Also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival or the Kin Jay Festival, the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is an annual event celebrated primarily by the Chinese community in Thailand and throughout 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. The Phuket Vegetarian Festival could be Thailand's answer to the Tamil festival of Thaipusam celebrated in neighboring Malaysia. Devotees not only adopt a special diet for the holiday, a select few participants prove their devotion by practicing self mutilation.
Some of the feats performed include piercing cheeks with swords, walking on nails or hot coals, and climbing ladders made of knife blades! Most participants miraculously heal up without needing stitches or medical care.
What to Expect During the 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 firecrackers, often at your feet. Lion dances sometimes weave through the crowd.
Participants wear white while the mah song — the entranced devotees who ask the gods to use their bodies — wear elaborate costumes and perform impressive feats. Their support teams jostle for place nearby to tend to wounds.
The ma song volunteers — always unmarried men and women — pierce their faces with everything from hooks to large spears with the help of a team. Some walk on hot coals or lie on beds of knives. All ma 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. The candy handed out to visitors has been blessed.
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 and spice.
Tourists are invited to attend the procession and take photographs. As with any religious festival, enjoy watching, but keep your distance. Don't get in the way of participants who prepared for weeks before the event. 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!
Technically, people who are in mourning are not supposed to attend the ceremonies in temples. The same applies to women who are pregnant or menstruating.
Although a majority of tourists simply attend to see the extreme piercings, the healthy food can be enjoyed by all. Participating restaurants and food stalls post a yellow sign or flag with red Chinese lettering. Versions of famous Thai noodle dishes and other local specialties 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 consumed during the festival. Special care is taken to give food the same texture and appearances of the meats they mimic.
This style of eating is known as kin jay or gin jeh. Even when the Phuket Vegetarian Festival isn't happening, you'll come across gin jeh stalls in Thailand. Although dishes are meatless, understand that they are deliberately prepared bland without garlic, chili, or strong seasonings.
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.
The seven stars making up the Big Dipper constellation plus two unseen stars are considered to be the nine emperor gods being celebrated.
Where to Experience the Phuket Vegetarian Festival
The Vegetarian Festival is celebrated to some extent in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and even Kuala Lumpur; however, the island of Phuket has the largest Peranakan Chinese population. To really see the festival at its best, you'll want to go there.
A few of the major shrines in Phuket for witnessing ceremonies include:
- Jui Tui
- Bang Niew
- Phut Jaw
- Cherng Talay
The festivities move between various temples throughout the celebration; picking up a schedule of events will help you be in the right place at the right time. If in doubt, just go toward the noise and chaos!
The official Phuket Vegetarian Festival website has a schedule of events, but information may or may not be available in English.
When Is the Phuket Vegetarian Festival?
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival begins on the first day of the ninth month of the Chinese lunisolar 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.
The 2019 Phuket Vegetarian Festival begins on Sunday, September 29. It finishes on Monday, October 7.