Festivals provide an interesting peek into the local culture, and Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival is no exception. Also known as Nine Emperor God Festival or Jia Chai, it falls in the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. Thailand and exoticism go hand-in-hand, and this Taoist festival is celebrated with a unique zeal here. Each shrine is extensively cleaned, in anticipation of the festival and giant Go Teng poles are raised on the first day (to be lowered after the last) symbolically to allow the Jade Emperor and other Nine Emperors to come down from the heavens and walk the earth again.
A Little History Lesson
It is believed that in 1825 when Phuket was the tin mining capital of Asia, a wandering Chinese opera group, who were performing on the island to entertaining the tin miners of whom a large percentage where Chinese, fell ill with malaria. The opera group decided to adhere to a strict vegetarian diet and also pray to the Nine Emperor Gods, which they believed would purify their mind and body.
As with many stories, this one has a happy ending, and the opera group made a complete recovery, which lead to everyone celebrating the fact they had survived what was and still is a fatal illness, and a festival was held to honor the gods.
Rules of the Festival
The name may have you believing that it is a food festival showcasing vegetarian delights. Though the streets are lined on both sides with hawkers selling vegetarian fare, it is not the highlight of the festival. Instead, it marks a period where devotees are expected to follow ten strict rules, and observe abstainance from meat, alcohol, sex, and other stimulants. The locals believe that following these rules allows them to achieve a greater level of spirituality, and is a way of honouring the Gods.
However, the festival is not celebrated behind closed doors. Like many things Thai, this too is a boisterous public celebration, and one not for the faint-hearted. The Vegetarian Festival in Phuket involves processions wherein devotees perform self mutilation and all other kinds of torture on themselves to shift ill-luck and evil from other worshipers onto themselves. They believe that by doing so, they can bring good luck to the community.
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Expect vibrant and chaotic processions, with firecrackers being thrown around, lion dances, and coal-walking. You may find people with their cheeks pierced with spears, knives and other paraphernalia. Though it may seem bizarre and even scary to some, and the shutterbugs click away relentlessly, this is not a tourism propaganda. The festival has been celebrated by locals since 1800 and each mutilation is their way of sacrificing for the good of the general community.
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This man caught my eye during a street procession in Phuket Town. In his entranced state, he grabbed a lotus flower from an offering table and handed it to me. I unfroze my surprise for just one second to hit the shutter button, and got lucky. * I’ve been away photographing my first Australian music festival. In the meantime, I’ve been stoked to finally start sharing this body of work with you: the Phuket Vegetarian Festival of 2018. * Legend has it, a Chinese opera troupe travelled through Phuket 150 years ago and fell ill with malaria, and thought they would die. They abstained from activities such as eating meat, sex, alcohol, and gambling, and prayed more diligently to the Nine Emperor Gods…and their health returned. Thus this yearly tradition was born. A vegetarian festival may sound plain and innocent, but it’s anything but. Devotees enter trance-like states, pierce their bodies with all manner of sharp objects, walk over hot coals, and run through the streets hurling fireworks. Doing so is supposed to bring about good health and prosperity to the island. Bystanders get excited too, adding their own firecrackers to the din and offering devotees fruit and sweets in praise of their sacrifice. The whole event is absolutely insane, to say the least, and photographing it felt like being inside a peaceful war zone…if such a thing exists. I can’t wait to share more with you in time. . . . #myfeatureshoot #ROAMTravels #passionpassport #natgeocreative #natgeo_lovers #streetphoto_color #hikaricreative #magnumphotos #exploremore #traveldeeper #travelstoke #bbctravel #zonestreet #lonelyplanet #LPPathfinders #liveintrepid #natgeotravel #worldnomads #thailand #phuket #phuketvegetarianfestival #streetphotography #shadowhunters #eventphotography #festival #festivalphotography #sonyphotography #portraitphotographer #travelphotography #peopleoftheworld
Sounds unreal, doesn’t it? See the Vegetarian Festival for yourself to tick it off your bucket list and get a glimpse into the ritualistic side of Phuket by planning a trip during the festival dates.
Photos by Nestor Lacle