Visiting Phuket Vegetarian Festival. Always look for the silver lining. I have been “stuck” in Thailand since mid-March. While I spent a couple of months mostly quarantined in my apartment, by June Thailand had effectively opened up. This meant there was time to explore parts of Thailand I had not been to before. The added bonus is Thailand had shut its doors to the 40 million tourists who annually visit the Kingdom. The benefit was I was able to visit places with virtually no foreign tourists combined with the occasional discount as well.
While perusing the calendar I noted that the Phuket Vegetarian Festival was taking place in mid-October. This event had always been on my list, but I had always been out of the country during this festival. This year was different. I wasn’t leaving Thailand.
The name can be a bit deceiving. Yes, adherents consume vegetarian meals, actually vegan during the festival, but that is not one will recall after attending this nine-day event. Devotees purify themselves in a unique manner and by doing so take on the sins of the community.
A large portion of the population in Phuket are known as Peranakans, or Phuket Babas in the local tongue. Their ancestors emigrated from southern China during the 19th century, and originally worked in the Phuket tin industry, the main driver of the economy.
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival is a nine-day Taoist celebration beginning on the eve of 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, meaning late September or October. Legend has it a 19th century Chinese opera group fell sick when touring Phuket. While praying to the Nine Gods and adopting a vegetarian diet, the group was cured. In commemoration, the locals in Phuket adopt these same tenants of consuming a vegan diet as well as avoiding sex and alcohol to purify themselves. These Nine Gods are said to represent nine stars found in the skies.
While all adherents of the festival abide by these tenants, there is another category of devotees who really are truly turning up the volume. The masong are participants who offer their bodies as vessels for the Gods to possess during the celebrations. The masongs come under a trance and then submit themselves to some shocking body piercings. This is not for the faint of heart. Other devotees also fire walk or scale ladders with rungs of knives. The masong in elaborate dress join multiple processions which weave through the streets of Phuket. The devotees submit themselves to demonstrate a veneration of their ancestors and gods as well as their devotion to their beliefs.
The day starts early. Be ready with your camera and charged batteries at 6 am or even a bit earlier. The event starts at one of the multiple shrines mostly based around Phuket City or sometimes at an outdoor area. The soon to be masong huddle near a shrine clad in white. Abruptly, a masong will fall into a trance as a God enters them. They start chirping and dancing about. They approach the table, forcefully slam their hands repeatedly, and an assistant hastily provides them with their colorful ceremonial dress, whip, and flag. Gongs and drums waft through the air.
Not all masong partake in the piercings and still fulfill their role as a vessel for the Gods. The masongs all are accompanied by a posse of varying sizes. The masong is then matched with a piercing technician. The masong bring and decide what they will be pierced with.
The next part is not for the faint of heart. The technician expeditiously slides the piercing into the masong. Most piercings I witnessed, and I saw many were in the cheeks. Sometimes the masong opt for one piercing, while others improbably entertain an incomprehensible amount.
For the most part despite the number of piercings I witnessed, in most cases there was barely any blood.
Some of the masongs seemed to be indifferent to the pain, while others definitely feeling the pain.
The piercings were adorned with many different items. Most popular are small colorful images of deities. But it can be anything from a pistol, a pineapple, an advertisement for a local car dealership, or even a basket of flowers.
Some of the piercings were of a thinner variety and others disturbingly thick.
Besides the cheek piercings, there were many other alternatives. The most difficult to observe was the pierced tongues. The piercing is not a dainty needle but of a size that makes your stomach queasy.
Other masongs opted for multiple piercings of needles across their arms, chest, shoulders, back, and for one masong across his forehead. I stared at him in disbelief as he appeared to be in apparent pain and discomfort and his shook his leg.
The drums thump, the horns blare. Thousands of adherents take to the street, donned in white. These processions are high energy sometime verging on complete bedlam. In other words, a truly fantastic and unique experience.
Masongs and their posses of varying sizes ply the streets, bestowing blessings on the multitudes of spectators. The posses sometimes hold deities propped above their heads. And the posses members act like a pit crew to a race car driver. The posse is responsible for caring the masong. The provide water and wipe away saliva that drips down their chin. They also act as a phalanx providing protection to the masong. Imagine if a nearby spectator snags the long piercing in their clothes.
The masongs walk barefoot for many kilometers in the searing Thai heat. The masong also has to prop up their piercings in their hands in some cases for multiple hours in conjunction with the possible pain and discomfort they are feeling. Dedication is needed to be a masong. The masongs bring good luck to themselves and the spectators and chase off evil spirits. These adherents demonstrate their resolve with their extreme piercings.
Some of the masongs shunned the piercings and instead escorted a large knife which they continually employed to cut their tongue as blood dripped down their chin. Everyone as different levels of what they can stomach, and this was tough for me to watch.
The masongs provide a cornucopia of blessings as they proceed through the throngs. The brief version is onlookers will clasp their hands together, head bowed, and back arched. The masong will glide by with their flag unfurled with a prayer to drive away the demons.
A favorite or the masong is a cherubic baby or elderly bystander. The masong might linger a moment longer with a more substantial prayer as well as passing out some candy.
Along the parade route, many spectators set up elaborate street side shrines. These tastefully appointed shrines are covered in elegant mostly red tapestries and are adorned with flowers, candles, incense, and a plethora of fruit. Many shrine keepers beckon the masongs to their table, hopeful to be bestowed with good fortune. The more attractive and elaborate the shrine, the more alluring to the masong.
