Updated: 03/06/21 | June 3rd, 2021
The Phuket vegetarian festival goes down as one of my favourite festivals that I’ve ever been to…but it’s certainly for travellers with odder-than-usual levels of curiosity.
The first thing that people notice when coming to know about it is the violent, graphic images. But it’s about so much more than that and there certainly is a method to the madness, so to speak.
By the end of this article you’ll know much more nuance behind this ceremony, when it is and whether it’s best for you and your travel plans in Thailand.
What is The Phuket Vegetarian Festival?
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is a Taoist festival that is celebrated across the Peranakan dominated areas of China and parts of South-East Asia. Also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, celebrations take place over nine days and usually fall sometime in September or October.
Celebrated by the Peranakan people (Chinese descendants who settled throughout South East Asia) this Taoist festival takes many forms. In Thailand, it is known as the Vegetarian Festival, based on the pre-festival abstention of meat, dairy products or fish taken by devotees as one of their sacrifices (so a short-term adoption of a vegan diet in Western terms.)
Nowhere in the world is this festival more revered or spirited than on the Thai island of Phuket, where Peranakans make up a significant number of the population, with many other inhabitants having strong ancestral ties to this ethnic group.
The festival’s routes in Phuket are vague, but it is generally credited with a Chinese opera group that survived a bout of malaria while stationed on the island. To honour the Nine Emperor Gods and give thanks to their survival, the festival took place and has gathered steam ever since.
To prepare for the divine element of the festival, devotees go through a pre-festival ritual of abstinence. This includes abstaining from sex, violence (against others), telling lies and, most famously of all, meat and dairy. This abstinence is taken to prepare and purify the body before the festival takes place. Local food vendors join in with the festivities by selling a range of mouth-watering vegan food. These stalls stand out by erecting yellow flags or distinctive Chinese characters.
What has really put the Phuket Vegetarian Festival on the map is the extreme acts of ritual self-mutilation some devotees, known as the Ma Song, carry out. This can include piercing their cheeks with sharp metal objects, climbing razor-sharp ladders, or walking over hot cinders/coals. Carried out in a trance-like state, this seemingly random self-violence is supposed to act as a form of veneration to the gods and prove the profoundness of their altered state – this is definitely not a festival for the soft and squeamish.
10 Rules For The Participants Of The Phuket Vegetarian Festival
There are 10 recognised rules for those attending and participating in the veggie festival. I didn’t make them up, so don’t shoot the messenger boy…
1. Bodies must be kept clean throughout the festival
As a deeply religious festival, devotees must ensure that their body is kept at its cleanest for the duration of the nine days. This physical cleanliness is a reflection of the devotee’s purity and respect for the Gods. Just as most of us would want to look and feel our best for an occasion, as is the case with the religious followers of Taoism and Buddhism when they’re paying homage to their gods and ancestors.
2. All kitchen utensils must be cleaned and kept separate from those who are not participating in the event
Not only should participants ensure that they themselves are clean but also the utensils they are using to eat should be also. In addition to refraining from eating certain things, they should keep track of which kitchen utensils they are using. This is similar to a professional kitchen having separate utensils for meat dishes and vegan dishes. Those who are not participating are deemed as unclean and absent from the pre-festival cleansing process, making cross-contamination a big no-no.
3. White clothes to be worn during the festival
Participants of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival must wear white clothing during the festivities. This white clothing, again, represents purity and an absence of desire or sin. Only the Ma Song deviate from this rule, as they will wear elaborate costumes, encouraging the Gods to inhabit their bodies. We rocked up looking like a bad tribute act of The Backstreet Boys in the “I Want it That Way” video.
4. Behave correctly, both physically and mentally
All participants are expected to behave correctly, both physically and in their thoughts. By correctly, it is meant that devotees must show respect for fellow worshipers, not creating arguments, conflicts, gossiping or any other negative acts. Anything that can disturb the carefully curated sense of divinity, abstinence and purity is seen as behaving incorrectly and is a real taboo during this period.
5. No eating meat, or animal products such as milk and eggs
This is the rule that gives the festival its vegetarian name, although it should be noted that it is in fact, a vegan festival as eating any animal product is forbidden by religious rules. This abstaining from eating meat and animal products is another example of preparing the body for a state of purity.
Abstaining from these foods starts days before the beginning of the festival to ensure the body is completely free from indulgent things such as meat or milk. Even pungent vegetables such as garlic and spice are not eaten as they are considered ‘heating’ elements and may encourage emotions such as lust or aggression.
Smashing a KFC at this event is probably a social faux-pas, so give that one a miss.
6. Avoid any sexual contact during the festival
Another rule that encourages participants to be in their purest and cleanest form is abstaining from sex before and during the festival. This approach to virginity and purity is seen in many religions and cultures across the world and it is no different in Buddhist and Taoist teachings. In fact, those who take an active part in the festival as a Ma Song must be bachelors, or unmarried women.
