Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is one of the most extraordinary religious festivals in the world. It has also become a major tourist attraction with thousands of people coming from all around the world to witness and even join the strange rituals and ceremonies. So let us try to tell you everything you need to know.
The event always takes place over nine days, starting on the first evening of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. This means the event always takes place in September or October.
The 2016 event will take place from the 1st October until the 9th October.
You can find the procession timetable at the official website.
There are now several imitation festivals in other parts of Thailand but Phuket remains the original and premier event.
The general idea behind the vegetarian festival and all the associated rituals is to bestow good fortune on the participants and the local community. The festival is a spectacular, unusual and sometimes truly bizarre spectacle. It is also a very loud festival. Firecrackers, fireworks and drums are a constant part of the activities, especially during the processions and rituals. The noise is meant to scare away evil spirits.
The festival is based around the Chinese shrines and temples in Phuket Town and also a few other Chinese temples around Phuket. The streets are festooned with yellow flags bearing Chinese symbols. They perform many rituals and ceremonies at each Chinese temple. For the final seven days of the festival, the participants set off on great processions, marching through the streets banging drums and setting off firecrackers. The festival is most famous for the Mah Song (mediums or shaman) who march in trances having self-mutilated themselves by skewering objects through their cheeks.
10 RULES FOR THE VEGETARIAN FESTIVAL
There are 10 rules that participants in the vegetarian festival must follow.
- Eat only vegetarian food (there will be lots of food stalls selling delicious vegetarian food).
- Wear only white clothes during the festival (there will be many shops around town selling plain white clothes, some with embroidered Chinese dragons).
- Maintain body cleanliness during the festival
- Use clean kitchen utensils and keep them separate from people who are not joining the festival
- Maintain good physical and mental behaviour
- No sex (sorry)
- No alcohol (sorry again)
- People in mourning should not attend the festival
- Pregnant women should not attend the festival
- Women menstruating should not attend the festival
You do not need to follow all the rules to enjoy the festival. The rules are only for the participants and participation is not mandatory, you can still watch. However, people falling into categories 8, 9 & 10 can show respect for the festival by not entering the temples.
Thailand is a mostly Buddhist country and Phuket also has a significant Muslim population but the origins of the vegetarian festival are actually Chinese Taoist. A significant portion of Phuket's population is of Chinese descent from the migrant Chinese workers who came to work in the island's tin mines from the 1700s onwards. There are several Chinese temples and shrines in Phuket Town and these are the base for the festival.
There are a few conflicting stories about exactly how the festival began but it certainly dates back to the Chinese migrants working in the tin mines in the early 19th century.
The most widely accepted story is that a travelling troupe of Chinese entertainers came to Phuket to entertain the miners. Phuket was still a jungle-covered island and disease was rife. The entertainers all fell ill. To cure themselves they went on a strict vegetarian diet and practiced abstinence from sex and alcohol. To the amazement of the locals, they all recovered. This remarkable recovery fascinated the local people and from that time on, they repeated the festival every year. Since then the festival has grown and grown until it has developed into the huge event it is today that draws visitors from all around the world.
Well the central players are the Mah Song (entranced horses). The Mah Song are generally ordinary Phuket men and women who become shaman or mediums for the duration of the festival. They are either people who have sensed an impending doom and want to avert their misfortune or they are people chosen by the gods for their moral qualities. The gods occupy their bodies during the festival. These people go into a trance like state and manifest supernatural powers. They feel no pain and inflict self-tortures upon themselves in order to bring good fortune to their communities.
Hundreds of these Mah Song take part in the festival. They march in the processions and perform rituals at the temples. They generally have a group of devotees who assist them through their trance like state.
The self-tortures include skewering their cheeks with all manner of objects such as spears and swords. It seems like every year they try to up the ante by using ever-stranger objects. Bicycles, guns and fruit have been among the objects seen skewered through the Mah Song's cheeks at recent festivals. They also perform rituals at the temples such as walking across burning coals or climbing blade ladders. They must do all this without the aid of anaesthetic.
