The masong had her eyes closed.
I’ve seen her with her eyes closed for the last 10 minutes, which cut a very different foreground to the fire that raged behind her in the background. Anybody would have assumed that she had gone to sleep, standing up. Or that she was simply closing her eyes for that much-needed respite from the smoke that was everywhere. But because this was Thailand, I had the luxury of getting up close to her to take a closer look.
Only to see that she was not sleeping. She was crying. A tear rolled down her left cheek, almost reluctant to leave the eye. All this while the fire continued to rage behind her.
Phuket: once again
I had 15 days to spend in Thailand. Exactly 15 days, because that is what the visa on arrival for Indians in Thailand entailed. And I was wondering how and where to spend those 15 days.
Chiang Mai was already on the agenda, because of the Loy Krathong festival. I had decided to spend a week there already. But what else to do? I had been to Bangkok multiple times already, even watched crazy protests there. And Phuket too. Where else could I go in Thailand?
For further reading: Apart from Loy Krathong and Phuket Vegetarian festival, another prominent festival of Thailand would be the Songkran. Click here to read more about the Thai New Year.
And my mind drifted back again to Phuket. I had been to Phuket 5 years ago, but that was only to see the beaches of Kata and Karen, and spend 4 days doused in alcohol without seeing anything. My drinking days were behind me now, so was there anything else to see in Phuket?
Turns out, my dates matched perfectly for a Thai festival that many tourists often ignored. For the simple reason that it was too intense. For the reason that it often involved participants going through pain. An intense amount of pain.
At that point, I did not even know why the Phuket Vegetarian festival was considered Vegetarian.
The 9 Emperor Gods Festival
The 9 emperor gods festival is a 9-day Taoist festival on the 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, honouring 9 star-lords who preside over interplanetary movements and human life in general. To explain this in simpler terms, the 9 emperor gods consist of the seven stars of the Ursa Major constellation, and 2 stars which are not visible to the naked eye.
The festival is celebrated among the Chinese community of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. But the festival is most popular in Phuket, which has a 35% Thai Chinese population. The Thai name for the festival would be Thetsakan Kin Che, which means ‘The Vegetarian Festival’, a reference to the fact that the participants in the festival eat vegetarian meals for the entire 9 days of the festival.
The festival was notorious because of one thing: the pain and self-mutilation that participants inflict on themselves. There was a lot of piercing, impaling, skinning, slashing of limbs, bloodletting and standing over fireworks. All while remaining under the influence of some trance-like state. In fact, if you were to search google images for ‘Phuket Vegetarian Festival’, ensure that you have a solid stomach to withstand the search results.
For Further read: If you think you have the courage to see a similar festival where there was a lot of pain inflicted, click here to see my pictures from the Thaipusam festival of Singapore.
Key Changes in 2017
In 2017, the Phuket Vegetarian festival was held from October 19 to 28. I reached Phuket on the 25th, because I wanted to see the culmination of the festival.
The participants during the festival had already spent a week following a strict set of commitments as below:
- Keep the body clean
- Keep Kitchen utensils clean, and these are not to be used by those who don’t participate in the festival.
- Wear white during the festival
- Behave correctly, both physically and mentally
- No eating meat
- No sex
- No alcohol
- People in mourning should not participate
- Pregnant women and menstruating women should not participate
There were some key changes to the Phuket vegetarian festival this year. The cremation of Thailand’s late king – King Bhumibol – was also stated to happen on the 26th. As a matter of respect for the king, all the morning street processions were cancelled. This included processions where there was piercing or any ritual mutilations. So, if you are reading this so far, you need not be worried about seeing some gruesome or gory photographs below.
There was no blood during the festival this year. But if you have Pyrophobia, I don’t recommend you to read further.
The Road to Phuket
After the gruelling 13 hour bus ride from Bangkok to Phuket on 24th October, I was busted. But I didn’t want to spend another few baht to walk from the bus terminal to my hotel in Phuket town. So, I walked it. All 4 kms of it, carrying my huge backpack. Only to reach the hotel, and then realise that I had spent my birthday getting entirely wasted on a bus and a long walk.
This was going to be a promising festival after all.
For further reading: I do have a habit of celebrating my birthdays at places far from home. Like at Agra’s fort, next to the Taj Mahal.
I had chosen my accommodation carefully. Everybody who visits Phuket tends to stay near the beach locations. Phuket has some of the best beaches in Thailand, like Patong, Kamala, Karon, Kata and Surin. But for the Phuket Vegetarian festival, I needed to stay somewhere right in Phuket town, which was the capital of the Phuket province.
