly lives or moralists selected by the benevolent gods of the Chinese pantheon. The masochists purportedly magnetize evil from the community onto themselves, cleansing the locale of suspect supernatural vibes. The drums and firecrackers help these Sino-Thai ghostbusters drive ghoulish spirits away.
Thought to originate in India, the Phuket festival edition began in 1825 when members of a transient Hokkien Chinese opera group perished to a malaria epidemic. Survivors adopted a vegetarian diet until the plague ceased, and ever since Phuket abstains for an annual spell—from alcohol and pleasures of the flesh.
A man wanders by sawing at his lower jaw with a machete, reducing his lips and tongue to a dripping pulp. Mah song also fire-walk, which quite a few seemed nervous about, bathe in hot oil and climb ladders with bladed rungs (I missed the latter two spectacles). Despite the apparent posturing, “this is not a macho thing,” 46-year-old mah song Chai told The Fortean Times in 2005. “The piercing is like a sacrifice.”
It is also not for the benefit of gawping foreigners. As you can imagine, the Tourism Authority of Thailand does not make huge efforts to promote this grotesque self-mutilating ritual. However, outsiders are welcome to observe, buy white T-shirts, chuck fireworks and join the parade. Visitors can also chow on vegetarian festival cuisine at street stalls marked by yellow flags with red characters (although it should really be prepared in a temple to be sacred).
The festival ends with merit-making ceremonies at Phuket’s six participating temples, and a deafening fireworks send-off for the gods on the final night. But my ears have had enough. As I am driven to Phuket airport on my way back to Bangkok—where a Thai of royal lineage later regales me with conspiracy theories, about fire-retardant potions being pre-lacquered onto the soles of fire-walkers’ feet—I notice a lone mah song knocking on someone’s door.
An enormous plaster covers one side of his face.