There is an annual vegetarian festival in Thailand. The timing is based on the Chinese calendar, and this year it was held in late October. It is a ten day event which is loosely observed all over Thailand. In most places it just means that some food vendors switch to selling vegetarian dishes.
However in some areas in the south of Thailand events take a bizarre turn. The origin of this festival stems from 1825 when a traveling Chinese opera company fell seriously ill and managed to cure itself by eating a vegetarian diet and performing rituals and ceremonies. This impressed the Chinese community in Thailand so much that they decided to establish a yearly vegetarian festival to celebrate and promote this self-healing method.
The festival is mostly observed by Thais of Chinese origin. In order to cleanse body and mind, they eat only vegetarian food for several days, abstain from sex and alcohol, and wear white clothes during the festival. This sounds quite harmless, but there is another aspect to it.
Hundreds of people perform acts of self mutilation by piercing their cheeks with swords, needles, metal rods, bayonets and other devices. They hit themselves with sharp objects until their blood is streaming down, they climb ladders made of sharp blades and they walk on beds of burning coals, all barefoot.
You would think that they must be crying out in pain, but just the opposite is the case. The self-mutilators are in a trance state, feel no pain, and there is practically no bleeding when they get pierced. After removal of the objects, the wounds close rapidly without bleeding and without scarring.
They are convinced that the Chinese gods will protect them from any harm, and it seems to be working. Every year they perform more daring and gruesome acts of self-mutilation, but after it is all over, the participants are not only restored to good health, but they feel inspired and cleansed and closer to their gods.
The atmosphere is electric. Thousands of firecrackers are exploding constantly like the rattling of machine gun fire. Devotees all in white are running excitedly in processions, and many people are being possessed by spirits, enter a trance, and even turn into spirit-mediums. It is quite a spectacle, and if you don’t see it, it is hard to believe.
People bring their household gods and carry them in colorful processions. There is tasty vegetarian food sold everywhere. Ceremonies are held at various Chinese temples in which the gods are invited to descend.
And all the while firecrackers are exploding and drums are beaten, all causing as much noise as possible which is considered auspicious and it also serves to drive away evil spirits. Everything culminates in the sending-off of the gods and huge fireworks on the last day.
Some of the benefits of the festival are supposed to be a cleansing of body and mind, an appeasing of the gods, promotion of healthy eating and good hygiene, demonstration of supernatural powers, and the development of an inner state of peace. For the outsider it can be a mind-expanding or mind-blowing experience that demonstrates an aspect of Thai culture that cannot be explained in a rational way. Some things in life will always remain a mystery.
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