The Vegetarian Festival is celebrated in the month of October all over Thailand, but mostly in Phuket. The festival is also known as the “Tesagan Gin Je” or the “Nine Emperor Gods Festival”. This festival is filled with tradition and excitement. Most of the people taking part in the festival are of Chinese heritage, which is 30% of the population in Thailand. The festival started in 1825 when a Chinese circus act came to town and a sickness broke out amongst the artists. They healed themselves by following a strict vegetarian diet. These days the festival is a VERY exciting event full of surprises and amazing photo opportunities. If you haven’t experienced something like this before, brace yourself…….
I TOLD YOU TO BRACE YOURSELF!!!! Now that I’ve got your attention, here is the story about the ever so interesting and jaw-dropping Vegetarian Festival:
On the 4th of October, all Chinese Shrines raise the bamboo lantern poles (above) in the late afternoon. The Emperor Gods are said to descend down the poles into the shrines at midnight. Every morning for 9 days, one of the Chinese Temples gets the chance to ‘host’ a piercing ceremony and a street progression. On Monday, the 7th October we drove to Sapam Shrine. We left the house at around 5am. I was extremely excited as I kind of skipped the festival the previous year ( I felt a bit intimidated) – but THIS YEAR, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything!!!
We arrived about an hour before any Thai person, so we got ourselves a 7/11 coffee and we waited…. I really wanted to get photos of everything that happens during this festival, so we made sure we got there early.
The men (and women) who take part in the self-mutilation activities are called mah-song (“mah” meaning ‘horse’ in Thai and the name “mah song” refers to how the spirits of the gods use the bodies of these people as a vehicle, as one rides a horse). The Mah song (ม้าทรง) invite the spirits of gods to possess their bodies. Only pure, unmarried men or women without families of their own can become a mah song. At the temple they undergo a series of rituals to protect them for the duration of the festival, during which flagellation and self-mutilation is practiced.
When the Mah-song are in a trance, they don’t feel any pain (or so it is said).
If you arrive between 5am and 6am you will get the chance to see the self-mutilation and piercings being done. Of course I wanted to see that – so there we were, waiting for it to start. The FIRST guy who wanted his cheek pierces sat down, I hid behind my camera’s viewfinder, and I just heard “POP”!!!! YES, HIS CHEEK POPPED OPEN!!!! GOOD MORNING to us!!!!! I won’t post the picture, though (yes, I have a picture of the POPPED CHEEK!!!)
I am not TOO squeamish, but after day 6 I couldn’t watch anymore. The mah-song men and women pierce their cheeks and tongues with all sorts of things, including swords, banners, machine guns, hose pipes, and flowers. While the face is the most common area to stick these things through, some also pierce their arms with pins, fishhooks or needles (above).
By doing all of this, it brings good luck and good fortune to their families and the community. When all piercing are done, the street procession stars. A massive crowd of people then walk (or drive) to the center of Phuket Town (Sapan Hin). We got on our scooter and followed the crowd (we didn’t really know where we were going so we stuck close, and stopped for pictures every now and then.
Loud music blares from the cars, and on some big trucks there were “bands” playing traditional musical instruments. The procession has a really nice vibe to them and it was fun to “stop and stare” as these people were passing.
Brave young men offer to carry statues on their shoulder through the street procession while their friends (and others) throw fire crackers around them. I recommend you take some ear plugs, sun glasses, and a bandanna of some sort to cover your face with. The firecrackers are REALLY loud and a bit annoying, but man, it allows for stunning pictures!!!
The local residents put out food on small tables for when the mah-song passes their house or shop. The mah-song stops by, have a small cup of tea and blesses the house. I have also seen them bless some of the fruits that are laid out on the table.
Some of the Thai people themselves also get blessed by the mah-song. In the image below an old mah-song man blesses another old man on the street.
Some of the people also ‘allow’ the spirits to enter their bodies. I witness it while taking pictures at one of the ‘food tables’. This young woman went into a heavy trance and then passed out, her friends caught her and I got the shots.
Every day’s street progressing is about 10km long and A LOT Of people take part. I ran up the stairs of a pedestrian bridge to take some pictures.
Big groups of people walk the 10km with the mah-song to the center of town. Each mah-song has a few helpers (friends and family members) to take care of their wounds , by throwing oil over the open areas, and to sometimes help carry the big guns, sticks and hose pipes that the mah-song pierced through their cheeks.
Everywhere in the street small shops sell white clothes. All participants wear white as it symbolises respect and purity.
After each street procession, everyone returns to the hosting shrine, where the mah-song then come out of the trance and they have all objects removed from their mouths (and wherever else). Lots of locals go into the temple (shrine) to worship the gods and give offerings, light candles and incense.
Here the locals can again have the mah-song “heal” and bless them.
All participants, the mah-song and even tourists can also grab something to eat and have a rest after a VERY tiring day!!
The food play an important part in this festival. The local population that participate follows a strict vegetarian diet for the 9 days during the festival.
The Jui Tui temple is the biggest Chinese shrine in Phuket. Situated just west of the big night market in the center of Phuket town. A lot of locals usually attend the this evening where they get more opportunities to get blessed by die mah-song.
At some of these shrines you can also get the chance to witness some fire walking and blade-ladder climbing. Unfortunately I have arrived too late on the last night to see any of these acts…
After the “dance of the dragon”, the 9 day Vegetarian Festival comes to an end. The next day the bamboo poles with the 9 lanterns are brought down, and everything goes back to normal in Phuket. I will HIGHLY recommend experiencing this event to any traveler who is up for something strange and exciting – you get the chance to take stunning images and really take part in a very historical and cultural event.
What do think? Will you want to be part of this festival when you happen to be in Phuket in October??? Let me know in a comment below.