Every year Phuket plays host to numerous festivals and celebrations – both national and international – but the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is arguably the most interesting, unusual, cultural, and delicious of them all. Held over a nine-day period in September or October, this festival celebrates the Chinese community’s belief that abstinence from meat, sex, alcohol, and other vices during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar will help them attain good health and enjoy a tranquil peace of mind. The 2012 PVF takes place from the 15th to the 23rd of October.
Though the origins of the festival are unclear, it is believed that it began in Phuket after a wandering Chinese opera troupe fell ill with malaria while performing on the island. The troupe then kept to a strict vegetarian diet and performed various rituals to two of their emperor gods.
They were soon healed, greatly impressing the local population, who embraced the faith, the ceremonies, and the rituals, which have become increasingly popular over the years. The Vegetarian Festival, called Prapheni Kin Jay or Prapheni Kin Phak in Thai (The Festival for Eating Vegetables), is now one of the major annual events on the Chinese – and the Phuket – calendar.
With its mix of the gory and the gourmand, the shocking and the scrumptious, this is a classic Thai-style festival. Thousands of people converge on the island every year for the festivities, not only to participate in a time of cleansing, purity, and abstinence from all vices - or at least some vices, depending on the individual - but to witness extreme body piercing and self-mortification.
It is no exaggeration to say that true believers pierce and puncture their bodies, even their faces, with virtually any object imaginable: knives, swords, spikes, machetes, axes, silverware, and the odd rubber snake – and those are just the small things.
So grab your camera, walk around, and witness the odd site of participants sticking shovels through their cheeks, as well as revolvers, machine guns, maybe the odd gas pump nozzle or, perchance, a miniature battleship. And umbrellas! Umbrellas are popular piercing items, it seems, as are the stalks of pineapples and bananas with the fruit still attached.
The local ethnic Chinese population, about one-third of Phuket residents, believes that these sacred rituals will draw the evil away from the community and onto themselves, thus bestowing good luck and fortune to those who religiously and enthusiastically observe and partake in the festivities.
The “ma song” (entranced horses), as the active participants are called, claim to feel no pain and bleed little despite what they are inflicting upon their flesh. They are truly in a state of religious ecstasy, and it is said that the evil spirits observe this and are then frightened away.
Adherents are enjoined to follow the “ten commitments,” which include: abstaining from meat, sex, alcohol, and tobacco; wearing white; behaving properly both mentally and physically; and keeping the body clean and pure throughout the festival. (See the website below for further details and festival etiquette.)
As is typical of many traditional rituals and ceremonies throughout the world, people in mourning, and pregnant and menstruating women, are prohibited from participating or even attending the events.
The main temple for the event is the Jui Tui Shrine, located near the Fresh Market in Phuket Town, but festivities are held in the areas around all six Chinese temples on Phuket Island. Visitors who want to get the most out of this event should visit the five oldest shrines in Phuket: Put Jaw, Jui Tui, Bang Neow, Cherng Talay, and Kathu Shrine.
The TAT prepares an excellent brochure each year with a schedule of events which we recommend you consult. It also contains important advice on behavior and dress, such as wearing white and maintaining exceptional personal cleanliness, which one should strictly observe. The festival is in essence a time of renewal, rejuvenation, and the refreshing of one’s mind and body.