Any meat-eater with vegetarian friends understands the guilty awkwardness felt when you order a steak in their presence. But what if said friend were to plunge a fork through their cheeks in protest at your menu choice? A dramatic way to promote veganism perhaps, but one that’s seen annually at Phuket’s Vegetarian festival.
This cheek-piercing phenomenon, beloved of photographers seeking a dramatic shot, is just part of a 10-day event of religious rites observed by Phuket-dwellers of Chinese ancestry. The festival, held in the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, is believed to bring good fortune and spiritual cleansing to the locals who observe a 10-day vegan diet and take part in rituals and ceremonies at Phuket’s many Chinese shrines and temples.
The tradition supposedly began in 1825, during a period when the Chinese were arriving in Phuket in huge numbers to work in the island’s tin industry. Legend says that an opera group, visiting from China to perform for the migrant community, fell victim to malaria. The performers survived the usually-fatal illness, by adhering to a strict vegetarian diet and by venerating the emperor gods. Their recovery so impressed locals that they began the annual festivities which continue to this day.
So goes the story, but the festival is actually part of the Taoist, Nine Emperor Gods celebrations which take place all over Southeast Asia. But in Phuket, where some 35-percent of the locals are of Chinese origin, it has become something uniquely Thai and over the years, aspects of Hindu traditions have been incorporated. This includes the feats of feats of painful endurance carried out by some devotees such as the piercing of their faces and tongues, walking across hot coals and scaling ladders of swords.
Obviously, such agonising and extreme acts are not expected of all participants – craving some crispy pork is as bad as it gets for most. These more intensive religious observances are left to the Ma-Song – devotees who are “possessed” by the gods during the festival. Crazily tattooed, madly staring and otherworldly, these charismatic figures dominate the shrines, cracking whips, wearing colourful garb and performing acts of self-flagellation. The pain they inflict experience moves evil from others onto themselves and so brings luck to the whole community.
The Ma-Song’s incredible displays, where they push everything, from spikes to guns, swords and umbrellas through their cheeks and tongues, take place in the early days of the festival. But it’s the final, tenth day that’s the most culturally interesting. And the centre of it all is the colourful Bang Neow shrine on Phuket Road which throngs with locals clad in white. It feels like every member of the island’s Chinese community is there, so if you don’t want to stand out, pop into one of the roadside-shops for a white shirt and some tasty veggie food.
Within the shrine, men and women wait, in separate queues, to cross a bridge of purification. The “bridge” is symbolically represented by a long low bench and as they cross it, devotees drop the names and birthdate of absent family members into a basket on the left and a symbolic coin in another on the right. In return, their white shirts are given a vivid red imperial stamp. Look around and you’ll see shirts with a dozen or so of these stamps, showing the owners’ piety over the years.
It’s a loud affair! As people cross the bridges, drums throb, fire crackers go off like bullets and the shrine is wreathed in a shroud of incense so thick you can taste it. It feels like a warzone, albeit one soldiered only by happy locals armed with grins.
After the bridge ceremony, the vegetarian festival ends with a bang – literally. Statues of the gods are paraded by the Ma-Song to Phuket Bay, so that the Emperor Gods can return to the sea. The processions are exhilarating, and scary. A cacophony of fire crackers comes at you from above, below and from either side, flung by revellers lining the route or let off in massive rolls. It’s an assault on the ears, nostrils and nerves, and no place for the timid. There are displays of dancing, Chinese dragons festooned in lights and crazy displays by the Ma-Song. This makes Phuket an amazing place to be on the final night of the festival and the revelry continues long into the night. Some people go home with bandaged cheeks, everyone has sore ears but most agree they’ll be back on the veggie food next year and doing it all again.
- Next year Phuket Vegetarian Festival will take place from 1-9 October, 2016 and it’s worth booking accommodation early to get the best rooms as demand is high.
- If you want to join the parades and do take eye protection as fire crackers can be dangerous. If you are taking children, it’s a good idea to take ear protection too.