Phuket goes vegetarian too

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 17 Oct 2004

THE Vegetarian Festival has begun in earnest at Bangkok’s Chinatown and more so in Phuket, but just for the heck of being kiasu, Malaysians can say: “We have it, too.” 

Devotees in Phuket temples will be walking on burning coal and piercing their cheeks with long skewers and barbed wire, something our Hindu friends would be familiar with while the Taoists would know it as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. 

Bangkok’s Chinatown will feature opera shows. The festival is on a larger scale in Phuket because the Chinese form about 35% of its population, which explains their influence here. Records show that 71% of the 278,480 people on the island are Buddhists. 

Fireworks lit up Phuket town on Thursday night, the first day of the nine-day event. 

Stroll along Phuket’s streets and you will encounter numerous stalls selling vegetarian food. One restaurant proclaims that it is offering “vegetarianism”. Other vendors are busy selling white shirts and pants that are worn by believers. 

Missing, however, are the pink turtle-shaped buns being sold outside temples in Malaysia. 

“I’m not of Chinese origin but I’m also on the vegetarian diet during this period because it’s good to do so,” said Khai, who works at the Tourism Authority of Thailand. 

She added that devotees were not allowed to drink alcohol and they must not have impure thoughts during the festival. 

Her explanation was clearer than the one offered by a Thai man who was watching a street procession along Phuket Road on Thursday afternoon. 

“Errm ... eating,” he said, when asked about the significance of the festival. 

Two Korean girls watching the street procession were delighted with the spectacle, clapping their hands as the floats and dragon and lion dances passed by. 

One large float adorned with roses carried the portraits of the Thai king and queen. The procession was also held to mark the queen’s 72nd birthday. 

The spirit of volunteerism was great. Scores of workers from a department store handed out iced drinks to participants of the procession that took place under the scorching sun. 

Traffic came to a crawl as school bands marched by. 

At the back of the Jui Tui temple, hundreds of people dressed in white helped out with the washing up. Children were, of course, playing with mini firecrackers. 

Phuket police had earlier warned against the use of explosive devices, “bottle rockers” and large firecrackers. 

It is a common belief among practitioners that the greater the din, the more chances of driving away evil spirits. 

Once upon a time, the town of Phuket (its name was previously believed to be from the Malay word bukit) saw the arrival of Chinese traders from Penang who wanted to set up shop here. They were mostly Hokkiens, apparently. 

So how did the vegetarian festival begin in this Pearl of the South? 

According to a booklet issued by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the story began in 1825 when an opera troupe from China arrived to entertain the local miners. 

When the performers fell sick from an unknown illness (one version says it was malaria), they decided to follow a vegetarian diet to honour two of the emperor gods. 

They recovered, word spread and thus the vegetarian festival begins every year on the first day of the ninth lunar month. 

It has evolved to become Phuket’s most important festival. Devotees perform amazing feats while in a trance. For example, they could bathe in hot oil or climb ladders that have machetes for rungs. 

The festival ends on Oct 22 with a “Siva and Nine Emperor Gods” farewell, the highlight of which will be “Billions of Fire Crackers” that you would not have seen anywhere in the world, according to the tourism booklet.  

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