It is not a totally reckless exercise. The Mah Song are monitored by the event organisers and doctors to make sure there are no serious injuries or infections. There was an amusing story about a Mah Song who lost his nerve at a recent festival. He intended to pierce his tongue with a spear but couldn't face the pain so he bought a pig tongue and skewered it with the spear. He marched through the entire procession holding the pig tongue between his teeth. His deception was discovered when organisers asked to examine his wound and found he miraculously did not have one.
You can sometimes recognise Mah Song going about their normal lives for the rest of the year by the scars on their cheeks.
Jui Tui Shrine - This is the most important Chinese shrine in the vegetarian festival. It is on Ranong Road in the Phuket Old Town district. The entire road will be lined with stalls selling vegetarian food.
Bang Neow Shrine - Another Chinese shrine in Phuket Town with lots of festival activity. It is on Phuket Road.
Kiw Tien Keng Shrine - This small shrine is at the end of Saphan Hin in Phuket Town. It is the site of the final ceremony on the last night of the festival when the gods are invited to ascend back to the heavens.
Phra Phorm Thada Shrine - A Chinese shrine on a side street just off Phattana Road.
Sam Kong Shrine - A temple on the northern edge of Phuket Town. It is on Yaowarat Road, not far from Tesco Lotus.
Sapam Shrine - This temple is just on the edge of town on Thepkrassatri Road (the airport road).
Tha Rua Shrine - This is one of the three temples outside Phuket Town that actively celebrate the festival. They do a procession all the way into Phuket Town and back again. It is on Thepkrassatri Road, just south of heroine's monument.
Kathu Shrine - Lots of festival activity here. Kathu was the original location of the festival. They also do a procession all the way into Phuket Town and back again. This nice temple is in Kathu village on route 4020.
Cherng Talay Shrine - This temple is a long way from Phuket Town but they still get in the spirit of things. It is all the way out near Bang Tao Beach on the west coast.
On the afternoon before the festival begins, a great pole called the Go Teng is raised at each temple. At midnight, they hang nine lanterns on the pole signalling the opening of the festival. This is an invitation for the nine Chinese gods to descend and join the festival.
There are several more rituals performed around the temples during the festival. Many of them involve the Mah Song enduring acts of pain such as walking over burning coals or climbing blade ladders.
The final ritual of the festival takes place on the last night at Kiw Tien Keng Shrine in Saphan Hin where they invite the gods to ascend back to the heavens.
One of the highlights of the festival is the processions. They take place on each of the final seven days of the festival. On each day, the different temples take turns to make a procession from their temple around Phuket Town and back again. It is the images from these processions that are broadcast around the world.
The processions are big affairs that can take an hour or more to pass. They generally start early in the mornings and finish before lunchtime although the temples also seem to have spontaneous processions around town at other times.
You will see dozens upon dozens of Mah Song march passed with their entourages. They will have skewered their cheeks or other body parts with objects such as ornamental spears, swords and even stranger objects. They march through the town in a trance, shaking their heads from side to side and mumbling incantations. As they go, they will stop to bestow blessings on the people at the roadside, many of whom will have set up tables of offerings.
Throughout the procession a cacophony of drums and firecrackers pound and explode to scare away evil spirits. As well as the Mah Song and their entourages, there are also other groups marching. Community groups, entertainers and schoolchildren join the march to add variety to the show.
Then there is the final march on the last night of the festival. This is a staggering spectacle and one of the absolute highlights of the festival. The fireworks start up in the early evening and do not let up until the procession is finished at around midnight.
