The final night of the parade will be on Sunday (October 13) and will end with a culmination of street processions, which will combine at Saphan Hin in a huge display of firecrackers to bid farewell to the gods as they go back to the heavens.
For the 10-day festival, participants follow the “rules” of the festival to varying degrees. Many will keep to a strict vegetarian diet for a varying number of days, usually no fewer than three.
They do this to make themselves strong in mind and body and to cleanse themselves, usually avoiding all animal related products. The festival therefore promotes good hygiene, brightness and inner peace.
But over the years, the festival has changed in many ways and is now an extremely popular event on the Phuket calendar and attracts tourists from around the world, who come to marvel at the display of facial piercings. But has the festival gone too far, and strayed too far from its origins?
TESTING THE LIMITS
Born and bred Phuketian Thee-rawuth Sritularak has been the president of Jui Tui Shrine in Phuket Town since 2001, and is the third generation of his family to be president.
“I think there are too many Mah Song now, but what can I say? The gods want to pick them,” he says.
“But they should be disciplined. Traditionally, Mah Song would not normally poke things through their skin, or if they did, it would be something small or thin.
“We have prohibited Mah Song from sticking any unusual objects in their body. Often, they won’t do it inside the temple because they know it is prohibited there, but they will do it outside the temple and in the street procession. If the head of the Mah Song sees a prohibited item, it will be seized by him.
“I think these days, many young Mah Song want to show off, and you can tell this because the older Mah Song won’t have anything strange poked through their faces.
“Before the Mah Song poke things into their mouth, the Mah Song’s assistant will play an important part in the ceremony. They will support the Mah Song and help poke the items through the Mah Song’s body. If we look at the negative factors – it is disgusting, and is not pleasant on the eye at all.
“If we see this unusual type of piercing, we take a photograph and post it on our Shrine’s board, in order to tell them that we discourage this type of piercing, but it still happens every year.”
Mr Theerawuth explains that the festival is now so popular in Phuket that organisers hardly have to promote it, with around 90 per cent of Phuket people involved in some way.
“During the festival, some of the famous restaurants that sell meat are usually closed because there are no customers.
“People wear white clothing without being forced to, because this is a tradition we have followed and respected for a long time – even young children get involved.
“People think it is a good thing that they have nine days to be at peace, to pray, and to give up eating meat.”
IS IT TOO COMMERCIAL?
For Jaran, a senior member of the Pud Jaw Shrine (one of the oldest Chinese temples in Phuket, built more than 200 years ago), the Phuket Vegetarian Festival now has too much of a commercial and economic focus, and he would like to see it return to its original roots.
Mr Jaran has the special position of Huad Guo – interpreter of the gods – at the shrine, and works there full-time. When the time comes for the annual Vegetarian Festival, Mr Jaran, along with other members, runs the ceremony and looks after the Mah Song.
“Around 1981, I was taken by the gods, but I didn’t like being a Mah Song. I felt embarrassed, so I asked my friend who was a Mah Song, was there any way for me to serve the gods without being a Mah Song?
“I started to study about the traditions and details of the ceremony – how to invite the gods to the ceremony, how to be an assistant to the Mah Song. This way I can serve the gods in more ways than just being a Mah Song.
“I became serious about this study in 1982, and I no longer was a Mah Song, I was a Huad Guo. Since I started studying, no gods have ever possessed me again, not since that one time in 1981.”
Mr Jaran says that in the past there never used to be many Mah Song, unlike today when there are many, and he now believes participating in the street processions is a “materialistic competition”.
The festival has considerably changed from its origins – it began in 1825 – he believes.
“Now the objects the Mah Song use are strange. In the past, they only used thin metal objects, but now you can see trees, bicycle wheels, and other strange objects. These have got nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with fantasy.
“Nowadays, people come to watch the parade just to see the Mah Song’s piercings, instead of focusing on the parade of the gods.
“Personally, I disagree with piercing yourself with strange things, but I don’t know how to stop the Mah Song from doing this. If they are my close friends, I will tell them not to do it.
“To make your followers respect you, you don’t have to pierce or stab yourself, you just give them good preachings or advice.
“The reason we light the firecrackers is to welcome the gods, but many people see the firecrackers as some sort of challenge.”
In the past, only those closely connected to the shine wore white.
“But now it’s fashionable,” Mr Jaran explains.
“Sometimes it’s good, but also some people only wear white because everyone else is, they do not know the meaning behind it. And also some people wear white but still misbehave.
“I think the Vegetarian Festival is more like a commercial product. Now there are competitions and commercial sponsors cars involved in the parade.
“I understand that these are sometimes necessary, but for some sponsors, I think we don’t need them – the shrine will still move forward, but maybe not in the same direction.
“It depends on what components of the festival you believe are important – the material ones, or the culture.”
A FEMALE MAH SONG
Someone who knows first hand the way the festival has changed is Phuket resident Piyatharin Ruengrong, who has been a Mah Song for the past 10 years.
Miss Piyatharin is special because not only was she chosen as a Mah Song at the young age of around 14, she is also a woman. Female Mah Song are relatively uncommon, and are hard to identify because few pierce their faces.
Now aged 24, Miss Piyatharin explains her journey as a Mah Song.
“It started when I was in Year 9 – around that time I was helping at the Pud Jaw Shrine during school break. One day, I was about to walk across to the shrine, and I felt like there was something banging into me.
“It was like something collided with me. It felt like the god and I were fighting against each other inside my body – I didn’t want to accept it, but the god wanted to possess me. At the time there was an older Mah Song at the temple who was able to help me through the process.”
Miss Piyatharin, who works in the HR department of Bangkok Hospital Phuket, said she spent her first year as a Mah Song studying about her god.
“There was one time I was left very shocked because a senior Mah Song pulled my hand and put it in boiling oil. My mind knew it was boiling oil, but once my hand was in, it was like it didn’t belong to me. I didn’t feel any pain. I could only see what was happening with my eyes, and the smell. Other than that my body belonged to the god.
Miss Piyatharin believes the piercings that Mah Song are known for these days are not the main point of the festival.
“At the Pud Jaw Shrine, it is very strict for female Mah Song. If you want to pierce yourself, they will ask you, ‘why do you want to do it?’ You must give a good reason.
“My wish is for Mah Song to be really aware of what they are doing, and why they are doing it.
“Gods think that the sound of firecrackers is the voice of the heavens, but people who throw them to the Mah Song – I don’t know what they are thinking.
“I don’t want people to focus only on the 10-day festival. It can be more widely-reaching than only the festival. There are many benefits to following the lifestyle of Gin Pak, it can help you become a clean person and lift your mind.
“If you want to, you can follow Gin Pak for a longer period and your life will be better for it.”
On Sunday night, the final night of the festival, every shrine will have a procession to Saphan Hin to send the gods back to heaven. For the full schedule of events, view the full Vegetarian Festival guide at tinyurl.com/phuketveg