Candice Holznagel

The healthy, harrowing vegetarian fest

FOR those interested in witnessing a truly unique, astonishing, chilling, exotic and healthy Asian festival, pack your bags and head to Phuket between September 27 and October 5 of this year. This is when the truly bizarre and other-worldly Phuket Vegetarian Festival will be held, and it is truly a sight that needs to be seen to be believed.

As a bonus, you get to sample an amazing variety of delicious vegetarian food; you'll be amazed by the incredible diversity of tofu, and all the dishes that can be made from it, even "sushi" made completely without meat. In general, Thais eat very little meat, and many will never eat beef.

The vegetarian festival is a time of cleansing, purity, abstinence and refraining from all vices. This includes the killing of animals; hence, during sacred, religious periods and ceremonies, no animals will be killed and no meat eaten. The body can then be cleansed of impurities and refreshed through the eating of vegetables. This festival showcases the bounty and abundance of vegetables, and encourages people to eat less or no meat, and perhaps become vegetarians themselves.

But be warned in advance: This festival is not for those of delicate sensibility, faint heart, or weak stomach. It is for those who can handle seeing the extremes of self-mortification, with a great deal of noise thrown in for good measure to drive away the evil spirits. If the sight of blood puts you off your veggie food, or you recoil at every loud noise, this is perhaps not the best festival for you.

You might wonder how all this began, and why it caught on and became so popular. As usual, there's a good reason -- and a good story -- relating to the origins of the festival. It seems that once upon a time a Chinese opera troupe fell ill while traveling and performing in Thailand, with what many believe to have been malaria.

The troupe then kept to a strict vegetarian diet and performed various rituals to two of their emperor gods. They were soon healed, greatly impressing the local population, who embraced the faith, the ceremonies, and the rituals, which have become increasingly popular over the years.

The Vegetarian Festival, called Prapheni Kin Jay or Prapheni Kin Phak in Thai (The Festival for Eating Vegetables), is now one of the major annual events on the Chinese -- and the Phuket -- calendar. Many visitors travel north from Singapore and Malaysia to participate in this cleansing ceremony, to pay their respects to the gods, to enjoy the music, the fireworks, the spectacle, and of course, the food.

It is no exaggeration to say that you will see people piercing and puncturing their cheeks with virtually any object imaginable: knives, swords, spikes, machetes, axes, silverware, and the odd rubber snake -- and those are just the small things.

Keep your eyes open and your lenses ready to see people sticking shovels through their cheeks, revolvers, machine guns, maybe the odd gas pump nozzle or miniature battleship. Umbrellas are popular piercing items, it seems, as are the stalks of pineapples and bananas, with fruit still attached.

Why in the world are they sticking all these strange things through their faces, as well as walking across hot coals, climbing 20-foot bladed ladders, soaking in hot oil, and going into hypnotic trances, you might wonder? There must be some reason behind this apparent madness. And indeed there is.

The local ethnic Chinese population, about one-third of Phuket residents, believe that these sacred rituals will draw the evil away from the community and onto themselves, thus bestowing good luck and fortune to those who religiously and enthusiastically participate in these practices, and follow the "ten commitments," which include: abstaining from meat, sex, alcohol, and tobacco; wearing white; behaving properly both mentally and physically; and keeping the body clean and pure throughout the festival. People in mourning, and pregnant and menstruating women are not to attend or participate in the events as well.

The "ma song (entranced horses)," as the active participants are called, claim to feel no pain and hardly bleed despite what they are inflicting upon their bodies. They are truly in a state of religious ecstasy, and the evil spirits are said to see this and are frightened away. As are some tourists who did not know quite what they were in for on Phuket during this time, held every year during the first nine days of the ninth lunar month. On the other hand, many thousands are drawn to the festival to witness these awe-inspiring if somewhat shocking displays of devotion.

The main temple for the event is the Jui Tui Shrine, located near the Fresh Market in Phuket Town, although it is now held in areas around the six Chinese temples on Phuket Island. The TAT prepares an excellent brochure each year with a schedule of events you would be well-advised to consult.

There is also important advice on etiquette, which should of course always be observed, such as wearing white, and maintaining exceptional personal cleanliness. The festival is really a time of renewal, rejuvenation, and the refreshing of one's mind and body. With the absence of meat, and the great reduction of the vices of alcohol and tobacco, one could almost view it as a detox festival -- with no need to pay for a spa.

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