Whether you want to simply observe it or join in as a participant, here is all you need to know about Phuket's famous Vegetarian Festival.
Legend has it that the Vegetarian Festival originates in 1825 when a touring troupe of Chinese opera arrived in Phuket to perform for the local Chinese miners. Soon after their arrival, the members of the group became infected with a fever (most likely malaria, which raged in the jungle that covered most of the island at that time). To beat the sickness, they decided to stick to a vegetarian diet in order to appease the nine Emperor Gods – a group of deities they worshipped back in China.
The ”treatment” proved to be effective and the word of a miracle spread fast in the local community. The actors claimed that the fever epidemy was a divine punishment for the inhabitants of the island who did not follow traditional rituals. The islanders listened and the Vegetarian Festival was born.
That’s what a legend claims, historians, however, present a different version. According to them, the festival’s originals reach even further back. In the Taoist tradition, it is called the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods, whom each year descend from the stars to earth in order to give their blessings to people. The nine-day celebration, which begins on the eve of the 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, is most common among Chinese inhabitants of South East Asia who adhere to the religion of Taoism.
But it was only here, in Phuket, that the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods turned into the famous Vegetarian Festival. According to some, it takes its unique character from a combination of Chinese traditions with those of the Hindu: especially the custom of self-mutilation derived from an ancient Tamil festival of Thaipusam, which the Phuket Chinese borrowed from the south Indian inhabitants of neighbouring Malaysia.
The tradition of holding the annual Vegetarian Festival continues to this day, it's become one of Phuket’s plentiful tourist attractions too, but it’s important to remember that local residents take it very seriously - for them, it’s an intense religious experience.
If you find yourself in Phuket at the time of the festival, do not be alarmed; take it as an opportunity to experience a unique cultural event. The locals will surely appreciate it if you try to blend in by purchasing a special white festive robe in one of the local shops before joining one of the processions as a spectator. The Vegetarian Festival processions set out from a number of Chinese shrines scattered around the island and travel in the direction of the nearest water body or seashore. They begin early in the morning and precise timing and locations are announced in advance.
Before you go, however, prepare yourself to witness one of the goriest, but at the same time most exciting spectacles in your life. You’ve probably seen in photographs before, but to experience it first-hand is a different story. Some participants of the festival called Ma Song, engage in self-mutilation and torture, piercing themselves not only with knives and spikes but also pushing much more exotic objects through their cheeks and tongues: from children's three-wheeled bicycles to umbrellas!
Ma Song, which translates to “A Horse of God”, are said to invite divine spirits to possess their bodies for the duration of the holiday, becoming their vehicles. The deities take possession of them just as a raider saddles his horse. Another common translation is “The Warrior God”.
Not everyone becomes possessed though. Most festival-goers stick to refraining from eating meat, seafood and milk, wearing white clothes and purifying their thoughts and actions. The owners of local restaurants signal their participation in the festivities by installing yellow flags at their shopfronts. For real believers though, only food cooked in the consecrated kitchen of a Chinese temple is suitable.