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Thailand’s Phuket Vegetarian Festival: The History of One of the Best Vegetarian Destinations in East Asia

Published by Cristopher Schabbing

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Every year the festival attracts many thousands of visitors, mainly from South and East Asia. Whilst this is an event that many vegetarians would not want to miss, they may not necessarily want to participate.

Devotees (Mah Songs or spirit mediums) perform rituals such as piercing themselves with sharp implements and walking on hot coals, seemingly without feeling pain. This self-torture is an entertaining, if gory, spectacle, proving their power to feel no pain, as they purify their bodies and welcome in the warrior spirits, who accompany Chinese Emperor Gods. The 9 highest Emperor Gods are invoked onto Phuket, and devotees believe that these drive off devils, blamed for all manner of evils.

One of the Best Vegetarian Destinations

According to the Phuket Gazette, 23rd October, the San Francisco-based Veg News magazine voted Phuket (during the festival) as one of the “10 Best Veg Destinations in the World,” in its third annual awards.

However, it is necessary to put aside any stereotypical images of “vegetarians.” The Veg News observes, “it is not the kind of festival populated by tree huggers in hemp pants, playing djembes, doing yoga asanas, and drinking spirilina smoothies.”

History of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival

Perhaps the most surprising fact about Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival is that is not Thai, but Chinese. There is a large Thai/Chinese population on Phuket, and Chinese temples and shrines are prevalent. Those of Chinese descent have largely preserved their culture and the island is a veritable melting pot of Thais, Chinese, Malaysians, and Western ex-pats.

The festival’s origins began in 1825. During the 19th century Phuket’s main industry was tin mining, and many laborers were migrants from Southern China. Much of the island was still covered in lush jungle, and fever (thought to be Malaria) was rife, causing many deaths amongst the miners.

During the time of the malaria epidemic, a traveling opera company from China, came to perform for the miners. According to “The History of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival” from the festival’s website, the group of musicians also became sick. In an effort to make themselves well, they kept to a vegetarian diet , eating only vegetables and fruit, to honor Kiew Ong Tai The and Yok Ong Sone Teh, two of the highest Chinese emperor gods. To the amazement of the local miners, the group made a full recovery.

The miners learned that according to the musicians’ beliefs, ritual vegetarianism and its ceremonies could make them well, and so they wanted to embrace the faith. To help the miners, some members of the opera company returned to China to learn more about how the rituals should be properly conducted. On their return they brought back holy writings, and sacred name plaques which had the status of gods. These plaques invite the emperor gods onto the island, to chase away bad spirits. The rituals were then performed, beginning on the first evening of the ninth month in the lunar calendar. After the rituals, amazingly the epidemic vanished, and the miners recovered.

Today’s Phuket Vegetarian Festival

Today, the local Chinese community commemorates the event at the same time every year by worshiping at Chinese shrines and taking part in parades in the island’s capital, Phuket Town.

According to Marque A. Rome, in his Phuket Gazette article “In the name of Purity,” of 6-12 October 2007, the acts of self-mutilation which are now part of the festival are thought to have their roots more in Taoism than Chinese beliefs, as part of Shivite worship rituals, perhaps influenced by the Tamil Thai Pushan Festival held in Singapore and Malaysia each January or February.

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