Phuket's Vegetarian Festival: A Cultural Quirk
Drums, throbbing through the crowded streets. Their beat whips the crowd into a frenzy. Women and children laugh and shriek, waving their hands in the air. Pieces of hard candy wrapped in red and gold papers fly through the sky to land in the streets. Rice rains down on the heads of the revelers, thrown by the hands of the holy participants in the festival. Firecrackers rattle in every direction in true third world celebratory style. Pieces of burnt red paper litter the streets. In short, it’s a typical Thai celebration.
Or so it seems, from a quick glance at those gathered to watch. The procession itself is something much less ordinary. Men, women, and children march in the chaotic form of order only found in Asia. Some wear loose white pants and shirts, others wear elaborately embroidered aprons and shorts, tied securely behind their backs. This in itself is not all that different from countless other processions held annually in Thailand. So, what’s the draw? It’s the marchers themselves that are the attraction.
Let me warn you now; if you are easily disturbed by gore, violence, or self flagellation, you may not want to read further or look at the following photos.
The main draw during the Vegetarian Festival on Phuket consists of those who participate in the procession in Phuket Town. Titled the mah song, these devout religious followers are put into a trance for the festival. In order to be a mah song, you must go through an intricate purification process, as well as being unmarried and without children of your own. The mah song supposedly take the spirits of the nine Chinese gods into their bodies for the duration of the festival. These gods have come to visit their followers for the nine days of the festival. In order to show complete faith in their gods, the mah song thrust objects through their cheeks and tongues, using anything sharp enough to pierce flesh. The most common weapons are axes, swords, skewers, and whips; but many other common items are used as well, such as durian fruit, model ships, the stems of flowers, candelabras, and lamps.
During the procession, hundreds of mah song march proudly down the street. Each has at least one attendant who will care for their wounds along the way. These attendants have often participated in similar processions in the past, as evidenced by the puckered scars on their faces.
It is a rather horrible scene. Men, women, even children, taking step after painful step down the streets. Blood drips from their chins, staining their formerly white outfits red. At each bend in the road, they stop to swing their blades in yet another wide arc over their heads to split the skin of their backs. The pain must be terrible. And yet, they smile the best they can, waving to the cheering crowd that urges them on in their savage march. There are some things I will never understand, some cultural aspects that I will never find either practical or justifiable. These processions are among those. Simple words can never describe the festival in its entirety. Instead, let me show you.
Hannah Miller: I’m a seventeen year old girl, with a serious case of wanderlust. Over the past few years I’ve traveled to over twenty-four countries, on five different continents, using bikes, buses, trains, planes, and of course, my own two feet. Wherever I go, a video camera and three instruments follow. I’m trying to change the world, one step at a time. By the end of my life I want to have visited every country in the world, and do it all through travel writing. I currently work as a freelance writer for a few different travel sites, and have my own blog at www.edventuregirl.com. In my opinion, there’s no better school than the big world around us, and no better way to learn about the planet I live on than to see it myself! My greatest fear: to reach the end of my days only to be filled with regret for the adventures I never had.
All photos courtesy and copyright Hannah Miller.
Photo essay of Phuket's Vegetarian Festival