For 15 years the same dead Chinese monk named “Bhao” has taken possession of Dang, a 45-year-old Thai mechanic from Phuket. Under Bhao’s influence, Dang surrenders his consciousness and enters a trance state, during which he skewers his face with long metal rods and engages in acts of self-mutilation. Dang is only one of many spirit-possessed mah songs who volunteer — they say they’re chosen — for this graphic civic duty. For several days during Phuket’s infamous Nine Emperor Gods Festival, women and men parade through the streets bristling with poles, swords, tools, sculptures, baseball bats, guns and religious icons piercing their flesh.
The final surreal night goes off with a bang as millions of unsafe and insane fireworks and other improvised explosive devices are hurled at processions of mah songs as they wend their way through town, shrouding much of town in a foul black smoke. This never fails to drive the spirits out and send them back to their homes. Phuket is the point of origin for Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival, where according to legend a visiting troupe of Chinese opera singers recovered from malaria only after supplicating to the gods and following a vegetarian diet nearly 200 years ago. Today, it is a nine-day Taoist celebration which begins on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, making it all the more attractive for nine-friendly Thais. The festival is more widely recognized by Chinese-Thai families, during which they impose a strict vegan diet to purify their minds and bodies.
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