An annual event in Phuket, Thailand, draws tourists – and groans – from all over the world. If you’re having a bit of lunch while you read, you may regret it. Let’s just say, for now, that participants are heavily into piercing.
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is an offshoot of another event observed all over Southeast Asia, the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. The Phuket version has deep roots in Taoism, astronomy, superstition and, of all things, opera.
Be Our Guest
Although Taoism is somewhat watered down since leaving China, it is traditionally taught that the Nine Emperor Gods were the sons of Father Emperor Zhou and Mother of the Big Dipper. Ursa Major, along with two other faint stars, depicts the nine revered brothers. To believers, they preside over the planets and judge in matters of life and death. Devotion to them atones for sin, cancels debts, ensures a long life and prevents all sorts of calamitous events.
It is believed that these gods visit Earth for nine days during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. Devotees carry candles and burn incense as they line the waterways in eager anticipation of the gods’ arrival. Prayer bells and chants ring out from the temples.
A Night At the Opera, 1825
As is often the case where divas are concerned, the spirit of merriment was shattered when the opera came to town.
Phuket is now a popular holiday destination with sparkling beaches, breathtaking scenery, and posh bars and restaurants. In 1825, however, it languished in a dense, steamy jungle.
A visiting Chinese opera troupe was promptly stricken with a mysterious disease. As one soprano after another fell ill, it occurred to someone that switching to a vegetarian diet might appease the gods.
When the performers’ better food choices quickly restored them to health, the villagers took notice. It was decided that the Nine Emperor Gods Festival would include abstinence from meat, fish, poultry and dairy products.
Now, a carnival atmosphere pervades the nine-day celebration. If it were not a vegetarian event, one might say that all of Phuket goes hog wild.
The First Cut Is the Deepest
People in trances do all sorts of crazy things, and tourists flock from around the globe to watch them.
Festival participants climb ladders made of blades, bathe in boiling hot oil and scamper across beds of burning coals. That’s just the opening act. The ultimate expression of religious devotion is the piercing of flesh.
This is nothing like having the job done at the shops and choosing a clever eyebrow stud or pair of earrings. Knives, spears, skewers, syringes, axes, swords, metal spikes, various tools and sniper rifles put faith to the test. Piercing instruments are impressively thick. One especially pious worshipper at a recent festival sported a model ship embedded in his face. At some point, mutilation became competitive.
The cheeks are most often targeted for impalement, but tongues, arms, legs, backs and stomachs are also up for grabs. Bloodletting, slashing one’s flesh and partial skinning are also common.
Since mutilations are performed without anesthesia, the worshippers’ fortitude is admirable. Surgical gloves and iodine are the only nods to sanitation, but all ritual impaling is done by local doctors who have spent months planning the procedures. Participants must be found fit both physically and spiritually. Medical teams are present throughout the festival to monitor the wounds. Heavy bleeding is not a danger while someone is in a deep trance, but if concentration is broken, professionals take over.
Not surprisingly, it is the spectators who require the most medical attention.
By all accounts, recovery is mysteriously fast. Bandages are worn for several days, but stitches are rarely needed. Scarring is almost nonexistent. In no time at all, participants are back on the job and resuming their lives.
Noise is an important part of the festivities. Trance-induced frenzy is helped by drums, chanting and exploding firecrackers. These are meant to drive away evil spirits.
Have a Little Faith
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is taken very seriously. It is not an occasion for drunken, feckless tourists to butcher themselves and take selfies.
The faithful undergo religious training and deep soul-searching prior to the event. Devotees hope to serve penance for misdeeds and find favor with the gods. They believe that their efforts benefit the entire community. No one is forced to endure mutilation; participation in the exercises is wholehearted.
White garments symbolize the purification process, which encompasses both physical and spiritual purging. Not only do participants refrain from eating meat, but they abstain from drinking alcohol and using tobacco products. Even foods with spicy flavor or strong odors, like chives and garlic, are avoided. Wearing leather, gambling, stealing, lying and committing adultery during the festival are forbidden. People in mourning and pregnant or menstruating women do not take part.
The Phuket Version of Kosher
Special food containers and utensils are set aside solely for use during the festival. In theory, all food should be prepared in the sacred kitchens of the temple. Vendors who sell ghin jeh food, which has been approved and blessed by Tao priests, display a yellow flag with red lettering.
When In Phuket …
If you visit, following the tips below will ensure a safer, more enjoyable experience:
• Wear white. This shows respect and support for participants. Plenty of white T-shirts and other garments are for sale at low prices.
• Pack ear plugs and safety glasses. Small firecrackers go off almost continuously, and the sound is deafening. Safety glasses will protect your sight if you accidentally come too close.
• Take several N95 masks. The firecrackers produce thick smoke that may invite respiratory illnesses.
Finally, conduct yourself as a polite, respectful guest. The rituals in Phuket are in no way revolting to the natives, so those who are squeamish would do better to holiday somewhere else.
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