Phuket celebrates its annual vegetarian festival next month

Posted on August 14, 2011


Mind-blowing processions, ear-splitting firecrackers, peaceful chants and vegetarian food return to Phuket next month, with the Vegetarian Festival revealing an enigmatic side to the Pearl of the Andaman.

This year, Phuket’s famous festival takes place from September 27 to October 5 in the old town, where yellow flags will be flying for nine days.

Celebrated by the Chinese community on the island that’s now best known for its palm-fringed beaches, stylish and rustic-chic resorts and laid-back attitude, the Vegetarian Festival showcases Phuket’s mystical side.

The Vegetarian Festival has been an annual spiritual event for more than 150 years.

It’s believed to have started in the town of Kathu by a visiting theatre troupe from China. Struck down by a mysterious epidemic, the entertainers decided they’d fallen ill because they’d failed to pay respect to the nine Emperor Gods of Taoism.

The performers then, according to the story, erected temples and held a vegetarian festival to ward off any residual bad luck. Apparently the unorthodox remedy worked, and the annual vegetarian festival has been held ever since. Abstention from sex and alcohol were added in later years for absolute purification.

From September 27, the whole town flies yellow flags to mark the beginning of the spiritual retreat.

On the eve of the festival, a large pole is raised in each Chinese shrine, and the nine Emperor Gods of Taoism are invited to descend from the heavens and take part in the ceremonies.

At midnight, nine lanterns are lit and hung on the poles, meaning that the Vegetarian Festival has begun. Food stalls also fly yellow flags to indicate they serve only vegetarian food, and devotees dress in white for the entire nine days to show they intend to remain pure.

While vegetarian food is tempting and the Chinese shrines are gaily decorated, most visitors focus on the maa song, the human mediums inhabited by the gods during the festival.

The maa song manifest supernatural powers and perform self-mutilation so they can absorb evil

from other individuals and ensure good luck for the entire community.

Each morning begins with processions through the town. At dawn, one can find scores of young men thronging the inner sanctums of the temples, preparing themselves for self-mutilation.

At the base of the shrines, they go into a trance, begin speaking in tones and donning colourful aprons with Taoist symbols, looking on as doctors make cuts at both sides of their mouths.

It’s a painful “pleasure” at least in the eyes of beholders. Prepare yourself for the shocking. The festivity hits the high point with a procession of people deep in a trance, piercing their tongues and cheeks and other parts of their anatomy with spears, daggers, sharpened branches and anything else that comes to hand.

Possessed by the spirits of nine deities, these ascetics apparently feel no pain and show little sign of real injury.

Posted in: Pattaya