I stepped into the festival expecting a witchcraft of atmospheres. Rituals, sorcerers, spells being chanted, rain dancers, and vials of buffalo blood being passed around to be drunk by all. I expected a supernatural presence to reveal itself, to cause a ruckus. I prepared myself for the possibly that magic may exist. It was all very thrilling. Of course, I had misjudged the situation. In reality, the event was much more down to earth than my senses had prepared me for.
Pu Sae Ya Sae is an annual festival where a buffalo is sacrificed and eaten raw by a local who claimed to be possessed by the spirit of a giant. The story behind this unusual festival is that long time ago, two giants by the name of Pu Sae and Ya Sae used to eat the villagers in the Mae Hia area. Buddha was asked, by the villagers to help and he graciously asked the two giants to stop eating people, and as a compromise, the giants were given the chance to consume one buffalo per year through the body of a human person.
I had ideas that the Pu Sae Ya Sae festival was unmonitored, even slightly illegal, but instead I was greeted with monks, security guards, local officials and a large number of photographers. Three years ago Citylife reported that there were over 3000 locals and travelers who attended the event, but this year there were mere hundreds. I couldn’t help but think that this may have affected the performance of the possessed man somewhat.
We decided to go in a big group, with four interns and a photographer to capture every aspect of the event. Orathai said that the first thing she could sense was the cool smell of rain mixing with a strong stench of blood. Needless to say, the buffalo was already attracting flies, most likely slaughtered some five hours or more before the event began. Although Pariyakorn expressed her sentiments for the buffalo, we all agreed that it was most likely from a local abattoir and probably was ready for slaughter that day anyway.
This year both Pu Sae and Ya Sae possessed two separate people. Some years only one appears and others neither of them do, but another spirit from the local area will take their place. The first man allowed his body to clumsily take to the middle of the ceremony and started to dance while taking generous gulps from a bamboo flask. He appeared drunk, and understandably so if you were moments away from eating raw buffalo in front of hundreds of onlookers.
Orathai said that the liquid inside the flask was clear, most likely water or rice whiskey, despite him pretending it was blood. The meat he was already holding was clearly browned, perhaps cooked or at least seared beforehand.
The main feast began with the two possessed characters rolling in and around the buffalo carcass, taking bites from meat morsels and sipping from the flask once again. With a small crowd this year, it was easy to get to the front, and I was soon approached by the possessed man looking for some drunken banter with the onlookers. I expect he was trying to avoid the inevitable.
The second, younger man, then approached the buffalo and grabbed meat that was hanging from sticks near the animals head instead of ripping it off fresh and dripping with blood. He took a total of two bites out of the raw meat before resorting to tugging at the buffalo in an animalistic manner.
As soon as it began, it was over. An official came and whispered in the ear, clearly telling the giant to wrap it up and go away for another year. Unfinished and with little blood or meat to pass his lips, he got up and escaped peoples gaze. Onlookers, including us from Citylife, were left confused.
Piyapong, our third intern, told me that he heard of the giants devouring the entire carcass and even crawling into its chest cavity. Sadly, this year was not to be. Some suggest the year of mouring had something to do with it, and respectfully so. Perhaps next year the giants will come back with a craving of two years instead of one. Orathai spoke with locals and deduced that despite their ancestors genuinely believing in the ritual, the event has changed and is no more aimed at secretly encourage local people to love their hometown, realise the importance of forests and protect nature and the environment.
I came away from the event overall disappointed. It was not what I had expected, and because of that my belief in anything spiritual diminished further. Pariyakorn said that when you enter Mae Hia, you see the rich forests that you don’t see anywhere else so close to town, so said that it may well be Pu Sae and Ya Sae who are looking after the area after all. Piyapong added that the event may not be about truths, but more about beliefs. Either way, I came away glad to have had the experience but left with more questions than answers. Is this ritual really justified in this modern era, and are there people there who still genuinely believe this or not? If promoting tourism and wildlife conservation, is slaughtering a buffalo, only to throw it away at the end, really worth it?