Every year on the first day of the ninth lunar month, the streets of Krabi, Trang and Phuket come to life with the festival of Ngan Kin Jeh – otherwise known as the Vegetarian Festival, an event celebrated by the Chinese-Thai community. The title of this gathering is somewhat confusing – food does not provide the central focus, although white-robed devotees attending the event do adhere to a strict vegetarian diet to mark these important days. This practice serves as a spiritual cleansing and merit-making.
Those involved come prepared after six days of abstention from meat, alcohol and sex. The strange ceremonies date back to the mid-19th century when a travelling Chinese opera company fell gravely ill. Fearing that they had let down their Gods, the actors performed self-mutilatory rites in an effort to cure themselves. It is also celebrated by devout Chinese all over the world, and Phuket’s temples are the most famous venues for this tradition.
On day one gods, spirits and ghosts are petitioned for their mercy and assistance during the following nine days. Various ceremonies are performed in the temples, and processions of white-clad devotees fill the streets. After dark on day six and seven things start to get very strange. Believers gather to fire-walk over glowing charcoal. Of course, there are no burns on the feet to prove their journey. Day seven involves ladders with rungs of sharpened blades. Participants run up and down them, fuelled by a frenzied spiritual fervour. Days eight and nine involve another procession. While the first one was white, this one is red. Several participants show off their spiritual prowess even further by piercing different parts of their bodies with iron needles, measuring up to four metres long.
This spiritual gathering in Krabi Town was a great display of colourful streets, people parading, and several food stalls, and it is marked by ascetic displays described above. During the ceremonies, parade followers dressed in white chanted and lit long lines of firecrackers, turning the whole place into a sort of battleground.
Eventually, some entranced devotees performed the grueling piercing and self-mutilation, pushing steel rods through their cheeks and tongues in a gruesome display.
If you are in Krabi next year, drive along the road Ao Nang to Krabi, where you will come across the Sai Tai Chinese shrine where sacred rituals are usually performed during the Vegetarian Festival. At the temple, a great bamboo pole lighted with several oil lanterns is raised, and the gods are invited to descend from it. Drums are
sounded quite loudly so to keep away evil spirits. Visitors to Krabi with an appetite for action are bound to be sated during this traditional annual event.