If you’re heading to the Phuket Vegetarian Festival this year (the dates for 2019 are predicted to be Saturday, 28 September to Monday 7 October) with thoughts of spending a mellow few days feasting on tofu burgers and soya milk lattes, I urge you to read the small print. For, the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is not for the fainthearted.
Ever since I first read about and saw photographs of this somewhat macabre festival several years ago it has fascinated me. So when we had the opportunity to attend this year’s celebrations, I jumped at the chance.
Yes, there is vegetarian food, including lots of fried tofu – this is Thailand after all. But there is something a lot more disturbing going on for nine days during the ninth lunar month each year in Thailand. The Vegetarian Festival is marked to some degree in towns all over the country, but it’s in Phuket where things are taken to extremes.
One of the key aspects of the festival involves what can only be described as extreme piercing. Men and sometimes women puncture cheeks, tongues and other body parts with a bizarre collection of items including knives, guns, skewers whilst in a trance, possessed by gods. Other examples we saw included plastic seaside spades, a child’s tricycle, a large tube of toothpaste, an umbrella and an abacus. And the list goes on.
I generally don’t think of myself as being easily shocked. I’ve seen animal slaughters in Nepal, burning bodies in Varanasi and frogs being skinned alive at the markets in Vietnam. Hell, I’ve even seen a guy with a padlock through his dick at the Kumbh Mela in India! But I was expecting to be horrified at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
And it is pretty shocking, but it is also steeped in tradition and ritual.
WARNING: This post contains images you may find disturbing. At the very least, they will make you squirm. Read on at your peril.
At some point around now you may also be asking yourself why it’s called a Vegetarian Festival. The first question you’ve got to ask when you see a guy with a child’s tricycle stuck through the side of his face is “Why?”. Why mutilate your body as a means of showing devotion?
The history of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival
Another name for the celebration is the Nine Emperor Gods festival, Taoist in origin. Although the exact story of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is unclear, the event is believed to go back almost 200 years and its origins lie with the Chinese community who came to Phuket around that time to work as tin miners. Yes, long before flip flops, sarongs and buckets of cocktails Phuket was an important trading town and a melting pot of cultures from Portugal, India, China and the Arabian Peninsula.
The story goes that a group of visiting Chinese opera performers fell fatally sick along with many local people. The villagers believed it was because everyone had been so busy having fun they had failed to worship the Nine Emperor Gods. As soon as this was rectified, along with following a strict vegetarian diet to ensure purification of the mind and body, people stopped falling ill and so began an annual tradition to honour the gods to ensure they protect them against evil.
Somewhere through the decades, piercings have become part of the events and the self-harming is done as a show of devotion to the gods. However I haven’t managed to find out how the piercings became so extreme. Another question is how or who makes the decision as to whether you get to put a kebab skewer or a motorbike (yes, you read that right) through your cheek?
Who takes part in the Phuket Vegetarian Festival
The participants are spirit mediums who are possessed by a god during the festival and are known as mah song. Anyone can be called to be a mah song at any point of their life, providing they are unmarried and celibate at the time of calling. Usually, they are told by a god that they have been chosen in a dream or vision or whilst suffering from a long illness.
During the street parades, the spirit mediums make their way along the streets in a trance, stopping at tables that local people have set up as shrines outside their home or business. They are hoping for a blessing from the gods that reside within mah song.
We witnessed such blessings on many occasions during the festival and on one occasion I was called forward to receive a blessed grapefruit.
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is not for the faint-hearted and I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel when I saw extreme piercing in the flesh, pun intended. But strangely, having a guy standing less than a metre away with a huge knife almost splitting the side of his face open didn’t make me feel half as squeamish as looking through our photographs after the event!
You’ve had your warning; here some more photographs …
On our first morning in Phuket, we left our guest house in search of festival activity. We didn’t have to walk too far past the end of our road before we came across a group of guys hacking at their tongues with axes.
From there on inwards, scenes of gory self-mutilation were the order of the day.
Some of the objects were just plain bizarre.
Another major part of the street parades were the palanquin-carried deities. We quickly came to learn these were accompanied by a lot of noise and smoke. In order to scare the evil spirits away, firecrackers are set off. The more the merrier. The louder the better. We ran for cover but for the parade participants tolerating being amongst the explosions is another sign of their devotion to the gods.
On one morning we followed the procession to its final point, Bang Neow Shrine. Here, trained staff were waiting to remove the piercings.
After the removal of the anchor-like piece in the above photo, someone handed it to us to feel its weight. It was REALLY heavy! After the foreign objects have been removed, the mah song are led to a shrine to have the god exorcised from their body. Once done, the person was seemingly returned to normality and would sit down and smoke a cigarette or drink a Coke with only a plaster across their face to show for the morning’s events.
Here is a short video (1 minute) of a mah song coming out of his trance.
Around the temple, the palanquin-bearers were recovering from being assaulted by firecrackers.
One morning, women also took part in the street parade. It seemed as if many of them had been possessed by the spirits of young girls or babies.
It really is quite mystifying what human beings go through to show their devotion and celebrate religious observances.
What do you think? Would you like to attend the Phuket Vegetarian Festival?
We have also written an article containing many useful tips if you are planning a visit to the Phuket Vegetarian Festival – including etiquette, dates for 2019 and what to expect. Read it here.
If you are now inspired to see the Phuket Vegetarian Festival for yourself the dates for 2019 are predicted to be Saturday, 28 September to Monday 7 October. This is subject to confirmation as the timing is based on the Chinese Lunar calendar.