To the unprepared visitor arriving to Phuket during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar might be a bit jarring. With fire crackers, gods, trances and cheek impalement it can be easy to forget about the food. Not only is the Phuket Vegetarian Festival unlike any other food festival worldwide, it is also one of the most bizarre events we have ever attended. Although we initially came for the food, we left having participated in one of the most unusual happenings in Southeast Asia. During the week we clapped, cheered, repelled, winced, jumped and so much more…oh and the eating, we can’t forget about the eating!
History of the Vegetarian Festival
The Vegetarian Festival extends itself to the entirety of Thailand but originated on the island of Phuket about 150 years ago. According to online sources during the ninth month of the lunar calendar an opera troupe from China, sent to entertain the many Chinese tin workers, suddenly fell deathly ill. Fearing that the gods were angry because they had not been given the respect that they deserved, those in the opera troupe adopted a vegetarian diet and abstained from sex and alcohol and they grew well again.
And so Thais, especially those with Chinese heritage, adopt a vegetarian diet every year to honor the gods by having a pure body, mind and soul. Then, and only then, can a god possess a person, which is considered a great honor.
Events We Attended
Having arrived a couple days early we witnessed some of the setting up including booths for street food, the decoration of banks and other buildings and most importantly, the preparation of the participating Chinese temples.
The evening before the opening ceremony the local temples were full of people all working towards preparing the golden poles to be raised the next day. People were invited to help by placing small pieces of gold on the long poles which had a tree branch on the very top, also covered in gold. Many people wore white symbolizing purity.
The next day we witnessed a small group coming through with drums and symbols to inspect the food stalls to make sure that it was indeed vegetarian before blessing the stall and handing over a small yellow and red official flag that they could proudly display on the stall.
That evening was the opening ceremony when the two poles were hoisted up and secured where they would stay throughout the entire festival. We were not prepared for all that this entailed. Everyone, including us, wore white except for the people who were in a trance, called the mah song or “horses of the gods”. It was quite obvious which individuals were mah song as they dressed with colorful clothing and had whips or metal hoops with them, but the most obvious of all their traits were the fact that they were all shaking, some faster than others. The mah song were given the right of way and crowds would quickly disperse if one of them wanted to get through.
When the poles went up, the entire crowd hooted and cheered followed by firecrackers, what became quite a common occurrence throughout the week. We left this event with little flecks of gold on our faces.
We got up early one morning to head over to a local temple for a processional. Although we were aware of what this parade would entail, actually seeing the mah song with various metal objects piercing their cheeks was still rather unsettling, especially when blood and/or saliva was still dripping from their mouths.
One of the most interesting aspects to this processional was the reaction of the locals on the side of the street who displayed their absolute gratitude and respect to the gods that were coming through.
We learned that the mah song perform these acts in order to bear the suffering of society and we could see the incredible thanks in the many faces that watched the proceedings. We got a real sense that the people truly believed that gods were in their presence.
Ah, the food! We had come to Phuket from the quiet island of Lanta where being vegan was not the easiest outside our own kitchen to the opposite extreme where we were suddenly overwhelmed by choice. Instead of being given strange looks and the occasional question, “You don’t even eat seafood?”, we were practically applauded for our vegan meals. Little did they know that we celebrate every day.
Vegan options were everywhere! Street after street was lined with food stalls from traditional Thai dishes to other Asian cuisines such as Japanese and Vietnamese. And then there were the desserts, so many different kinds to try from pandan-flavored noodles in sweet coconut milk to various bean cakes to traditional roti.
Restaurants all posted signs advertising their vegan options for the week and even the 7-elevens were stocked up of vegan treats.