Phuket Vegetarian Festival

What is the Vegetarian Festival all about?

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is a colourful event usually held between September or October each year following the Chinese lunar calendar. The festival celebrates the Chinese community’s belief that abstinence from meat and various stimulants during the 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar will help them obtain good health and peace of mind.

The festival is famous for its ‘extreme’ celebrations. These include acts held to invoke the gods, which range from firewalking, body piercing and other acts of self-mortification undertaken by participants acting as mediums of the gods. These have become more spectacular and daring as each year goes by.

Festival origins

Though the origins of the festival are unclear, it is commonly thought that the festival was brought to Phuket by a wandering Chinese opera group who fell ill following a malaria epidemic while performing on the island. One of the performers was sent to China to invite the Nine Emperor Gods (known as the Kiu Ong Iah) to Phuket. 

The next year the Chinese followed the tradition of refraining from eating meat, drinking alcoholic drinks, engaging in sex, quarrelling, telling lies or killing. This was to ensure the purification of the mind and body. To everyone’s amazement, the opera group made a complete recovery and the epidemic ceased. Every year since, the people of Phuket have continued to celebrate the festival.

The people celebrated by holding a festival that was meant to honour the gods as well as express the people’s happiness at surviving what was, in the 19th century, a fatal illness. Subsequently, the festival has grown and developed into a spectacular yearly event that’s attended by thousands, with participants flying in from China and other Asian destinations.

The ceremonies

The various (and sometimes gruesome) ceremonies are definitely not recommended for the faint-hearted to witness. Men and women puncture their cheeks with various items including knives, skewers and other household items. It is believed that the Chinese gods will protect such persons from harm, resulting in little blood or scarring.

Even so, injuries are usually sustained from the indiscriminate use of firecrackers. So, beware of this pitfall and stay well away from this deafening and sometimes frightening aspect of the Vegetarian Festival.

The ceremonies of the festival take place in the vicinity of the 6 Chinese temples scattered throughout Phuket. The main temple is Jui Tui Shrine not far from the Fresh Market in Phuket Town. The first event is the raising of the Lantern Pole, an act that notifies the 9 Chinese gods that the festival is about to begin. The pole is at least 10 metres tall and once erected, celebrants believe that the Hindu god, Shiva, descends bringing spiritual power to the event.

For the next few days, the local Chinese/Thai community brings their household gods to the temple, along with offerings of food and drink. It is assumed that the household gods will benefit from an annual injection of spiritual energy that fills the temple. As a visitor, you can observe and even participate in the lighting of joss sticks and candles that are placed around the various gods.

Usually, street processions take place, where visitors can see participants walking in a trance. Other events include hundreds of local residents running across a bed of burning coals, or climbing an 8-metre ladder of sharp blades while in trance. Apart from the visual spectacle of this festival, visitors can partake in specially prepared vegetarian cuisine made available at street stalls and markets around the island during this time.

The vegetarian dishes are not easily distinguishable from regular dishes – soybean and protein substitute products are used to replace meat in standard Thai fare and look and taste uncannily like meat. Look for the yellow flags with red Chinese or Thai characters to find vegetarian food stalls – and keep your camera handy!

Chinese shrines in Phuket Town

There are more than 40 Chinese shrines scattered around the island. Many of them are just small buildings but all participate in the festival. Visitors who want to experience the most of this event should visit the major shrines including the 5 oldest shrines in Phuket; Put Jaw, Jui Tui, Bang Niew, Cherng Talay, and Kathu Shrine. Alternatively, check out the list below.

  • Baan Tha Rua Shrine, Thepkrasattri Road, not far from the Heroines’ Monument

  • Cherng Thalay Shrine, Sri Soonthorn Road, Thalang District

  • Sapam Shrine, Thepkrasattri Road, Koh Kaeo, Phuket Town

  • Yok Ke Keng Shrine, Soi Panieng, Samkong, Phuket Town

  • Samkong Shrine, Yaowarat Road, on the north side of Phuket Town

  • Kathu Shrine, Wichitsongkram Road, Kathu District

  • Put Jaw Shrine, On the corner of Soi Phuthorn, Ranong Road, Phuket Town

  • Jui Tui Shrine, Soi Phutorn, Ranong Road Soi 4, Phuket Town

  • Sui Boon Tong Shrine (also known as Lorong Shrine), Pattana Road, Phuket Town

  • Bang Neow Shrine, Phuket Road, on the south side of Phuket Town

  • Thep Rasi Shrine, Phuket Road, near Robinson Department Store, Phuket town

  • Kiew Tien Keng Shrine, Saphan Hin Park, Phuket Town

  • The commitments

The festival always starts on the first day of the 9th Chinese lunar month (though the pole-raising ceremony is the night before), and for 9 days participants observe the following commitments:

  • Cleanliness of the body during the festival

  • Clean kitchen utensils not to be used by others who do not participate in the festival

  • Wear white during the festival

  • Behave correctly, both physically and mentally

  • Avoid eating meat

  • Avoid sex

  • Avoid alcohol

  • People in mourning should not participate

  • Pregnant women and menstruating women should not attend ceremonies