By guest editor Ashton
Warning! This post contains graphic images that may be disturbing
Ritualized mutilations. Partial skinning. Slashing of body parts. Explosions of fireworks wrapped around body parts. Those are not exactly the words one would associate with a popular tourist attraction. If a travel agent proposed adding those sights to your itinerary, would you be willing to watch strangers do such things to their bodies? Unfortunately, most would probably decline the extreme, visually disturbing opportunity. Drinks, food, and beaches are much less challenging.
Six years ago, my wife and I took an 11-day vacation to Phuket, Thailand. Even with trips in the intervening time, we still reminisce frequently on the trip as it remains our favorite. The culture and the less developed qualities of this country have made it an unforgettable time in our lives. Going about our daily lives at home, it was easy to become immune to the other ways of life in the world. Everyday amenities we took for granted were rare luxuries in parts of Thailand and we reveled in the chance to have our eyes opened.
Funnily, we decided on this destination after watching a music video and researching where the video was shot. We opted for the guided tour company Contiki to book the trip and got to experience the journey with 15 new friends that signed up for the same guided vacation dates. After dinner each night, our guide would gather us and set the schedule for the next day. Typically, the day’s options involved relaxing at the pool, shopping and wandering around the town, partying at nightclubs, and visiting local attractions such as temples, hot springs, elephant sanctuaries, etc. Our only obligation was to inform the guide of our choices so she could keep a head count and make arrange accordingly. On the third night, our guide offered a very unusual experience we could go on early the next morning – the Vegetarian Festival. My first thought was “No, not interested.” Then the guide described the event with words similar to the ones mentioned earlier. My second thought was… “Hell no!” My wife excitedly raised her hand and said she wanted to go. I was utterly shocked. I’m pretty sure my jaw fell open uncontrollably. Her dislike of blood was something I was keenly aware of and this event seemed like a definite no. My first thought was that she may have been a little tipsy and didn’t hear the description of the event correctly. Nope. It turned out she really wanted to go because the festival would be taboo in the states and we had an opportunity to completely immerse ourselves into the foreign culture. Despite my initial resistance, I finally added my name to the list. The decision to go was one of the best my wife and I have made. She has yet to let me forget that it was her idea.
The Vegetarian Festival is also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. It is a Taoist festival honoring the northern dipper stars in which people participate with the hopes of prolonging their lives, eliminating calamities, or absolving sins and past debts of themselves and their families. As we got to the location of the festival, the participants were being placed into hypnosis and trance-like states. Since no anesthesia is used, being in this state of mind is necessary for the extreme physical pain many were about to endure. As visitors, we were free to meander around the temple and watch all the events unfold. We were uncomfortable and nervous as we ventured into the throng because many of the participants were chanting and moving about violently as the trance took over their bodies. We did our best to stay clear, as we did not exist to them. So complete was their trance and devotion that the surrounding world melted away. Once under hypnosis, other devotees would sit the person down and begin the preselected ritual. Beforehand, it was decided what sort of mutilations the person would undergo. My wife and I witnessed impaled objects: swords, guns, spears, axes and more through cheeks, arms, faces, legs and backs. We saw partial skinning and slashing of body parts – especially the tongue with swords and knives. Some had what appeared to be thousands of large needles stitched throughout the person’s back, arms, and legs.
It was very hard to watch some of the acts being performed. Once the hypnotized participant was pierced or cut, he would join a march down the streets of Phuket with the assistance of family members or friends. Whatever objects were protruding from his body, stayed there until the walk through the streets was over. After several exhausting hours at the temple, it was time to leave. I had never felt so far from home and so isolated from what my idea of normal was.
Once we digested what we witnessed, my wife and I realized how special this event was to us. Never in our wildest dreams did we think an event like this was taking place in today’s world. I realized that there is so much more in this world than what exists in the tiny bubble we call America. It was my first experience with something considered taboo in one culture yet socially acceptable/normal in another. I experienced feelings and emotions I will not soon forget and will continue to keep an open mind with a greater appreciation for the difference in cultures that exists around the world. If you are ever offered a chance to partake in something that is outside of what you consider normal, I recommend taking advantage of it no matter how taboo it seems. Instead of saying no, venture past the pool, the beach, the drinks, the food and throw yourself into a situation which expands your mind and the way you may view the world. That is why we travel right?