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PHUKET: One of the most famous ceremonies that is synonymous with Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival, or Jia Chai, is the soul-stirring parade of ‘ma song’ (‘spirit mediums), who are often seen stabbing objects through their cheeks or slashing their tongues with knives, as they believe this sacrifice will take away bad fortune, sickness and danger from those who take part in the festivities.

Thitipong Saisutthikul, 26, a hotel assistant general manager has been a ma song for seven years.

“I declined to be a ma song for five years before I gave in,” said Thitipong.

“To become a ma song, you must be chosen by ‘Phra‘ [the angel’s spirit] and I was chosen.”
He recalled the first time that he became possessed by his Phra, Ong Sun Tai Sai, six years ago.

“I was hanging out in my house and suddenly my body became paralyzed. I was frozen like that for a few hours until I became unconscious and started speaking Chinese. I was told that after I spoke, I wrote down the name of my Phra in Chinese letters and ever since I have taken on the duty of being a ma song.”

Mr Thitipong said that the tools he uses during festival rituals are the classic ones used in the legend of the Jia Chai.

“I normally use sharp steel or swords to stab my cheeks. It doesn’t cause pain, as I am unconscious at the time, but I have never used the fancy tools that people have started using recently.”

He noted that, although the ceremony is meant for the ma song to suffer for other people, there is a legend and process to it and he does not agree with changing tools to attract more attention.

“There are some weapons that are mentioned in the legend, such as sharp steel and swords, but many people have now started using wheels, trees, guns or even bicycles.”

“I don’t think it’s appropriate and it’s more for fashion and not tradition. Many ma songs are campaigning and trying to tell others to follow the legend.”

Mr Thitipong explained that during the festival, the ma song must go to the shrine and wait until their Phra possesses them. After they are unconscious, the shrine staff will sit them down, clean their cheeks with alcohol and use sharp steel to open a hole on each cheek and put in the object that the ma song had chosen beforehand.

After the processions, the ma song will return to the shrine where a medical team and shrine staff will remove the tools from his cheeks while the ma song is still possessed in order to avoid pain.

After the wounds are cleaned and closed, a ceremony is performed to lure the spirit out of the ma song so that they will become conscious again.

“I never feel bad about having scars on my face or feeling pain after the ceremony. I realize that I have been chosen and I am honored to sacrifice myself to help people during the Jia Chai Festival.”

And, though he said that Jia Chai has changed a lot from when he was young, he is glad to see that people are still interested and keep to the strict guidelines and traditions, such as wearing white and not eating any animal products.

“It’s good to see people coming from other provinces and other countries to join the festival and ceremonies. Though they may not understand it completely, by involving themselves in the festival they will receive health and merit.”

— Nattha Thepbamrung