Phuket Vegetarian Festival - My favourite event in Phuket!
The 2018 Phuket Vegetarian Festival Festival was held from 8 - 18 October - see SCHEDULE. The date changes slightly every year as it's based on the Chinese lunar calendar. In 2019 it will start 28th September. It's my favourite time of year, and it's not because of the food. I am certainly not a vegetarian, though I try to stick to "the diet" during the festival, meaning no meat, no alcohol, no dairy, no onion or garlic, no eggs. Over the years on this blog, I have posted many many times about the festival. At least one post per year since 2006, some years with multiple posts. I love it! The 2017 festival was very different, because the Thai King passed away last year and the funeral and cremation rituals took place in late October 2017. The cremation was on 26th October. The festival in 2017 had no piercing or firecrackers, no big morning processions. Only the last night went ahead as planned on 28th October. I mostly ignored it this year, but will be back with a bang in 2019!
Recent Phuket Vegetarian Festival Blog Posts
• 2016 Phuket Vegetarian Festival Photos
• 2015 Phuket Vegetarian Festival Part 1
• The Crazy Last Night of the Festival
• Vegetarian Festival 2014 (Part 1)
• Vegetarian Festival 2014 (Part 2)
• Vegetarian Festival 2014 (Part 3)
• Street Procession from Jui Tui shrine in Phuket Town (October 11th 2013)
• Kathu Shrine - Early Morning Procession (October 12th 2013)
• Vegetarian Festival - The Food
• Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2012 Photos / Blog
It's not for everyone. If you know about the festival, you'll know why... some people love it, some moan about the street processions blocking traffic for a week (around Phuket Town, true enough), some consider it to be "just a show for tourists" (very untrue), and lots of people are turned off by the more bloody aspects of the festival. The festival has a long, long history. This is not a show, not a fake. The history, the tradition and the respect for the festival among the local people is plain to see. Just to be clear, not all local people get involved. The vegetarian festival is based on Chinese beliefs and the participants are generally from Phuket's Chinese-Thai community which makes up around 30% of the population. Most of the participating shrines are in and around Phuket Town or Thalang, the 2 old centers of Phuket.
(above) Prayers and Respect - Kathu village shrine outside Phuket Town is one of the main centers for the vegetarian festival. Dressed all in white, local people carry incense at the start of the fire walking ceremony.
Why do I love this festival so much? You know, the first couple of years I was in Phuket, I saw almost nothing of the real local life, knew nothing of the history of Phuket .. I just dived and hung around with diving people, went out to bars and never went out to explore the island. The first time I saw anything of this festival was in about 2003, driving into Phuket Town to pay my tax, and got stuck in traffic caused by some damn local street procession! Over the years we have enjoyed exploring Phuket and the surrounding area and discovering new back roads and new events. And I have read a lot about the history and traditions here. The vegetarian festival is celebrated in other parts of Thailand where there are Chinese-Thai communities, but Phuket is where it started back in about 1825, probably a bit later than that, nobody exactly knows!
(above) Kathu shrine is my "local". We live about a mile from old Kathu village where the shrine is located. Kathu is actually where the history of the festival began, being the center of the tin mining boom which attracted many Chinese people to Phuket in the 19th century. I like to head to the shrine at any time during the festival to "people watch". I love the atmosphere. Everyone is dressed in white. I mean not everyone in Phuket, but around the shrines, pretty much everyone. In the weeks before the festival, shops are selling the white clothes. It's a sign of purity. I like to visit the shrines to catch a glimpse of the tradition of the festival. On the first day (see below) the Go Teng pole is raised to allow the spirits of the Emperor Gods to enter the shrine.
And then the street processions begin. Every day for a week. Each day with participants from different shrines. And this is where things get weird. Shrines, candles, prayers, traditions... and self mutilation and extreme piercing. By their suffering does the whole town receive good luck and blessings for the year. Purification by eating the right food, by wearing white and by sticking sharp objects in your face. If you have not seen this before, it's a shock. It's also a photographers paradise! Well, I am not a pro photographer, but during the festival I will take hundreds of pictures. Trying to select just a few for this blog is hard! You can find lots of photos on Flickr - see Vegetarian Festival 2010 - Vegetarian Festival 2009.
(above) Vegetarian Festival procession carrying statues of the gods led by the "Ma Song" who have let the spirits of the gods enter their bodies. Some of these Ma Song are quite freaky. I have been up close in the shrines and in the streets. I do not believe they are pretending. Well, not all of them!
Sorry should have warned that was coming.. The Ma Song above walks the streets cutting himself with an axe. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I love the blood, but it all adds to the intensity of the experience. I try to get to some shrines early in the morning, like 6 - 7am before they start their processions. Photography a bit harder in the dim early morning light, but this is when the piercing takes place. The blood is fresh.... anyone who wants to vomit now should go search for a photo of a funny cat. Don't come back just yet .. it gets worse. Too late.
If you go and watch any of the processions or early morning goings-on at the shrines, like I said, if you have not seen this before, you might be shocked. In fact I am still shocked. Swords in your cheek? No thanks! Oh, come on, just a small one... or an umbrella? Sometimes I don't know where to look. One pair of eyes, one camera. Many times I "miss" a photo opportunity. I try to take as many pictures as possible. Some will be good and it's true - better camera = better photos. Last couple of years I was using a Canon EOS 20D - hoping to get a newer model before September. Getting a really good photo here you need to get into the shrines or walk along with the processions and get involved, get close. Watching from the side of the road, hard to get a decent photo. Last year, when the Bang Neow shrine in Phuket Town had it's procession, I was running around in the sun for 2 hours, getting covered in firecrackers and loving it!
(above) in Phuket Town, carrying the gods through a constant barrage of firecrackers. Only the bravest local lads sign up for god-carrying duty! I like to follow them through the deafening noise and choking smoke trying to get a good photo!
(above) Statues of the gods being carried through Kathu village - can get a bit crazy in Phuket Town. The 2 main shrines in town are Bang Neow and Jui Tui. On the days when they have their processions, the crowds are at their largest. In Kathu it's much easier to get a photo, not so many people around early morning as they begin walking to town, which is about 6km away.
The banana guy is also a local policeman. For weeks after the festival I see local guys with fresh scars! The scar tissue is often quite obvious especially on those who have been participating for many years. Old and young take part. The tradition is passed down, though there is the suspicion that some youngsters might be doing it for the street cred. And there seems to be a level of competition - who can do the biggest or most bizarre piercing.. Some examples:
(above) The classic "gun in face" style.
(above) 4 swords. Beat that.
8 swords. I thank you. Meanwhile, the young generation watch and learn.
Young Rambo (above) carrying firecrackers.. or maybe his Mum had enough of him. "If you don't stop that, I'll light those firecrackers!" - and below - respect.
I love the tradition, the history, the firecrackers, the craziness, the street processions, the prayers at the shrines, the food is worth a try too. I love the way the local community comes together. The Phuket vegetarian festival is my favourite thing in Phuket!
Map of Chinese Shrines
View Phuket Chinese Shrines in a larger map