Warning: The following pictures are of a graphic nature. It is not suitable for sensitive readers.
Have you ever heard of a vegetarian festival? It sounds like a peaceful hipster affair where people celebrate the great significance of the cauliflower doesn’t it? That is what I thought it was at least.
In South Africa, meat is probably one of the most important items on any plate of food that we serve. I think I speak for all Saffas when I say that we would certainly not survive without meat at least once a day and due to my/our love for meat, I always find it extremely strange that there are people that actually choose to live without it.
Now close your eyes and imagine what you think a Vegetarian festival would look like. I bet you see laughing children running around with carrots in their hands, maybe a couple of hippie parents with flowers in their hair, happily eating a cob salad. Well in Phuket it is the complete opposite. This festival is probably the most gruesome thing that I have ever seen.
Over the years the exact history and origin of the festival have been lost but it is thought that the festival was brought to Phuket by a wandering Chinese opera group who fell ill whilst performing on the island. Praying to the Nine Emperor Gods to be healed, they promised to follow a strict vegetarian diet to purify their bodies and minds. Miraculously the group made a complete recovery. To honour the gods and show their gratitude, they decided to hold a festival every year during the month of October to celebrate their belief that you will be blessed with good health, luck and peace of mind if you refrain from eating meat during the ninth Chinese lunar month. The festival has grown over the years and participants from all over Asia flock to Phuket annually.
During the run of the nine-day festival the participants vow to observe the following commitments:
- Cleanliness of the body during the festival.
- Clean kitchen utensils not to be used by others who do not participate in the festival.
- Wear white during the festival.
- Behave correctly, both physically and mentally.
- Avoid eating meat.
- Avoid sex.
- Avoid alcohol.
- People in mourning should not participate.
- Pregnant women and menstruating women should not attend ceremonies.
The ceremonies during the course of the festival are very gruesome and bizarre. I only witnessed a couple of the parades but the sight nearly made me faint. I stood in the heart of Phuket town with a convoy of people walking by in an almost trance-like state, apparently possessed by the gods. Most of them were speaking in tongues (that’s what I was told, but it just sounded like Thai to me) and convulsed and shook as they eerily walked past me. All of them were in a trance-like state with various items puncturing their faces and cheeks. Some of the people were walking with swords and knifes still continuously mutilating and cutting themselves as they walked by. It was insane.
Right in front of each shop on the street the families would place shrines surrounded with offers to the gods. Some of the participants would come by the shrines and take food or water placed next to it. They would bless the shopkeeper and his shop with holy water which is said to bring good fortune to the family and the business.
I could literally smell the blood in the air and I decided that I have seen enough. It is very graphic and I would not recommend people with weak stomaches to go to the parades. Other rituals also include firewalking, body piercing, and bladed ladder climbing. I have never experienced anything like it.
The presence of firecrackers throughout the festival is also very prominent. The Thai kids like to scare the tourists, so be warned, you will be targeted. The continuous cracking of crackers made me a bit nervous especially when you drive through the city streets on a scooter. They often throw the crackers right at you and I’ve seen people fall and crash on more than one occasion because of this.
The last night of the festival is probably the most spectacular. On this day they literally light millions of firecrackers and fireworks throughout the night. I felt like I was in the middle of a city under siege. The sound of millions of crackers rang nonstop throughout the city. Amidst all the chaos, people sang and screamed and every street looked like it was part of a war zone.
Trying to get as close to all the action without actually getting in the middle of it all, I accidentally took a wrong turn with my scooter and landed smack bang in the middle of it. I couldn’t even see the road because it was completely covered in smoke. People were shouting and throwing crackers at me, I dodged most of them but a couple of the crackers exploded right between my feet and I nearly drove into a lamp post. It was very frightening but also very exhilarating at the same time. The action got a bit too intense for me and I decided to flee the streets and find safety. I got the brainwave to pretend that I stayed at one of the hotels close by so I could access the roof to witness the chaos from above. My plan worked brilliantly and I had a birds-eye view of the whole city being showered with fireworks and crackers. It was amazing.
If you are brave enough to attend this crazy festival on the last day, I would recommended that you park as far away from the city center as possible and rather walk closer to the commotion. This was definitely the noisiest, most gruesome and scariest festival that I have ever attended but it was an experience that will never be found anywhere else in the world.
Anyone joining me again this year?