If you happen to be in the south of Thailand in the first half of October, then you may get the chance to see one of the most shocking festivals on the Thai calendar, the Phuket vegetarian festival. But be warned, this isn’t for the faint of heart…you’ll encounter sites far more stomach turning than tofu dressed as lamb.
The festival, better known as Tesagan Gin Jay, originated in 1825 when a wandering Chinese opera troupe miraculously recovered from a strange malady by adhering to a vegetarian diet and worshipping the nine Chinese Emperor gods. The locals embraced the tradition and celebrate from the 1st until the 9th day of the 9th lunar month each year.
The festival consists of daily processions, fire walking and lots of loud noise – fire crackers and drumming – to ward off the evil spirits. But perhaps the most interesting (and shocking) aspect of the festival is the mutilation which many participants undergo while in a trance, in order to show their veneration towards the gods.
We arrived in old Phuket town from Ko Phi Phi in the evening and immediately joined the festivities. The streets were buzzing and there was electricity in the air, with stalls selling all sorts of vegetarian delicacies and thousands of locals dressed entirely in white.
We ambled along, snacking on whatever looked good (most was delicious, a couple of strange tofu dishes), eventually reaching one of the main Chinese temples. My friend said a prayer while I watched some of the spirit mediums become possessed by their spirit gods and run around blessing people (while cross-eyed, drooling and shrieking like monkeys in some cases – very, very bizarre). The Thai kids seemed to take it in their stride (I would have been terrified).
I could have watched for hours however we retired early as I wanted to be up at the crack of dawn to watch the self-mutilation ceremonies prior to the parade (does that sound strange? I swear I’m not…).
Despite getting up early the next morning and reaching the main streets around 6:30am, the parade had already commenced so we never witnessed the mutilations take place (a good reason to go back..?). Instead we were awed (and slightly sickened) by what seemed like a never-ending stream of men and women with the most amazing array of objects inserted through their bodies (mostly cheeks).
I kid you not. It started strange with metal poles and hooks…but then someone passed with a bunch of flowers through their cheek. And then strings of fake platted hair and a model wooden boat. Could it get any stranger, I asked myself as a guy with a beach umbrella through his cheek walked past (with 3 others to support the massive structure). You better believe it – along came the bad-ass gang, spewing forth AK47 rifles, 6 shooter pistols and an entire collection of swords in the case of one spiritualist.
Again and again I found my jaw dropping open in disbelief, and then suddenly snapping shut in discomfort at the thought of having these objects shoved through my cheeks. Apparently the objects are inserted without anaesthetic and there is no stitching of wounds (and word has it that you feel great for several weeks after!). Who wants to try?
After shooting loads of photo’s, dodging firecrackers and generally being in awe of such an incredible festival, we moved on. Just another unforgettable and unique experience to add to the list…Thailand, I love you!
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