There are fascinating (some would say scary) scenes in the streets of Phuket in late October or early November every year when local people, mainly Thais of Chinese blood, dress in white for the nine days of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
Streets are festooned with yellow flags, a symbol of the festival. Food stalls are set up along the sidewalks and this is a great time to try out a huge variety of Phuket-style vegetarian dishes.
It is also a time of extraordinary spectacles featuring hundreds of spirit mediums, known in Thai as mah song, or 'horses of the gods', taking part in ceremonies at the various Chinese shrines around the island, and parading through Phuket’s streets, most of them with cheeks pierced with a variety of implements, from small skewers to motorcycle wheels, shovels or flagpoles.
Phuket.com talked with a mah song, Uten Tengkan, about what it is like being a vessel for a god.
The Chosen One
Khun Uten is a Phuket native, the father of two happy girls, one aged 12 and the other just one. He still remembers vividly when he was himself just 12 years old and received his first visit from the Chinese god who still, today, takes over his body at the time of the festival and occasionally at other times of the year.
“The first sign I got was during my sleep. I dreamed of a Chinese-looking man with very dark skin and wearing old-style Chinese clothing. He was gazing at me. In my dream I was very scared. I cried for help but no one seemed to hear me,” Khun Uten recalls.
The next day, he ached all over and felt ill. He didn’t want to go to school but had to because it was the time for examinations. After school that day he felt even worse, so his mother took him to a doctor. The doctor could find nothing wrong with him, so prescribed painkillers and rest.
“For three days, I felt very bad. Then it happened. I remember the very moment I entered my house. I suddenly felt cold all over. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t control myself. I wanted to shout for my mother but my mouth would not move,” says Khun Uten. What followed, he says, is a blur. Alarmed, his mother asked a neighbour what she should do. The neighbor said he believed the boy was possessed by a god and should be taken to a Chinese shrine for expert advice.
Gods and Goddesses
Go Ant, a native of Phuket who has been studying the vegetarian festival for years explains that the beings entering people’s bodies are benevolent gods and goddess from the Chinese pantheon. Those chosen for possession may be men or women, young or old.
There are many reasons for a god to choose a particular person, Go Ant says. It could be that the person is about to die for some reason and becoming a mah song is a way to extend their life. Or it could be that they have bad karma from an earlier life, and something bad is about to happen that can be averted if they become a mah song. Some people believe that, in some cases, the mah song has some deep historical connection with the god. But whatever the reason, no one can become a mah song without the permission of his or her parents being sought.
Khun Uten continues: “I was taken to a Chinese shrine. There I started to speak Chinese – which is a language I didn’t know and had never spoken before. A translator at the shrine explained that the god who had taken control of me was asking my mother for permission to have me as his medium.”
His mother felt she had no choice but to say “yes”. However, she managed to summon the courage to ask the god to allow her son to go back to school first and finish his exams.
Since that day, Khun Uten has been the mah song for the god, and it is a role he takes seriously.
A New Duty
Being a mah song is more a duty than anything else, Khun Uten says. “The spirit comes to me mainly during the time of the Vegetarian Festival. Other than that, he seldom comes,” he says.
“Sometimes, the old people who work at the shrine ask me to invite the god to come into me because there are people who need to consult with him,” says Khun Uten. These requests most typically come when someone is ill and would rather be cured by the god than visit a modern doctor. Khun Uten does his duty, letting the spirit use his body to heal people.
But it’s not a pleasant duty. He feels as cold as if he were sitting in a freezer, and he shakes all over. “Every time the spirit comes, I know who I am but I lose control of my body. I hear the conversation going on between my body and other people, all in Chinese. It usually takes about half an hour.
“Am I scared? Of course I am. I’m 35 years old now, but this is not something you ever get used to, no matter how many years you’ve been experiencing it.”
The Scary Part
During the shrine ceremonies and street processions at the time of the Vegetarian Festival, mah song skewer their cheeks with a variety of implements, including sticks and swords. “It was not like that before,” says Khun Uten. “We didn’t use anything as large or as heavy as some of the mah song do nowadays.”
He believes that the gods skewer the cheeks of the mah song with objects as a way to absorb bad energy, to help other people by freeing them from bad karma, illness or sorrow.
He was 15 when he first took part in this scary rite. He didn’t like it then, and he still doesn’t like it now. “Every time my body is taken over by the god, I know what’s going to happen, and I want to stop it. I want to run away. But, as I said, my body is not mine anymore and I cannot resist.
“I know that the spirit pierces my cheeks with the object, with no anaesthetic, but I feel no pain at all. It’s lucky that, in my case, he never uses any of the large, frightening objects you see some mah song carrying.” says Khun Uten.
When it is all over and the god leaves him, he is exhausted. He feels, he says, as if he has just run a marathon.
Believe It or Not
How does his family feel about his duty as a mah song? “I was a mah song long before I was married and had a family. And I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life. My older daughter knows about it and she’s used to the idea of having a father who is a mah song,” says Khun Uten, smiling.
He also lives a quiet, humble, honest life. For example, he says, he is incapable of telling lies. He can drink alcohol but he never gets drunk as this would not be a good thing for any mah song to do. Several times a year – not only during the Vegetarian Festival – he has to give up meat.
Khun Uten says that although his work as a truck driver is generally not considered to be well paid, he has managed to provide his family with a house and a car. “I do believe that being a mah song has made life better for me and my family. When you do good things for other people, you receive good things in return,” he says.
Did You Know?
Women who are pregnant or are undergoing their period are not allowed to enter Chinese shrines during the Vegetarian Festival.