The annual vegetarian festival on Phuket offers a thrilling insight into the spirituality and traditions of the island’s Chinese community
As Thailand gears up for its peak tourist season once more, that can only mean one thing – Phuket’s annual vegetarian festival is just around the corner.
The colourful event takes place over nine days every October, and is a magnet for visitors in search of an authentic glimpse of Thai-Chinese culture.
The festival, is celebrated with gusto by the island’s Chinese community, and is based on the principle that abstinence from meat during the ninth lunar month of the year will bring good health and peace of mind.
On Phuket, a spectacular array of events take place t mark this important event, and some of the rituals observed by the faithful are not for the faint of heart.
History in Action
While the precise origins of Phuket’s Vegetarian festival remain unclear, it is thought that a wandering Chinese group of opera singers brought the tradition to the island. Whilst staying on Phuket, the group is believed to have fallen ill with malaria, so they chose to meditate and follow a strictly no-meat diet in order to recover. They also prayed to the Nine Emperor Gods for the purification of their minds and bodies. Whether down to prayer or sheer good luck; the group survived the disease and so an annual celebration of the gods became a tradition. Over the century since this legendary event occurred; the festival has become a widely celebrated, with visitors of Chinese ethnicity often travelling to Phuket specially to take part of the rites and rituals.
Processions & Parades
A series of processions are held across the island over the nine days of the festival at Chinese shrines and temples, beginning with the raising of the Go Teng pole at each of the temples, down which the gods are invited to descend. Each of the rituals is accompanied by loud drumming and fireworks, which are intended to drive away evil spirits. Perhaps one of the most impressive spectacles of the festival is the street procession in Phuket Town, when crowds line the streets to receive the blessings of the gods, and people set up small shrines with incense sticks, tea and fruit in front of their homes.
Some of the festival’s most committed participants engage in self-mutilation during the parades, including fire walking and piercing their cheeks with knives and skewers in the belief that the Chinese gods will protect them from pain or serious injury. Some of the goriest events, however, take place at the Chinese shrines dotted around the island. These include bladed ladder climbing and nail bridge crossings. Once each task is completed, the participant is awarded with a stamp that shows their dedication to the rituals.
Visitors who want to follow the festival’s key requirements can indulge in an array of delicious, specially prepared vegetarian food at innumerable roadside stalls that pepper the island. Yellow flags with red Chinese characters distinguish the special Vegetarian stalls from regular street food vendors. Those who are even more serious about the festival, however, follow even stricter guidelines than cutting meat out of their diets. The consumption of alcoholic beverages is banned, along with any other food products that are animal-based. Traditionally, those taking part in the festival also wear white
Festivities for 2015
This year, the festival will run from October 13th
. The lantern poles are scheduled to be raised between 4 – 5pm on the eve of the first day of the festival. On October 15th
, colourful street processions will take leave from Sapam
shinres in Phuket Town. These begin at 7am in the morning, so visitors who want to catch them should be prepared to wake up early. Processions will also set out from other Chinese shrines, including Ban Tha Rua, Jui Tui
and Sui Boon Tong
, for the remaining days of the festival. The final ceremony promises to be particularly impressive. Held between 9pm and midnight, it also involves a street procession that visits each of Phuket Town’s Chinese shrines.