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!

6 Years of Non-Stop Reading

6 years Reading Streak

Today marks six years since I started a reading streak where I’ve read at least one page n a book each and every day.  That’s 2,193 consecutive days, in fact.  In that time, I’ve read 121,251 pages and finished 449 books.  I am slowing down as my total number of books finished last year was a dismal 41, compared to 119 in 2010.  I am reading much longer (and more difficult books) nowadays – more history and biography than  gripping mysteries.  I’ve only finished seventeen books thus far in 2016 so I really need to speed things up!  I would really like to have hit my 600th book by the time my tenth reading streak anniversary comes up…


Happy Bastille Day!

Bonne Fête Nationale Française!

I’ve long considered myself somewhat of a Francophile and French was the first language (besides English, of course) that I learnt, although three years of conjugating and learning to talk nasally in high school certainly didn’t make me fluent.  I’ve always been extremely enamored of the stamps of France and her colonies — the detailed engraving of so many of them (even to the present day) are beautiful works of art.

The last time I was on French soil was just over thirteen years ago — an unusual day which involved my travel companion and I illegally entering through the port of Calais (nobody was manning the immigration desk) during a garbage strike and being driven aboard the ferry back to Dover as it was already moving away from the dock!

Red Cross postcard, circa 1918 promoting American and French Independence Days

I always felt there were many bonds between the United States and France, although those were derailed a bit after 9/11 — freedom fries, indeed!   I’ve long celebrated the “twin” holidays of American Independence Day on the fourth of July and La fête nationale on July 14th, both accompanied by fireworks, parades and bunting of red, white and blue.  It’s interesting to note that the first Bastille Day Parade down the present-day route along the Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde occurred in 1918 and featured American troops joining the French troops.  The parade became a symbol of solidarity in a common cause even though at this point French and American generals were bitterly fighting with one another.

Bastille Day Parade, Paris 14th July 1918

Please check out my Bastille Day posts on A Stamp Today and Philatelic Pursuits where I illustrate a few appropriate items from my stamp and cover collections, and on “Please, Mr. Postman!” which includes images of a couple of vintage post cards on the subject.

French National Day, 14 July


10 Years Ago, Part 7: First Songkran

This is the sixth of a series of photographic blogs highlighting my last days in the U.S.A. and my first full year as an expat in southern Thailand.

My girlfriend-soon to be fiancé-later to be ex-wife at the time was from the north of Thailand and shared her birthday with one of the grandest of the nation’s holidays, that of the Thai New Year or Songkran

Rot Nam Dam Hua, a traditional way to celebrate with elders. Most Thai people go back to their hometowns to meet their elders.  Photo taken at Wat Khung Taphao Ban Khung Taphao, Khung Taphao subdistrict, Mueang Uttaradit, Uttaradit Province, Thailand.  Courtesy of WIKIPEDIA

Traditionally, this was a sprinkling of water over one’s wrists from a small bowl during the hottest time of the year as a sign of good luck.  In the past decade or so, it has become an all-out water fight fueled mainly by sweaty foreigners bringing their SuperSoaker water guns on holiday and fully embraced by Thais who love a bit of fun.  Now, it’s one outlet for Thai youths to peacefully take their revenge on foreigners (farang) by dunking them with water filled with ice cubes and smearing powder on their faces.  It can be a lot of fun but can also wear one’s patience to the bone, particularly in the north where it can go for as long as five days and more.  At least in Phuket, the water festivities are limited to a single day – 13 April – and many businesses are closed in order to keep out the damp.

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As Dtim’s birthday occurs on Songkran Day, we originally planned a birthday party but eventually pushed it back to a later date so we could celebrate the Thai New Year together in full-on water fight mode.  She felt for me to truly experience all that Songkran has to offer, Patong Beach was the only place worth going.  As with many things, the first time was the best. 

We set out on a tiny Honda 100cc motorbike fairly early in the day.  As we lived in Chalong, it was quite a long ride to Patong.  The narrow road west was soon clogged with motorbikes and pickup trucks.  The beds of the trucks invariably were packed with people and huge barrels of icy water.  My girlfriend delighted in slowing down whenever their were groups of kids alongside the road armed with buckets and water guns so they could get a good shot at the farang (me!).  I was soon drenched and shivering.  At least I had thought to wrap my camera in a plastic bag but the shots I made while it was inside left a lot to be desired.  Each year, I make the vow to buy a waterproof camera but I never seem to get around to it.  Once we finally arrived at Patong, we spent some time just walking up and down the beach road and the main bar street of Bangla Road just watching the water battles.  Even the local fire truck got into the act with it’s high-powered hoses!

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The following two years, we spent Songkran in Patong as Dtim set up drink stands and made a little money selling water and soda.  We separated in 2008 and I spent the next couple of Thai New Years with friends in Chalong rather than brave Patong.  Twice, I tried to escape the holiday by leaving Thailand altogether – first, I went to Laos where I found that Luang Prabang had a similar water fight and another year I traveled to Cambodia where they don’t throw water but I got stuck in the mayhem when I took the train back into Bangkok.  It was so bad that it was impossible to get a taxi to take me from the main train station to the Southern Bus Terminal.  Last year, I returned to Patong for my first Songkran there since 2008.  My bus broke down on the hill going into that coastal town and we had to talk a few kilometers, walking targets the entire way.

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I’m not sure how I’ll celebrate the Thai New Year this year.  I don’t want to stay home nor do I want to deal with the crowds in Patong.  The government is urging it’s citizens to practice traditional Songkran celebrations due to the dire water shortage but I’ve seen the giant water cannons on sale at numerous locations around town.  We’ll see…