***Note: This post includes some photos and descriptions of bodily mutilation. These images are bloody and disturbing. If you are sensitive to this sort of thing, please do not continue. You have been warned.
Several hundred years ago, Chinese traders in Thailand withstood a terrible plague and miraculously survived. They and their descendants naturally thanked the gods for this apparent divine intervention, and as was often the way with ancient people, they resorted to bizarre and grotesque means of showing their gratitude. For hundreds of years, people in Phuket (and nowhere else on earth) have thus celebrated survival and thanked their gods by rammed needles and swords through parts of their body, abstaining from sex and carnivorism, and dressing all in white. It is a bizarre event, to be sure, and one that has been called “the most extreme festival in the world” by outside observers.
Fast forward to this monstrous decade of political correctness and fashionable sensitivity, where everyone is offended by everything and no one dare say or do anything lest they be “cancelled”… It is a bleak future, in which the internet has brought ubiquity to all, and offered us all new gods: YouTubers and Instagram influencers. Around the world, our cultures are dying and everyone is becoming increasingly dull.
I am not a fan of blood and gore, and I am far from a religious man, but I do feel that it is a tragedy that we have been robbed of our heritage in this vile era. Our differences made us beautiful, and yet now everyone wants the same things. It is, therefore, refreshing that there is a festival so utterly out of touch with this world of ours that I cannot post images of it on Facebook or Instagram. It is those terrible apps that have crushed our cultures like a steamroller, giving everyone the same ideas and aspirations. There are things in this world which the inventors of these apps cannot tolerate, and perhaps in those lie some hope for our salvation. What they cannot tolerate may well be what ensures some semblance of diversity in our miserable new world.
And so, for that reason, I was drawn to this weird and wonderful festival that is like nothing else. Thankfully, the descendants of those Chinese traders still take to the streets for a week of brutal self-mutilation in some odd attempt to satisfy their gods. At the beginning of October, they gather in their temples at dawn and ram sharp objects through parts of their bodies – the face, mostly. The general idea is: the bigger and more painful, the better. After this, these adherents parade through the streets, blessing the local people and spreading some sort of cheer. As best I can tell, they believe themselves to be possessed by ancient spirits or gods and therefore in a position to dole out forgiveness, charms, and even candy.
For some of the participants, I do feel that the festival is a test of masculinity, with many men ramming dozens of small skewers or one or two large swords through their faces. However, others seem sincere enough… and it is by no means a male-dominated festival. A good quarter or a third of participants are women. The crowd is certainly about half male and half female.
At six o’clock on a grey morning, with a mild hangover, it is an altogether overwhelming experience to be confronted with the noise and sights of a brutal procession of bloodied, brightly-dressed people with parts of their faces hanging off… It is, shall we say, not for the faint-hearted. There are people with skewers in their cheeks and others with whole swords, axes, poles, or even parts of trees. A few have pierced their tongues, lips, ears, throats, or other body parts. Some seem not to notice the pain, while others are clearly suffering. There are, of course, doctors and nurses everywhere caring for these poor fanatics, some of whom walk alongside the most extreme devotees, virtually holding their face together lest the skin and muscle rip apart entirely.
The stream of bloody faces moving by takes several hours, such is the number of participants. The latter half are accompanied by firecrackers and fireworks, which turn the air thick with smoke. It also brings the observer into the fray. While previously I was watching others harming themselves, soon I had firecrackers exploding on my legs, chest, and even a few that hit my face.
When finally the procession drew to an end, I wandered to the main temple and took a look inside. The crowds had dispersed, and there were teams of people clearing the rubbish from the streets. Here, there was a middle-aged man chanting in Mandarin Chinese, while a young woman sat nearby, rocking back and forth. She suddenly started to choke and then rose to her feet, apparently being pulled by her wrists. Some invisible force compelled her to writhe in front of an altar, and two women came and put a golden dress on her. They sat her down and a man with a giant metal skewer appeared. The woman appeared not to notice as he quickly and casually stuck it through her face, and she stood up and walked calmly away. It was an odd thing to witness in this small room well after the parade had ended, and in a few seconds there was no one else there. I had wondered to what extent these people really were immune to the pain and content with what they were doing, but this was clear: she felt nothing…
A little later, a man staggered in, bleeding profusely from his throat. Doctors removed several skewers from his face and attempted to patch him up, but soon he was screaming and dancing. His screams, though, were ones of ecstasy. He was in his sixties and leaping into the air like a young boy, blood spraying from his wounds. People looked on, impressed.
I am not a religious man and never will be, but sometimes I do glimpse a little of what inspires those with faith. Today was one of those days. I do not understand it fully, of course, and would not care to impale myself for any reason, but I was filled with fascination and a small amount of respect for these fanatical folks and their ancient, bloody devotion.