I ascended the stairs past a tanned, heavily tattooed, bare-chested man with a ball and chain slung freshly through his mutilated left cheek. He was holding each end of the chain with his hands, looking out at the world sideways through glassy eyes and a bloody face.
Blood was dripping down his chin onto the ground, and I tried desperately (Yet unsuccessfully) to avert my eyes from the increasingly large gape the chain left in his face.
Sitting majestically at the peak of the steep stairs, serene and ethereal looking in the predawn mist of morning was an ancient Chinese Temple. The colorful building was surrounded, filled, overflowing with praying and chanting men and women preparing, or preparing others, to pierce their faces and give thanks to the emperor gods.
The Thailand piercing festical
It was the fourth day of The Vegetarian Festival in Phuket Town, Thailand. And as you may have already inferred, Thailand’s Veg-fest is not a meat-abhorring, food-loving, happy-go-lucky celebration. The exotic tradition practiced primarily by the culturally Chinese communities in Thailand is something of a far, far different nature.
Occurring during the ninth lunar month of each year (Typically sometime in October), it is celebrated to honor the ancestors who overcame an infectious disease that nearly wiped out their community and to praise the gods who saved them.
The name of the festival originates from the practice of refraining from meat during the nine-day ceremony. The community of believers further participates by abstaining from sex, drugs, and alcohol, as well as wearing only white and attending the daily self-mutilation and ceremonial barefoot walk from temple to temple by the Ma Song.
The Ma Song are “middle men” inhabited by gods, designated or volunteering to take on the sufferings and sins of their community and by their sufferings cleanse them. It is believed that by piercing their faces with a sharp object, and traversing Phuket Town from one temple to the next, the Ma Song are taking on sin and removing its consequences from the community.
The ritual begins before the day does: the Ma Song gather each dawn at alternating temples throughout Phuket Town to receive their facial wounds and begin a barefoot, long journey to another temple before their piercings can be removed.
More than we'd expected
I attended the festival in a group of four foreigners, all of us teachers and all of us in search of something culturally rich and strikingly exotic. We’d heard of a religious festival in which people pierce their faces with a variety of objects in order to protect and cleanse their communities.
Immediately curious, feeling adventurous, and already in close proximity to the location, we booked a hostel and made our way to Phuket Town.
What we expected when we agreed to attend The Vegetarian Festival was the pierced faces. What we had not imagined was momentarily becoming a feature of the parade ourselves, getting adopted by a Thai family, and the surprisingly applicable and wise advise I received from a Ma Song’s attendant as they threw fireworks in the air and celebrated the cleansing.
In order to take in the face-piercing ritual, we awoke before the sun and took a rickety tuk-tuk out of town to the day’s pre-determined temple. At the temple, the middlemen prayed and channeled the spirits of their ancestors and to the nine emperor gods.
And then calm, serene, entranced and startlingly stoic, they had their faces pierced with a litany of seemingly random objects: a sword, spear, skewers, gun, ten-foot umbrella, poles, ball and chain.
I stood awestruck as I witnessed the piercing. I was admittedly alarmed, watching the array of items go in one side of the cheek and out the other. The well-wishers and thankful attendees crowded around them in a circle, watching enthusiastically as the blood dripped from each wound and onto the temple grounds.
It was the sort of thing you only hear or read about, and there I was, one of only four foreigners watching as Ma Song after Ma Song prayed feverishly, became inhabited by an ethereal spirit, then sat in a plastic chair as a sword sliced through their cheek.
They sat down, they received the pain without wincing, they walked away and made room for the next middleman. It was as orderly and blasé as though it were a line for a dentist chair.
I’m normally an overly squeamish individual when it comes to blood and gore, but the adrenaline and exoticism of it all kept me rooted to my viewing point, just a few feet from the piercing.
By the time the sun had risen, what felt like one hundred or more Ma Song had their faces pierced. They waited calmly by the street for the parade to begin, with a line of pickup trucks ready to escort them to the beginning of their ritual walk.
A bell began ringing from inside the temple, and a dramatic end to the morning ceremony ensued. The Ma Song climbed into the back of pick up trucks, as a wild rampage of fireworks exploded all around the temple, causing the leftover people to run every which way as if dodging landmines in a warzone.
