The air is heavy with smoke. All I can see is a carpet of red shells, strewn across the ground like rose petals, and the sparks of fire that rip through the endless cloud.
The angry splutter of explosions intensifies – the procession must be approaching. I see the Gods first, carried high on a litter, impervious to the firecrackers launched into their thrones. Before them emerge devotees, both men and women, in vivid silk robes and huge blades or metal poles pierced through their faces They shout and quivering in religous ecstasy, some whipping themselves as they walk. Here and there, a trickle of blood runs down the steel, but mostly – and miraculously – the knives seem to pierce their skin without serious damage.
And then: a monster springs from the mist. The gargolye-grin of a huge Chinese dragon bursts through the smoke, lurching towards me. As it snakes and snaps, Thai people dressed all in white, their faces coked in white powder, run forward to feed it money for luck.
This is the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods, also called the “Vegetarian Festival”, which is held in Phuket Town in Thailand during October each year. The festival dates back around 150 years to when a visiting troupe of opera singers from China fell seriously ill while performing for Chinese tin miners in the area.
As the story goes, the group prayed to the traditional Nine Emperor Gods, promising to honour them by staying ‘pure’ for nine days – no meat, no sex, no booze, etc. – and carrying out other devotions. After the orginal troupe made a full recovery, the idea stuck. More and more people took part in religious observations each year until it evolved into the dramatic, city-wide festival it is today.
And the whole city really does throw itself into celebrations. For the full nine days, vegetarian street stalls proliferate and most Phuket residents dress in white, arrive at the temples in droves from dawn, and line the streets to show their respects.
Meanwhile the self-mutilations of the devotees become increasingly bizarre with every yeart that passes: I saw people pierce their faces with shotguns, spades and even bicycles, which they they then carried with them, still sticking out of their faces, on the long march through town. On other days, they walk across burning coals or climb ladders of knives.
But while you could be forgiven for thinking that this has become about spectacle, those that take part feel it to be a deeply spiritual experience.
One man that I spoke to from the festival’s organising team, who also used to take part in the self-mutilation ritual and other parts of the festival, explained that being “chosen” by the gods to take part is a great honour. Those who are chosen, he told me, experience this as a complete surrender of control.
“I was walking by a waterfall when it happened to me. I just felt something take over me and I knew the Gods wanted me to do this,” he said.
Although he was still a teenager when it happened, the rituals became a huge part of his life – including the three month purification process before each Vegetarian Festival. When it comes to actually piercing his skin with knives, he was adamant that he would go into a complete trance and feel no pain. “That’s why you hardly ever see blood,” he said. “The Gods protect you”.
Whatever you take from it, the Nine Emperor Gods Festival is without a doubt one of the most baffling and exhilerating experiences that Thailand has to offer. Even better, while I hate the world “authentic”, you really do feel that you’ve stepped into one of the country’s last great traditions, totally unchanged or uncontrived for tourists.
Even though 10,000 people take to the streets each year, and despite the tourist beach hubs of Kata, Karon and Patong just a few miles away, you’re unlikely to see more than a handful of other farang at the festival.
Jostling among the rapt crowd – almost entirely Thai and Chinese – at the gory dawn ceremonies, or racing through the smoke to catch the night procession over the tumultous roar of firecrackers, fireworks, traditional music and shrieking devotees, it’s hard to believe that this magical, beguiling cultural gem is taking place in one of the most tourist-laden islands in the whole of Southeast Asia.
The next Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods kicks off next month, from October 20th to October 28th 2017, in Phuket Town, Thailand.
Bear in mind that there is only one city-wide procession this year, as the festival coincides with the funeral of King Bhumibol Adulyadej… but, while the overall festival is smaller, there are also more firewalking and blade-climbing ceremonies than usual.
If you’re travelling through the region I would still seriously recommend working this into your trip. Keep your eye on the latest itinerary (it’s Asia, so it changes), here.