Our two-week school break began with a fascinating, disturbing, gory, and sometimes overwhelming entree into the world of Chinese Buddhist Vegetarian Festival. Think fewer vegetables, more self-impalement.
The nine-day festival is held every year in the 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar and since the town of Phuket has a decent Chinese Thai population, the town’s festival earns itself a certain reputation of rambunctiousness. So, of course, Destination One on the two-week vacay schedule was to witness the spectacular and curious rituals of the festival.
The festival is meant to be a sort of cleansing process and meditative time to worship the coming of the nine emperors. Participants dress in white, eat no meat and pray with incense, candles and chanting. Certain worshipers are called Mah Song, and earn a special respect for inviting the spirits into their bodies. They undergo a meditative process at the temple, and, while in a trance, pierce their bodies with sharp objects to prove the pain is temporal.
We arrived in the middle of the nine days and decided to investigate the 7am parade procession of Mah Song from the Bang Neow temple. We arrived just in time to watch the Mah Song prepare themselves with various impaling objects. Dressed in traditional woven apron-like garments, they sit patiently while their team of sterile-gloved and strong-hearted assistants prepare their skin for piercings. The piercings ranged from spears adorned with hydrangea flowers to beach umbrellas to garden shears. The assistants calmly cut into the skin, carefully wiping the blood, inserting the objects, then curing the wounds with Vaseline. The Mah Song, now deep in trance and carrying objects impaled through their bodies, parade through the streets while white-clad spectators, often with hands in prayer position, watch the Mah Song proclaim their strength.
The idea of public impalement at a festival seemed both disturbing and fascinating. We stood on the street corner in flowy white clothes with hoards of others, watching the parade, dodging the raining firecrackers and taking plenty of pictures. Disturbing? Yes. Calming? Strangely yes. The Mah Song stride through the middle of the street, pausing almost casually for photos. Their composure certainly makes the festival seem less gory.
We didn’t see every parade. After a few hours of watching impaled men (very few women participate in the process), we felt overwhelmed and needed a long break. Luckily the Vegetarian Festival is Thai at heart and, like any good Thai festival, there’s always food. The streets throughout the city were lined with stalls covered in yellow and green flags to signal vegetarian food. Deep fried corn snacks, ice cream from fresh coconuts, rice and even imitation meat were available everywhere. Festivals in Thailand, no matter where or what sub-culture, aren’t complete without plenty of snacks.
We snacked our way through the festival, then investigated the rest of Phuket Town, a small sinewy web of Sino-Tibetan architecture that gives the place quite a bit of charm. Meandering the streets, we stopped at the most aptly named Shrine of the Serene Light, tucked in an alley just behind a used bookstore. Probably the most quiet and beautiful temple, there were few worshipers, a few of whom, Americans living in Bangkok, became new friends. We trekked to Khao Rang temple nestled in the foliage on the hillside and boasting spectacular views of the valley below. We ate incredibly well, both at the vegetarian festival and at a few of the town’s top-end restaurants (Brasserie’s Belgian beers were a heavenly treat).
For all intents and purposes, we skipped the infamous Patong Beach. We knew the beaches of Bali might have enough rambunctious drinking partiers to last through the holiday. Maybe someday the beach will make a pin point on my Traveled Map. For now, Phuket Town’s eclectic culture started the adventure off just right…
*If you’re wondering where all the awesome photos of the impaled Mah Song are, well you’ll just have to look here. Beware! They’re not for the faint of heart.