One of the most colorful events in Thailand is the popular Vegetarian Festival taking place in Phuket. It is organized by the followers of Chinese traditions who believe that people can obtain a peace of mind and great health should they abstain from eating meat in October. The festival itself continues for nine days, which according to the Chinese calendar, is the ninth lunar month of the year.
For many people it is really strange how a festival with a Chinese origin can take place in this exotic island. It is believed that it began when a wandering Chinese opera group came to this island in the 19th century to perform their program. They were hired by Chinese settlers to entertain them and their families who worked in the mines there. But the island was hit by malaria and many local people died making the population dwindle. The performers from the Chinese opera group also got ill. To get better, they strictly adhered to a vegetarian diet for a certain period of time, praying to their Nine Emperor Gods.Very soon everyone was amazed by their complete recovery, so the local people initiated this festival in honor of the gods that gave them complete recovery from this lethal disease. Since then Phuket Island followed Chinese traditions to refrain from alcohol, meat, sex, killing and lies in the first nine days of October and started to celebrate Vegetarian Festival annually.
Currently, this festival is a spectacular event that is held yearly in Phuket and is attended by great number of Asians, especially the Chinese people. To invoke the mercy of the kind pagan gods, various kinds of ceremonies are held, including a few really gruesome and painful ones. Among them is body piercing, firewalking and self mortification that are usually performed by those who act as mediums to the Gods. These mediums believe that spirits live in them and give them a special supernatural power. Each and every year the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket becomes more colorful and spectacular, as well as provocative.
If you have a chance to attend this festival, you might be shocked by the men and women who walk in the street processions puncturing their cheeks and tongues with skewers, spears, knives and various other household items. They walk through the streets as though possessed by their gods. They appear to be pain free despite the piercings and showing that they have no sign of any injury. They perform these ceremonies believing that these Chinese gods will definitely protect them from physical harm and the spillage of their blood.
Although driving a sword through your cheek or, which apparently has nothing common with vegetarianism, might seem for some a very strange way to placate the gods, local citizens believe its is the highest possible religious devotion. People believe the symbolism of piercing the skin represents the piercing of the skin by mosquitos, which lead to the infection and spread of malaria that killed so many.
People who are faint hearted should abstain from visiting Phuket during this period. In addition, there are reports that one person died and 74 people were injured during the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket in 2011. The reason for the tragedy was the use of firecrackers that can turn into a pitfall for visitors. Tourist bodies now have stricter controls on the use and permits of firecrackers and fireworks, to ensure this doesn’t happen in the future. As a festival of celebration of life, people are keen to avoid tarnishing the reputation of the event with tragic deaths.
The main idea behind these bloody Chinese Taoist traditions is to purify devotees, who publicly display their self-mutilation. The director of local Tourism Authority, Chanchai Doungjit, confirms that the ceremonies are real and there is no trick, but real bodies are pierced with sharp items. The local people believe that if they are pure enough, they can walk on fire and their feet will not burn, neither will they feel any pain. So as a symbol of purity, all people in procession are dressed in white to pay their respect to gods and get their blessings for the coming year.