Author: Iain Page, April 2010 - updated August 2019
WARNING: This article contains images that some people may find disturbing.
Every year towards the end of September or early October you can experience the rather bizarre Phuket vegetarian festival. The exact date is linked to the moon phases, occurring during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. This year (2019) the festival will run from Saturday 28th September to Monday 7th October.
This festival contains a number of events held around the various Chinese shrines in Phuket although many of the main events take place in Phuket Town itself. Some events start very early morning, others late at night. If you intend to visit any of the events then be prepared. This festival is not for the faint-hearted with some very weird behaviour and practices including possessed chanting, self-harming and unreal piercings. If you are at all squeamish then avoid the main processions/events and stick to the scrumptuous food!
The Vegetarian festival is thought to have originated from a visit of a Chinese opera troupe that came to entertain the many migrant Chinese tin mine workers in Phuket approximately 150 years ago. So the story goes, the Chinese troupe developed malaria whilst performing to the locals (in those days Phuket would have been primarily jungle/tropical rain forest). In response they decided to stick to a strict vegan diet together with worshipping of the Nine Emperor Gods (Kow Wong Yeh) - a common festival at this time of year for those with Chinese origins. By the end of their period of abstinence (10 days), the troupe found that they had been cured of their diseases.
Since that time the local populace of Phuket have continued the same practices which are now, of course, known as the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. During the festival those celebrating it choose to abide by strict rules of diet and conduct similar to those of the original troupe. These include no meat or dairy products, no seafood or poultry, no alcohol, no smoking, no sex, no lying or violence. Those who adhere strictly to the rules can be identified by dressing only in white clothes (often with Chinese decoration) throughout the entire festival.
Although it is called "the Phuket Vegetarian Festival", the food itself is actually vegan. It has been proposed that the food prepared during the festival is directly related to vegan Jainism so no underground vegetables are included such as potatoes, garlic or onions.
Vegan food in Thai is known as "Jay" (pronounced slightly differently, shorter than in English)). The restaurants selling this type of food can be identified by a yellow flag with "Jay" written in Thai (เจ) in red letters. There are many permanent vegan restaurants in Phuket which are usually found in close proximity to a Chinese shrine/temple. This is because traditionally it is generally the Chinese buddhists who refrain from eating animal-related food products.
There are also a very large quantity of stalls that pop up all around the island throughout the festival. Many of them only sell basic vegan options such as tempura vegetables or spring rolls. However, if you investigate more closely you can find some amazingly tasty food on offer. As a vegetarian of more than 30 years myself, I can testify that, to me, purely because of the fantastic food waiting to be discovered, I look forward to this festival more than Christmas. Beware, though, as the food can be super spicy!
Many vegan products are also sold in most food shops/supermarkets during the festival including at 7-Eleven! All the vegan products can also be identified by having the "Jay" symbol on the packet. Despite what you may think of some products, if it doesn't have the symbol on the packet then it is definitely not vegan.
Many persons perform acts of self-mutilation throughout the festival, from slashing skin to some extremely bizarre piercings. Over the years we have seen piercings ranging from a small stick to the complete frame of a bicycle! Undoubtedly the worst self-mutilation we saw was a guy continually hitting him self with the sharp blade of an axe on his face. To this day, whenever that image pops inti the head of myself or my wife it invokes an immediate loss of appetite!
All acts are carried out without any anaesthetic and whilst in a trance-like state, and all in the name of worshipping the gods! These acts will generally start to be performed on the first day of the festival , continuing throughout, and culminating with piercings removal on the final day. If you fancy a trip to Phuket Town early morning on the last day to watch the piercings being removed then we strongly recommend foregoing your breakfast beforehand otherwise your breakfast may decide to forego you! It really is a gut-wrenching sight to behold.
A number of ceremonies are carried out throughout the festival at various Chinese temples around Phuket. There are also a number of street processions where you can watch followers walking around (piercings and all) in a trance. It is also very common for Chinese firecrackers to be let off continuously throughout these processions. We therefore recommend a good set of ear plugs and some safety glasses too as it is quite common for parts of the firecrackers to fly off in different directions!
As with many events in Thailand, exact schedules are not usually released until a few weeks before the actual start date. Check back then and we will provide a link to the events.
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