Phuket Vegetarian Festival

Phuket Vegetarian Festival - Featured

Phuket Vegetarian Festival - FeaturedTo 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!

Phuket Vegetarian Festival - Fruit Bowls

Spiced and sugared fruit

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.

Phuket Vegetarian Festival - Elder Certifying Stalls

Vegan Food Inspection

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.

Opening Ceremony

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.

Phuket Vegetarian Festival - Pole Raising

Pole raising ceremony

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.

Processional

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.

Phuket Vegetarian Festival - Swords Procession

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.

Phuket Vegetarian Festival - Piercing ProcessionWe 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.

The Food

Phuket Vegetarian Festival - Sticky Rice Bamboo

Sticky rice in bamboo

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.

Phuket Vegetarian Festival - Sushi

Vegan sushi and sashimi

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.

Phuket Vegetarian Festival - 7 Eleven Vegan Food

Even 7-Eleven joins in the fun!

What is the most bizarre festival you have ever attended?

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15 thoughts on “Phuket Vegetarian Festival

  1. Diana Edelman

    I got to go to the not-graphic version of the festival up here in CM, which was really just an area of Thaepae Gate with veggie food stalls. But to eat the veggie gyoza made my day!! I don’t know if I could stomach the trances and impalement though!

    1. Bounding Over Our Steps

      Hi Diana,
      We think it’s amazing that although this tradition originated in Phuket and only within the last century, that parts of the tradition have spread to other parts of Thailand, especially where there are those with Chinese ancestry, which would very much include many locations in the north, especially Chiang Mai. Even at the universities, the veggie stall line was always SO long during the festival. I was happy to wait though. 🙂

  2. Franca

    This festival is crazy, I’ve seen some photos and videos that Giselle and Cody shared a while ago too and I remember being very impressed like I’m now after reading this post and seeing your videos. The food looks simply delicious and I think I’d probably explode because I’d love to try everything, literally!

  3. Alex

    On one hand I’ve always been fascinated by this festival, on the other I don’t think I could see some of the body modification in person. It might be too much for squeamish me!

    1. Bounding Over Our Steps

      Hi Alex,
      We had a hard time with the body piercing too at times. We never saw the actual piercing which helped but we did see some people having trouble with theirs and hence was drooling blood and we had to look away as it was turning our stomach. Such a dichotomous event! Many people just go for the food and it’s easy to avoid the other stuff if you wanted.

  4. Juno

    I’ve never heard of such event! I didn’t click the photo because I’m a bit chicken that way. But I can guess what it is from the comments!

    1. Bounding Over Our Steps

      Hi Juno,
      We also rarely click on images or watch videos that are marked “graphic content”. Thankfully, they are in a trance when this occurs so they reportedly don’t feel it. This makes us feel a bit better. Neither the pictures nor the video shows the actual piercing, only what it looks like afterwards. Don’t think either of us could actually stomach the piercing. It is actually rather easy to avoid this aspect to the festival and just enjoy the food, which is everywhere. 🙂

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