7. No drinking alcohol
In general Buddhist teachings, it is advised that serious participants do not indulge in intoxicating substances such as alcohol, and this is strictly enforced during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. Keeping with the theme of abstinence and innocence, a drunken mind will be a clouded one – something many of us know from first-hand experience!
8. Those in mourning should not attend the festival
If you are in a state of grief or are mourning the great loss of a loved one, you should not attend the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. Stemming from ancient spiritual belief that this will negatively affect the Gods’ arrival, a community steeped in tradition and custom will still follow this rule today.
9. Pregnant women should not attend
Traditionally, pregnant women should not attend the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. Based on the graphic nature of some of the sights, the large and relentless crowds and the odd firecracker exploding right next to you, modern medical advice would probably advise you not to either.
10. Women on their period should not attend the festival
Based on the old-fashioned idea that menstruation is something to be considered unclean, those who are on their menstrual cycle are asked to not attend the festival. This rule is a common one that applies to many holy sights – though, for obvious reasons, it’s not one that can be often enforced. Just remember that you’ll more than likely be wearing white.
Other Countries That Celebrate The Nine Emperor Gods Festival
The Nine Emperor Gods Festival, as it is known by Taoists across the globe, is celebrated in a number of different countries, all in their own way. It is said to have originated in the Chinese province of Fujian, with China being the birthplace of the Taoist religion as a whole.
Carried by Chinese settlers to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, it is these three countries along with China that honour the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. The Peranakan people, who are descendants of these Chinese ancestors, are the main champions of the festival. Owing to this, countries and areas with a high population of Peranakans are normally where you can find the most intense celebrations.
With Peranakans scattered across southern Thailand, it is not only on the island of Phuket where you can attend a version of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival ritual. Towns such as Krabi and Surat Thani also host their own celebrations, but they are much tamer events in contrast.
As 35% of the Phuket population is of Peranakan or Chinese descent, the Nine Emperor Gods Festival really finds its height here. With its ferocious intensity, religious dedication and its commitment to pious yet shocking acts, nothing compares to the Nine Emperor Gods Festival held on the island of Phuket.
When is The Phuket Vegetarian Festival?
As the exact date of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is based on the Chinese lunar calendar, the dates tend to shift from year to year. The festival always begins on the eve of the ninth lunar month, which will normally fall in either September or October according to the Gregorian calendar.
The 2022 festival will begin on the 24th of September and end on the 3rd of October.
Spiritual Significance of Self-Mutilation At The Phuket Vegetarian Festival
At first glance, the image of numerous people stabbing sharp objects through their own body and faces is one that our Westernised minds instantly respond to with a sense of revulsion, shock and even condemnation. Yet, those carrying out such acts are doing so from a deeply spiritual and religious angle, with the aim to improve their body and souls, not harm them.
First of all, it is only the ‘Ma Song’ that performs these feats of self-mutilation. The rough translation in Thai is ‘horse’, as the Ma Song welcomes the spirits into their bodies who then use it as a vehicle, as a man would use a horse.
These Ma Song are unmarried men and women purified by days of ritual at local temples. Then, in an act of submission to the Gods, they will carry out acts of self-mutilation such as piercing their cheeks and tongues with all manner of sharp objects.
In a trance-like state, the Ma Song parade through the streets during the final festival day. Seemingly unimpaired by their wounds and oblivious to their surroundings – this trance like state is reflective of the spiritual connection they feel as their deity possesses them.
This religious self-harm is not unique to the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, or even Taoist and Buddhist beliefs. From the Native American sun dance to voluntary Christian crucifixion in the Philippines, to the Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia, ritualistic pain and spirituality have always gone hand in hand for the most ardent followers of religion.
9 Day Itinerary of The Phuket Vegetarian Festival (What To Expect)
This isn’t a one-day, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am kind of event. The festivities last for nine days, read on to see which days suit you if you don’t fancy going for the full event.
Day 1: Start of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival starts by raiding the lantern Go Teng poles at all of the participating shrines across the island. This is to symbolise the descent by the Emperor Gods into the shrine and the beginning of the festival. There’s usually a number of fireworks and firecrackers let off at the beginning, but other than these, the festival starts quietly with sombre praying at the shrines well into the night.
Day 2: Naka Shrine Street Procession
The first of the shrines to make their procession is the Naka shrine. The shrine is located just outside the Old Town, close to the weekend market. It’s important to get here early, around 6 am if you want to see all the happenings that go on within the shrine before the street procession.
Day 3: Sapam Shrine and Birth and Death Gods
Day three includes a number of different processions, starting in the early morning and lasting well into the evening. The first-morning procession will begin a few miles north of Phuket Town at the Sapam Shrine. Expect lots more self-mutilation and firecrackers as the procession moves through the streets. In the evening, around seven o’clock, there will be another procession at the village of Kathu, just west of Phuket Town. This is in aid of revering Lam Tao and Pak Tao, the birth and death Gods.
