History of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2008 will kick off in October for 10 days, with all manner of curious events scheduled to take place daily until Saturday October 20.
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival began in 1825 when Thalang Governor Praya Jerm moved Phuket’s primary town from Thalang to Kathu, an area filled with Thai and Chinese tin miners.
Phuket has a long history of tin mining, the remnants of which can be seen in tourist shops across the island. Scores of men had fallen ill with fever, and Phuket was covered with thick jungle. A Chinese opera company arrived in Phuket to perform for the miners.
Members of the company soon succumbed to the same illness as the miners, but through a strict diet of vegetarianism honoring two gods – Kiew Ong Tai The and Yok Ong Song Teh – the troop was able to recover its health, much to the astonishment of the locals.
The people of Kathu then embraced this ritualistic vegetarianism and the festival was born, taking place every year from the first to the ninth evening of the ninth lunar month.
On the afternoon before the festival begins, a pole at each temple is raised to invite the gods to descend. The festival opens with the hanging of nine lanterns on the pole at midnight to invite Kiew Ong Tai The and Yok Ong Song Teh back to the island.
Ceremonies take place throughout the festival in which devotees pray to the gods. Ma Song are those whom the gods enter, passing on supernatural powers to these people who then perform gruesome self-torturous acts to draw evil from others to themselves, thus cleansing the community and bringing it luck.
Those who follow the festival eat a strict vegetarian diet and refrain from all vices, including sex and alcohol. Devotees dress entirely in white for the duration.
There are 16 shrines at which ceremonies take place during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. Those shrines are: Kathu, Jui Tui, Bang Neow, Ban Tha Rue, Sui Boon Tong, Lim Hu Tai Su, Cherng Talay, Yok Ke Keng, Sapam, Bangkoo, Jang Ong, Tae Gun Tai Tae, Sum Sae Su Hud, Kiu Tien Kiong and Gim Tsu Ong.
Eight of the shrines are located in Phuket Town, with the others scattered across the island. You’ll need to wake up early to see the street processions at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, as they usually begin some time between 6:30 am and 8 am, with people marching through Phuket Town, Patong, Sapam Village and a couple of other areas.
Highlights at the various Chinese temples include bladed ladder climbing, bathing in hot oil and fire walking, as well as brutal acts of people piercing their own cheeks and tongues. It’s all real as well.
One year, a man used a pig’s tongue in his mouth to try and fool people, but he was arrested for impersonating a shamen. They don’t muck about at Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
We can’t wait for the festival this year. Word of advice: book your accommodation early as the island fills up with people pretty fast.
Our good friends at Tourism Authority of Thailand helped me out for this article.