Vegetarian Festival: incredible self-mortification processions in Phuket, Thailand

Phuket Vegetarian Festival, ThailandPhuket Vegetarian Festival by Binder.donedatCreative Commons Attribution licence (CC BY 2.0)

  • Location: Jui Tui temple, Th Ranong, Phuket Town, Phuket, Thailand
  • Dates: first nine days of the ninth month in the Chinese calendar (late September/early October)
  • Level of participation: 3 – receive fruit from a self-mortifying medium

Thailand’s largest island, nicknamed the ‘Pearl of the South’, is particularly spectacular during the Vegetarian Festival. Celebrated by Phuket’s Chinese community, the event marks the beginning of the month of ‘Taoist Lent’, when devout followers of the Tao abstain from eating all meat and meat products.

The festival begins with processions, religious offerings and cultural performances, centred on five Chinese temples. The most significant location is Jui Tui temple, the modern annex of Put Jaw, the oldest Chinese temple in Phuket Town.

Piercings, hot coals and trance-like states

The religious fervour culminates with incredible acts of self-mortification – walking on hot coals, climbing knife-blade ladders, piercing the skin with sharp objects. Devotees participating as mediums bring the nine Taoist emperor gods to earth by entering into a trance state and piercing their cheeks with all manner of objects: sharpened tree branches, spears, slide trombones, daggers. Some even hack their tongues continuously with a saw or axe blade.

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Shopkeepers on central streets set up altars in front of their stores, offering incense, fruit, candles, flowers and nine tiny cups of tea to the deities invoked throughout the festival. During the street processions, mediums stop at the altars and pick up the fruit, which they add to the objects piercing their cheeks or pass on to bystanders as a blessing.

The mediums also drink one of the nine cups of tea and grab some flowers to stick in their waistbands. The shopkeepers and their families look on with their heads lowered and hands together in a prayerlike wâi gesture, out of respect for the mediums and the deities possessing their pierced bodies.

Religious frenzy

The deafening firecrackers, ritual dancing and bloodied shirts create an atmosphere of religious frenzy. Strangely, there is no record of this kind of activity associated with Taoist Lent in China. Some historians have concluded that Phuket’s Chinese community was influenced by the Thaipusam festival celebrated in nearby Malaysia. The Hindu festival features similar acts of self-mortification. The folk clutching the saws and axe blades, however, have another explanation. They say the festival was started by a Chinese theatre troupe that stopped off in Kathu, northwest of Phuket Town, around 150 years ago.

According to legend, the troupe fell ill because its members had failed to propitiate the nine emperor gods. The nine-day penance they performed included self-piercing, meditation and a strict vegetarian diet.

  • Essentials: besides Jui Tui, the festival is centred on Bang Neow and Sui Boon Tong temples, and the nearby towns of Kathu and Ban Tha Reua. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) office in Phuket Town gives out a helpful schedule of events. If you plan to attend the street processions, consider bringing earplugs for the firecrackers.
  • Local attractions: Phuket is Southeast Asia’s St Tropez, with jagged coastal terrain, rocky peninsulas, sandy bays, tropical vegetation and limestone cliffs.
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  • See other festivals in October here.