Thailand is renowned for its unusual celebrations and festivals. Apart from the traditional Thai New Year Festival, during which the whole country grinds to a standstill to celebrate on the streets with water fights and daubing each other with colored chalk, Thailand also hosts the mesmerizing Nine God’s Festival, or as it is known locally, the Chinese Vegetarian Festival. This strange festival, which sees its religious devotees mutilate themselves with piercings and perforations, is one of the most unusual yet and intriguing festivals in Thailand. The festival dates vary from year to year as they are based on the Chinese lunar calendar, and runs from the first to the ninth day of the ninth month of the Chinese calendar.
The festival has its origins in China and is dedicated to the nine gods in the Taoist dogma. The Chinese Vegetarian Festival was brought over to Thailand by a Chinese opera troupe some 170 years ago. Legend has it that the troupe came over at the invitation of the local Chinese migrant population. This population, which was heavily involved in mining in Phuket, was relatively wealthy and brought over this troupe to alleviate some of their boredom.
After several months performing, the troupe was struck down by a terrible epidemic, they all fell sick and the theatre was forced to close. After some thought, the troupe members realized that they had not performed any of the rituals that they normally performed periodically in China. Realizing that they had incurred the wrath of the gods, they immediately set about to perform the Chinese Vegetarian Festival. For nine days, the troupe abstained from all animal products and conducted religious rituals, and low and behold, by the end of the Festival, they were all cured. The local population found this very intriguing, and the following year, some of them performed the same rituals and reported feeling huge health benefits and cleansing, and thus a festival was born.
Over the years, the festival has grown is size and the number of participants has increased steadily. There are many rituals that are performed, but they vary from province to province. The largest festival is in Phuket since it has the largest number of Thais of Chinese descent. The festival is also large scale and popular in Trang, Songkhla, and Pattaya.
The festival has many unique and interesting rituals, the first and least blood thirsty being the dress code. All vegetarians participating in the festival are required to wear all white to signify purity and abstinence from meat products. In support, all the shops selling food will hang colourful yellow flags on their outside to signify that all their fare is vegetarian and suitable for the festival. This is a modern accommodation of the dogma, since strictly speaking, only food prepared in the sacred kitchen of the Chinese temple is considered suitable for the festival.
Now come the interesting rituals, performed by priests to show off the power of their deities and bolster the faith of the faithful. They are also performed by local devotees called “Mah song”; these devotees place themselves in a deep trance and then start to perform some amazing feats. The first amazing spectacle to watch is the hot coal walk performed by the devotees; as person after person in a trance-like dream state dance and walk over a bed of hot coals.
The second amazing feature of the festival is the flagellation and self-mutilation performed by the devotees. In processions all over Phuket, the devotees march in a trance-like state and procced to pierce themselves in the arms, cheeks and skin with skewers and a variety of other different objects. At the temples, the priests perform equally dangerous and painful acts including climbing up and down a ladder with 72 steps made of sharp steel blades.
During all the processions, crowds line the streets and throw lit fire crackers amongst the devotees so they can demonstrate their zeal. This has the effect of creating a cacophony of noise that can be heard from miles away and that gives the whole event the feel of a carnival. Overall, the festival is a sight to behold, and although it is a serious religious event it does have the feel of a carnival due to the zeal and joy people take out of being involved.