A muscular, sweaty, tattooed man swinging a sharpe axe came running and dancing out of the temple. He twirled round in circles before the temple for a few minutes, struck himself once in the forehead and stood motionless as the blood glistened and trickled down, before the fireworks, bell, and drums reached a cacophonous climax and he ran down the stairs and into one of the many trucks.
This singled the start of the parade. The Ma Song were to ride in the pickup trucks to the real starting point, from where they would descend and walk barefoot and bloody for miles through Phuket Town to another temple.
At the second temple, they would be freed of their symbolic and sacrificial piercings, having achieved a great sacrifice, tribute, and cleansing for themselves and their community.
In the mad rush to begin the parade, my friends and I got momentarily left behind. Or so we thought. As we trailed frantically on foot behind the speeding Ma Song filled pick up trucks heaa man with his four kids in tow took pity on us and pulled over. He spoke barely any English, and us even less Thai, but we somehow communicated, “Chai. Vegeterian Festival. Get in? Parade? Kap kun na ka!”
He was no more than five foot two and was as skinny as he was short. He had a sincere smile, sweet but timid young children, and seemed proud to be the man with the foreigners in the back of his truck, “Farang! Farang!” (Foreigners!) he kept yelling to all his neighbors as he navigated the streets and eventually settled into the parade.
We sped toward town piled in the bed of his truck, looking for a spot to watch the middlemen file past, flanked by the Ma Song on either side. As we entered the walking portion of the parade, the Ma Song began to descend and prepare for their journey. While the men and women with pierced face unloaded from their trucks, the locals spotted and began freaking out about us.
They pointed and talked excitedly, “….farang…. farang… farang”, we heard repeatedly. And they began to take our photos as we exited our impromptu tour guide’s car. The irony of being the object of attention, when a man to my left had a gun slung through his cheek and the woman to my right had a sword cutting through her face was staggering, flattering, and a bit comical.
I suppose it was just another lesson in the relativity of exoticism and novelty.
As the Ma Song trudged past, fireworks and firecrackers exploded at their feet thrown by their crew of helpers marching along by their side. We snapped photos, plugged our ears, and squinted through the smoke.
The man who had taken responsibility for us proved to be an eager and accommodating guide. As the march carried on he tried to explain what was happening in his broken English, ran frantically to fetch us ice cream from the cart comically wheeling down the road between pierced Ma Song and exploding fireworks, and brought us bracelets distributed by the religious men and women “For good luck!”.
His kindness and eagerness to share his culture with us proved to be as moving as the events we came to behold.
As the day neared noon the Ma Song were nearly done their ordeal, they’d almost reached their final destination. The ceremony ended in an extra loud and treacherous looking display of fireworks and firecrackers (Meant to keep away any lingering evil spirits, I was told.).
Through the smoke and din of fireworks a man covered in the debris with a mess of medallions hanging from his neck approached me and indicated for me to take his picture. He struck an exuberant, Zoolander-esque pose, and then gave me some of the truest and most-lasting advice I’ve ever received.
He leaned in towards me, and with a wink he said, “The world is good. Just dream, you know?” And then he pranced away back towards the fireworks and Ma Song.
After the parade had passed and the sun reached its stiflingly humid boiling point at the center of the sky, we bid farewell to the smiling man who had taken us under his welcoming wing. We bowed to each other- a sign of respect in Thailand- wishing we knew more Thai and could better express our gratitude.
As he drove off in his pick up truck we trudged zombie-like back to our hostel, not yet having had time to contemplate the morning we’d just had: undoubtedly one of the most jarring and exotic days of all of our lives.
As I sat outside my hostel, sipping on the free instant coffee and flipping through my new pictures (Barely able to stomach the images now that the adrenaline had worn off), I smiled as I heard that man’s words reverberating in my head: The world is good. Just dream, you know?
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Other things to do in Phuket, Thailand
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Megan is twenty-three years old and attempting to explore the world one country at a time by teaching English to non-native speakers across the globe. Currently based in Thailand, she blogs and writes about her adventures past and present on her blog Nomadic Megan. You can also follow her on Twitter.
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