As the 187th annual Phuket Vegetarian Festival approaches, I remember when I first experienced it shortly after our arrival last year. It happens each year (hence the ‘annual’ moniker), during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. This year it will be October 14-23.
It was quite an eye opener for me. My friend Thanya invited me to her temple, the Cherng Talay Temple in Phuket, to join in the celebrations. It was an intense scenario that initially made my nerves stand on edge. Fire-crackers, loud drumming and bells clanging rang in my ears and enveloped me like a shroud of scratchy, wet wool. Even my visual senses were assaulted as I watched the 14 year old daughter of a dear friend of Thanya’s, who it was explained to me was ‘mah song’, get possessed by a Chinese Goddess, right in front of me.
I was mesmerized as Ama and a semi-circle of other ‘chosen ones’ (also known as ‘horses of the Gods’) started writhing and shaking, their eyes rolling back into their heads.Ama and her compatriots are what is known as Shamans or mediums, chosen for their purity by their respective Gods and Goddesses to be vessels for messages and guidance, especially during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. I was reassured that she was okay and that rituals that cleanse and heal were taking place simultaneously.
I was a little sceptical that they were all okay as I witnessed one of the mah song slice open his bottom lip and another, who was down on bended knee, lift an axe over his head and run it up and down between his shoulder blades leaving a stream of blood flowing down his back. During the celebrations, many of the ‘possessed’ will mutilate themselves seemingly doing the bidding of their possessor while in a trance and claiming not to feel or remember anything. It’s supposedly an honour. I guess I was lucky at the tameness of the spectacle I was witness to since at another temple not far away, others were driving stakes through both cheeks, walking across beds of burning coals or climbing ladders made of blades.
I tried to suspend my horror and disbelief, joined the crowd, a sea of white from head to toe, and paid homage at various stations around the temple. I lit incense, offered bowls of fruit and even a little flake of gold, which I burned in a mini-kiln in front of one of the statues. This was meant to bring me ‘beng ang’ (good luck) and wealth in addition to the happiness I was promised at the previous stop on the circuit. Along with good fortune and happiness, participating in the rituals brings good health, brightness and inner peace. Worshippers also adhere to a strict vegetarian diet during the nine days of the festival to further cleanse the system.
The Festival History
The first festival was initiated in 1825 after a touring opera group came down with an unexplained illness while visiting Thailand from China. They were here to entertain the Chinese tin workers who were living and working in Kathu District. They believed that if they ate a vegetarian diet for three days (the original detox) to honour two of the emperor gods, Kiew Ong Tai Teh and Yok Ong Sone Teh, they would be cured… and miraculously, they were.
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival website states that, “It later happened that one familiar with the festival volunteered to return to Kansai, in China, where he invited the sacred Hiao Ho-le or Hiao lan (incense smoke) and Lian Tui (name plaques), which have the status of gods, to come stay in Kathu. He also brought holy writings used in the ceremonies, returning to Phuket on the seventh night of the ninth month. The people, upon hearing of his arrival, went in procession to Bang Niao Pier to bring him and his sacred cargo back. This was the origin of the processions that figure so greatly in the festival.”
Once Ama and her fellow shamans had all been simultaneously taken over by their deities, they carried their new hosts in a parade that snaked all through town. They made stops to accept offerings at other temples and at tables set up on the roadside with worshippers, old and young, waiting to be blessed by the touch of a God and giving praise to the all-mighty chairman, Kiew Ong Tai Tee.
My mode of conveyance varied between an open pick-up truck jammed with 20-plus revellers, with one more added just when you thought it was full to over-flowing; and a truck/taxi, with a make-shift awning and benches down both sides, filled with singing and dancing children who had been given the very important role of percussionists. Their job was to keep up the drumming and clanging of symbols, without stopping the entire time, in an effort to ward off evil spirits. They took their job very seriously and rotated breaks so the noise was truly and utterly non-stop.
It was a dramatic juxtaposition, the joyful exuberance and the self-cutting of the back and lips by some of the mah song, that I had a hard time assimilating. I plan to attend again this year but I think I will avert my eyes when the scene turns too red.
A published author and freelance writer, Anne O’Connell, has been an expat since 1993 when she and her husband escaped the cold of Toronto, Canada and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They enjoyed the sun and sand for 14 years, while she worked in the PR field, and then decided it was time for a new adventure. Heading for even more sun and sand, they moved to Dubai in late 2007 and then on to Thailand in 2011.
Anne has been working as a freelance copywriter and communications consultant since 2007, specializing in marketing, corporate communications, public relations, social media and website content. She and her husband have a passion for travel and that adventurous spirit has taken them all over the world. Anne grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia and has a bachelor of public relations from Mount St. Vincent University. You can visit her website at www.anne-oconnell.com or her blog at www.anne-writingjustbecause.blogspot.com.