Sharpen Your Knives for Thailand’s Gory Veggie Fest

Phuket’s annual vegetarian festival is not so much renowned for its tofu dishes than for tranced dancers and bloody devotees who skewer their faces and bodies with knives, swords and hooks.

Phuket’s most unusual religious happening is the Vegetarian Festival, which is celebrated during the first nine days of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. This year it takes place on the tropical Thai island from September 27 to October 5.

The festival marks the start of Taoist Lent, when devout Sino-Thais abstain from eating meat of all kinds. In Phuket, the festival activities centre on six Chinese temples, with Wat Jui Tui on Ranong Road the most important, followed by Wat Bang Niew and Wat Sui Boon Tong. The festival is also observed in the nearby town of Kathu (where the Vegetarian Festival is believed to have originated), and at Ban Tha Reua.

As well as avoiding all meat, devotees at the Vegetarian Festival organise processions, make temple offerings, perform cultural shows and stage consultations with mediums. They also perform a series of quite bizarre and extraordinary acts of self-mortification that, to the uninitiated, seem scarcely credible. Devotees enter into a trance designed to bring the gods to earth to participate in the festival, then walk with bare soles on red-hot coals, climb ladders made of razor-sharp sword blades, stab themselves with all manner of sharp objects, and pierce their cheeks with sharpened stakes, swords, spears, daggers and even screwdrivers. It can be a bloody and disconcerting sight – though, puzzlingly, given that some devotees strike their heads repeatedly with axe blades, cut their tongues with knives, and may even throw themselves bodily into coffins filled with broken glass and blazing fuel, little permanent damage seems to be done.

The first event is the raising of the lantern pole, an act that notifies the gods that the festival is about to begin. The pole is at least 10 metres tall and once erected, celebrants believe that the Hindu god, Shiva, descends bringing spiritual power to the event. Meanwhile, altars are set up along major roads bearing offerings of fruit and flowers, incense, candles and nine tiny cups of tea. These are for nine celestial emperor gods of the Taoist pantheon, who are invited to participate in the festival, and in whose honour the celebrations are held. Thousands of locals and visitors line the streets to observe the events, which are accompanied by loud music, frenzied dancing and the constant noise of exploding firecrackers.

Members of Phuket’s Chinese community claim that a visiting theatrical troupe from Fujian that performed in Kathu almost two centuries ago first began the festival. The troupe was stricken with illness because its members had failed to propitiate the nine emperor gods of Taoism. In order to recover, they had to perform a nine-day penance, after which they recovered. This supernatural occurrence became the basis for today’s Vegetarian Festival.

During the festival spectators and participants can enjoy specially prepared vegetarian cuisine which is for sale at street stalls and markets all over the island at this time. Strangely, these vegetarian dishes are designed to look like meat in standard Thai or Chinese fare–although made from soybeans and protein substitute the vegetarian food looks and sometimes tastes very much like chicken, pork or duck.

[A library of related images is available here. Text ┬й Andrew Forbes / CPA Media 2011.]