I was startled every few minutes by the sight and sound of the plastic-coated gunpowder exploding with a flash, inches from my feet, smoke billowing in my eyes and blasts ringing in my ears.
But for the newbies among the crowd, including myself, it is mildly terrifying. As the crackers rained down, I looked to my right and saw an old man, not flinching in the slightest, with a knowing smile spread across his face. His local festival was back with an almighty bang.
These processions tumble through the island’s streets for nine days every October, and one particular element of the spectacle is infamous across Thailand. It is the event where people have swords – or skewers, or umbrellas, or lampshades, or daggers, or even a BMX – inserted through their cheeks.
I thought I’d feel queasier than I did, as I watched men and women, young and old, file past with objects fixed into their faces – but it’s simply captivating, especially once you know the context. The Nine Emperor Gods Festival, as it’s also known, is not violent for the sake of violence; the veganism and mutilation are acts of devotion. It’s a tradition that spans Phuket’s multicultural, multi-faith community, and it’s the highlight of the year.
Read more on Asia travel:
It’s not just any Phuketian who can show up and pierce themselves. The Mah Song who do are very special folk; the earthly embodiments of one of the nine gods, seven angels or myriad bodhisattvas – all Taoist, a tradition brought here by the Peranakan community from south China. Called by their god, these chosen Mah Song are revered by other locals throughout the festival while they take on their god’s characteristics, mannerisms and language. Many become mediums in their teens; once you’re a Mah Song, you’re Mah Song for life.
Knowing that, the monkey-esque movements by many Mah Song make sense; they’ve become the emperor god Sun Wukong, a powerful primate. I saw a lot of this as I arrived at Jui Tui Shrine at 5.30am, dressed in white as all attendees who aren’t Mah Song must. I met local tour guide Jo Lecourt who led me around the sprawling Chinese temple, absolutely packed, and where countless yellow flags flapped in the breeze against the pre-dawn indigo sky.
As the sun rose, almost 2,000 Mah Song were getting ready to go on the largest and longest parade of the nine-day proceedings, a 10km route that weaves around Phuket Old Town. Jo asked me, with a glint in her eye: “Do you want to go to the piercing tent?”
I made my excuses. It’s one thing to watch the Mah Song elegantly swoop by, adorned with steel, but it’s another to watch the metal pushed in. I was too squeamish and gave it a miss.
This is the first year that the festival was back in full force after three years of pandemic restrictions – and it’s a very welcome return. “The festival first started to celebrate the end of a pandemic, almost one hundred years ago, so we still wanted to do it,” Chanachon “Jood” Tandavanitj, owner of the Chinpracha House museum, explains. “But it was only the Mah Song who were allowed to do the procession during those Covid times. Last year we still had masks on and were distancing but this year is much better and busier than usual. A lot of Thai tourists come here now.”
It’s small wonder that domestic tourists have poured in. The event is a Phuket treasure, the legacy of the local Peranakan Chinese who make up around 60 per cent of the population, having moved up to the island via Malaysia centuries ago, to lend their expertise and labour to the tin mining industry. Because of this regional diaspora, similar festivals take place in Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan, but the piercing and mutilation element is specific to Phuket.
“It never hurts and it never scars,” says Kaewalee Siripohn, known as Pie to her friends. I joined her for lunch the day after the Jui Tui Shrine procession. She’s been a Mah Song for 23 years, one of many of who are pierced in the temple once they’re in a transcendent state. “I can’t speak Hokkien, I don’t know it, but when my god first came to me, I went to the temple and wrote down her name in that language.”
Pie speaks the Hokkien language when she’s in “goddess mode” and gives out blessings to devotees who line the streets as the parade passes, some in tears, praying as they are blessed by a Mah Song.
It might have Taoist Chinese origins but the festival has developed to be distinctly Phuketian, with all islanders involved in some capacity, no matter their faith. “Phuket has been very international for a long time. On some streets there’s a Thai temple, a Chinese shrine, a Malay Muslim mosque and Christian church, all next to each other,” Jood Tandavanitj says. “We’re very close to other cultures here.”
This cultural diversity has become Phuket Old Town’s calling card, with the restaurants, stores and museums reflecting the different communities who made it what it is today. Tourism is beginning to shift away from the beaches, towards the colourful Old Town that gives Penang’s and Singapore’s a run for their money. It saw the first boutique stay Hotel Verdigris open last year, where young proprietor Peach Pichakorn is keeping Peranakan culture alive through sumptuous design. “Young people from Phuket are proud of their uniqueness. It means a lot to us,” she told me, proudly.
“Phuketians come home for the festival every year, from the corners of Thailand or Malaysia they live in. Some even come back from as far as the US or Europe,” she tells me as I head out, and it’s easy to understand why. Phuket’s Old Town is magnetic. I vow to her I’ll be back to visit the festival again, fully vegan. Maybe the firecrackers won’t scare me so much next time.
Tui Airways is the only airline that flies direct from the UK. Otherwise, you can reach Phuket with Qatar Airways, Emirates, Eithad, Turkish Airlines, Thai Airways or Cathay Pacific on a connecting flight via mainland Thailand. Phuket Old Town is a one-hour drive from Phuket International Airport.
Request a room that overlooks the parade route or watch the events from classy lobby bar, the Talung Lounge.
The Old Town’s first boutique hotel is the perfect homage to the rich local history and a blissfully quiet escape from the hubbub of the festival.
Take an expertly delivered private tour of the festival with Jo Lecourt and her team; phukettourswithjo.net
Read more on the best hotels in Phuket