The Phuket Vegetarian Festival

A Guide to the Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Thailand

Phuket Vegetarian Festival
••• Phuket Vegetarian Festival. Photo by Nestor's Blurrylife / Creative Commons

Also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival or the Kin Jay Festival, the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is an annual Taoist event celebrated primarily by the Chinese community in Thailand and around Southeast Asia.

Running for nine days, the vegetarian festival in Phuket is considered by many to be the most extreme and bizarre of festivals in Thailand. Devotees not only give up meat for the holiday, a select few participants actually practice self mutilation in the form of piercing their cheeks with swords, walking on hot coals, and climbing ladders made of knife blades!

The seven stars making up our Big Dipper constellation plus two unseen stars are considered to be the nine emperor gods being celebrated.

What to Expect at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival

Don't expect a somber temple experience! The Vegetarian Festival is lively, chaotic, and loud. A throng of people form around the procession while chanting and throwing fire crackers; a lion dance weaves through the crowd. Participants wear white while the mah song -- the entranced devotees who ask the gods to enter their bodies -- wear elaborate costumes and pierce their bodies.

The chosen mah song -- always unmarried men and women -- pierce their faces with everything from hooks to large spears with the help of a support team; some walk on hot coals or lie on beds of knives. All mah song claim to feel little pain and few have residual scaring!

Pieces of orange paper and cloth are distributed throughout the crowd are for good luck.

Rules for the Festival

Devotees are expected to wear white and keep pure thoughts; they give up meat, sex, alcohol, stimulants, and strong foods such as garlic. Tourists are invited to attend the procession and take photographs. Although the Vegetarian Festival can seem like a bizarre carnival, it is still a deeply religious event; show respect and stay out of the way!

People in mourning and pregnant or menstruating women are not supposed to attend the ceremonies.

Vegetarian Food

While many tourists simply attend to see the extreme piercings, excellent vegetarian food can be enjoyed by all. Participating restaurants and food stalls fly a yellow flag with red Chinese lettering. Versions of famous Thai noodle dishes are prepared without meat or fish sauce.

The vegetarian food found at the festival looks identical to meat products such as pork and chicken, however, rest assured it is vegan -- even eggs and dairy products are not used during the festival. Special care is taken to give food the same texture and appearances of the meats they mimic.

History of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival

As with many ancient festivals, people disagree about the origins of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. One theory states that the festival was brought to Phuket from China by a troupe of actors around 1825.

The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is observed in China, however, the piercings and self mutilation are unique to Thailand. Some suggest that the piercings were influenced by similar acts that are performed during the annual Indian Thaipusam festival.

Where to Experience the Phuket Vegetarian Festival

The Vegetarian Festival is celebrated to some extent in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and even Kuala Lumpur; however, Phuket -- which has a Chinese population of around 35% -- is the place to see the entranced devotees pierce their bodies and perform feats of self mutilation.

Just a few of the major shrines in Phuket for witnessing ceremonies are: Jui Tui, Bang Niew, Phut Jaw, Cherng Talay, and Kathu.

The festivities move between various temples throughout the celebration; picking up a schedule of events is essential for being in the right place at the right time.

When to See the Festival

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival begins on the first day in the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, so dates change annually. Typically the festival is held in autumn, near the end of September and beginning of October.

The peak of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival is on the ninth -- or last -- day as the ceremony becomes a farewell frenzy for sending the gods home to the sky.