Vegetarian  Festival
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[Firewalking] [Ladder of Blades]  [Street Procession] [Ma Song (supernatural) participants] [Rules for Participants]

According to the Tourist Authority, this is the history of the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket:

"Phuket's Vegetarian festival (or jia chai in local Hokkien Chinese dialect) began in 1825, when the governor of Thalang, Praya Jerm, moved the island's principal town from Ta Reua in Thalang District to Get-Hoein Kathu District, where were tin mines and Chinese miners.  Kathu was then still covered by jungle and fever was rife.  It happened that a traveling opera company (called ngiu in Thai, or pua-hee in Hokkien dialect) came from China to perform for the miners.

When the whole company grew sick from an unnamed malady, they kept to a vegetarian diet to honor two of the emperor gods, Kiew Ong Tai Teh and Yok Ong Song Teh. The sickness afflicting the opera troupe the disappeared.  This greatly interested the people of Kathu, who asked how it was done.  The answer came that ritual vegetarianism with its attendant ceremonies had been the cause, with the result that people embraced the faith enthusiastically.  Thus the festival began: starting the first evening of the ninth lunar month, it continued until the ninth evening; the aim was to bring good luck to individuals as well as to the community.

It later happened that one familiar with the festival volunteered to return to kansai, in China, where he invited the sacred Hiao Ho-Le or Hiao Ian (incense smoke) and Lian Tiu (name plaques) which have the status of gods, to come to stay in Kathu. He also brought holy writings used in the ceremonies, returning to Phuket on the seventh night of the ninth month.  The people upon hearing of his arrival, went in procession to Bang Niao pier to bring him and his sacred cargo back.  This was the origin of the processions that figure so greatly in the festival.

The afternoon before the festival begins, a great pole at each temple is raised, called the Go Teng pole, with which the gods are invited to descend.  At midnight the pole is hung with nine lanterns, signalizing the opening of the fest.  Two important gods are also invited down at midnight to preside over ceremonies; these are Yok Ong Hong Tae and Kiew Ong Tai Tae.

Aside from this, there are other ceremonies throughout the fest, notably the invocation of the gods Lam Tao, who keep

Ma Song, or entranced horses, are devotees whom the gods enter during the fest.  They manifest supernatural powers and perform self-tortures in order to shift evil from individuals onto themselves, and to bring the community good luck.  Ma Song fall into two categories: those who, having had an intimation of impending doom, want to extend their lives; and people specially chosen by the gods for their moral qualities.

Throughout the festival fireworks and drums are sounded, especially during ceremonies.  It is held that the louder they are the better, because the noise drives away evil spirits.

Participants in the fest keep to a strict vegetarian diet for a varying number of days, usually no less than three.  This they do to make themselves strong in mind and body; they refrain from all vice, eating animal flesh and killing animals.  The festival thus promotes hygiene, brightness, and inner peace"


Many men, shaking their heads in an apparent trance, Thailand Phuket Veg Fest man crossing hot coals.jpg (22631 bytes) performed their rituals, and one by one they walked (or ran, skipped, or hopped) over the 15'-wide bed of coals.  It was a fascinating display witnessed by hundreds of Thais and tourists, many dressed completely in white as dictated by the guidelines for participating in the festival.   Thailand Phuket Veg Fest men smoothing coals.jpg (16693 bytes)   Thailand Phuket Veg Fest man crossing hot coals.jpg (22631 bytes)  

Ladder of Blades

Men of all ages climbed a 16-rung ladder with steps lined with sharp blades, often bouncing on each rung to accentuate the pain.  All seemed to be in a trance, and finished the ritual with a mock slaying of something with axes or hatchets. Thailand Phuket Veg Fest foot on bladed ladder.jpg (10821 bytes)   Thailand Phuket Veg Fest man climbing bladed ladder.jpg (16815 bytes)  

Street Procession

Procession of the 9 Emperor gods through the streets of Phuket among the sounds of at least 1 million firecrackers.     Audience participation was the word of the day as hundreds of the onlookers threw hundreds of packets of firecrackers at the marchers where they exploded around their heads, bare feet, or other unpredictable places.  The objective seemed to be to scare away evil spirits or help raise the people to heaven, depending on who we asked.  Many wound long strings of firecrackers on poles, and held them over the heads of the marchers, unwrapping them as they exploded.  It was the most intense blitz of fireworks we have ever witnessed. Thailand Phuket Veg Fest Chinese Temple.jpg (21482 bytes)    Thailand Phuket Veg Fest men carrying spirits amid fireworks.jpg (19717 bytes)  Thailand Phuket Veg Fest procession of gods.jpg (12723 bytes)   Thailand Phuket Veg Fest boys running thru fireworks.jpg (18306 bytes)  Thailand Phuket Veg Fest shine containing 9 emperor gods.jpg (19770 bytes) 
 Thailand Phuket Veg Fest Stick with 500 firecrackers.jpg (8651 bytes)  Thailand Phuket Veg Fest burning paper money.jpg (18241 bytes)  Thailand Phuket Veg Fest food offering to gods.jpg (18174 bytes)  Thailand Phuket Veg Fest shrine with bright candles.jpg (22635 bytes)  Thailand Phuket Veg Fest  food vendor.jpg (20777 bytes)

   Ma Song Participants

Acts of self- torture by participants in trances.
These pictures are graphic and may be disturbing to some.
Thailand Phuket Veg Fest gruesome processeion.jpg (22664 bytes)  Thailand Phuket Veg Fest particpant with skewer.jpg (22623 bytes)  Thailand Phuket Vegetarian Festival youths with pierced cheeks.jpg (22231 bytes)

Rules for Participants

  • Cleaniless of bodies during the festival
  • Clean kitchen utensils and to use them separately from those who do not join the festival
  • Thailand Phuket Veg Fest boys in white attire.jpg (22890 bytes)Wear white during the festival
  • Behave physically and mentally
  • No meat eating
  • No sex
  • No alcoholic drinks
  • People in mourning should not attend
  • Pregnant ladies should not watch any ritual
  • Ladies experiencing menstruation should not attend

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