Chinese Vegetarian Festival, Phuket 2008
After stumbling upon some pictures of the Chinese Vegetarian Festival in Phuket while browsing through a Thailand travel guide, I realized that this was a festival of a sort that I had wanted to attend for years. That is, a religious parade involving visually extreme acts of self-mortification by devotees while in a self-induced trancelike state. It also occurred to me now that I was living in Bangkok that visiting this festival was as simple as booking some cheap flights and central accommodation for a weekend trip. And so it was that I arrived in Phuket for the weekend finale of the 2008 Chinese Vegetarian festival.
I was full of nervous excitement at the prospect of satisfying a long standing personal ambition, but also prepared for the distinct possibility that the most visually arresting affairs may be confined to private solemn occasions involving only close family members and friends, beyond the extent of my visual reach. At worst I could enjoy some low-key festival ambiance and then retire to a local Andaman beach for some relaxation. I needn’t have worried! As soon as the first inklings of the parade began to drift by early that Saturday morning I knew I was in for something special.
A young man walked by, heading the early stages of the procession. He was sweating, though the tropical sun had not yet risen above the roofline. He seemed relaxed, though with an unshakable level of concentration. He was accompanied by some friends who were clearly filling some manner of supportive role for him. Aside from a decorated red tunic that rather resembled an oriental apron, his clothing was unremarkable. Except that is of course for the long metallic pole which he held with both hands, a long blade at one end and fruit attached to the other end, the pole itself passing straight through a large pierced gash in his cheek. In terms of my hopes as a voyeur at this festival, this was like hitting the jackpot straight away! However, he was just the first in a long procession and I spent the next two hours in a stupefied state of awe, delight and photographic readiness. There were men with multiple blades skewered through two-inch gashes on each side of their face, limbs with dozens of needles pierced through and many individuals for whom you would be forgiven for thinking they had entered a ‘stick the most unusual and unexpected implement through your face’ competition! There were few imaginable, and some rather unimaginable, examples of everyday hardware not severely distorting someone’s facial expression. This imposed upon them an intense degree of concentration and focus in carrying the implements with the correct balance for nearly three hours through throngs of crowds and the intensifying tropical heat. Knives, ornaments, hedge clippers, vegetation, musical instruments, rifles and umbrellas, were among the more identifiable examples. At one stage a group of men with large curved blades stopped nearby and upon a spontaneous unified guttural call they commenced to flagellate themselves for an intense 20 seconds, drawing streams of blood down their own backs. As amazing as it was to witness such extraordinary feats of human devotion, it was arguably even more compelling to note the relative lack of puncture wound bleeding, along with the calm and peaceful atmosphere that pervaded the entire proceedings. The peaceful atmosphere even maintained its cloak of calmness as the preponderance of fireworks began to reach an explosive climax, oftentimes enforcing a scorch-avoiding group dance by those who ignited them. It really was quite beautiful. Children watched without squeamishness, vendors dispensed free drinks and local people set up makeshift altars along the route where passing devotees would spontaneously divert towards in order to offer a blessing. Many people, particularly the elderly, eagerly sought such personal blessings, rather like excited teenagers seeking an autograph from their favourite celebrity. The serenity and sincerity of the procession was all the more punctuated by the fact that it in no way compromised itself in the face of the oftentimes rampant mass tourism on this popular Thai island.
Suffice to say that the entire proceedings were captivating. The communal spirit of the parade remained throughout the day as the crowds mingled and the food stalls did a brisk trade selling delicious homemade spicy vegetarian food. Throughout the evening there were other spectacles of exhibitionist devotion, such as fire-walking and blade-ladder climbing, but owing to the crowds and misinformation I missed these. Besides, I couldn’t have hoped for a more eventful morning and I was perfectly happy to spend the evening reflecting upon what I had seen while enjoying the nocturnal festivities at the monasteries and in the food marquees. Also, there was another parade the following morning and I was intent on observing it from a more up close and personal point of view.
I rose early the next morning in order to orientate myself and find the start of the procession. I made sentry at a corner among the crowds and eagerly awaited the first signs of the parade. Having spent the entire previous morning standing at a roundabout so as to have a good vantage point, this morning I intended to walk the route with the crowds, wherever it would lead. Although I do not understand the nuances of this festival, beyond that of merit-seeking devotion, I could nonetheless sense a subtly different atmosphere. This could of course be put down to my alternate perspective as I walked alongside, but I noticed more women and younger people involved. Indeed it was intriguing to consider the young boys in the early hours of the morning, secluded from public view, preparing for their first facial piercing in the company of their more experienced peers. It seems a remarkable facet of human nature that in the modern world there are still non-distant cultural conditions under which a school boy may willingly and courageously submit himself to having multiple needles pierced through his cheeks, to the pride and acceptance of his family and friends for a religious festival. There seemed to be more women in a trance also. Some of them considerably so, though some of the younger girls perhaps partial to a bit of show boating as they got more and more caught up in the pervading mood, enjoying the attention of those who empathetically accepted their blessings also. Curiously, many of these girls sucked on baby soothers as they mimicked the somewhat deranged sounds and gesticulations of those who were genuinely transcending their everyday sensitivities through self-induced trance. There also seemed to be a more diverse and severe range of implements pierced through peoples’ faces. One of the more bloody acts of self-mortification involved the occasional devotee carrying a serrated saw blade which he periodically licked in a vigorous fashion, thus drawing extended trickles of salivated blood from his mouth all over his neck and torso. My concerns about invading peoples’ privacy and the resultant imposed distance of outsiders were clearly unfounded as the sheer exhibitionist nature of the parade seemed to enthusiastically invite voyeuristic observers with a camera as long as it was accompanied by a modicum of respect and appreciation.
One of the more subtle and note worthy observations of the weekend festivities was the complete lack of any apparent religious hierarchies. It was everyday people who, through ritualistic self-infliction, communed with a higher power and extended, or perhaps channeled blessings upon eager bystanders. The shrines were simple affairs composed of a table, flowers and incense, lacking any pomp or pretence. It was not a remote jungle tribe but a rather unassuming town, which goes about its normal business and routines at any other time of the year. Under the guise of blessed unfamiliarity and open-mindedness, it truly seemed to me to be an unabashed expression of human devotion and camaraderie, underlying human fragility while accentuating our untapped reservoirs of spiritual and physical potential.
As the sun crept steadfastly upwards throughout the duration of the parade I felt that I myself had been drawn into somewhat of a trance-like state also, induced by the incredible sights and communal good will all around. Though perhaps a less painful one!