Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2018
- October 13, 2017
- Phuket Highlights
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2018 will soon come to life (October 8 to 17). Thus the idea I had to give you a brief but succinct description of the day to day happenings! Therefore I also included individual videos of what took place during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2016/2017 on particular days.
Vegetarian Festival 2017, Day 1:
As you may have already heard, Friday the 20th of October was the first day of the Vegetarian Festival 2017 here in Phuket. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the festival, it is a nine day long Taoist celebration that takes place on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month and is meant to honor the Nine Chinese Emperor Gods. Patrons dress in white and take part in a number of celebrations at various shrines all over Phuket
As mentioned above, October 20th was the first day of this unique festival, and as such I just wanted to give you a little insight into what you would have experienced. In fact, it is such a culturally unique experience that I really hope you consider to visit the festival sooner or later!
Day one is the Lantern Pole Raising which is the first major event of the vegetarian festival and signifies the start of the celebrations. All shrines do participate in this so don’t worry about finding the best one, a visit to your local shrine on the first day won’t disappoint. During the raising of the lantern pole devotees will light candles and incense as well as firecrackers to cleanse the temples and welcome the gods.
This is the time when they start preparing the ingredients for the vegetarian festival dishes that are served after the pole is raised. If you are unsure which foods or stalls are 100% vegetarian, just look for the dishes or stalls with yellow flags bearing red Chinese and Thai characters.
The pole itself has nine oil wicks, meant to represent the nine gods, which are lit as devotees and participants raise the pole using long sticks and rope as the crowds cheer and chant. The hope is that the Nine Emperors will hold onto the pole for the duration of the festival. This part of the festival takes place at varying times for different shrines, usually in the late afternoon, anytime after 15.00.
Once the pole is raised, patrons and spectators usually gather round while more firecrackers are let off as devotees dance around in brightly colored costumes. This is when you will see devotees dressed in white as well as body modifiers walking around with large metal objects piercing their skin. It’s usually only through the cheeks and soft tissues but is done with a wide array of sharp metal instruments such as swords, skewers, scissors and about anything else that will pierce the skin.
Another large part of the Day One ritual is the 3 rituals called The Heavenly Warriors Releasing Ritual, The Jade Emperor God and the Nine Emperor Gods Invitation:
– The Heavenly Warriors Ritual is said to release the demon and orphaned souls so they may climb the ladder of merit that leads to heaven.
– Next is The Jade Emperor God ritual which takes place in the compounds of the shrines and signifies that the Jade Emperor God is the head of the Taoist Pantheon.
– The final part of the first day is The Nine Emperor Gods Invitation Ritual which is usually conducted on seashore or near large body of water where two wooden kidney-shaped blocks are thrown into the water to see if the Nine Emperor Gods have descended from heaven. The spirits are said to inhabit their incense urn which is then placed in a secluded back room at the shrine for the duration of the festival, throughout which only the master and his assistant are permitted to enter the room.
So this is what you can expect during the first day of the very unusual yet intriguing Vegetarian Festival or, as it is known in Chinese (and I hope you understand why now) The Nine Emperor Gods Festival. It is a little crazy, loud and at times overwhelming, but it is quite an honor to witness such a wonderful piece of not just Thai history but Chinese too. This Vegetarian Festival 2017 will unfortunately be a little different than most years, as all but one of the processions have been cancelled and firecrackers will only be set off within the compounds of the shrines rather than in the street as usual. This is to honor and respect the death of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
I hope that those who can make it out on the 20th of October, to experience this beautiful time honored tradition, fully enjoy and feel the energy of the crowds while participating in one of Phuket’s finest festival.
Vegetarian Festival 2017, Day 2 to 6:
The next five days (from the 21st to the 25th) of the Vegetarian Festival 2017 are going to be a little quieter this year. Usually there are processions that take place during these days where you can go and watch the devotees march around in a state of trance, but, as mentioned previously, all but one have been cancelled as this year’s festivities happen to fall on the time of the funeral for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Therefore I have attached, a little further down this part of the blog, a few videos from last year’s festivities just to shed a little light on what you can expect to see, especially for those of you with small children as some of the Masong rituals can be quite frightening.
During these five days, it is also customary for devotees and worshipers to bring the statues and images of their gods from their homes to the shrines. It is said that the spiritual energy which is flowing through the temple from the Nine Emperor Gods will inject the household god with spiritual energy, bringing good luck and prosperity to the owners and their homes. They also bring offerings of food and beverages to honor and please the gods. Visitors are welcome and even encouraged to come and participate in the lighting of incense (joss sticks) and candles, which I encourage you all to do. It is such a wonderful and uplifting experience to be a part of and the energy that fills the temple will surely move you. It really is quite an honor to be a part of!
