Phuket’s most famous and spectacular cultural event, the Vegetarian Festival takes place over nine days in the ninth lunar month, typically around September or October. Also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, the festival is celebrated by Daoists throughout Thailand in areas with large populations of ethnic Chinese, as well as in other parts of Southeast Asia including Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
However, the celebrations in Phuket are rather unique in that they include rather macabre acts of self-mortification performed by “mah song”, devotees who are believed to be possessed by the spirits of the emperor gods, such as walking barefoot on hot coals, climbing up knife-blade ladders, and piercing their tongues and cheeks with sharp objects such as metal rods, knives, and even swords. Locals believe that by inflicting pain and self-mortification on themselves, mah song are diverting bad luck and misfortune away from the wider community, and ensuring good luck and prosperity for the next year.
In Phuket, you can watch the rituals take place at one of the larger shrines including Jui Tui and Bang Niew in Phuket Town, Tha Reua shrine in Koh Kaew, and Cherng Talay and Kathu shrines.
During the festival, mah song lead large processions with statues of the emperor gods carried through the streets accompanied by the sound of traditional Chinese music, which is frequently punctuated with the sound of firecrackers. Worshippers line the streets waiting to give offerings and receive blessings from the emperor gods.
On the final night of the Vegetarian Festival, large parades from all the different shrines on the island converge on Phuket Town and make their way through the streets to Kua Tian Keng Shrine, which is by the sea in Sapan Hin. Here they send off the emperor gods at midnight, marking the end of the festival. The parades can be quite a sight with throngs of people dressed in white and firecrackers being set off left and right, which is not only very loud but can make breathing quite difficult with all the smoke.
Whether you are a worshiper or not, the highlight for many people is the delicious food that can be enjoyed throughout the festival. Despite the name, the Vegetarian Festival is technically vegan as all animal products are forbidden. Rather curiously, pungent vegetables in the form of garlic, onion, single clove garlic, and garlic chive are also not allowed to be eaten.
The best places to enjoy the wide variety of dishes and treats are, rather unsurprisingly, in the area around the shrines themselves. The largest concentration of food stalls is to be found Ranong Road between the fresh market and Jui Tui shrine, which is closed to traffic in the evening. Here you will find plenty of stalls selling vegan versions of local favorites with meat replaced by textured soy protein and tofu, and fish sauce, a staple of nearly all Thai dishes, replaced by soya sauce.
Apart from following a strict diet during the festival, worshippers will offer prayers at the shrines and dress in white observing methods of piety to the gods including following 10 sacred rules:
Cleanliness of bodies throughout the duration of the festival
Kitchen utensils must be cleaned and separate from those who are not participating in the festival
White clothes must be worn during the festival
Participants must behave both physically and mentally
No meat or animal products to be consumed during the festival
Sexual intercourse is forbidden during the festival
Alcohol is prohibited during the festival
People in a grieving period should not attend the festival
Pregnant women should not attend or watch any of the rituals
Ladies who have their menstrual cycle should not attend the festival