Eat, pray, hope
Phuket Vegetarian Festival makes the most meaningful comeback since the day it began 150 years ago.
History tells us that the Phuket Vegetarian Festival was first held to ward off a mysterious epidemic that arrived on the tropical island at the turn of the 20th Century. With the vegetarian festival now getting underway and its disciples readying for purification and atonement in this era of Covid-19, both islanders and festival-goers are hoping the century-old event will once again please the gods and keep the pandemic at bay – or, failing that, at least draw visitors to this tropical island hit hard by a lack of foreign tourists.
This year’s Phuket Vegetarian Festival is being celebrated from October 17 to 25.
Set in Phuket’s old town, way beyond the province’s white sand beaches and the throbbing bar scenes of Patong and Bangla, the annual vegetarian festival is an intimate and largely local affair. As spiritual as it is enigmatic, the festival walks you through the days when Phuket was home to the islanders, Chinese immigrants and a few Australian miners.
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival originated 150 years ago in the Chinese-speaking community of Kathu when a visiting theatre troupe from China was struck down by a mysterious and deadly epidemic. After consulting the soothsayer, the locals believed the performers had probably fallen ill because they had failed to pay respect to the nine Emperor Gods of Taoism.
The performers then, at least so the legend goes, erected temples and held a vegetarian festival to ward off any residual bad luck as well as appease those nine Emperor Gods.
The unorthodox remedy worked, and the annual vegetarian festival has been held ever since.
Today, the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is nine days and nights of meat-free cleansing of the body, prayers, chants and eye-popping processions that always draw devotees, visitors and street photographers to the island.
On the eve of the festival – this year, on Friday, October 16 – a towering bamboo pole is raised at 40 Chinese shrines around Phuket, and the nine Emperor Gods of Taoism are invited to descend from the heavens and take part in the ceremonies.
At midnight, nine lanterns are lit and hung on the poles, meaning that the Vegetarian Festival has begun. Chanting and reciting of mantras to the sound of solemn percussion breaks out at dawn and continues until the festival ends eight days later.
Food stalls fly yellow flags to indicate they serve only vegetarian food, and devotees dress in white for the entire nine days to show they intend to remain pure and peaceful.
Abstention from sex and alcohol were added in later years for absolute purification.
However, the vegetarian festival is way more spectacular than switching from pork to tofu or refraining from a beer or three.
At dawn, festival-goers can find scores of young devotees gathering in the inner sanctums of the Chinese shrines, preparing themselves for self-mutilation. At the base of the shrines, they go into a trance, begin speaking in tones and don colourful aprons with Taoist symbols, as doctors make cuts at both sides of their mouths. Possessed by the spirits of nine deities, these ascetics are apparently anaesthetized and show little sign of real injury.
The festivity culminates with a procession of people deep in a trance, piercing their tongues and cheeks and other parts of their anatomy with spears, daggers, sharpened branches and anything else that comes to hand.
On October 25 at around 8pm, the parade of gods will march through the old town and bless the devotees before returning to heaven. As the festival comes to an end, thousands of local people throw thousands upon thousands of firecrackers into the gods’ altars carried by the devotees.
No more piercing now. Nor any scary-looking parades. Just an enigmatic and purifying night. And, of course, the ear-splitting sound of firecrackers.
Devotees carry the altar of one of the nine Taoist gods in one of the noisy parades during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
Local residents of Phuket celebrate the annual Vegetarian Festival.
Expect peace but be prepared for pain. The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is nine days and nights of purification and atonement.
On the last night of Phuket Vegetarian Festival, the Taoist gods are paraded through the old town and bless devotees before returning to heaven.
There is no piercing on the last night, nor any scary-looking parades. Just an enigmatic and purifying night. And, of course, the ear-splitting sound of firecrackers!