Shocking Pictures from the Phuket Vegetarian Festival
Is this the craziest Vegetarian Festival in the world?
The annual Vegetarian Festival in Thailand is celebrated by Thai Taoists and it’s probably one of the most unusual, shocking and fascinating things we’ve seen in over 20 years of travelling in Southeast Asia.
Also called the ‘9 Gods Festival’ or ‘Tesagan Gin Je’ in Thai, it’s celebrated throughout Thailand but it’s most spectacular in Phuket. A huge part of the festival involves participants eating vegan food for the 9 day festival so it’s a great opportunity to visit and get to eat like the locals, safe in the knowledge that everything is vegan.
So we said goodbye to the beaches and sunsets that Phuket is famous for, packed our bags and headed off to Phuket Old Town; it’s probably fair to say that nothing prepared us for what we encountered.
Phuket Old Town
The first time we ventured into town, we were pleased to see hundreds of street stalls selling vegan food. It’s easy to identify places selling vegan food in Thailand as they always have a sign outside that looks like the number 17 written in red on a yellow background. In fact, if you look at any packaged food in Thailand and see that sign you’ll know it’s vegan.
The streets were jammed with people dressed in white for the festival; the atmosphere was like a carnival with music and plenty of smiling faces.
Vegan Food Everywhere
There were tables piled with noodles, people bent over giant woks filled with bubbling oil scooping out crispy tofu, spring rolls and battered mushrooms. There were dessert stalls selling multi-coloured sweets, mango sticky rice stalls, curries, mock ‘omelettes’, mock meat on sticks and mountains of papaya salad. Everywhere we looked we saw vegan food.
We even found a man selling vegan soft serve ice cream from his home. As we sat on stools outside his house licking vanilla and chocolate cones we knew we’d made the right decision to come.
Hesan Vegetarian Restaurant
The festival lasts for 9 days and then the temporary street stalls selling vegan food disappear. However, there are local vegan restaurants that operate all year round and these really raise their game during the festival. At Hesan Vegetarian Restaurant (featured in our Vegan Guide to Phuket) we spoke to volunteers who had come from overseas to help serve vegan food to the never-ending queues of people. Everyday there were over 50 dishes made with all kinds of vegetables, mock meat and tofu in big stainless steel serving dishes, laid out waiting for us. We’d heap our plates with things we wanted to try, and even when our plates were overflowing it never cost more than £2 each.
Vegan Food for Your Mind and Body
The whole reason that people eat vegan food for the festival is to purify their mind and body. It’s a tradition that dates back nearly 200 years when legend has it that a group of visiting performers managed to rid themselves of malaria by praying to the ‘9 Emperor Gods’ and eating vegan food. Local people then began to celebrate this every year with a festival, going vegan during this time to achieve spiritual purity.
The cleansing of body and spirit through eating vegan food is accompanied by following other precepts such as abstaining from drinking, stealing, gambling, lying and wearing leather.
So far all quite compatible with veganism, but this is where it ends.
The main focus of the festival are the ceremonies that take place, the most shocking of which involves mediums, or ’mah-song’, performing acts of self-mutilation whilst channelling spirits before going on a procession through the town with other devotees.
We witnessed ‘mah-song’ getting pierced through their cheeks with knives, skewers and swords as well as more unusual objects like toy helicopters, palm leaves, lollipops and fire extinguishers. Some had sharp axes that they used to repeatedly slice their tongue or cut themselves on the back or forehead as they walked. Men and women of all ages took part in the procession, stopping to bless houses and people along the route.
We hope our shocking pictures from the Phuket Vegetarian Festival don’t put you off your food…
Veganism but not as we know it…
As the processions began, all around us people were throwing firecrackers indiscriminately, the noise was deafening and there was more smoke than air at some points.
Normally, when we speak with other people about being vegan, they usually explain their motivation in terms of animal compassion, healthy living or environmental concerns. No one has ever mentioned their veganism as a means to achieve a state where they can undertake supernatural acts that involve skewering their face.
We were left dazed and confused. It’s a kind of veganism but certainly not as we know it.
Mmm Vegan Ice Cream…
For days we immersed ourselves in the ceremonies, getting to shrines before sunrise to witness preparations and watching the spectacle of the busy processions with intrigue and sometimes horror. After that, we were exhausted and a little shell-shocked.
This vegetarian festival is not for the feint hearted.
This festival is not really about veganism at all, despite the abundance of vegan food and the importance of following a vegan lifestyle for its duration. However, the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket is definitely something that’s worth travelling for, even if it’s just for that vegan soft serve ice cream.