Gory acts connect those with the spirit world at Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival

WARNING! Some of the content below contains images and video of self-mutilation that some people may find disturbing.

Eyes in a trance-like gaze. Objects pierced through ears and cheeks. One man slices his tongue with a sword. Blood drips down on the road below.

The name “Vegetarian Festival” doesn’t quite characterize Phuket’s annual event known for its rituals of self-mutilation.

Also known as the Nine Gods Festival, the Taoist event holds street processions over the course of about a week throughout Phuket. Faces and ears are punctured with knives and thick needles while firecrackers are thrown at bare feet.

Those who practice self-mutilation are called “mah songs.” During the procession they are in a trance-like state as they channel spirits through their bodies. Some mah songs do not practice self-mutilation.

“Mah” means horse in Thai. Many websites suggest a mah song acts as a horse for a spirit to ride.

For the duration of the week-long festival, typically in September or October, devotees abstain from eating meat, drinking alcohol and having sex. They also wear white as a symbol of purity. Street vendors are set up selling various vegetarian food, some restaurants and bars close down.

On September 30, 2019, I witnessed dozens of “mah songs” march for over four hours from the Naka Shrine to Saphan Hin, a seaside park about 5 kilometers from the shrine, and back. Many walked quickly with thick swords through their cheeks and firecrackers at their feet, only slowing down to give their blessings.

Some had to stop periodically to clean their wounds and adjust their piercings. Each mah song had a group of devotees walking by their side throughout the procession. The devotees helped keep the mah song’s wounds clean, wearing surgical gloves while dabbing the cuts with antiseptic and wiping away dripping blood. They also helped pour water into the mah song’s mouth to keep them hydrated.

Some mah songs were in a trance without mutilating themselves. Their eyes glazed, and their heads gently, but quickly moving side to side. One opened her arms and looked up at the sky as firecrackers went off at her feet.

The gory acts are often sensationalized on many websites and videos. The Thaiger, an online news outlet in Phuket, called it “the most WTF event you’re likely ever see anywhere in the world.” But for devotees and spectators, the street processions are very spiritual.

People lined the street, many wearing all white. As a mah song walked by, onlookers bow their heads and place their hands together in the “wai” position, which is a form of showing respect in Thailand. The mah song waved a black flag over their heads.

“The ‘Spirit’ gave this to my mother,” a woman said while handing my friend and me red and yellow bracelets made from string with a wood bead.

One mah song paid special attention to children and the elderly. She reached into a basket, pulled out a handful of bracelets and gave them to a group of children. She waved her hand, motioning to share the bracelets with the other boys and girls.

When she approached an elderly man sitting in a chair watching the procession, she covered the man’s head with her black flag and placed both her hands overtop for a moment before waving the flag in the air.

Businesses and homes along the street set up altars, many with incenses and offerings of fruit. Mah songs stopped at each one, performing a short ritual before marching on.

For a schedule of street processions, look out for postings by thethaiger.com and Phuket.com

Some blog sites said to arrive early. I arrived on time, but the procession had already begun. Some say the spirit does not have a time.

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