Culture vulture: Demystifying Phuket’s extraordinary Vegetarian Festival

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is a whirlwind of sights and sounds. Pic: Phuket@photographer.net/flickr

THE Phuket Vegetarian Festival, which originated almost 200 years ago, has its roots in Taoist tradition. According to local historians, the festival was first established by a travelling Chinese Opera troupe in 1825.

While performing for tin mine workers in Phuket, many of the performers were stuck by a fatal epidemic which had been inflicting the local community.

As more of the Chinese Opera troupe fell ill, a decision was made to combat the epidemic by adopting a strict vegetarian diet and honoring the Emperor Gods. Soon after adopting this vegetarian diet, the performers from the opera troupe returned to good health.

Noticing that the travelling performers had recovered from the epidemic, the local community were encouraged to adopt the same practices, following a strict vegetarian diet and participating in Taoist ceremonies. Before long, the epidemic dwindled and the local community returned to good health.

A devotee runs across hot coal during the festival. Pic:Phuket@photographer.net/flickr

The following year, Chinese workers and the local community adopted the tradition of refraining from meat, alcohol, sex, dishonesty, conflict and violence, and the epidemic ceased to endanger the residents of Phuket.

Since then, the Phuket Vegetarian Festival has been observed on an annual basis, starting each year on the first evening of the ninth lunar month and continuing for nine days, until the ninth evening of the ninth lunar month.

The Vegetarian Festival is now one of Phuket’s most important annual events, attracting visitors from around the world who come to sample the city’s vegetarian cuisine and observe the festivals extraordinary ceremonies and processions, while boosting the local economy.

If you search online for pictures of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, you are more likely to discover images of extreme body piercing and self-mutilation, rather than pictures of vegan cuisine. These devotional acts are a central feature of the festival.

Devotees of the Nine Emperor Gods, the Mah Song, invite the spirits of the gods to possess their bodies, while they engage in amazing acts of self-mutilation, such as piercing their cheeks and tongues with pins, fishhooks, knifes, spears, swords and even guns.

Devotees get their body parts pierced

This piercing begins early early on the first morning of the festival. During the evenings the Mae Song participate in temple processions. Throughout these processions, the Mah Song are accompanied by support teams who keep their wounds clean and help carry the large heavy piercings.

There are more than 40 Chinese shrines across Phuket island and each shrine hosts specific ceremonies and rituals according to a detailed schedule.

Some of the more spectacular rituals and ceremonies include firewalking, which can be observed at Sapam Shrine, Sui Boon Tong shrine, Sapan Hin and Baan Tha Reua Shrine, and climbing tall ladders of razor sharp blades, which can be observed at Bang Neow and Sam Kong.

Visitors unfamiliar with Phuket, are advised to begin with visiting the island’s five oldest shrines; Put Jaw, Jui Tui, Bang Niew, Cherng Talay, and Kathu Shrine.

The festival is celebrated across Thailand, but festivities are most notable in Phuket. Pic: Phuket@photographer.net/flickr

One of the highlights of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is the procession on the final evening – the Nine Emperors’ Farewell Procession, which this year takes place between 9pm and midnight on Sunday, October 9.

The street procession on the final evening is the largest of the festival, with thousands of fireworks and firecrackers, and each of the main shrines joining the procession with images of the Emperor Gods accompanied by the Ma Song.

The large procession navigates its way around Phuket Town before heading down to Saphan Hin, from where the Nine Emperor Gods leave the island.

The Nine Emperor Gods Farewell procession is impressive and if you’re in Phuket, it’s an event you don’t want to miss.

As Phuket City Mayor Somjai Suwansupana explains, “On the last day of the festival, all participating shrines will stage street processions to Saphan Hin between 6pm to midnight to bid the gods a ‘grand farewell’ before they proceed heavenward.”

Street processions are held during the festival. Pic: Phuket@photographer.net/flickr

While this is arguably one of the most spectacular festivals in Southeast Asia, and if you are going to attend you should be prepared, as Jamie Monk, a resident of Phuket and veteran travel writer explains:

“The final night’s procession in Phuket Town is just a little bit insane. Big crowds, way too many firecrackers. Some prefer to watch from the sidelines, but many people bring stashes of firecrackers and join the crowds throwing them into the streets as the Ma Song walk by along with the groups of young men carrying statues of the gods.

It is very intense if you get too close. This year I certainly need to buy an industrial face mask – the smoke can be really overpowering and I found the last couple of years that I had to get off the street a few times, duck down a side alley to get out of the mayhem! I avoided the last night for many years as it looked too crazy, but I think I’m addicted now!”

So if you have the chance to visit Phuket Town this weekend, joining the Nine Emperors Gods Farewell Procession will certainly be an experience that you won’t easily forget – just be sure to come prepared; it’s not for the faint of heart.

SEE ALSO: Navigating the tourist scams and traps of Phuket Island

By Daniel Maxwell. This story first appeared on Asian Correspondent.