Phuket Vegetarian Festival

NOTE: This article, sourced almost entirely from Wikipedia, originally appeared in a slightly different form on my postcards blog — The POSTCARD TRAVELER.

Today marks the start of the annual Vegetarian Festival (thetsakan gin jeh — เทศกาลกินเจ), Phuket’s version of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival (九皇爺 — Jiǔhuángyé in Chinese pinyin or Kow Wong Yeh in Cantonese). This is a nine-day Taoist celebration beginning on the eve of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar and is widely celebrated throughout Southeast Asia. The biggest (and most dramatic) festivities occur within the numerous shrines and temples dotted primarily in the region of Phuket Town in the south-eastern portion of the island of Phuket, with the roadways between being the site of grand processions of the faithful and huge crowds of spectators, all dressed in white.

In accordance with the traditions, many religious devotees will perform ritualized mutilation upon themselves and one another (with the consent of, context and understanding of all involved and the practice itself) while under a trance-like state, including but not limited to: impaling through cheeks, arms, face, legs, back etc., with everything from as small as syringes to as large as is agreed upon between all members; partial skinning (the skin is not removed, just cut and flipped over); slashing of limbs, chest, stomach and especially tongue with swords, axes and knives; bloodletting; removal of tissue (normally limited to cysts) and intentionally wrapping or standing near fire crackers as they are lit.

This is done without anesthetic, always inside or near the temples surrounded by other devotees with only iodine, petroleum jelly and surgical gloves as precautionary measures. Despite this scenario, many of the same people performing the rituals are also the people who will care for many of the people in their recovery. The actual impaling is done by doctors and physicians in the community, is planned out for weeks if not months in advance and medical teams are present in and around temple grounds for the entire time of the festival, with spectators frequently needing more help than the devotees, who remain in a trance during this process and are monitored through the entire event in case they should drop out of concentration, in which case they are immediately taken to medical professionals regardless of the circumstances to minimize post trance bleeding.

To this effect few people ever need to have prolonged medical treatment, and although in the weeks after the festival many people will be seen covered in bandages, scarring is uncommon, stitching, even on individual devotees who impale their cheeks, is rare, and return to daily activity for the devotees occurs shortly after the completion of the ritual, frequently before the festival ends unless performed on the last days, much sooner than before the bandages themselves are removed.

The purpose of this practice is a mixture of veneration for their gods and ancestors, to display their devotion to their beliefs and the trance itself, which although anecdotal in nature to what is experienced, has a profound impact upon demeanor for days or weeks after, frequently with devotees appearing exceptionally calm and focused in their day-to-day activities after the festival is completed.

During a period of nine days, those who are participating in the festival dress all in white and gin jeh (กินเจ), which has come to be translated as abstinence from eating meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products. Vendors and proprietors of restaurants indicate that jeh food is for sale at their establishments by putting a yellow flag out with the word เจ (jeh) written on it in red. However, technically, only food prepared in the sacred kitchen of the Chinese temple (in Thailand, called sarnjao ศาลเจ้า or um อ๊ำ) is jeh, as it must undergo a series of rituals before it can be given that name.

Masong (ม้าทรง) are the people who invite the spirits of gods to possess their bodies. Ma (ม้า) is the word for horse in Thai, and the name masong refers to how the spirits of the gods use the bodies of these people as a vehicle, as one rides a horse. Only pure, unmarried men or women without families of their own can become masong. At the temple they undergo a series of rituals to protect them for the duration of the festival, during which flagellation and self-mutilation is practiced. The masong tradition doesn’t exist in China and is believed to have been adopted from the Indian festival of Thaipusam.

The festivities in Phuket include processions of masong wearing elaborate costumes who pierce their cheeks and tongues with all manner of things, including swords, banners, machine guns, table lamps, and flowers. While the face is the most common area pierced, some also pierce their arms with pins and fishhooks. Teams of people accompany the masong to keep their wounds clean and to help support the heavier piercings. It is believed that while they are possessed the masong will not feel any pain. They can also be seen shaking their heads back and forth continually, and usually do not seem to “see” their surroundings. At the temple during the festival there is also firewalking and blade-ladder climbing. While large crowds of people gather to watch, the entranced masong distribute blessed candy and pieces of orange cloth with Chinese characters printed on them yang (ยังต์) for good luck.

The Nine Emperor Gods (Jiǔ Huáng Xīng Jūn / Jiǔ Huáng Da Di — 九皇星君/九皇大帝 are the nine sons manifested by Father Emperor Zhou YuDou Fu Yuan Jun (斗父周御國王天尊) and Mother of the Big Dipper Dou Mu Yuan Jun (斗母元君) who holds the Registrar of Life and Death. The worship of Dou Fu Yuan Jun has declined strongly as proper teachings of Taoism degenerate since being exported out of China. Today, most Nine Emperor God temples do not acknowledge the existence of Dou Fu Yuan Jun. However, Dou Fu Yuan Jun is invoked alongside Dou Mu Yuan Jun in Great Dipper Honoring known as Li Dou (禮斗) ceremonies. Honoring the Northern Dipper stars prolongs one’s life, eliminate calamities, and absolves sins and past debts of oneself and his family.

The term Ye (爺) as in Jiu Huang Ye (九皇爺) loosely translates as “Grandfather”, a title worshipers commonly use to bring a more intimate relationship between themselves and the Nine Emperors. The Nine Emperor Gods should not be mixed up with the Wang Ye or Princes of the Ming rebels. Popular folk culture has it that the Nine Emperor Gods are actually sea pirates of the Ming dynasty that plotted to overthrow the Qing dynasty.Some interpret the teachings to be that the Nine Emperor Gods are actually high-ranking Star Lords who preside over the movement of planets and coordinate mortal Life and Death issues.

