The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is well-known for being one of the cultural events unique to Phuket. The word unique describes it very well, actually. I have never seen anything similar anywhere in the world, and I doubt that I will ever again.
The cultural background of the Vegetarian Festival is Phuket’s mix of Chinese and Thai culture. It was when tin mining was the major industry on Phuket, that the Chinese migrated in order to work here. Therefore, most Phuketians do have Chinese ancestors.
During the Vegetarian Festival, which lasts 10 days each year, Phuketians do not only refrain from eating meat and animals’ products, but also have to behave physically and mentally, abstain from sex and alcoholic drinks, and wear white clothes during the whole festival.
The most unique, for Western culture maybe even controverse rituals, however, are the processions of spiritual mediums who try to ban the bad spirits from interfering in their communities. At the same time it is an act of worship for the gods they honor, showing the gratitude for the blessing any member of the medium’s community has received during the year, e.g. in the form of an illness that was healed.
In the morning, prior to the procession, most of these spiritual mediums have their bodies pierced, most of them using needles, swords, knives, hooks, and other items to insert in their cheeks, some of them also in other parts of their bodies as you can see below.
Others, keep hurting themselves during the procession, such as the one man who constantly hit two axes into his back during the procession or another man, who kept rubbing an axe over his tongue.
Many of the spiritual mediums are in a trance-like state, some deeper than others, it seems. They begin entering that state before they have their bodies pierced. I don’t think any “normal” person could otherwise stand the pain. Even watching the records of the procedure on a screen the same night made me feel sick. This was despite the fact that, even though I don’t have an explanation, no single drop of blood was shed.
During the procession, some of the mediums give out sweets to children, and if you are receive some, it is supposed to bring you luck. Many of the mediums or one of their companions carry flags and they wave them over the heads of the spectators standing on the sides of the streets. Whenever a medium approaches you, you go into the “wai”-position (the Thai greeting / act of politeness, meaning you fold your hands in front of your chest and bow your head down to your hands).
Other than that it is worth mentioning that Phuketians believe that firecrackers will bring you luck. I don’t think any one who hasn’t attended any of the processions, can imagine, how many firecrackers people can light. If you ever join, make sure you bring good earplugs.
Phuketians must know that foreigners don’t necessarily share their love for the noisy talismans. While we joined the procession in order to represent the PSU, carrying big flags with Chinese writings on it, there was this one old, old man who made big fun of me. He pretended to throw a whole bunch of ignited firecrackers at me. I instinctively sprang back, followed by loud laughter of him and his friends. Glad, I made his day. (The Phuketians believe that it will bring you luck if a firecracker explodes in between your legs.)
Apart from the spiritual highlights, obviously, the food is another very good reason to visit the festival. Annika and I went to the major food street (which seemed to never end) in Phuket Town on Saturday night and the most delicious things were on offer. I found it extremely comfortable to know, that all of the food will be vegetarian (actually even vegan), so I didn’t have to waste a thought on what I could try.
In a little side street of the big food market, there is a big Chinese Temple. On Saturday night, Phuketian believers went there in order to walk over a red bridge inside the temple. This is meant to be a symbol of leaving behind the bad deeds and spirits of the past year, and cleanly entering the new one. On the sides of the bridge there are spiritual mediums, who bless the people walking past in the wai-posture using holy water and flower leaves.
As we were not sure, whether it could be disrespectful to walk over the bridge not being part of the Phuketian believing community, Annika and I decided to refrain from it, even though I was very tempted and would have even stood in line of the hundreds and thousands of people waiting to get to the bridge. Instead, we stood and watched, and, happened to become the observers of a happening that is probably much more rare to witness: One of the spiritual mediums who had been splashing water on us and the other observers (or rather those standing in line) in certain intervals, turned to approach us. Everybody, including us, instantly moved to kneel on the floor in the wai-position. Out of the corner of my eyes I could see him standing in front of a girl who was aged around 13. He hit a whip on the floor several times before he started his rituals on her. (I suppose one of her family members had asked him for help upon the assumption that her body was occupied by bad spirits.) I could watch the medium hugging the girl very tightly and she instantly went into a trance-like state shaking her head (the same as I had observed in the spiritual mediums during the day). He then took a handful of the flower leaves out of the holy water and pressed them onto her mouth for about 20 seconds, repeating the action on her eyes. The girl was shaking (her body as well as her head) and after some more, similar actions, the medium climbed over the fence that separated him from the spectators, and walked off with the still shaking girl.
I didn’t take any pictures, as I didn’t think it was appropriate.
The following day, Sunday, was the final day of the festival and we went to watch the “fire walkers”, spiritual mediums who walk on hot coals. As we got to the temple where the rite would take place, we immediately saw the large pile of burning coals. The surrounding in the large temple felt much hotter than what I had experienced during the past days. Part of it was due to the sun, for once burning down from a cloudless sky, part of it was certainly due to the coal pile.
The preparations for the ceremony took a long time. As more and more spectators entered the temple in order to watch the rite, men started to even out the pile of coals into an even, and long stretch of coals. They used their own construction in order to do this: a very long plank of wood, with the middle part covered in thick iron to prevent it from immediate ignition. They stood quite far from the coals but you could tell that they could hardly bear the heat. Again and again they would stamp the coals into a tighter stretch.
In the meanwhile, spiritual mediums, some of them very old men, walked into the area surrounding the coals performing rites and preparing themselves (once again, by entering the trance-like state) for their big performance.
Though interesting, watching was quite tiring, as more and more people came and we were all ordered to sit down on the floor in order to enable everybody to watch. However, sitting in the 5th row, I could hardly see anything. The ritual, finally, took around an hour with several groups of five men subsequently walking – some of them running – over the hot coals. Some of them were contented, others, after they had done it, started dancing and cheering.
(I will ask Annika for some pictures and upload them as soon as I got them, as she was a few rows in front of me.)
Sunday night, at midnight is the time of the big final parade with millions of firecrackers burnt. I had had my share of firecrackers in the previous processions, rituals, and actually by all the people igniting them in front of my apartment for the past 10 days. Due to the fact that I don’t possess earplugs and because of an ongoing headache, I decided to pass this one ceremony.
I felt that I had seen so much over the past two days, so many impressions, amazing, and sometimes shocking things, features of a culture so far totally unknown to me. Therefore, I decided that passing that one more rite in favour of processing all those impressions (and getting prepared for the next day at uni) was a good trade off for me. Others would probably have had the time of their lives, especially those who love to do all the firecrackers every year on NYE.
(The trips to the procession on Saturday morning and to the temple for watching the fire walkers had been organized by the university. We were provided with white T-shirts from the PSU, specially made for the vegetarian festival, and were escorted to the sites by bus. Colin Gallagher, who organized the trips and accompanied us, did a great job and is a lot of fun to be around. Also, the PSU-(Thai) students were amazing, providing us with water and food during the procession and saved us from dehydration and other ills. Many thanks!)