It may be known as one of Thailand's top tourist spots. A place to escape to the beach, drink cocktails and party the night away, but Phuket also has a more spiritual side. Every year in the 9th Lunar month, the Phuket Vegetarian festival transforms the island into a sacred place, where rituals replace relaxation and locals make merit instead of tourist dollars.
The festival is rooted in Phuket's Chinese ancestry and for 10 days, those of Hokkien descent observe a strict vegetarian diet to cleanse their body and make merit. The festival began back in in 1825 in a small town called Get Hoe in Kathu, home to a large community of Chinese tin miners. Working in the island's jungle clad interior, the miners often fell sick with fever and many people died. That year, a travelling Opera Company visited the town and all the players also became ill. To appease the Gods, they decided to stick to a vegetarian diet and observe strict religious rules until their fevers lifted, which they duly did. Local people witnessed the miracle and decided to mark the occasion with an annual festival that has lasted until the present day.
On the afternoon before the festival begins, large poles called 'Go Teng' are raised above the island's temples, down which the Gods are invited to descend from heaven. Other ceremonies take place throughout the 10-day period, including invocations of the Gods of life and death, merit making rituals and setting off thunderous fireworks to ward of evil spirits.
Feats of strength and endurance to pain are a central feature of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival and these gruesome acts attract tourists and media to the witness the rituals. Disciples known as Ma Song believe the Gods actually enter their bodies giving them supernatural powers. This allows them to perform torturous feats such as walking on coals, bathing in boiling oil and climbing bladed ladders. They do this to draw evil from other individuals into themselves and therefore to bring the community good luck.
Another important part of the festival is a loud and colourful procession that takes place on the 7th night. This was inspired by one disciple who volunteered to return to China and later came back with sacred incense and special name plaques known as 'Lian Tui' that are believed to be representations of the Gods. When he arrived, the people travelled in procession to the pier to protect his precious cargo.
In addition to maintaining a vegetarian diet for a minimum of 3 days during the festival, devotees also observe other rules such as cleanliness, sobriety, chastity and polite behaviour. It is also customary to wear white for the entire period to symbolise purity and moral fortitude.
Phuket's ten days of devotion also includes street markets where tasty local dishes (vegetarian of course) can be sampled and spectacular street performances inspired by the legend of the travelling Chinese Opera Company.