Phuket’s Macabre Vegetarian Festival.
By Dave Stamboulis
Phuket, pearl of the Andaman. With four million visitors a year, Phuket conjures up images of fancy beach resorts, bacchanalian nightlife, and upscale malls. It certainly isn’t undiscovered. Many might even suggest it to be a paradise lost. However, Phuket is also host to one of Thailand’s best-kept secrets. Every year for nine days, the island erupts into a frenzy when locals take to the streets to celebrate one of the world’s most bizarre and macabre festivals, Ngaan Kin Jeh, or the “Vegetarian Festival.”
The “Phuket Vegetarian Festival” is celebrated starting on the first evening of the ninth lunar month each year. Its origins date back to 1825, when Phuket was still covered in dense jungle and Chinese miners worked its tin mines. A visiting Chinese opera company performing for the miners fell ill with malarial fever during their stay. The troupe then followed a strict vegetarian diet accompanied by a series of rituals honoring their emperor gods, and they recovered immediately. Locals, visibly impressed, sent volunteers back to China to study the rites, and the festival has been celebrated ever since.
On the eve of the festival, a large pole is raised in each local temple, and the nine emperor gods are invited to descend from the heavens and take part in the ceremonies. At midnight, nine lanterns are hung on the poles, signifying that the festival has begun. Phuket Town becomes a sea of yellow and white; the yellow being banners put in front of restaurants showing that they serve only vegetarian food, and the white being clothing that the pilgrims will wear for the following week, showing the intention to remain pure and follow the precepts of the festival, which include abstinence from sex and alcohol and refraining from any kind of killing or eating of animals.
While the vegetarian food is delicious and the temples gaily decorated, most visitors keep their focus on the maa song, human devotees who go into trances and whom the gods possess during the festival. The maa song manifest supernatural powers and perform self-mutilations in order to take evil from individuals and to ensure good luck to the entire community. The maa song, aside from piercing their cheeks and other parts of their anatomy, also perform feats like bathing with hot oil, laying on beds of nails, and climbing bladed ladders.
Each morning of the festival begins with street processions through Phuket. At dawn, one can find scores of young men thronging the inner sanctums of the temples, preparing themselves for self-mutilation. At the base of shrines, they go into trances, begin speaking in high tones, and don colorful aprons with Taoist symbols, looking on as doctors inflict cuts into both sides of their mouths. Once the incisions have been made, various sharp objects like knives and skewers are then inserted into their cheeks. However, many of the men seem to try to outdo each other with other items such as rifles, fishing rods, and parasols. One fellow walks with the nozzle of a gasoline pump through his face, while his friend journeys down the street with a full-size beach umbrella through both cheeks!
All the shops and houses along the parade routes put tables out front, filled with fruit baskets, joss sticks, and Buddha images. The entranced are then invited to come bless each individual and their business as they pass. Despite the hideous appearance of a man with a two-meter spear protruding through both cheeks, eyes rolled back, and babbling incoherently, most folks don’t flinch when he approaches, as they fold their hands in prayer, wai the maa song, and happily receive his blessings.
As the spirit mediums walk through the streets, young men carrying miniature shrines run alongside. The shrine carriers are swathed in towels to prevent being burned from the ensuing blasts. The shrines are filled with fireworks, which explode like gunpowder when spectators toss entire lit packs of their own into the shrines as they come past. At times the entire scene resembles something far more out of a war zone than a festival.
Perhaps the most popular event of Ngaan Kin Jeh is that of fire-walking, which takes place in the Saphan Hin stadium near the sea. Blazing coals are flamed, raked, and turned for hours, in preparation for the teams of entranced men, who gyrate and crack whips to the accompaniment of loud drums, preparing themselves for walking across the hot embers. While most of the men show at least some sense of mortality, dashing across the coals as quickly as they can, others strut leisurely, without a care in the world. In either case, the participants neither show a burn nor even blemish on their feet after the event!
As the week progresses, the street processions become crazier, the noise more thunderous, and the devotees more outlandish in their mutilations. Groups of men swing hatchets, machetes, and spiked balls across their backs, whipping themselves in a mad frenzy. Women too get into the fray as the festival draws to a close, performing the same acts of facial shish-kebab as the men. Women often are spirit mediums for the child gods, and they can be seen skipping through the streets sucking lollipops or with their thumbs in their mouths.
On the final night of the festival, the fireworks are deafening, and the entire town makes its way out to the sea. The shrines of the emperor gods are loaded into boats and launched adrift, while a monstrous bonfire is lit onshore, and soon the flames are all that remains. The following morning, the debris of ash that engulfs the town is swept up, the restaurants start serving meat again, people put on colorful clothes, and Phuket goes back to being a tourist resort.
The city of Trang and some surrounding communities also celebrate their own versions of the “Vegetarian Festival,” but Phuket gets the honor of holding the biggest and most outlandish. A visit to this macabre and bizarre event gives an entire new meaning to the term,”vegetarian.”
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival will take place Oct. 4-14, 2013.