Fire and Spirits: The Vegetarian Festival

An older version of this story was published on East by Southeast.

Fireworks explode in a loud cascade in the middle of the street, but no one flinches. A young barefoot man passes me – a pair of guns are impaled in his face, the barrels poking from the open flesh of his cheeks. It’s gruesome, but he doesn’t look like he’s in pain.

He is a mah song, a spirit medium, and he’s not the only one. Throngs of men and women parade down the street: metal skewers, needles, and swords pierce the skin of their faces, arms and chests. They are in trance, so their heads twitch rhythmically to a silent beat. Their eyes roll back and their hands clench into claws as they walk. Devotees reverently carry statues of wooden gods behind them. As far as the eye can see, everyone is clad in white.

We are in Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, for the Vegetarian Festival. The Taoist gods are said to descend to earth during this time, when devotees ritually offer food, incense – and their bodies. The gods temporarily inhabit the mah song and grant them powers, like superhuman strength and the ability to withstand copious amounts of pain. People come from all over the world to witness feats of faith that range from climbing ladders of swords to bathing in hot oil.

That night, I witness the firewalking ritual at Cherng Thalay shrine. The fire is a purifying symbol said to cleanse evil from the entire community, enacting the power of good to overcome evil. An excited crowd gathers as the intimidating bed of coals is meticulously prepared. The mah song walk forward, still in their trances. It’s almost time.

Then, one by one, the mah song run across the fire. Unfortunately, not all goes according to plan tonight.

One man falls into the bed of coals, immersed in flames before he is brusquely dragged out. When another mah song falls again, the ritual performance ends abruptly. The crowd is spooked by the bad spirits who must have caused the accidents. The tension in the air is palpable and lingers after their sudden departure.

The whole scene has a feeling of unreality. And it’s this very exoticism that is being touted by the Tourist Authority of Thailand as a cultural curiosity to be experienced.

As primal as the rituals feel, the Vegetarian Festival has been a part of Phuket for less than two centuries. An official account traces its origins in the island to 1825, when a traveling Chinese opera company was stricken by serious illness (sometimes cited as plague or malaria). The performers made a magical recovery by following Taoist ritual and strict vegetarianism, prompting the native islanders to embrace the faith.

The Vegetarian Festival is a relic of the historical Chinese migration to Southeast Asia. Over the last few hundred years, Chinese migrants from the western coast, particularly Fujian, landed and settled in southern Thailand. Thousands flocked to work in rubber plantations and tin mines, bringing their spiritual beliefs and building a distinctive Thai-Chinese culture.

Fast forward to now, where contemporary Chinese immigrants in Thailand have a more complicated relationship towards the hybridized culture. I talked to a Chinese immigrant in Phuket Town who said that similar festivals took place in his hometown of Guilin in the 1970s, but that Thailand was a bit luo hou (falling behind; less developed). The implication was that such rituals had no place in a modernizing society. In China, he explains, this sort of thing is no longer liu xing (popular; current).

The twist is, it’s exactly this type of cultural event that affirms the Chinese lineage of Thai-Chinese communities. Culture is twisting and growing, always in the process of being negotiated. We are taking part in a festival that has its roots in mainland China as immigrants transplanted a piece of their homeland. Yet now the same beliefs are derided in that home country for being too backwards. And now a new group of explorers, participating in the globalized commodity of travel, come seeking the different and new. It’s an example of how cultures and beliefs migrate and then evolve organically in their own spaces, in their own times.