Once you have finished lighting the candles and incense, and have had a chance to observe their unique spiritual rituals, you can feel free to wander the streets near the temples where rows and rows of tables are set up with all manner of food and drink. All the dishes and beverages are prepared with absolutely no meat products. Dishes that usually have meat in them substituted the meat with soy bean or protein supplements. Not all dishes are vegetarian, so be sure to keep your eye out for the yellow flags with either Thai or Chinese characters written in red.
As you meander through the streets, sampling the tasty dishes and watching the crowds dressed in white, you may notice some rather gruesome sights in the form of devotees with large objects piercing the face and soft tissues. Don’t be alarmed, this is a rather interesting and very honorable tradition. These people are called Masong: they are men and women who are pure and without families and choose to undergo a series of rituals; body mutilation being one of them as well as flagellation which allows the spirits of the gods to enter their bodies and use the people as vehicles.
So, as I mentioned earlier, the festivities for the Vegetarian Festival 2017 will be toned down this year, but not so much that they won’t be enjoyable and sometime unusual to the casual observer. Once again, I urge all of you who are reading this to go and experience the wonder that is the Nine Emperor Gods Festival.
Have a look at the following videos and see what happened last year during those days:
Vegetarian Festival 2017, Day 3:
Vegetarian Festival 2017, Day 4:
Vegetarian Festival 2017, Day 5:
Vegetarian Festival 2017, Day 6:
Vegetarian Festival 2017, Day 7:
October 26th will mark day 7 of the Vegetarian Festival 2017 and while the celebrations continue there will be a mix of religious ceremonies taking place. Because these next few days all have the same ceremonies and rituals, I have decided to break them down day by day with times and locations, so those of you who wish to witness or even partake in the festivities will know what to expect and where to go. I have also attached a video of last year’s celebrations to help you better understand what to expect.
The 7th day of the festival (October 26th) mainly consists of the Fire Walking Ceremony, during which the devotees will walk across beds of hot coals to purify the body and repel evil. It is believed that the fire will overcome impurity and help to repel the evil influences for the year ahead. As devotees purify themselves with fire they atone their transgressions and sins which allows them to overcome yin. It is believed that only those who have been cleansed will be void from harm or serious burns from the hot coals.
These ceremonies all take place in the late evening on the 26th of October, if you are interested in seeing the fire walking rituals you can head to any of the shrines listed below, together with the time they take place:
– Ban Tha Rua Shrine and Yokkekeng Shrine => 20.00
– Jui Tui Shrine at Saphan Hin => 20.09
– Sui Boon Tong Shrine and Sapam Shrine => 21.00
All shrines listed above can be found on google maps along with directions on how to get there.
If you do choose to go and observe this enthralling and sometimes nerve wracking ceremony, I urge you to go a little bit earlier and sample some of the delicious vegan and vegetarian dishes that are peddled in and around the aforementioned shrines. As I mentioned earlier, the dishes that are prepared with no meat will be served at the stalls bearing yellow flags with red Chinese or Thai characters on them. You will also see a number of Masong with their body piercings as well as some rather colorful costumes. Don’t forget to light your ‘joss sticks’ (incense) and candles while you are there to honor the gods and bestow good fortune on yourself for the year ahead. Happy festival!
Vegetarian Festival 2017, Day 8:
October 27th marks the 8th day of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival 2017. As you know by now, I have been breaking down the Vegetarian Festival 2017 activities on what you can expect day by day. This way you will know what ceremonies are taking place at all the shrines as well as the times that they are occurring.
This part will cover the rituals for the 8th day of the Vegetarian Festival 2017 and help shed some light on their purpose and the beliefs behind them. The 8th day events hold some rather intriguing yet gruesome rituals that are both exciting and terrifying to watch. As I explain the rituals, I will also name the shrines they can be found at and the times they occur, so you can come and observe them for yourself.
The ceremonies that take place on this day are Blade Ladder Climbing, Nail Bridge Crossing, Oil Bathing and Tying Children’s Wrists. The nail bridge crossing and the hot oil bathing hold similar meaning to the fire walking of which I talked earlier. It is believed that the devotees doing these harmful rituals are shifting the bad luck and evil energies away from individuals and their communities onto themselves. It is also believed that if the devotee who is doing the ritual has been cleansed and is pure, he will be spared from pain or injury that one would expect from doing such acts. These rituals can be observed at Sapam Shrine at 20.00 and Ban Tha Rua Shrine at 20.45.
