A guide to the Phuket Vegetarian Festival

By Chantana Jasper

It’s all about who can shock the most!

Probably the most fascinating and also somewhat gruesome festivals in the world, the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is best known for its aesthetic displays of unusual body piercings. You may see devotees with tire irons through their cheeks, or large spikes driven through their tongues. The festival is held for just over a week annually during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, falling somewhere in October. This year it runs from the 11th to the 19th of October.

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival and its rituals are thought by many to bring good fortune to religious followers. Phuket residents of Chinese ancestry, called Hokkien Chinese, follow a strict vegan or vegetarian diet for 10 days for the purposes of merit-making and spiritual cleansing. This is accompanied by sacred rituals at Chinese temples and shrines around the island. Stalls of vegan food are set up throughout Phuket City, and even non-vegans will be suitably impressed by the delicious selection.

Perhaps the most visual of these rituals are the displays of extreme body piercings with large objects that can range from knives to umbrellas. Devotees, called ma song, may even partake in walking over hot coals barefoot or climbing up ladders that have rungs made of knife blades. Visitors can see the ma song walking in their trances during long parades through the streets on every day of the festival.

There are some guidelines that should be followed as you enjoy the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. It’s important to be clean, so shower before you attend festivities. Followers wear all white, and visitors are also encouraged to do so. You should refrain from eating meat and consuming alcohol. Those in mourning should not attend the festival and pregnant women should refrain from watching rituals.

Vegetarian food is served somewhere, too

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival dates from 1825. At that time, Praya Jerm, the governor of Thalang district, moved Phuket’s principle town from Ta Reua to Get-Hoe in Kathu district. Kathu at the time was covered in jungle land and mosquito-borne disease was rampant. When a travelling opera company arrive from China to perform for the island’s tin-mining population, they became ill with fevers. The performers adopted a strict vegan diet to honour two gods: Kiew Ong Tai Teh and Yok Ong Sone Teh.

Their illnesses went away, and the people of Kathu became interested in their vegan diet and the faith surrounding it. They started the festival the first evening of the ninth lunar month, and it lasts until the ninth evening. The idea is to bring good fortune to the community as well as to the individuals involved. One resident volunteered to return to Kansai in China to invite sacred gods to stay in Kathu. He returned on the seventh night of the ninth month and everyone in town went to receive him at the pier. This is the origin of the parades through Phuket City during the festival.

The ma song, which appear entranced, are supposedly entered by the gods and manifest supernatural powers. They pierce their bodies and take part in other forms of torture in order to shift evil away from the community and on to themselves. It is said the ma song fall into two categories: those who want to extend their lives after having a bad omen of the future and those who are chosen by the gods for their strong morals.

As if the sight of eerie piercings and trances weren’t enough, the parades are bombarded with fireworks and loud drums to drive away evil spirits. At the end of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, there are merit-making ceremonies at each of the Chinese temples and a final farewell party for the gods on the last night with a massive display of fireworks.

About the Author

Andrew Bond is a travel writer who has been living in Thailand and writing about the region for more than 10 years, contributing to numerous local magazines and major web travel brands. He travels around South East Asia by tuk-tuk, bicycle, cyclo, jeepney, taxi, moto, elephant or foot in search of new smells, sounds, sights, and atmosphere. Share your travel bits with him on Google +

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