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Vegetarian Festival in Phuket, Thailand

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Every year, during late September and early October, a series of strange events occurs on Phuket Island. Fireworks light the sky and the sound of drums reverberate throughout Phuket town. Images of Chinese Gods are paraded through the streets to Chinese temples, along with food and drink offerings.

Many people, the Ma Song, or "entranced horses", publicly perform bizarre acts of self-mutilation, such as walking barefoot over hot coals and climbing ladders of sharp razor blades, bathing in hot oil, and puncturing their bodies with knives, skewers and other bladed instruments.

A festival unique to Phuket Island is occurring, The Vegetarian Festival. Although at first it doesn't appear to have much to do with vegetarianism!!

History of the Vegetarian Festival

The Vegetarian Festival began about 150 years ago. At this time, agriculture and mining dominated the Phuket economy and many Chinese workers lived on the island, which also suffered from various tropical diseases including malaria.

According to legend, a group of Chinese entertainers visited the island, got sick and went of a strict vegetarian diet and prayed to the Nine Emperor Gods to recover.

The entertainers did recover and the people of the Chinese community began holding a yearly festival to celebrate the recovery and the hope of good health, and to honor the Gods.

The festival begins on the first evening of the ninth Chinese lunar month and continues until the ninth evening. The ceremonies are performed near the six major Chinese temples in Phuket town.

First, ten meter high lantern (Go Teng) poles are erected at the six main temples in Phuket town. At midnight, the poles are hung with nine lanterns, inviting the Gods to come.

It is said that the Hindu God Shiva then descends from the Heavens and the festival begins – the festival is essentially a Taoist event, not a Buddhist event and the Taoist recognize some Hindu deities in their pantheon of gods. The other Emperor Gods, most noteably Kiew Ong Tai Teh and Yok Ong Sone Teh, also descend from the Heavens.

Then the processions begin – they are held to honor statues of the Gods Hiao Ho-le and Lian tui, which were brought from Kansai to Phuket to participate in the festival and first paraded through the city over one hundred years ago. The processions are organized and scheduled.

Every day during the festival the processions have different destinations: the Sampan, Samkong, Ban Tha Rve, Bang Neow, Cherng Thalay, Jui Tui, Kathu, Yokkekeng, and Sui Boon Tong shrines of temples. Shopkeepers, residents and visitors line the procession routes with altars and offereings.

The festival ends with merit making ceremonies at each temple along with magnificent fireworks displays, and with the invocation of the Gods Lam Tao and Pak Tao, who conduct the censuses of the living and the dead.

Vegetarian Food

As the name of the festival would indicate, vegetarianism is supposed to be an important part of the festival, and it is. Participants are to eat a strictly vegetarian diet for no less than three days. During the period of the festival, many street stalls serve specially prepared vegetarian dishes.

The various dishes use protein and protein substitutes and are said to look and taste like meat dishes, so the participating stalls are identified with red flags bearing Chinese or Thai characters. During this period, hotels and guest houses serving tourists also prepare special vegetarian dishes to celebrate the occasion.

Do's and Don'ts During the Vegetarian Festival

Actually the observance of vegetarianism is just one of "do's" or "don'ts" people are supposed to observe during the festival. Here is the complete list:

  • Maintain body cleanliness
  • Use only clean kitchen utensils
  • Use kitchen utensils used only by festival participants
  • Wear the color white during the festival
  • Avoid eating meat
  • Avoid sex
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Do not participate if in mourning
  • Do not participate if pregnant or menstruating
  • Behave correctly physically and mentally

Activities During the Vegetarian Festival

Guests and tourists may watch and participate in many of the festival activities. They certainly may eat the vegetarian foods enjoyed by participants.

They may attend the ceremonies to begin the festival at the Go Tengs. They may watch the processions, and follow close behind.

They may make offering as the processions pass if they wish. They may also enter into the temples or shrines, and light joss sticks and honor the Gods if they so wish. They may attend the concluding ceremones.

One aspect of the festival most people – except, perhaps, for the strange – would not choose to participate in are the activities of the Ma Song, the "entranced horses"

The Ma Song honor the Gods through self-mortification. They puncture themselves with various sharp bladed instruments – usually in the facial area of the body – and engage in other self destructive acts, as indicated in the first paragraph.

By all accounts, these acts are genuine and real, and no lasting harm results. It is unclear how the participants prepare themselves to do these things although at least some of them are guided by Taoist shamen.

The participants are said to become temporarily occupied by various Gods and to gain strength and wisdom from the experience.

As time has passed, the acts of the Ma Song have become more extreme and theatrical, and it seems that they have become the major attraction of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival.

The Ma Song honor the Gods through self-mortification.

They puncture themselves with various sharp bladed instruments – usually in the facial area of the body – and engage in other self destructive acts, as indicated in the first paragraph.

By all accounts, these acts are genuine and real, and no lasting harm results.

It is unclear how the participants prepare themselves to do these things although at least some of them are guided by Taoist shamen.

The participants are said to become temporarily occupied by various Gods and to gain strength and wisdom from the experience.

As time has passed, the acts of the Ma Song have become more extreme and theatrical, and it seems that they have become the major attraction of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival.

In any event, the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is an interesting and entertaining event. It provides guests and visitors to Phuket an opportunity to learn about and participate in Chinese religion and local culture. It gives people a chance to learn about local history and it provides people with an opportunity to eat many delicious foods. It is definitely worth coming to Phuket during late September and early October to see and enjoy this event.

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