The procession starts around 7pm and continues through the evening. As they march through the crowds, they come under an extraordinary bombardment from the onlookers. They throw firecrackers around the marcher's feet and even their heads. The onslaught is so intense that a haze of acrid smoke fills the air. The parade starts to spread out under the bombardment and turns into more of a charge than a march. It is a stunning sight to see the running figures charging through the noise and smoke while firecrackers flash around them. It is something that more closely resembles a war zone than a religious festival.
Around 11pm the procession starts towards the shrine at Saphan Hin for the final ritual to send the gods back to the heavens for another year. When it is done, the exhausted revellers slowly drift away or maybe if they have been abstaining they take the opportunity to find a few beers.
Of course one of the 10 rules of the vegetarian festival is that participants must eat vegetarian food ('a-hahn jay' in Thai). Therefore there is a huge range of vegetarian food available. There will be vegetarian food stalls around all the participating temples and many of the local restaurants will also serve vegetarian food.
Even non-vegetarians will find it is no great hardship to abstain from meat for a few days as the vegetarian fare is absolutely delicious. Fresh vegetables and fruit are an intrinsic part of the Thai diet. The meat is replaced by soybean and protein substitute products. You can hardly tell the difference between the substitute products and real meat and there is so much variety that you can easily be satisfied for the 9-days of the festival.
It is also very healthy food so why not do your body a favour and get in the spirit of the vegetarian festival, at least for a few days.
What You Should Do?
So what should you do if you want to visit the vegetarian festival?
It depends just how much you want to immerse yourself into the events. You could devote yourself to the full nine days of the festival or just visit a couple of the events.
You should visit Jui Tui Shrine on Ranong Road. You will see people making offerings at the shrine. You can feel free to join in if you wish. Then you can go along the road and enjoy some of the vegetarian food. If you want, you could make a visit to all of the temples involved in the festival.
You simply must see at least one of the processions. They are one of the main highlights of the festival. You should aim to get into town early and find a good spot. If you are driving then try to park quickly because if you get caught behind the procession you will be going nowhere fast.
The ideal location to enjoy the processions is in the old town district around Thalang Road, Krabi Road and Dibuk Road. There are many nice cafes and restaurants where you can relax while you wait for the procession to arrive.
Apart from the temples and the processions, you really should make an effort to see the final night. It is a quite extraordinary experience. You should get into town around 7pm to start soaking up the atmosphere. The fireworks will already be going off. Take a walk around to get a feel for things and the procession may already be underway. Maybe take a final chance to grab some vegetarian food. Then find yourself a good viewing spot. The clock circle outside the Metropole Hotel is a popular viewing point. The procession will be charging through under a barrage of firecrackers until around 11pm when everyone starts heading out to Saphan Hin for the final ritual.
If you want to fully appreciate the vegetarian festival then you really need to base yourself in Phuket Town. There are plenty of good hotels but you should try to book as early as possible.
The Royal Phuket City is probably the nicest hotel in Phuket Town. For something on a lower budget we quite recommend Phuket Center Apartment for a great central location.
- Royal Phuket City Hotel (4 star)
- Possibly the best hotel in Phuket Town with spacious lobby, excellent exercise facilities and swimming pool. It is on Phang Nga Road.
- Sino House Hotel (3 star)
- A new hotel, quickly earning itself a good reputation.
- The Taste Phuket Hotel (3 star)
- A nice location on the edge of the old town area.
- Metropole Hotel (4 star)
- A good hotel, centrally located close to all the main attractions. It is on Tilok Uthit 1 Road by the clock tower circle.
- Merlin Hotel (3 star)
- A good mid range hotel just a little out of the center. It is said to have the best massage salon in town. It is on Tung Kra Road at the junction with Yaowarat Road.
- Pearl Hotel (3 star)
- A good mid range hotel with nice restaurants and bar. Centrally located on Montree Road.
- Phuket Center Apartment (2 star)
- Simple but nice serviced apartments in a fantastic central location.
- D's Corner & Guesthouse (2 star)
- Budget accommodation for travellers in a charming location on old Thalang Road.