The event of the year
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is a nine-day spectacle of parades, daring acts of self-mortification and avoidance of meat, all in the aim of purifying the body and mind, making merit and paying homage to the nine emperor gods of Chinese origin.
Held every year during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, the 2014 festival will run from September 24 to October 2. Vegetarian festivals are held in Bangkok and other Chinese-Thai communities around Thailand, but Phuket’s is by far the biggest and most spectacular.
Most of the 40 or so Chinese temples around Phuket take part in the festival, with much of the action taking place in Phuket Town. We spoke with the long-time caretaker of three Chinese temples in Phuket Town, Theerawut “Ahn” Sritulaluck, to find out more about the festival.
Khun Ahn explained that during Phuket’s tin mining boom 200 years ago, many from China, mostly Hokkien Chinese from the Fujian region, migrated to the island to work in the mines. To keep the workers entertained, every year a Chinese opera troupe was invited to perform.
In 1825, many performers in the visiting troupe fell ill, believed to be from dehydration or possibly malaria. The group, who were staying in the Kathu area, a valley between Patong beach and Phuket Town that back then was mostly jungle, began to cleanse their bodies by eating a vegetarian diet for nine days and performing rituals in honour of two emperor gods, Kiew Ong Tai Teh and Yok Ong Sone Teh. Soon, their health improved. The workers and local people on Phuket observed this seemingly miraculous recovery and wanted to find out more about it.
One Phuket local went to China with the troupe and later returned by ship to Bang Niew pier, where Saphan Hin park is now located in Phuket Town, carrying sacred incense smoke and other holy items. Several people came to meet them at the pier, an event that is marked by the festival’s processions that still today end at Saphan Hin.
The Vegetarian Festival has been held every year since, growing in size – and infamy – mainly due to the much-photographed shocking acts performed by key figures in the festival, the “ma song”, literally “horse chariots”, who are believed to be possessed by the emperor gods.
The ma song are seen walking in the processions in a state of enchantment, usually with their cheeks and other body parts pierced by anything from a slim metal rod to a bunch of thorny rose stalks to bicycle gears. Other means of self-torture include whipping their backs with ropes dipped in boiling oil, or lashing their tongues with a butcher knife. At the temples, nightly rituals include climbing bladed ladders or walking across hot coals.
Khun Ahn said that there are many reasons why someone would become a ma song for the festival. The more traditional belief is that if they take on these painful acts they will not only improve their lives but those of others in their community. It’s a way to make merit. Others are said to have no choice: the gods possess their bodies whether they want to join the festival or not.
Khun Ahn concedes that these days a number of ma song may be doing it only as a way to grab attention, and that he and others at the temples try to spot and remove the “fake” ma song as much as possible. In the past, Khun Ahn said, the ma song were more humble and devoted, and that 35 years ago there would be only about 30 ma song in the festival. In recent years, he said, as many as 1,500 become ma song at just the two main temples in town.
Khun Ahn is in charge of Jui Tui and Pudjo temples on Soi Phuthon in the Old Town area of Phuket Town and Kua Tian Keang temple in Saphan Hin, all three of which play important roles in the festival.
For foreign visitors to the Vegetarian Festival, Khun Ahn says all are welcome to come to the temples and watch the parades, so long as they dress respectfully and in white or at least light-coloured clothing. He said he’d be delighted if foreign visitors would more actively join the [non-painful] festivities at the temples, especially by coming for the free vegetarian meals offered three times daily during the nine days of the event.
Donations are welcome but not required, but they ask that you sign up at the temple in advance so they know how much food to prepare. When asked if he was worried about “kee niew” (cheap) backpackers taking advantage of all the free food on offer, he said not at all.
Aside from following a vegan diet during the festival, devotees wear white, avoid drinking alcohol, refrain from sexual relations and are not allowed to gamble.
– Do wear earplugs since firecrackers are set off in abundance at most everywhere a ritual or procession is taking place, as a way to ward off evil spirits.
– Don’t bring young children to the larger processions especially as it is likely to be frightening for them.
– According to festival rules, people in mourning, pregnant women, and menstruating women should not watch any of the rituals or processions.
– Do know that many local restaurants, especially in Phuket Town, stop serving meat during the festival. Restaurants that have turned vegetarian will have the signature yellow flags of the festival on display.
– Khun Ahn also notes that people should not give money to anyone if approached during the festival and asked for a donation. Donations are accepted at the temples only, so anyone walking around asking for donations is a fake, he said.
The year 2014 is also a special “leap” year in the Chinese calendar, which means that for the first time in about 100 years, the island will hold two Vegetarian Festivals. The second festival will take place from October 24 to November 1, but will be a more scaled-down event. We were told that only Kathu temple will hold the full nine days of rituals and processions during the second festival.
More information, maps and a full schedule is available at the festival’s official website, or in brochures available for free at various Chinese temples around Phuket Town.
Many thanks to Khun Theerawut for his insights, and to Khun Chaya Na Takuathung of Phuket Heritage Trails for arranging for and translating the interview at Jui Tui temple.
Lana Willocks is a freelance writer from Canada based in Phuket. Her love affair with Thailand began on a university exchange programme in Bangkok, then she returned to Phuket on the auspicious date of 9-9-1999 and never left.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Phuket