YES that’s right!
We flew halfway across Thailand to see a vegetarian festival. Sounds interesting right? Well to let you know, it’s not so much about the eating of veggie food which was the main draw. The main draw was the hundreds of people shoving metal rods, bars, hooks, and even shovels (yup…) through their cheeks. Double take now….
The festival actually has a cool history. It’s rooted as being a Chinese festival and there is a large Chinese population in Thailand. Rumor mill has it that a Chinese Opera visited Thailand for a performance, after arriving they all became very sick… like coming out both ends sick. So sick and unable to travel they took to purifying their bodies by eating nothing but vegetarian food. This miraculously cured them and it’s for that reason that the Thai’s now take time out of each year for this cleansing.
For the large part, all “street meat” becomes “street tofu” and some vendors go to the trouble to make their vegetarian dishes look and taste like there’s still meat in it for those real die-hard carnivores.
Now what about this piercing thing? It’s kind if like celebrating Easter with a rabbit. If anyone answers that one I’ll do the research into the piercing, promise.
Just kidding. The Thai’s/Chinese believe that by putting yourself through pain, you are allowing the bad spirits to exit the body while letting the good spirits in. Kind of like spiritual spring cleaning.
The ceremony begins at 5am (ugh…) With everyone dressed in white. The ones who are being pierced show up a bit later in gold laced and decorated costumes resembling Aprons (to catch the blood I’m assuming). They arrive with what looks like whips, flowers or other ceremonial pieces. This makes them easy to spot in a crowd of white. The other thing that makes them easy to spot are the large scars from last years piercing, some look like mini dots from the needles, some long gashes from the swords….yes swords…
Think of it this way…Your DC shirts or Abercrombie hoodies sort of pale in comparison to their status symbols.
The piercers arrive, in a trance like state they shake their head and bodies from side to side, people crowd them to get a good view and to encourage them on. To add to the hype, in some temples drums are banged and chants are yelled. Being in the middle of this is a surreal experience.
There is no line up, and when the piercers are ready they sit. This could be anywhere in the crowd so you need to watch your back because you don’t want to bump into one of these guys! They truly are the stars of the show, their courage, strength and down right guts are something to be amazed by. The energy, adrenaline, fear and excitement in that crowd easily pulses from person to person and even watching you feel like you’re a part of something special.
Most piercers are in a world of their own entirely, and can go from somber meditation to tiger style crazy in seconds, banging on the walls, floor, other people, running like monkeys and chanting loudly. This is the Thai equivalent of a good Rugby chant.
Once sat, volunteers grab their heads to keep them stable, they sterilize the piece with alcohol and proceed to shoving it through their cheeks. Two things get you at this point.
One – the look on their faces of fear/religious Zen and
Two – the amount of force needed to push that needle through the skin…like shoving a knife through a watermelon.
Things happen in progression, first the needles, then the big boys come out with axe handles, anchors, garden sheers, you name it…. Kind of like, the last thing you grab before leaving the house that morning goes through your face. So after a number of people have been pierced, you need to always be on guard, the last thing you want to do is bump someone with a pair of scissors in their mouth!
But when it’s all said and done, these guys are proud. They stand strong for pictures and then proceed down the street in a kind of procession, stopping at businesses and houses who have shrines lined up along the street to be blessed. To have a pierced worshipper bless you or your business is a great honor.
Before 8am, the temple grounds look like a bad night out. Firecracker remnants cover the ground along with the ceremony’s litter. Latex gloves, half empty bottles of alcohol, Kleenex with blood stains, and blood drops cover the ground. It’s the kind of party that makes you utter “Really?…” over in your head repeatedly the next morning.
The reality is, like with all ceremonies, it is routed in deep and important history. It is important to their culture and not to be disregarded as a simple side-show. But people are people, and people have ego’s. Ten years ago it was not like it is today. The piercers are pushing their own limits more and more, what was once one needle is now 20 needles. What was once a butter knife is now a sword worthy of Brave-heart. It happens, it draws crowds, and is a status symbol. But my hat goes off to these guys (and girls…and children) their dedication to their faith is amazing.
And my hat goes off to the emergency ward at the hospital too, it’s one of the busiest times of year for them…