Before you go any further, have a look at what happened last year during this ceremony:
The Blade Ladder ritual holds a significant meaning for the Nine Emperor Gods Festival as it is tied directly to the number 9. The ladder itself has 36 rungs, and devotees climb up and then back down the ladder, making it 72 painful steps in all. The steps are meant to be interpreted as 3 + 6 and 7 + 2 which both equal 9. The number 9 represents the number of days in the festival, and is also said to be the most auspicious number in Chinese culture. Devotees climb the ladder and once at the top shower the crowd below with sweets and charm cloths that are meant to represent the good fortune from the gods. They then climb back down the other side of the ladder which represent the fortunate year ahead. This ritual can be observed at Cherngtalay Shrine at 19.59, Samkong Shrine at 20.00 and Bang Neow Shrine at 20.00.
Another interesting but far less shocking ritual is the act of tying children’s wrists. This ritual is performed within the compound of the shrine and consists of small strings or bracelets, that have been blessed, being tied around the child’s wrists. It is believed that the blessed strings will purify and protect the child from misfortune and evil spirits for the upcoming year. As such, the child will help to protect the home and community from the same evil spirits. This ritual can be observed at Ban Tha Rua Shrine at 20.45. As you can see from the list of rituals and ceremonies, there is quite a lot to observe on day eight.
As always, I urge you all to come out to the shrines listed above and observe a significant and memorable moment in Thai-Chinese culture.
Vegetarian Festival 2017, Day 9:
The 9th day (the last of the official ceremonies) of the Vegetarian Festival 2017 will take place on Sunday October 28th. As the celebrations wind down, Phuket prepares for the final and most important rituals of the festival: the Bridge Crossing and the Farewell Procession. Each one of them holds significant meaning in this Taoist tradition and is as important as the other.
The first of these notable ceremonies is that of the Bridge Crossing ritual. This is when the devotees who have strictly followed the 10 rules of the festival walk across The Bridge of Purification to relieve their misfortunes and impurities that they selflessly invoked upon themselves to ward them away from others and the community. It is said that, if the devotee is truly clean and pure once he crosses the bridge all the misfortune and evil will be released from them, allowing the community, themselves and those around them to have a happy and prosperous year ahead. This ritual will take place at all Phuket major shrines at approximately 18.00 until 20.00. It is one of the most awe-inspiring moment of the Vegetarian Festival and definitely one you don’t want to miss! For those of you who can’t make it to the ceremony, I have attached a video of last years procession so you can see and experience the magic that is the final day.
During the rest of the last day there are a few of the aforementioned rituals taking place, such as Fire Walking at Bang Neow Shrine at 20.00, Samkong Shrine at 20.00 and Cherngtalay Shrine at 20.09. And of course there are still plenty of stalls serving up those delicious vegetarian meals and drinks.
The second major event of the last day is the one and only Street Procession that will be held this year due to the funeral of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. While there are usually several processions during the festival, this one is always the most spiritual as it is the final procession that all shrines march in down to the water and out of Phuket. Each shrine represents one of the Nine Emperor Gods and as the procession sets out, one by one they join until all nine gods are represented. Once the gods are all present, they march through the streets towards Sapam Hin where they will leave Phuket through the nearest body of water.
This procession is by far the largest and most impressive as devotees and spectators alike march through the street with their colorful costumes and body modifications, chanting and banging the drums which help guide the spirits of gods back to heaven where they came from. The atmosphere and spiritual vibes are really something out of this world. If you only get a chance to observe one part of this festival, I strongly suggest you make it this one. It is truly a life changing experience, one you won’t soon forget!
Vegetarian Festival 2017, Final Day at Sapan Hin Shrine:
While there are only nine official days of the vegetarian festival, each shrine holds a small ceremony on the 10th day with a feast to honor the devotees who sacrificed themselves for their communities and other believers as well as the intimate affair of lowering the Lantern Pole. This ceremony is rather private with only the patrons of the shrines as well as the devotees who participated in the rituals attending.
During the late morning and the early afternoon of the 10th day, the community gathers and the shrine prepares a feast of meat based dishes and meals to show appreciation for the devotees devotion, support and participation during the festival. The feast symbolizes the end to The Nine Emperor Gods Festival, as the devotees enjoy a much needed and well-deserved meal prepared in their honor.
Between the hours of 15.00 and 17.00, on the afternoon of the tenth day of the ninth lunar month (October 29th), in a brief ceremony, with participants dressed in everyday clothes, the Lantern Poles are lowered and the three burning wicks are extinguished. The remains of the oil used to keep the lanterns lit throughout the festival is then mixed with the oil that is used to light the altars and divided up among the devotees. It is believed that this oil holds special healing powers that will help keep the devotees, their homes and their families free of illness and disease.
While this part of the Vegetarian Festival generally isn’t open to the public, the rest of the Vegetarian Festival is. As I have stressed numerous times throughout this blog, I really implore you all to observe at least one day of this glorious festival for a deeper understanding of the Thai-Chinese community that makes up 30% of Phuket’s population and also to experience a bit of the local history.