Face Piercing at Sam Kong Shrine
WARNING - Graphic content, blood and pierced faces. May not be everyone's cup of tea :)
Every morning for a week during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival there are big street processions in Phuket Town, plus a few local processions near the shrines themselves. I always try to see at least a couple of the big processions. The main crowds are around old Phuket Town, which makes for a big spectacle especially with all the firecrackers, but I also like to get to some shrines before they start walking. Several reasons for this... Photos - it's easier to take a photo when someone is sitting down, harder during a procession when they are moving and there are crowds. Also, on a sunny day, they start early and it's not so hot.. plus if I am working that day, I can get to the shrine and easily get to work on time. Mum and Dad were visiting from England - this would be their first taste of the face piercing. We were at Sam Kong shrine (in the north side of Phuket Town) not long after 6am on September 30th. Yes, you do have to wake up early to see something special :)
The entranced Ma Song prepare themselves inside the shrine before they get pierced all around the grounds of the shrine. We arrived pretty early - no piercing was taking place, but suddenly within about 15 minutes, the Ma Song were all over the shrine and for a photographer it was hard to know where to look .. later on, looking at other people's photos there was lots of "Oh! I didn't see that!" - the photos below show rather graphically what goes on at these shrines in the early morning.
It's not that they don't feel pain, but I am told that the Ma Song do somehow entrance themselves to feel less pain. Actually the pain and suffering is a good thing. As they walk through the villages and Phuket Town, the Ma Song bless the local people, and their pain gives good luck to the people. Not everyone can be a Ma Song. Locals can't just turn up at the shrine and start cutting cheeks. They are carefully chosen and I imagine it must be quite an honour. At Sam Kong shrine, only men can be Ma Song. Some other shrines like Kathu and Jui Tui also have women.
Sam Kong also tries to be a bit more traditional with the piercings - encouraging the use of less elaborate items - in recent years it does seem that some Ma Song, especially the younger ones, try more and more crazy piercings, perhaps to feel more pain for the people, perhaps just to get their picture in the paper! The guy below is getting pierced with a more traditional spike...
The guy below is going more for the "look at me" style of piercing and will surely have more photographers snapping him than a guy with simple spikes through his cheeks. Sure, a garden spade, why not?
There is far more to the festival than the piercings of course, but most photographers (including me) tend to focus on the blood. It's hard not to look. The camera develops a life of it's own! But this year, as you may see from the pages about the opening ceremonies and the evening procession in Kathu, I am trying to show more of the traditional aspects of the festival... especially concentrating on Kathu as it's our local shrine. Sam Kong is also only a few km from our house. The area around Kathu and Sam Kong was where the festival began in the 19th century before Phuket Town was the administrative center of Phuket island. The traditions run very deep here.
As the pierced Ma Song left the shrine for the walk into Phuket Town, the statues of the gods were blessed. I think the picture above shows something of the respect shown to the gods. As a group of Ma Song bless a shrouded god image, everyone in the shrine crouched down to pray. We were in the shrine for about 1 hour. The last of the Ma Song and the gods being carried by young men left the shrine by about 7:15am. It's smoky, noisy and rather intense. A couple of foreign ladies had to go sit down. As I say, not for everyone, but still my favourite festival and .. this is the real Phuket. Tourists have been here about 30 years. The origins of the Phuket Vegetarian festival date back to 1825. Next blog page will concentrate on one of the big processions in town from Bang Neow shrine which took place on October 2nd.