Travel Story 

Invoking the gods

Phuket's annual vegetarian festival has strange beginnings

By Alison Lapshinoff

In the ninth lunar month of 1825, a travelling Chinese opera came to the island of Phuket on Thailand's west coast to entertain the tin miners who had settled there. They started an epidemic and many people died.

The Chinese believed that the throng of sudden and mysterious deaths was due to their negligence to pay homage to the nine Emperor Gods (Kiu Ong Iah) in the first nine days of the month. In an attempt to curb the epidemic, they invited the Kiu Ong Iah from China to Phuket to witness their atonement for their negligence in abstaining from their vices, including eating meat, having sex, telling lies, quarrelling and stealing.

The epidemic ceased. Although the link is somewhat ambiguous, it is believed that this was how Phuket's annual Vegetarian Festival was born.

In October of 2004 our faces were pressed against the grimy window of our bus as it strained its way over the rolling hills that connect the coastal resort town of Patong Beach with Phuket's main hub, Phuket Town. Outside a parade was going on. Men and women dressed all in white ran down the street banging drums and waving flags. Fireworks exploded. Pickup trucks cruised by, their boxes full of people standing up and hanging onto the cab, heads shaking and arms waving, blood streaming down their faces. One man had sharpened sticks of bamboo pierced through either cheek; another had multiple metal skewers protruding from his face. All had the countenance of one possessed by a greater power. None expressed pain.

It is thought that by participating in the annual nine-day event, one will obtain good health and peace of mind. The ceremonies are centred around Phuket's six Chinese temples. The first event is the raising of the 10 metre high lantern pole. This signals to the gods that the festival is about to begin. Participants who practice self-mutilation, firewalking and climbing ladders of sharp blades are thought to be mediums who invoke the gods and will be protected, their actions resulting in little blood loss or scarring.

Certain rules must be followed during the festival, such as adhering to a vegetarian diet, not using kitchen utensils used by non-participants, washing thoroughly, behaving mentally and physically, wearing white and abstaining from sex. Those in mourning may not participate, nor may women who are pregnant or menstruating.

Outside homes and businesses, elaborately adorned tables display candles, tea, fruit and insense, all offerings to the gods in hopes of gaining their favours.

It was early evening and the people of Phuket were rushing to the temple where the firewalking ceremony was to take place. We joined the throng, two white faces among a sea of Chinese and Thais. The atmosphere was charged, the air stifling. In the centre of the courtyard outside the brightly lit temple was an enormous pile of coals, burning red hot. The crowd pushed ceaselessly forward, everyone trying to secure a spot at the front, against the railing that separated the onlookers from the participants. At about two or three rows back, pressed between hundreds of people on an already humid evening, the heat from the coals caused me to turn my face away. The suspense was built up with loud drumming and fireworks and the large group of temporarily possessed, white-clad mediums in the centre of the massive crowd dramatically tossed prayer papers into the burning bed. Periodically, a pair would use a large plank to flatten the coals, creating an even surface and causing waves of heat to assault the crowd.

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