Phuket's bloody 'vegetarian festival'

 On the Thai island of Phuket, while tourists tan on beaches and get massaged, locals are busy walking on hot coals and piercing their cheeks with unlikely objects.


Photo posted on Jamie's Phuket Blog.

For nine days on the Thai island of Phuket, while  tourists tan on beaches and get massaged, locals are busy walking on hot coals and piercing their cheeks with unlikely objects.

Legend has it that in 1825, members of a Chinese opera troop on tour in Phuket mysteriously fell ill. They recovered after a nine-day period of penitence, during which they fasted and pierced their bodies with sharp objects.

Since then, every year, on the first nine days days of the Chinese lunar calendar, local residents of Taoist faith have organised the "Phuket vegetarian festival", intended to cleanse their bodies and minds.

Post written with France 24 journalist Ségolène Malterre.

"The ritual piercing has become a kind of competition"

Jamie is a British expatriate who has lived in Phuket since 1999. He attended several Taoist festivals and posted the photos and this comment on his blog, Jamie's Phuket.

This is clearly one of the craziest times of year in Phuket. Come to think of it, certainly THE craziest. Some people hardly notice the festival, as it really only affects Phuket Town and small communities with a Chinese-Thai background like Kathu, Sapam or Tha Reua. If you sit on the beach at Kata for the duration of the festival, you won't see anything. Some people hate it or are bored by it, or just moan that the street processions disrupt traffic around Phuket Town.

Personally I love it. I love the old traditions, love the way the local community comes together and maintains these traditions, I love the crazy street processions, love taking photos and I also use the vegetarian festival as an excuse for 10 days of detox. I stick to the diet, drink no alcohol – but I stop short of wearing white and impaling myself with sharp objects. I leave that to the real devotees.

The first key event of the festival was the street procession on the 10th of October from Sapam Shrine, which is about 7km north of Phuket Town. I went to the shrine before 7am, before the procession left the shrine – they walk all the way into town from there. It was a busy morning at the shrine – Sapam is not a big community but I think they were all there!

"Some of it is quite gruesome, some is more spiritual"

The festival is partly about purifying the body by eating the right food, drinking no Chang beer, etc... But I hope nobody reads the words "vegetarian festival" and thinks that Phuket is full of hippies and tofu burgers and "meat is murder" T-shirts. Indeed, there is plenty of blood spilled during the festival. Some people are (so I believe) born to be Ma Song, or "Crazy Horses". Some of these Ma Song undergo acts of self mutilation or extreme piercing. By doing this it is said they bring luck to their community. Some of it is quite gruesome, some is more spiritual. Here are some of the Ma Song at Sapam Shrine ...

This Ma Song has just had his face done. Well, actually he has had his face impaled by 6 fairly large swords. Just doing his bit for the local community. So is the guy below, though his chosen torture is pineapples.

The face piercing above is more traditional, using fairly small (but sharp) skewers with Chinese heads on the ends. In more recent years I feel that the piercing has become a kind of competition. And I am sure that the participants/devotees are aware that by piercing your face with something large or bizarre, you're more likely to make the papers!"

See all photos taken by Jamie on his blog.