On the eve of the ninth moon (September 30 in 2016), temples of the deities hold a ceremony to invoke and welcome the Nine Emperor Gods. Since the arrival of the gods is believed to be through the waterways, processions are held from temples to the sea shore or river to symbolize this belief. Devotees dressed in traditional white, carrying incense and candles, await the arrival of the Nine Emperor Gods.

A carnival-like atmosphere pervades the temple throughout the nine-day festival. During this period of time, the constant tinkling of a prayer bell and chants from the temple priests are heard. Most devotees stay at the temple, eat vegetarian meals and recite continuous chanting of prayer. It is believed that there will be rain throughout the nine days of celebration.

The ninth day of the festival is its climax. Processions which draw scores of devotees sends the deities back home. In Phuket, this means that each of the temples throughout the island (some walking as far as the northern town of Thalang or the west coast community of Cherng Talay) has its own grand procession, all of which converge on Phuket Town while traveling to the seacoast at a section of shoreline called Sapan Hin, south of town.

During this grand finale, from about 9:00 pm until the wee hours of the morning, most areas of the town are quite chaotic. I tend to observe the proceedings from the area of a large traffic circle just south of the town center. Six roads from different directions enter the circle with another running parallel. Every procession passes through this area numerous times and the air becomes so thick with smoke from the fireworks that everyone’s white clothes soon turn black from the soot. All the spectators throw huge strings of powerful firecrackers, not only towards the masong but also at each other and any cars or motorbikes attempting to pass through the area. I’ve often compared it to a Baghdad firefight!

2015 Phuket Vegetarian Festival: Day 1 – Lantern Pole Raising

wpid-20151012-172444.jpg

Each year, the people of Thailand celebrate a vegetarian festival which begins on the 15th day of the waning of the 10th month of the Thai lunar calendar.  Many Thai people observe the rites of the festival even if they do not eat Thai vegetarian food the rest of the year.  The largest celebration, by far, occurs in Phuket

Continue reading “2015 Phuket Vegetarian Festival: Day 1 – Lantern Pole Raising”

Phuket’s Stamp Museum

20060818-105109Phuket Town is fortunate to have a wide variety of museums and more on the way.  Having been a stamp collector for much of my life, I’m very happy to live a pleasant ten-minute walk from one of Thailand’s eight philatelic museums. The other seven are located in Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, Nakhon Ratchasima, Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Sawan, Hat Yai, and behind the Samsen Nai post office in Bangkok. The postal counter in the Phuket museum is my only source of Thai new issues aside from the occasional order placed online.

Continue reading “Phuket’s Stamp Museum”

Improvements in Old Town

20110706-143328

When I first arrived in Phuket, the Old Town area was a much different place.  Very few non-Thais ever ventured there outside of one or two festivals each year.  The throngs of Chinese tour buses were in the distant future, the number of outdoor cafes and interesting restaurants was virtually nil.  The old Portuguese-Sino buildings were often neglected and crumbling as were the sidewalks.  Most of the famous five-foot ways were blocked, usually bricked- and stuccoed-over. Facades were hidden behind a myriad of cables.

Continue reading “Improvements in Old Town”

Friday Photos #7: A Queen In Patong

SAM_5375

No.  This isn’t a photo-essay about the infamous lady-boys (AKA, katoeys) who inhabit this western Phuket version of “Sin City.”  It is a rare occasion indeed when I will venture to the hedonistic tour mecca that is Patong, but the largest of the famed Cunard Line’s ocean liners making a rare port-of-call at my island home was reason enough this week.

Continue reading “Friday Photos #7: A Queen In Patong”

Friday Photos #4: Monkey Seeing

MonkeySeeing-4

This has been a strange week.  I had two days off in a row which is a huge rarity, even more so as they were mid-week.  During this “free time” I managed to get caught up on a couple of long-term projects and get started on one or two others.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t motivated to do the research needed for my originally-planned theme for this edition of “Friday Photos”. I decided on another which would require the bare minimum of commentary.  That idea was to cover the occasionally-odd and often incomprehensible signs one encounters around Phuket but, in the end, I decided on something simpler – photos of ONE location that many local residents don’t even realize exists!

Continue reading “Friday Photos #4: Monkey Seeing”

Koong & Andy’s Just Wed Party

Scan_20141226 (54)

I don’t really go to many parties, particularly what I’d classify as the high-society type.  But when a good friend gets married, one really has to do what one can to participate.  I’ve known Andrew for a few years now; he’s probably the most interesting Englishman I know, a former Special Forces officer in the employ of Her Majesty the Queen as well as being a Shakespearean thespian.

His “After Wedding Party” was held at the beautiful O2 Beach Club in Chalong Bay on the Monday before Christmas.  It was quite the affair – all guests dressed in white (well, save one) and included Andy singing a few songs while accompanying himself on guitar plus a truly interesting fire-dancer (I’ve seen many that were extremely boring and predictable; this one was anything but).  The food was awesome; I fell in love with the larb (spicy meat salad) packed in celery rings.  However, the highlight for me was being introduced to one beautiful, intelligent and financially-stable single woman after another.  Where had they all been hiding?

Enjoy the photo album after the break…

Continue reading “Koong & Andy’s Just Wed Party”