Finding the Art in Phuket 2
POSSESSIONS, PIERCINGS and PROCESSIONS: The Phuket Vegetarian Festival
by Anthony S. Cameron
I ride through the dawn and make it to Bang Niow shrine by 6.30am, just as the first fireworks break the eerie quiet of the Phuket Town streets. The air is filled with the smell of sulphur and deep fried vegetarian treats, a heady combination on an empty stomach and a few hours’ sleep. I thread my way through the crowd towards the shrine where, in the courtyard, the devotees of this bizarre festival await their audience with the body piercer from hell.
Blood-soaked white cloths and plastic gloves lie scattered on the ground as I walk towards a group of foreigners with cameras held above their heads, snapping away at something. Around me the scene is surreal: men in ceremonial robes patiently awaiting their turn on the piercer’s conical spike, their fluttering eyes rolling upwards as the spirits of the gods possess them; others, having already been to the piercer, adjust the swords poking out of their cheeks, whilst three stand in a line running serated-edged swords across their tongues, their minders protecting them from wayward cameras and a hovering drone. Normally, these people would be opening their car dealership, furniture shop or restaurant by now; they would be sweeping their front steps, dusting their wares. But today they stand here shaking and staring up at the sky, waiting for the final piercing to be completed so they can begin the procession that winds through the city streets into the rising sun, amidst a cacophony of shrieks, explosions and frenetic drum beats.
Foreigners are everywhere, capturing this fascinating spectacle to send to gob-smacked western friends, balancing on any vantage point that will get them THE shot, the one that encapsulates it all. Inside the temple, incense is burning at a rate verging on intoxicating, giving my nostrils welcome relief from the acrid smell of the fireworks and the unexpectedly sweet stench of fresh blood.
I elbow my way politely through the throng of foreigners and eventually I can see what they have been feverishly photographing: the piercer at work. He is shorter and slighter than I imagined, not the beefy, sumo style guy I was picturing – shaved head, a hard and sort of crazy stare, a belligerent, slightly arrogant stature – no, this guy looks like he is shelling peas and having a gossip with the neighbours. He is wearing a white t-shirt and has the sort of haircut your mum would say looked ‘nice’. In his little hand is the stainless steel spike and he is coating it in baby oil as the next devotee sits down on the blood spattered chair next to him. The devotee’s minders brace him for what is to come whilst the piercer puts a texta mark on his cheek. The now sweating man lifts his head and looks to the sky as his eyes roll back and the spike makes its way through his cheek, carving a two inch slash in it like it isn’t even there. A drop of blood escapes the wound as the piercer retracts the spike and inserts a sword through the slash; all the way through until the handle is resting up against the devotee’s glistening cheek. The piercer then moves to the other cheek, punching a hole through it you could park a small car in. This cheek gets not one, but four swords of various sizes, their intricately curved handles jostling for position on the possessed man’s face.
The piercee doesn’t show even the slightest glimmer of pain. Instead, he seems to stare straight ahead, straight through his muted agony and out at the street and the lengthening line of pierced devotees awaiting the start of the procession.
Piercing is Bang Niow shrine’s specialty, and probably the most full-on to watch, but it isn’t the only sacred ritual that takes place during this festival. There is also the walking-barefoot-on-hot-coals, and the climbing-up-and-down-a-ladder-embedded-with-razorblades at other shrines around Phuket. In addition to those you’ve also got your garden variety possessed people wandering around without piercings, without burnt or sliced feet, and they will be muttering in Hokkien, the predominant dialect spoken when the rituals began 150 years ago.
The story goes, that during it’s tin mining heyday of the mid 1800s, a mysterious, fatal illness swept through the mainly Chinese population of Phuket, affecting even a visiting Chinese Opera Company, here to entertain the miners. At a loss as to the cause, they eventually worked out that they had forgotten to pay homage to the nine emperor gods in the first nine days of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. Convinced that this was the reason for the epidemic, they sent one of the surviving opera singers to China to ‘invite’ the gods to Phuket. The following year, having paid homage to the nine gods, Phuketians also decided to refrain from eating meat, drinking alcohol, having sex, arguing, lying or murdering for nine consecutive days. These practices enabled spiritual cleansing and merit making, and were believed to bestow good fortune.
Miraculously, the epidemic stopped.
Like with every great festival, each subsequent generation adds their own touches, personalising it in some way, leaving layers of cultural richness in their wake for future generations to add to. So these days at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival motorbike wheels get inserted through cheeks, turnbuckles through lips, engine parts in one side and out the other. I am anxiously waiting for the first iPhone to be seen poking out of a possessed face.
I am out on the street now as the procession makes its way out of the temple grounds amidst a hail of fireworks and drumming that makes my ears bleed and my trigger finger spasm involuntarily. Next thing I know I have taken over a hundred photos in a matter of minutes, and find myself at the back of the crowd, resting up against a shopfront wall.
I sense someone next to me, turn and smile at a young Thai woman who is smiling back at me. As the procession passes in a cloud of grey smoke and shards of red paper, I notice the woman’s posture change out of the corner of my eye. I turn and watch with surprise as her head tilts backwards and her eyes roll upwards into her skull. She starts shaking, little tremors that seem to end at her fingers, and she is moaning and muttering to herself. She looks like an old lady now, staring towards me with unseeing eyes. She is holding her hands out to me but, before I can take them, two women dressed in white run towards her and grab her outstretched hands. One of them puts an apron-like ceremonial cloth over her head, then they lead her firmly towards the street and, just like that, she enters the fold and is gone.
I stand there, dumbstruck for a moment, before the scene I have just witnessed clicks into place in my mind. This woman had seemed compeltely normal moments before, was now in another realm altogether. I hadn’t been aware that possessions could happen so quickly. Maybe it was a last minute inter-relam booking? I wasn’t sure. About the only thing I was sure of, was that this little moment was going to end up in the poolroom too.
Anthony S. Cameron is an Australian ex-pat living in Phuket, Thailand, and the author of two novels, Driftwood (2014) and Butterfly on Bangla (2015). Born in Melbourne, he escaped in his early twenties to central Victoria, where he designed and built a sustainable house and raised two sustainable children. His books are available on Amazon here.