Unlike the rest of Phuket province, Phuket town is hardly a tourist attraction. Well, there is a Chinatown worth visiting, but that is pretty much about it. Nevertheless, Phuket town was going to be the epicenter of the Phuket Vegetarian festival.
So I stayed here.
Festivities at Jui Tui Shrine
On the 26th and 27th, I went to the Jui Tui Shrine to check out the festivities.
The Jui Tui Shrine, located in Ranong road – the center of Phuket town – is one of the oldest Taoist temples of Phuket. The patron of Chinese opera, a god named Tean Hu Huan Soy, is the principal deity of this temple. I am guessing those were his statues located around the temple. Thankfully, photography was allowed in the main hall, and I just stood waiting for the ceremonies to happen.
The ceremonies included something called a Goi Han, where the participants expelled all bad luck. The participants here referred to ‘Masongs’. The word Masong in Thai meant ‘horse’. Similarly, these unmarried men and women were inviting the spirits of the 9 emperor gods to possess their bodies, and ride them.
Like you would ride a horse.
It wasn’t difficult to spot the Masongs among the crowd. They wore brightly coloured clothes, and held a whip in one hand and some held a flag in the other. In some other year, they may also have their body mutilated in some form. Thankfully, not this year. But the Masongs were clearly under some kind of trance. They kept shaking their heads back and forth, and could not notice whatever was happening around. They kept looking to the sky, like they were talking to the gods.
To the right side of the entrance to the Jui Tui Shrine was a tiny red standalone room. I stood wondering if it was a separate temple or shrine. But I did not have to wonder long. Soon, a bunch of little kids ran towards the little red house, opened its doors, and placed a lit firecracker inside.
This was a ‘firecracker house’!
I am sure the idea was to reduce air and noise pollution, but I don’t think it did anything to minimise the latter, and probably helped just a little bit to minimise the former. The firecrackers kept going on in quick succession, bursting my eardrums and smoke pouring out of the firecracker house.
I had no idea how much more heavy the pyrotechnics were going to get the following day.
Festivities at Saphan Hin
On the last day of the festival – October 28th – Phuket town literally comes to a standstill because of the processions from each of the shrines. Roads are blocked, and paths are diverted. This year, the processions started only after dark, probably as a mark of respect to the king’s cremation. All the shrines around Phuket, had their own processions, with participants carrying their gods to one place in Phuket.
The Saphan Hin Park.
If Chinatown is the heart of Phuket town, Saphan Hin park is probably the head. Over the last few decades, it has come to be the place where the locals of Phuket have congregated regularly for different events. It has a well-laid walking path, with Pine trees on both the sides. The city’s main stadium, Saphan Hin Stadium, is located here, along with a giant deserted building which was never launched as a shopping mall, plenty of eateries and karaoke bars. And, of course, the Kiew Tien Keng Chinese Shrine.
And it was at the Kiew Tien Keng Chinese Shrine that all the processions from the different shrines of Phuket would end today. From there, the procession groups would start to release their gods into the sea around 11 PM onwards.
So, I went there at 9 PM – waiting to see the remarkable sight.
Fire and fireworks
The processions at Saphan Hin are not for everybody, and definitely not for the faint-hearted.
I should have taken some precautions before I went there, but I did not have a clue what I was going to expect. Yes, the mutilations were not happening this year at the festival, but there was no ban on fire or fireworks. And at Saphan Hin, there was plenty of both fire and fireworks.
The various processions were expected to enter the Saphan Hin area around 11 PM. There were already a few masongs at Saphan Hin even before the processions arrived, standing out with their colourful attire. They had been dancing around the area, in a trance-like manner. They walked from person to person, blessing different people under a flag they held in one hand, while lashing the whip in the other hand towards the group.
Around 10 PM, everything changed.
People started bringing out fireworks. At first, it was just one or 2 guys and I didn’t think much of it. Soon, there were entire bags of fireworks going around the place. They lit the fireworks and threw them at the feet of the Masongs. The masongs – who seemed to have no idea what they were doing, in their trance state – danced on top of the fireworks.
To make the matters a bit more fun, there was soon fireworks going off on the beach also, as the gods were beginning to be emptied into the sea. And large fires were being set on the beach. I am not exactly sure of what was the connotation behind the large amount of religious papers being put on fire, but what followed was an intense amount of smoke. Everywhere. I had nowhere to go. Close to the temple, the smoke from the fireworks filled my lungs. And close to the beach, the smoke from the ongoing fire started filling my lungs. I reached a point where I could not breathe clearly anymore. And that is when I knew, that it was time for me to head back to my hotel.
And leave the locals to celebrate a festival which they knew how best to celebrate, without having a stupid tourist like me hanging around to watch.
This post is part of my travel stories about Festivals. Click here to check out other amazing festivals around the world.
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