PHUKET TOWN: In just over a weeks time, the local Chinese-descended community will once again begin to celebrate Prapaynee Kin Jay the Vegetarian Festival, the most important cultural event of the year in Phuket.
The festival will start on Saturday, October 9 and end on Sunday, October 17. During this time, serious devotees and many of the general Chinese community will be paying homage to the Kow Ong Iah, nine Chinese emperor-gods who are believed to have saved the people from a deadly epidemic.
Devotees will go on a very strict diet, abstaining from consuming meat, animal products, "strong" vegetables and alcohol. They believe that by doing so they will cleanse their body, mind and spirit and that the Kow Ong Iah will grant them longevity, success, and prosperity, as they did for their ancestors.
But academics and even some of the organizers themselves say that the festival is getting further and further away from its true roots, as temples and towns compete to produce the most gruesome examples of self-torture by some of the devotees, the mah song, which often leave permanent scars and, in some instances, cause infection and blood poisoning.
These days, they say, it is no longer a true religious festival. It has become a freak show traveling through a thick cloud of smoke created by painfully loud firecrackers.
The critics blame the distortion of the festival on two main factors: a lack of true understanding of Chinese history and religious beliefs; and misleading messages conveyed by the media and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
"According to history, the festival here began shortly after the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900," explains Karudee Cheng Chotithamaporn, owner of the Chee Ling gold shop and a lecturer in Chinese history [see also page 3].
The defeat of the Boxers, coupled with a number of coinciding natural catastrophes, caused many Chinese to migrate to other parts of the world. They took the vegetarian festival with them.
Khun Cheng explains, "The Vegetarian Festival was even then driven mainly by politics, though with a very strong religious undertone.
"Although they were here in Thailand, most Chinese people still believed that eventually they would win their land back. Most of the Chinese banners that you see displayed at the festival are reminders to younger generations that they have to keep on fighting and that, one day, the Ming Dynasty will return and once more prosper."
As to the historical reasons for the self-mutilations performed by the mah song, those said to be possessed by the nine gods, Khun Cheng describes them as "stunt acts to get people psyched up during the Boxer Rebellion something along the lines of we are immortal or the gods are with us."
The questions are whether today on an island far away, and 100 years after the Boxer Rebellion these acts of self-mutilation are necessary or appropriate, and whether it is time to put the brakes on behavior that is becoming more and more peculiar.
This year, the Gazette was told, some mah song will appear with bicycles on either end of the shafts piercing their cheeks.
"I think," said Khun Cheng, "that nowadays its getting way too much, too extreme. It is definitely not justified by Taoism, the religion the festival is based on."
Sommai Pinphutasin, a professor in Thai history and culture at Rajabhat Institute, agrees.
He says, "Lighting firecrackers, for example, has become like a competition. The louder, the better. But it is a waste of money. It disturbs a lot of people. Instead, they should give the money to charity."
He adds, "Since the Tourism Authority of Thailand started using the festival as a means to promote tourism here, a lot has changed. Everything is becoming more and more competitive."
These days, the competition is not only between the people and temples taking part, but between the different towns holding Vegetarian Festivals.
There is, for example, an ongoing battle between Phuket and Trang as to which will have the better festival. The definition of "better" seems to be how much pain the mah song can inflict on themselves.
The TAT balks at the criticism that it has fueled the increasingly grotesque nature of the festival.
"Its easy for people to point the finger at us. They always think that the TAT is trying to use [these acts] as the sales pitch," said Khun Wanaphapa Suksombul, assistant director of the TAT in Phuket. "But if you notice, we dont have such posters anymore. The market has already caught on and we actually spend less on promotion these days."
The TATs festival posters have indeed, over the past few years, been toned down, focusing more on the vegetarian aspect of the festival. One, for instance, shows a picture of devotees clad in white, surrounded by various types of vegetables, along with descriptions of their nutritional value.
Without doubt, the festival is good for tourism; at the time of writing, hotels in Phuket Town were already 70-80% booked, mostly with tourists from Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan.
"The festival is going be a perfect opening for the tourist season this year," said Khun Wanaphapa.
The TAT is meanwhile working with the festival organizers on ways to keep the mutilations under control, or at least make them safer.
This year, for example, according to Narong Hongyok, an ex-president of the Jui Tui shrine, each mah song may have to undergo an HIV test in order to prevent the disease from spreading among the mah song and their caretakers, or even to other devotees and spectators.
The length of the objects the mah song will use to pierce their faces will probably be restricted to two meters or less.
"Apart from this," says Khun Narong, "It is largely up to each of the eight main shrines [Kathu, Jui Tui, Bang Neow, Sui Boon Tong, Ban Tha Rue, Samkong, Cherng Thalay, and Thung-Ka Paniangtaek] how they prepare to treat and control those from the small temples.
"Its not going to be easy," he admits. "Most of the time, the pee liang [temple caretakers] try to outdo one another with, for example, tree branches, chains or TV antennas. It is not beautiful anymore; its torture.
"The festival has been exploited and commercialized. It is sad to see that many of us just do not follow the teachings anymore."- Sep Kantavanich