A Festival for Giants

Aaron Goccia gets blessed at Thailand's annual Pu Sae Ya Sae festival

By / September 2014

The sun threads its way through the dark clouds and the verdant trees hanging high above my head, hitting the ground around me in patches. The temperature grows cooler as the black clouds continue to gather, an omen of the morning’s impending events. A crowd begins to gather outside where a sacrificial buffalo lies on a concrete slab. Its hide, with head still attached, spread over its half-butchered skeleton like a cloak.

Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 6.44.52 PMThis is Pu Sae Ya Sae, an annual festival believed to be the last of its kind in Thailand. Although the event takes place just a few miles from downtown Chiang Mai, many people know little, if anything, about it. The festival is specific to the small town of Mae Hia, an area known for its Night Safari, Ratchaphruek Royal Flower Park, and Doi Kham mountain temple – atop of which rests a sitting statue of Buddha over fifty-five feet tall.

The story behind this festival, passed down orally for generations, tells of Pu Sae and Ya Sae, a giant couple who had an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Their days were spent roaming the jungle and hills, devouring the locals until only a few remained. One day, as Buddha was passing through the area, he approached a villager and enquired where all of the residents of Mae Hia had gone. As Buddha listened to the villager’s tale, he decided to speak with the giant cannibals.

Buddha found Pu Sae and Ya Sae and explained to them the error of their ways. By feasting on human flesh, they were bringing devastating eternal consequences upon themselves. The life they were living served only to feed their selfish desires, which caused a great deal of terror and suffering.

After speaking with Buddha, they understood the error of their lifestyle and promised that they would stop eating human flesh as long as Buddha lived. To replace the tasty source of meat, Pu Sae and Ya Sae decided that they would allow themselves to indulge on buffalo once a year. The residents of Mae Hia still gather every year on the full moon of the seventh lunar month (May or June) to appease the spirits of Pu Sae and Ya Sae. By doing this, they not only appease the giants’ spirits, but also seek blessings from them.

Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 6.43.14 PMIn the early hours of the morning, the Dong Hohfor, usually translated as “shaman,” takes the finest buffalo in the village to an undisclosed area in the jungle, a place where nobody is allowed to witness the event. It is here that he ceremonially kills the animal. After the buffalo is dead, the shaman partially butchers it, drains the blood into a receptacle, removes various muscles and organs, and skins the animal while keeping the head attached to the hide. Around 4 a.m., the shaman brings the animal’s remains and places them on the cement slab. This is where the ceremony will take place.

The crowd begins to gather en masse around 9 a.m. An elderly shaman recites prayers over the buffalo and surrounding altars which contain a myriad of offerings – dead chickens, flowers, fruit, and drinks. There is a small group of musicians playing traditional music while eight novice monks look on and chant. Meanwhile, the main shaman sits in a small hut surrounded by supporters, attendees, and even a few local government officials. He prepares himself to become the receptacle for the spirit of Pu Sae, the man eating giant, by alternating between shots of Thai whiskey, and puffs from a hand-rolled cigar that resembles a ballpark hotdog and smells curiously like marijuana.

Finally, the shaman exits the bamboo hut with someone supporting him by his arms on either side. He is donned in maroon fisherman pants that loosely hang from his frame, a traditional Thai-style shirt in a nearly matching color, and a plaid scarf wrapped around the top of his head. For a moment, he is very quiet. Then suddenly, a screaming laugh emanates from deep within, a screeching sound that sends chills down my spine. He begins to mumble and his eyes roll back into his head, leaving only white where his pupils peered out just moments before. He is ushered into the ceremonial area and is led past the altars to view the offering – fruit, roasted chickens, bright flowers, and bottled energy and soft drinks. Finally, Pu Sae and his human host are taken to the sacrificial beast.

Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 6.12.55 PMAs he gazes at the buffalo, a look of ecstasy transforms his face. He lunges for the cadaver and sits atop the hide, as though riding the creature. An attendee approaches and drapes garlands of meat around his neck while another hands him a bamboo canteen full of whiskey. He caresses the raw tenderloin jewelry and takes a bite. Still holding the meat, he raises the canteen to his lips and tilts his head back. He places his drink down at his side and slowly grabs the beast’s horns, pulling the head towards himself.

Mounted atop the carcass, his upper body gyrates in circles as though slow dancing with the buffalo’s head. He stops, gingerly dips his cupped hand into the container full of blood, and pulls his hand back to his lips. His eyes close in pleasure as streams of bright crimson dribble down his chin and neck. He takes another bite from his necklace of flesh and chases it down with more alcohol. He laughs, he screams, and then is silent. He drinks another handful of blood, washes it down with yet more spirits, and then stands up.

He moves towards the crowd, headed directly to where I am seated. Blood and gore drip from his chin and hands. He pauses for a moment, and his attendees now hold him up as he places his hands on the heads of spectators. This is considered a blessing and people jostle for a position where they can be anointed. He stands in front of me and I lean back. I am already feeling blessed and would rather not have blood and meat mingled with my hair gel. The crowd is pushing me forward and I feel his bloody hand press into the crown of my head. He leans further into the audience and his meat necklace slaps me in the face. After a few moments, the shaman moves further down to pass blessings onto other devotees.

Screen Shot 2014-09-19 at 6.15.25 PMHis blessings continue for nearly half an hour, and is only punctuated by a brief foray up a tree. Swaying back and forth atop the tree boughs he mumbles, laughs, and pierces the still morning with screams. The crowd sighs with disappointment when he leans too far back and his canteen tips over, spilling what spirit it had left onto a pile of dead leaves.

After the shaman finishes dispensing blessings, the holy man approaches a large painting of Buddha. The image is painted on a scroll nearly twelve feet in height and held up by a single rope hanging from a branch above. As the human vessel of Pu Sae approaches the image of Buddha, the painting begins to mysteriously sway, with no breeze and no one tugging the rope. The Buddha appears to move as the painting swings and Pu Sae gazes upon the undulating likeness, satisfied that Buddha still lives.

For another year, the residents of Mae Hia are safe from the insatiable hunger of Pu Sae and Ya Sae.

A voice announces over the loudspeaker that the ceremony is completed and the shaman will now return to his home to rest. I snap a few more photos and head towards my car. I am hungry but one thing is for sure, I will not be eating meat, at least not today.


Photographer Aaron Goccia is an EthnoTraveler contributor.