If you are in Thailand in October, there is only one spectacle that is a must-see: the Phuket vegetarian festival. Part freak show, part pantomime, part spiritual holiday and part tourist attraction – the festival is unlike anything you will have ever seen before.
The Phuket vegetarian festival has an interesting history. In 1825, the then Governor of Thalang Praya Jerm moved Phuket’s main town from Thalang to Kathu. The island was covered with thick jungle and tin mining was one of the primary industries. Fever and disease were widespread among tin miners.
A Chinese traveling opera company visited Phuket to perform for the miners. The whole company soon succumbed to the same fever and disease as the locals. To ward off this sickness, the company maintained a strict vegetarian diet and performed ceremonies in honor of the Chinese emperor gods Kiew Ong Tai The and Yok Ong Song Tah. Their illness disappeared.
Amazed by the power of the Chinese rituals, Phuket residents took on this Chinese custom and began practicing it every year at the same time. Why? Nobody is sure, but the tradition has lasted for almost 200 years.
The festival today is a distant relative of the original celebration of the Chinese gods, but it remains a curiosity for visitors to the island. Spread across Phuket’s numerous Chinese shrines, the Vegetarian Festival is an intense journey into another world.
The maa song (entranced horses) are devotees who become possessed by gods during the festival. Hundreds of islanders have this ability, and whether you believe it to be real or not, the maa song are treated with great respect.
At the times when the gods enter them, the maa song will pace back and forth, speak in tongues, shake their heads vigorously and act as if they are, well, possessed. The maa song walk bare foot through the streets, often dressed in brightly-colored Chinese clothes, some with babies’ dummies in their mouths (representing birth gods), marching to the beat of dozens of drums.
It’s both fascinating and disturbing to watch the maa song, and if you think it’s all for show, some of these people experience possession at other times of the year when there are no cameras and no crowds of tourists.
The most common images of the Phuket vegetarian festival are of devotees performing horrific acts of self-mutilation, such as piercing their cheeks and faces with needles or even large polls. This festival is not for the squeamish and some children might find it frightening. The acts of self-mutilation are done to draw evil from the surrounding community, thus cleansing it. This is said to bring luck to the island.
During acts of worship to the gods, the maa song become possessed and march through the streets to various shrines on different days. The roads become crowded with thousands of curious onlookers. Some of the maa song give out candies to people and often you will see children being blessed by the devotees, with just a hint of fear in the children’s eyes.
The most spectacular processions are through Phuket Town, where up to 1,000 maa song, both men and women, take to the streets. The range of items used to pierce the maa song’s cheeks is incredible. Everything from parasols, sniper rifles and ceiling fans, to vegetables, swords and ten-foot poles can be seen.
During the street processions, the deafening din of thousands of firecrackers erupting at the same time fills the air as the resulting smoke gives the roads an eerie appearance.
Torturous acts, such as bladed ladder climbing, bathing in hot oil and walking on fire are said to bring no harm to the possessed because they are protected by the gods. You can find such events occurring at each of the shrines on different days.
One of the great aspects of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is that you get to sample some of the best vegetarian food in the world. Jeh food (vegetarian) in Phuket is delicious. You’ll wonder how the food can be made to look and taste so much like meat.
The range of curries and vegetables available all over the island is as good a reason for turning veggie as any – and 10 days of no meat is said to be good for cleaning out toxins in the body.
The final day of the festival comprises a loud, intense celebration, late into the night, involving thousands of firecrackers and fireworks being let off in the streets. Your ears will never be the same again.