Phuket, Thailand is one of my favorite holiday destinations, but no more so than in September/October, when Phuket hosts its nine day Phuket Vegetarian Festival. During the ninth Chinese lunar month, Chinese Thais from all over Thailand become vegetarian or vegan to bring themselves and their families good luck.
In Phuket, Thailand though, this belief is taken to a whole other level, with a nine-day festival, Thai guys shoving swords through their faces, elaborate parades to even more elaborate Chinese temples and even men walking on hot coals and climbing ladders made of blades. If you’re in Thailand in September/October, your trip will not be complete without a visit to Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival.
On my first trip to Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival two years ago, I did some amateur detective work, to find out more about the festival and its history. It turns out the festival is the big celebration for Lent, in the Taoist sense of the word, meaning a time when Thais of Chinese descent are not supposed to eat anything that is an animal product. Meat, during Taoist Lent, is thought to poison the body, but a diet of vegetarian or vegan food will cleanse it and make it pure. Weirdly though, in Phuket, the festival seems to have gotten out of hand with strange rituals involving swords and other metal implements being pushed through men’s cheeks, and other rituals of self-flagellation – all in homage to nine Chinese gods.
When I asked around, I discovered it’s not just a form of self-mutilation but it’s actually a way of inviting nine gods down from heaven to participate in the ceremony. The men (well, mostly men, with a few women too) with the pierced faces are a type of medium or spirit guide, and the reason they pierce their faces with metal objects is, in reality, the gods who now inhabit their bodies pierced them – the men did not.
What’s wonderful about Phuket Vegetarian Festival is not only the trance-like states of the mediums, and the odd things they shove through their flesh, but also the heaving mass of people that comes to gawk and eat.
Because, that’s what the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is all about. Watching hundreds of men, both in the early morning and again in the evening, mutilate themselves and then, in true Thai fashion, everyone eats. Plus, with hundreds of professional chefs on hand for the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, you get the chance to eat vegetarian food the likes of which you’ve never seen.
Walking through the main areas of the festival, you’ll find stalls loaded with amazing vegetarian delights – curried yams, sweet and sour tofu, tofu ground up to look like ground pork and used in traditional ground pork and beef dishes, sour mushroom soup, spring rolls, tofu in oyster sauce, and vegetarian pad thai, to name just a handful. Try everything, it’s all delicious and, with the accompanying spices and herbs, very healthy too.
Don’t miss, as well, the processions to one of six famous Chinese temples in Phuket. Elaborate floats, stunning flowers, enormous paper dragons, gorgeous Chinese costumes and, of course, the mediums – all dressed up in their finery, looking like everyone else, except of course for the giant metal fighting and cooking implements sticking out of their heads. Then, of course, there’s the dancing and the fireworks.
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is held every September – October in Phuket, Thailand. In 2011, the Phuket Vegetarian Festival will take place between September 27th and October 5th. For more information, check out the festival’s website or call them at 01-569-9076.
Photo copyright – Nestor’s Blurrylife, Creative Commons License