Bladed ladder climbing at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival
The whole concept of bladed ladder climbing sounds so gruesome and you may be curious how such a feat could be achieved. Samkong Shrine is as good a place as any to watch the event, so one day in 2007 we headed there for day eight of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. The show was scheduled to kick off and 8 pm.
We arrived on time and saw that a crowd of about 200 to 300 onlookers had gathered around a large structure that was about 30 feet high, with one bladed ladder leading up to a crow’s nest, and one back down to the ground.
This was the “ladder”, although it looked more like a prop from American Gladiators. I couldn’t get that thought out of my head as about 30 maa song (“entranced horses) arrived to the arena to take up the challenge.
The 30 possessed warriors prepared for battle with patches of fabric held in their mouths between their teeth. A string of firecrackers was lit and the resulting smoke filled their air as the maa song lined themselves up in single file.
The climbing began with the first maa song making his way up the ladder. We were disappointed that only his feet came into contact with the bladed rungs. The first guy only touched every other rung and his climbing was slow and steady. The next maa song touched every rung, and with every step he rocked back and forth as if trying to shake the whole structure.
Each maa song had a different way of climbing the ladder. Some would run up it as fast they could, while others were more methodical in their climbing. When the maa song reached the crows nest, they took the pieces of orange fabric out of their mouths and threw them to the ground below.
Other maa song gave out pieces of string to people in the crowd. Sometimes we think that Thai people will wai anything that moves. There really was no significance to this string, but the people in the crowd received it as if it had come from Buddha himself.
One maa song came over and showed us his feet. While the whole thing did look painful, the rungs weren’t covered with blood as we had expected, and the whole thing felt more like a “show” than the other feats we’ve witnessed at the Vegetarian Festival.
Other shows during the week included walking on fire and bathing in hot oil. The real action, as it were, is to be found in the street processions.