It all began in the early 1900s, when tin ore was discovered in the Kathu area and hundreds of Hokkien Chinese were drafted in to do the mining. They either brought their families with them or intermarried with the locals. A thriving community blossomed and, in 1825, the Governor Praya Jerm moved the provincial capital from Ta Reua to Kathu.
The Chinese community had such critical mass that an itinerant Chinese opera company visited to entertain them. Here the story gets a little confused, but basically the whole area was struck by a major epidemic and almost everybody except the opera players became sick.
Following their beliefs, the players had stuck to their religious calendar, which at this time of year required that they observe a strict vegetarian diet and offer prayers to two Chinese gods, Kiew Ong Tai Teh and Yok Ong Sone Teh. The residents attributed their invulnerability to these religious observances.
An alternative explanation may be that since Kathu was a swampy jungle and it was the time of the monsoon rains, the visitors may have introduced a malarial strain – to which they themselves were immune – to the local mosquitoes, which thrived in the damp conditions. When the rains stopped the insects’ breeding ponds disappeared and the epidemic abated naturally.
Be that as it may, the following year, the Haio Lan and Lian Tui regalia and sacred scripts were brought from China. When this precious cargo arrived at Bang Niao, the whole community went there to welcome the ship.
The tradition of processions was thus born. On the first night of the ninth lunar month, the sacred 10-metre lantern pole is raised to facilitate the arrival of the gods, and at midnight, nine lanterns are suspended, one for each god. In a slightly anomalous add-on, the Hindu god Shiva is also believed to be present, and just to be on the safe side, offerings are also made to Lam Tao and Pak Tao. The festival then continues for nine more days with much burning of incense, banging of drums and letting off of fireworks to ward off evil spirits.
One of the strange and even controversial aspects of the various processions is the activities of the Ma Song or ‘possessed horses’. These religious zealots transform themselves into a trancelike state and perform acts of mortification, which range from climbing ladders with steel blades for rungs, walking across red hot coals and immersing themselves in hot oil.
In a further, rather gruesome, practise, adherents pierce their faces and tongues with everything from skewers to bicycle spokes to axes. Oddly enough, this self mutilation results in little bleeding or subsequent scarring. Stranger than fiction. However it’s not for the queasy, so probably best not to bring the kids!
For most, however, the festival isn’t so fraught. Many restaurants and stalls all over the island will fly yellow banners decorated with red script, proclaiming that they are offering authentic vegetarian dishes – and they are delicious. Somehow the cooks manage to prepare dishes, which are just as tasty as normal meaty fare, but without the meat.
This year the festival will be held from
29 September-7 October 2019
If you wish to practise a strict observance during the festival, here are the ‘rules’: