‘Phuket Vegetarian Festival’ is not just about the virtues of vegetarianism and this festival proves it!
Love the weird, the shocking, and the bizarre? Then, visit southern Thailand this month for the “Phuket Vegetarian Festival.” This annual event — to be held Oct. 1-9, is no ordinary celebration of the virtues of vegetarians and vegans.
How about sashaying barefoot on burning coals, climbing steep bladed ladders, or piercing your cheeks with a sharp metal rod – and then parading around the city as if you don’t feel any pain at all? These “bizarre” feats are common during the festival. It’s also common to see people acting like they were under trance; talking like a “medium” possessed by some kind of spirit from the nether world. These rituals are what make the “Phuket Vegetarian Festival” what it is today: a major tourist attraction that thousands from all over the world take time to see.
While the “bizarre” feats may have stolen the limelight off the festival’s other significant aspects; they are not the only thing that makes the festival interesting. (Local residents of Chinese ancestry observe a strict 10-day vegetarian or vegan diet for purposes of spiritual cleansing and merit-making during this period.)
“The festival is a manifestation of our community’s adherence to age-old beliefs and traditions,” says Somsak (not his real name), a “Ma Song” last year. A “Ma Song” is a devotee “possessed” by the gods. “It is rooted in the concept of self-purification and a means to merit-making.”
When the chanting and drumming reverberate on the streets, when the smell of incense creates an eerie feel in the air, and when participants – obviously entranced — perform what to some of us may be baffling, even shocking, it is actually faith in action, believers say. (If you are faint-hearted, you better dash off to Patong Beach right away!)
The original reasons for holding the event may have been lost to many attendees, but when the devotees bring out the statues of their gods and demigods for the long procession that kicks off the festival, they are reaffirming some ancient beliefs that most, Somsak says “fill in somehow, something void in their modern lives.”
The “Phuket Vegetarian Festival” is so unlike any other festivals in the world in that while it seems eager to surprise, and even to shock, it is actually full of “routine ceremonies” as most festivals.
The afternoon before the festival proper begins; devotees invite the “gods” to come down from heaven during a temple ceremony. They would raise a great pole called “Go Teng,” which is hung with nine lanterns at midnight, to mark the festival open. Two important gods — Yok Ong Hong Tae and Kiew Ong Tai Tae – are “invited” to preside over the opening ceremonies.
Also invoked are the gods, Lam Tao, who keeps track of the living, and Pak Tao, who keeps track of the dead. Processions of these gods follow; and then the more “familiar” aspects of the festival follow. This is when the “Ma Song” during the festival, as is the belief – begin their feats of the weird.
By this time, the “Ma Song” is supposed to possess supernatural powers. These powers, it is believed, allow them to perform self-torture without feeling pain and by doing so shift evil from another individual unto themselves and bring good luck to the community. There are two kinds of “Ma Song”: those who, having had an intimation of impending doom, want to extend their lives; and the chosen ones, those “especially chosen by the gods” for their moral virtues.
Throughout the festival fireworks are lit and drums are sounded; the louder the better because, as the Chinese believes, noise drives away evil spirits. The festival ends with the merit-making ceremonies (sadoh kroh) and the send-off for the gods on the last night. You should see the explosion of fireworks at this time!
How come it is called “Vegetarian Festival”? Perhaps, because the performers — to be rendered “pure” in body and mind – must eat only vegetarian food before they can do their feats. They usually keep to a strict vegetarian diet for a varying number of days, but no less than three.
It is a festival that you must see at least once in your Thailand visit!
By Air — Thai Airways (Tel: 02 525-2084) flies the one-hour-and-20-minute-service 13 times daily from Bangkok. There’s a daily 45-minute flight from Hat Yai (Tel: 074 233-433). Bangkok Airways (Tel. 02 229-3434 in Bangkok or 077 245-601 on Koh Samui) connects Phuket with Koh Samui at least two times daily; Thai Air Asia (Tel. 02 515-9999) flies between Bangkok and Phuket for about the same price as the train.
By Land — Three air-conditioned 24-seat VIP buses leave daily from Bangkok’s Southern Bus Terminal (Tel. 02 434-7192), best as an overnighter. Standard buses make frequent connections to Suratthani and nearby towns on the mainland (to Surat it’s six hours).