Day 4: Sam Kong Shrine and Good Food!
The fourth day’s procession will start from the Sam Kong shrine east of the town centre and pass through the old town. This section of the island is renowned for its endless amounts of food stalls that go on back to back for over a mile. Catch some more worshipers and enjoy a tasty morsel of Thai vegan gastronomy to boot.
Day 5: The Tha Reua Shrine
Day five sees the procession by the Tha Reua Shrine, one of the oldest Chinese shrines on the island of Phuket. Located in the Thalang area of Phuket, this was once the main town on the island and has an interesting history to match.
Day 6: Multi-Shrine Processions and Fire Walking
A busy day for the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, with several shrines carrying out their procession through the old town. This includes the procession by the Bang Neow Shrine, one of the most important shrines to take part in the festival.
During the evening hours, you can catch a number of shrines carrying out the famous fire walking ritual. These shrines include Sapam Shrine, Sui Boon Tong shrine and Tha Reua Shrine. Firewalking usually begins around 8 o’clock, but as it is so popular with onlookers, it’s worth getting there much earlier.
Day 7: Jui Tui shrine and bladed ladder climbing!
Day seven sees the Jui Tui shrine, the biggest shrine in Phuket town, take to the streets. This means huge crowds, more firecrackers and even more pierced flesh. This ritual pain takes a whole new step with bladed ladder climbing in the evenings. Head to either Sam Kong or Bang Neow shrine to see devotees climb a ladder up and down – only, where there should be flat steps, there are thin, spikey blades!
Day 8: Street Procession from Kathu Shrine to Phuket Town
One of the longest street processions takes place on the penultimate day of the festival. Worshipers walk from the Kathu Shrine all the way to Phuket Town, a distance of six and a half miles. During the evening, there’s another chance to catch the famed c at the Bang Neow, Cherng Talay and Sam Kong shrines.
Day 9: Final Parade and the closing of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival
The final day of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is the best one. It is absolutely jam-packed with processions from the early morning onwards. Firewalking continues at the Kathu Shrine, and there is a ‘bridge crossing for purification’ ritual at many of the island’s shrines.
As the final evening draws in, Phuket Town is alive with the final parade of the festival. This is like all the previous parades all rolled into one. Devotees parade the shrine’s statues and flags with a cacophony of firecrackers and blinding smoke. The streets become something more akin to a war zone for the uninitiated. Think of this finale as everything you have seen over the past eight days all rolled into one. If you can only catch one day of the festival, the last parade and main event is not a bad one to witness.
Depth of Devotion: My Experience of The Phuket Vegetarian Festival
A noisy firework sets ablaze and finds its way under a gorgeous Thai girl’s feet. She looks more annoyed than scared and nonchalantly kicks it away with her high heels, whilst successfully applying her lippy in her hand mirror at the same time.
I turn to my mate and say; “Now I see why they (Thailand) have never been colonised.”
Meanwhile, there are literally thousands of men with sharp implements wedged through their faces. Many are licking the blade of a sword too. All of them volunteering for what seems like the most pain you can humanly possibly put your body through.
There’s blood on the pavements, fireworks flying from all directions and the whole city is deafeningly LOUD. Sensory overload doesn’t even begin to cover it.
This is Phuket, this is Thailand and this is – The Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
I was just starting out as a reluctant vegetarian at this part of my life and my mates who I went with, who were meat eaters – thoroughly enjoyed the food and thought it was delicious. Don’t worry about missing meat if you go to this festival, the food in Phuket is heavenly. This is Thailand after all, one of the serious players in the world of cuisine.
This is the only thing remotely vegetarian about the Phuket vegetarian festival. This is seemingly more about torture than tofu, but as discussed above – it’s about so much more than what it seems on a surface level. However, I did find it really interesting that Thailand as a whole (even those not of Chinese descent) got really involved during the festival and severely upped it’s veggie game around its cities for those who wanted to – which most people seemed to take advantage of and get stuck in.
Every day cranks up its level of intensity. At first I’d see a guy with one blade through his face and by the second/third day I was able to look at him without grimacing, the noise does become a mere background buzz if you go for the whole 9 days, with exception to the final day of celebrations when your senses will be torn in every direction.
I’ve been asked often how the Phuket Vegetarian Festival fared against The Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia. There are obvious parallels of course; the sacrifice via physical pain, the trances, abstinence from certain foods, sex and bad behaviour and a strong affinity to the people’s tradition and their gods.
However The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is like Thaipusam on steroids, in terms of shock factor and the never ending assault on the senses. If you have the stomach for it and an open mind, I can’t recommend it enough, but I totally understand if it’s not your idea of a travel festival.