I was startled every few minutes by the sight and sound of the plastic-coated gunpowder exploding with a flash, inches from my feet, smoke billowing in my eyes and blasts ringing in my ears.
But for the newbies among the crowd, including myself, it is mildly terrifying. As the crackers rained down, I looked to my right and saw an old man, not flinching in the slightest, with a knowing smile spread across his face. His local festival was back with an almighty bang.
These processions tumble through the island’s streets for nine days every October, and one particular element of the spectacle is infamous across Thailand. It is the event where people have swords – or skewers, or umbrellas, or lampshades, or daggers, or even a BMX – inserted through their cheeks.
I thought I’d feel queasier than I did, as I watched men and women, young and old, file past with objects fixed into their faces – but it’s simply captivating, especially once you know the context. The Nine Emperor Gods Festival, as it’s also known, is not violent for the sake of violence; the veganism and mutilation are acts of devotion. It’s a tradition that spans Phuket’s multicultural, multi-faith community, and it’s the highlight of the year.
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It’s not just any Phuketian who can show up and pierce themselves. The Mah Song who do are very special folk; the earthly embodiments of one of the nine gods, seven angels or myriad bodhisattvas – all Taoist, a tradition brought here by the Peranakan community from south China. Called by their god, these chosen Mah Song are revered by other locals throughout the festival while they take on their god’s characteristics, mannerisms and language. Many become mediums in their teens; once you’re a Mah Song, you’re Mah Song for life.
Knowing that, the monkey-esque movements by many Mah Song make sense; they’ve become the emperor god Sun Wukong, a powerful primate. I saw a lot of this as I arrived at Jui Tui Shrine for 5.30am, dressed in white as all attendees who aren’t Mah Song must. I met local tour guide, Jo Lecourt, who…