Throughout Thailand at the moment, many Thai people (especially those with Chinese heritage) are observing the Taoist lent period which lasts for 9 days and 9 nights. This is marked by Thailand’s vegetarian festival and although the origins are Taoist, the festival has been slowly incorporated into Thai Buddhism. This is a time when participants will abstain from eating meat, seafood and dairy produce. Some will make a token effort for a day or two before falling off the ‘vegetarian wagon’ but true devotees will also abstain from sex, alcohol, gambling and will not use bad language as they purify body and mind. The vegetarian festival takes place in Thailand at the start of the ninth lunar month which is usually in October or November. This year it is from October 8 to 16. If you are in Thailand at the moment look out for the restaurants and food-stalls with yellow flags with red writing (often with Chinese script alongside the Thai writing) which denotes they are selling vegetarian food (kin jeh).
The Vegetarian Festival in Phuket
Although Thailand’s vegetarian festival is prominent in areas with a Chinese history such as Bangkok’s Chinatown, Trang and Krabi, it is Phuket where the festival is most famous. In Phuket, the festival goes beyond the mere consumption of vegetarian food. Devotees will wear white for the duration of the festival and noisy and colourful parades take place during the day in the streets of Phuket Town with drums and fire-crackers. In the evening the temples become the focus for various rites by devotees including fire-walking over hot coals.
Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival has its origins in the 1820s when Phuket was renowned for its tin mines which employed many Chinese workers. A travelling opera company from China arrived in Phuket to perform for the miners. The opera troupe stayed for several months and gradually neglected some of the traditions and religious rites they carried out in China. When the entire troupe was struck down with illness and could no longer perform, they believed they were being punished for forgetting their traditions. At the start of the ninth lunar month the whole troupe abstained from eating meat and performed religious rites to purify their bodies and minds as they would have done if they were in China. The troupe recovered their health and was able to perform once more. Some local Phuket people noted this and the following year they too purified their bodies for nine days and felt the beneficial effects. Through word of mouth, each year saw more Phuket people participate and the event gradually evolved into the full-fledged vegetarian festival seen today.
The vegetarian festival in Phuket has also become synonymous with the mah song. The mah song are individuals who are said to become entranced during the festival and allow the spirits of the gods to enter their bodies. When this happens, the mah song are said to feel no pain and this is demonstrated with some macabre displays as they pierce their cheeks with all manner of objects. Traditionally this would be ceremonial swords or daggers, but this has evolved over the years to include diverse items ranging from beach parasols to bicycle chains which are pierced through the cheek or tongue as the mah song parade through the streets of Phuket Town. The acts of self-mutilation by the mah song are believed to take away bad luck and evil spirits from the community. It is a truly bizarre scene and certainly not for the squeamish spectator, but it is something which makes the Phuket Vegetarian Festival a unique spectacle.