The Vegetarian Festival here in Phuket is a 9 day long strange celebration of opera singers being healed from sickness in 1825. The story goes that this opera group was brought in from China to entertain the tin miners living and working in Phuket. The opera troupe became ill and in order to heal from it, they changed their diet to vegetarian in honor of Kiew Ong Tai Teh and Yok Ong Sone Teh, emperor gods they worshiped.
When the entertainers were healed from their unnamed sickness, the people of Phuket took notice and started celebrating the Vegetarian festival. Starting on the first day of the ninth lunar month and continuing for 9 days, those that participate in the ceremonies cannot eat meat, drink alcohol, have sex, and must wear white for the 9 days of the festival.
I am not sure exactly when or why the diet changes grew to piercing faces with swords, cutting of tongues, feet, and backs, or fire walking came to be part of the rituals, but now it is THE festival. The diet changes and lifestyle changes are a part, but what everyone comes to see are the “Ma Songs” who give themselves up to the emperor gods that had healed the opera troupe. They become possessed by the gods and then make the procession from Chinese temple to Chinese temple (there are many different routes all over the island of Phuket) blessing people and businesses along the way.
This is our second year living in Phuket during the Vegetarian Festival and our first time actually going. It helps that we had visitors (that were indeed vegetarian) from California that were here just to experience the festival (Hi Heather and Sean!).
One of the reasons that Chad and I had not checked out the Vegetarian Festival in the past was because we were strongly warned against taking Z, as the piercing and cutting and overall demeanor of the people participating in the processions could be traumatizing to little ones. When it comes to Z, we are pretty protective and that warning kept us away for a year. This year, Z was in school and Chad and I were free to check it out.
We arrived in Phuket Town for one of the larger processions during the 9 days. We spent the time at our friend Yui’s coffee and craft beer shop called, Phuketique where she had a table waiting for blessings from the Ma Songs.
We stood on the sidelines of the procession and watched as the people in white walked by. There was usually one Ma Song surrounded by many others who seemed to be helping them and taking care of them. I lost count of how many groups there were in the procession, but it went on for 3 hours, so I would assume it was quite a lot.
Some of the Ma Songs had multiple sharp instruments running through their cheeks, tongues, lips, and/or other areas of their bodies. Some of the Ma Songs would stop at the tables of people waiting for blessings and cut their tongues with swords, or strike their backs with axes. Most of them were shaking their heads, and rolling their eyes back seeming to be in trances.
In watching the people walk barefoot and cut themselves and have such a large amount of metal running through their face and bodies, the part that most amazed me most was how quickly I became desensitized to it. Mind you, I have had many tattoos and piercings and know people who have found Suspension to be enjoyable so maybe I am the odd person. Maybe I was predisposed through my past to not be overly affected by the temporary body modifications and self-mutilation that I saw in the procession. I was intrigued but honestly was over it rather quickly.
I was also surprised at the lack of blood, don’t get me wrong, the people who were hitting themselves with axes and cutting their tongues with large knives were somewhat bloody, but nothing like I had expected. Although I will note here that I am glad that Z was not with us. It was not appropriate for her, though many Thai’s had theirs with them.
There was only one thing that really made me uncomfortable during my time at the Vegetarian Festival… THE FIRECRACKERS. Seriously, I would highly recommend using ear plugs. The noise was deafening and gave me quite a headache.
After I had taken a ton of sub par photos, I sat and watched the procession while having a snack of delicious banana bread that Yui makes. Hey, food is important no matter what kind of festival is going on, right?! I had to have a delicious snack before I went down the street later on and had a probably very unhealthy but tasty plate of vegetarian food.
Here are some of my photos of the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket this year. These are not very graphic, but be aware that some people are pierced and one set of the photos is of a man hitting himself with an ax.
I am going to share some of Chads photos on Monday, they are much better and much more graphic. Make sure to check back here on Monday if you can stomach some sharp instruments in faces. Some of the things that people used were so showy and fascinating, I really want to share them with you. So check back on Monday!
Let’s chat! Would you want to attend the Vegetarian Festival? What do you think you would like of dislike? Will you come back for the pictures on Monday? I hope so!