There is an age old myth that describes two giants (Sae) who lived in the mountains around Chiang Mai at the same time as the Buddha. These Sae, fondly named Grandpa and Grandma Sae, are now the guardians of Chiang Mai, but originally they were giants roaming the Doi Suthep-Pui mountain range in the days pre-Buddhism, in an area inhabited by the Lawa people. Legend has it that the Lord Buddha visited Chiang Mai and was eyed up as a potential meal by the Sae. The Buddha managed to convince them not to eat him, or any other locals, entreating them to become vegetarians, by making a deal whereby they could eat the flesh of a buffalo once a year.
Since that day, a ritual has been conducted every year. The Sae, entering a physical form through the body of a medium, are gifted a young buffalo and it is devoured raw. People flock to this event to see this spectacle and this year. I had to see what it was all about.
Taking place just after dawn, we had to leave early, arriving at Doi Kham temple at foot of Doi Suthep around 7am. The ceremony takes place during the start of the rainy season, and details are released close to the time on the district website of Mae Hia. The atmosphere was surprisingly quiet, as though everyone was waiting for what was to come with baited breath. Intriguing. The muggy morning heat saturated our shirts as we began to walk towards the sacrificial arena deep in the jungle. I was under the impression that we would witness the actual sacrifice of a buffalo, but I was surprisingly disappointed that the young teenage buffalo was already dead. I had prepared myself for scenes of slaughter. With its legs pulled apart and strapped to the floor, the animal seemed subjected to some medieval torture technique, with its entire body stretched apart leaving the innards exposed to the world.
It began to get busy, but still nothing was happening. People were tense. Everyone began filtering in and trying to find a suitable place to stand and watch what was to come. The air became still, with not even a breeze passing through the masses of people. Sleep dust still present in everyone’s eyes.
Eventually, the tell-tale sound of a microphone being powered up echoed around the trees. The local storyteller on the microphone began welcoming people in and talking shrill nothingness – trust me, I speak Thai, it was waffle. A large coffin like box was laid out in front of the storyteller and several other wise looking men, and the story of Grandpa and Grandma Sae was told. An 88 year old piece of art depicting the Buddha and the Sae was raised from the oldest tree in the area.
The sound of a Thai ensemble began. The shill sounds of the pipes and drums reverberated with the jungle, music the trees have enjoyed since the days the giants roamed the land. The storyteller announced that we must all sit, out of respect for the monks who would begin praying shortly. As a large foreigner, I panicked at the thought of having to sit down on the floor as I lack that beautiful Thai flexibility. I managed to squat down, uncomfortable amidst the cessation of personal space, while trying my utmost to appear reserved and dutifully respectful.
The music finished and the monks began to pray. Respectfully we all raised our hands in a prayer position and attempted to stay comfortable in the tight confines of human contact. An old lady holding a banana leaf cigarette rested her arm on my leg. Though I felt sorry for her having to squat down since it was obviously painful, it was odd to have an old lady on my lap. The heat was now unbearable and my whole body was dripping wet. I tried to keep praying whilst struggling to keep my glasses from slipping off my nose, then gave up as it finally allowed gravity to pull it onto my lap, next to the old lady, who had made herself at home. The stench of dead buffalo wafted over. It was like a mixture of faeces and death, potent and hot.
After close to an hour the prayers ceased, to the obvious relief of all around me. The odd few who still had their hands in prayer let out a sigh. Finally what we had all come to see could begin. The music began again and we all remained seated in anticipation.
Then, out of nowhere entered a man who was obviously in a trance. This must be the medium. Adorned on his head was a traditional Thai scarf but he was dressed more normally than expected. He had the look of vacancy in his eyes that swiftly changed into desire. A desire for buffalo flesh. The medium was possessed. The storyteller told us that this year it was Grandpa Sae who has come to feast (sometimes its grandma).
As a westerner it is hard to believe such magic but a sense of reality swept over me. My beliefs were challenged, my disbeliefs suspended, as I saw this man, possessed by Grandpa Sae leap onto the buffalo carcass and began to rub himself all over it, in an almost sensual manner. Ecstasy was overflowing with this yearlong wait finally over for our ancient spirit.
Shrieks of joy as loud as the storyteller on a microphone escaped the mouth of this medium while he began to drink from a bamboo tankard. It was a clear liquid, most certainly some kind of moonshine. Maybe the medium was just drunk. Maybe it was Grandpa Sae. And if he were pretending, I just hoped that he was really drunk first before having to dig into raw meat.
Everyone was perched on their knees, slowly raising their heads to get a better view; a cocktail of emotions could be felt. Excitement, amazement and incredulity all combined. With a good amount of people spending the whole show behind the screen of an iPad or camera, modernisation had certainly taken over part of something so ancient. With the older generation cursing under their breath, as a token young man who still wished to see with my eyes not with a camera, I joined in. Grandpa Sae began to chew on an entrail. He washed it down with a handful of blood, staining his front. I was transfixed and found it impossible to look away.
The spectacle carried on, and would only stop when the spirit left the medium. The longer the possession, the happier the spirit, and the better the luck for the coming year. It was apparent that many had less of a spiritual experience than me. Once enough photos were taken, they were gone. Or maybe it was just too hot. My feet were numb and I was soaked in sweat. Flies were buzzing around us all, being disturbed from their free buffalo feast moments ago. I could finally sit properly. My feet thanked me with pins and needles and Grandpa Sae began touching the heads of the spectators. I was saddened that I was too far away to also be subject to a bloodied hand on my crown.
Grandpa Sae briefly returned to his feast, with a heart around his neck and a kidney hanging from his wrist (as you do), he then began to climb a tree. He wailed and laughed, shouting thanks to us mere mortals. As I understand Thai fluently, it made the experience much more intense. I could really feel his words.
The heat became unbearable and the pressures of my fellow man against my hot flesh became overwhelming. I left the crowd and finally drew on fresh air. It was already 10.30am; it felt as though the time had warped and shapeshifted, flying by at times and standing excruciatingly still at others. I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of empathy towards Grandpa Sa, as though he really did exist. Perhaps everything had warped.
However, these feelings soon came crashing down, as reality was sharply drawn back to me. The sound of people touting lottery tickets, the smells of Thai coffee and stalls full of merchandise with Grandpa and Grandma Sae plastered all over bags and images, reminded me of how commercialised these events have become. I would have loved to be there for the traditional ceremonies, years and years ago, with the smells very much the same but without the intrusion of modern technology and commercial gain.
I came away from this event both amazed and disappointed. I was sad I didn’t get to see a traditional slaughter; not that this is something I would ‘enjoy’ but I would have appreciated the brutal traditionalism of the spectacle. In the west we have nothing to compare this to and many of my friends will certainly take issue with me even attending such an event. Nevertheless, I was with a deep sense of amazement and spiritual emotion. Dare I even say that I believed the medium was possessed? I have now come away with my eyes opened, new feelings and emotions unleashed and wondering if there is, perhaps, any spirit I should appease in my life before it’s too late.