The masong, speaking with grave difficulty and I noticed in a high falsetto pitch, arrives at the shrine. Next, they share some words of prayer, wave their flag around, and grab pieces of fruit which they present to members of this tabletop shrine. A final spin and they merge back into the scrum of the procession.
Joining the masongs are legions of men accompanying sedan chairs which they hoist on their shoulders. This had a very Mad Max feel to it … the men are all dressed in white, often with their heads covered in a bandana, sunglasses, and of course in 2020 a face mask. They trod down the streets with a statue of a deity comfortably ensconced in the chair.
It takes a hearty and intrepid soul to accompany the sedan chair since part of the tradition is to throw a bounty of firecrackers at the deity. As the sedan chairs pass, the noise is deafening and the smoke overpowering, as the onlookers launch hundreds of firecrackers.
As they passed I would often close my eyes to avoid the errant firecracker and cover my ears, or simply retreat.
Another iteration of the masongs were the self-flagellation version. I noted an enthusiastic bunch of men, who would stop in the middle of the street. A large drum was placed in the middle of a circle as the men would stand with their weapon of choice to self-flagellate themselves. Compared to some of their peers, I felt some of these masongs were unenthusiastically demonstrating their fealty. While some of these masongs were drawing blood on the back or chests other were not. I had witnessed Muslim Shias in Lahore pursuing their piety with savage abandonment as blood spurted from their wounds. Nonetheless I watched this prayer circles with great attention.
At some of the shrines, masongs also demonstrated their dedication in a cavalcade of fire walking. A giant fire was prepared, and I mean a giant fire of crackling embers. An entire crew was needed to prepare this giant bonfire. Marshmallows not included.
When the fire is prepped, the masongs in their elaborate costume line up to cross the fire. Most cross at a rapid pace minimizing their time on the burning heap. Others, gingerly stroll across the flames winning the appraisal of the crowd.
At one of the shrines I witnessed a ceremonial bridge crossing with emphasis on ceremonial. I was expecting a procession over a bridge, but after inquiring in my broken Thai, I was directed to a red bench. A couple of thousand Thais gathered lining up in front of several different bridges. Old and young, men and women, boys and girls all dressed in white snaked around the grounds of the shrine.
For the next hours, I watched hundreds of them proceed over the bridge as the masongs guided them. As they took a their first step onto the bridge, a masong punched a red stamp onto the back of their shirt. For some adherents, I noted multiple stamps from previous crossings in years past, almost like a concert t-shirt.
What To Know
It is during the 9th lunar month, meaning sometime in September and October. So plan out your calendar and don’t miss this must-see event, which is nine days.
2020 – October 17 – 25
Where To Stay
There are shrines across the island of Phuket. But don’t be deceived, it is a large island. Many of the shrines and bigger events take place around Phuket City. In my opinion, there are two ways to skin this cat.
At The Beach
I stayed at Siray Beach, at the appropriately named Westin Siray Bay Resort. This was a great and comfortable property. I was upgraded to a two-floor suite overlooking the ocean. Thank you Westin!
There are a ton of options to stay at in town. Phuket City has really become a destination in itself with its Sino-Portuguese influences in a gentrified way. Look for a lot of Portuguese inspired tile. Take a look at Agoda for options or the centrally located Pearl Hotel.
After The Bedlam
After the Phuket Vegetarian Festival I needed to chill out, and found the perfect solution at the InterContinental Phuket Resort. This is a newer property with great rooms and incredibly relaxing beach.
And yes, there are affiliate links here.
How To Get Around
I rented a car and this is what I would recommend especially if you stay at the beach. It takes about 15-20 minutes to get into town from the Westin. And the reality is if you are going to both the morning and afternoon processions you will be moving around.
If you are staying in town, you could also rent a motorbike to visit the different shrines. Walking would be somewhat challenging since the shrines might be located 5-10 kilometers apart. You can also take Grab do get around, but the taxi mafia has influenced these prices making them 5 times the cost of Bangkok. At least with Grab, you know exactly how much you will be ripped off before you get in the car.
What To Eat
If you like vegan food this is the place to be. Expect to see food stalls everywhere you look with a yellow flag with either red Chinese or Thai characters. This will denote that they are serving vegan food.
Phuket has developed into quite the foodie destination.
This restaurant is located in a 130-year-old house. Check out the Southern Thai pork belly or the fresh crab meat.
What To Bring
Bring your camera with a lot of extra batteries. You’ll be taking a lot of photos. Bring a lot of white t-shirts and other clothes. Otherwise all over town, many shops are selling 100-200 Baht shirts or pants.
As I mentioned, the processions can be outright bedlam. The firecrackers are ungodly loud, consider bringing earplugs. And also consider bringing goggles to protect your eyes. I got hit multiple times with firecrackers, but thankfully not in the eye.
In short, if you have the opportunity do not miss the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. You will not be disappointed. Visiting Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
What Else To Know
There are no shortage of events during the nine days. There are a couple of challenges. The events are spread over multiple shrines centered around Phuket City but as well as the entire island. While Thailand Tourism Authority produces a pamphlet, the information is not 100% correct. You will be able to find it online. The best advice is join some relevant FB groups as the time approaches and start asking everyone for times and places when you arrive at the festival. Visiting Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
Visiting Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
Visiting Koh Mak is a great way to relax after the festival.