Quick warning about this video – you won’t believe what you’re seeing, and it can be tough to watch.
I had heard the Phuket Vegetarian Festival was a big celebration here, but I was in no way prepared for what was to come… Of course I assumed there would just be lots of good food, innovative ways to use tofu, vegetarian versions of traditional Thai dishes, etc. Then I was invited by a TMT staffer to actually join in and walk in the procession through the streets, rather than watch from the sidelines, so I was all about it. We were going to follow and “support” Noon, who was a staff friend and actual participant. Again, a bit nebulous, but whatever.
Because it was apparently a religious ceremony and we needed to be “purified,” we were told we had to prepare for the week before by abstaining from meat (done!), sex (done!), and alcohol (doh!). So it turns out the thing has nothing to do with promoting a vegan lifestyle – it’s just called the Vegetarian Festival because giving up meat is one of the things people do to participate. And what do the participants do? Prepare yourself — this one was tough to film and even tougher to edit.
It starts off with an early visit to a Buddhist temple, where devotees known as “Ma Song” begin praying until they go into a serious trance. We’re talking hooting, shaking, jumping, and muttering — what to Westerners might seem like speaking in tongues. The trance means they’ve got the spirit in them, and that allows them to do seemingly impossible feats like walking over hot coals, ascending ladders of bladed rungs, or some impossibly frightening body piercings. We’re not talking about the regrettable earring you got in high school, or even the no longer hip eyebrow, lip, or nose piercing. We’re talking about putting giant needles, blades, chains, and anything else you can find through your cheeks. How about a large serrated knife through your tongue? Noon put a knife and a gun through his cheeks. A KNIFE AND A GUN THROUGH HIS CHEEKS. Kind of calls out the whole self-flagellation thing for Jesus. I mean flagellation is ok, but if you’re seriously devoted, put A GUN AND A KNIFE THROUGH YOUR FACE and get back to me.
There were also giant swords, umbrellas, poles with pineapples or mirror balls on the end, even musical instruments. Through their faces! It was horrifying at first, but somehow we got used to it, and it was so fascinating watching them actually do it that we couldn’t turn away (although I will tell you I had to turn away while editing the footage — it can be pretty shocking).
We also had to wear all white in the procession, and with a sexless, meatless, wineless week under my belt, Buddha was totally my homeboy on this day. After everyone was all pierced up, the giant white crowd spilled out of the shrine and began a long, LONG walk through Phuket town. Thousands and thousands of people lined the streets to watch the parade, and it’s hard to express the feeling of a 4 hour walk with thousands of people bowing at you and taking pictures and just treating you with total reverence as you pass. The pierced ones walking among us were clearly “touched by the spirit” so they were able to bless the crowd as they passed. There were thousands of small personal shrines set up in front of homes and offices offering blessings of incense and fruit and tea. Every once in a while Noon would stop to bless a child or accept an offering or bless a shrine. The air was thick with incense and firecrackers were thrown at our feet for all four hours. It was really loud but after a while I could tune out the deafening sound of firecrackers and just take in all the blessings and reverence from the crowd. It’s really the way I want to be treated when I go anywhere now.
After 4 hours I was drenched in sweat and thought the parade would never end, but finally we arrived at a sort of lake/reservoir that signified the final stop. The firecrackers went absolutely crazy there (and not be racist but with a 30% Muslim population let’s just say the sound of constant gunfire and explosives isn’t the most relaxing sound to my American ears…).
The whole thing was just extraordinary – definitely one of the most memorable days of my life.