Without a doubt the most popular festival in Phuket, the annual Phuket Vegetarian Festival is a colourful celebration that takes place during the 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, generally in September or October. Also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is a wonderful mix of tradition and shock factor. The event celebrates the local Chinese community’s belief that abstinence from meat and other negative stimulants during the festival will lead to overall good health and a clear mind.
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is not for the faint of heart. The festival is famous for its extreme celebrations and over the top rituals. Some of the aforementioned include acts to invoke the gods, such as fire walking, bathing in boiling oil and body piercing. For those who are chosen as spirit mediums of the Nine Emperor Gods, acts of self-mutilation are not uncommon and each year the festival seems to be more bold than the year before.
History of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival
There are a variety of stories regarding the origins of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, however, the most widely accepted is that many years ago a famous Chinese opera crew traveled to Phuket to perform for the Chinese inhabitants of the island. Shortly after arriving on the island, the entire crew fell extremely ill. When traditional medicine did not help the crew get better, they made the collective decision to go on a strict vegan diet as well as pray to the Nine Emperor Gods in order to cleanse their bodies and minds. In a short time, the entire Chinese opera crew recovered from their illness, and the annual Phuket Vegetarian Festival was born.
Celebrating the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket
In the days leading up to the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, the island is decorated with yellow Chinese flags. The various Chinese shrines in Phuket prepare for the festival by deep cleaning the shrine, setting up stages, hanging elaborate Chinese-inspired decorations and parade accessories. Dozens of vegetarian food stalls are also erected and set up to line the streets of Phuket Town.
The event that kicks off the annual Phuket Vegetarian Festival is the raising of a bamboo pole in each Chinese shrine across the island. The pole is meant to invite the Nine Emperor Gods down to earth, and while this ceremony is relatively calm and peaceful, mayhem ensues after during the week of the Vegetarian Festival. People can expect to see devotees in brightly coloured traditional Chinese costumes, a variety of lengthy parades, body piercings and mutilations, the loud sound of fireworks and of course an ample amount of vegetarian food offerings.
The last night of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is a spectacular event. This is the night where it is time to send the Nine Emperor Gods back, and Phuket Town resembles something of a war zone. Throughout the evening, devotees from all of the Chinese shrines across the island converge in Phuket Town and make their way through the streets to Saphan Hin. Fireworks are set off at nearly every establishment in town, and thrown at devotees as they meander their way through the streets. The celebration is loud and smoke-filled, and truly has to be seen to be believed. The festival ends just after midnight, once devotees have sent the Nine Emperor Gods back. The next day, the bamboo poles are removed from the Chinese shrines and put away for safekeeping until the next year.
Where to experience the Phuket Vegetarian Festival
Celebrations for the Phuket Vegetarian Festival are held across the island. There are more than 40 Chinese shrines in Phuket, with the oldest of the shrines being the colorful Jui Tui, Bang Neaw and the Kathu Shrine. While all of the Chinese shrines parade through Phuket Town, the two biggest processions come from Jui Tui and Bang Neaw. The parade from Jui Tui features women dressed as Chinese goddesses, powerful Chinese warriors as well as young devotees. The parades truly are spectacular and worth waking up early in the morning and heading to Phuket Town to watch. During the parades, the Chinese warriors perform acts of self-mutilation such as pounding on their backs with axes or slicing their tongues with a sword. The purpose of this self-mutilation is to bring evil deeds upon themselves which in turn brings good luck to the community.
10 important rules for devotees to follow during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival
- 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
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is an outstanding week-long event. While it is often associated with blood and gore, the festival is deep-rooted in tradition and the ancient beliefs of the local Chinese community. Experiencing the festival for the first time is life-changing as it really needs to be seen to be believed. To blend in with the local community, it is best to wear white when attending any of the celebrations or rituals of the festival. Remember to be respectful when inside of a Chinese shrine as it is a place of worship, and don’t forget to bring your camera as the photo opportunities during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival are endless!
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A traveller and storyteller, Amy has lived on the island of Phuket since 2007. Adventurous by nature, she seeks out unique local experiences and off the beaten path attractions which truly highlight the island’s natural charm and Phuketian flavour.