It’s 7.30am and I’ve just watched a man with a three-foot metal bar through his cheeks try to drink a cup of tea. A woman has draped two oranges on a string over one end of the bar and I can’t hear anything other the mini explosions coming from the six feet of firecrackers dangling from a pole over my head. It’s just another morning at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
Phuket may be best known as an exotic package tour destination, as a playground for sex tourists and, increasingly, as a mooring for the super-yachts of billionaires, but for nine days each year, it’s also a tropical paradise for vegetarians.
Even so, it’s hard at first to see the connection between a man with extreme facial piercing and the street stalls heavy with cubes of fried tofu, vats of vegan curry and some alarmingly (for vegetarians) meaty-looking morsels of soya, but it all makes sense if the most common theory about the festival’s origins are correct.
The story goes that in the first half of the 19th century, members of a travelling opera company from China came to Phuket to entertain local tin miners and were struck down by a mystery illness. Deciding they had disappointed the gods in some way, the players set about appeasing them by following a strict vegetarian diet and performing acts of penance. The ailing players were cured, and the local people were so impressed they decided to make such propitiation an annual event, to keep themselves and their families safe from illness.
The festival lasts for the first nine days of the ninth Chinese lunar month, which usually falls during September or October. Most followers – Thai as well as Taoist Chinese – believe it is enough to follow a vegetarian diet, wear white clothes and abstain from sex, alcohol and bad behaviour, but some believe they have become Ma Song, ‘entranced horses’, and are possessed by the spirit of the gods.
So possessed, Ma Song have the power to perform such feats as bladed ladder climbing – ascending, barefoot (but surprisingly unbloodily), a ladder of 32 blades – and walking on hot coals. They also injure themselves by cutting their tongues, or – commonly – piercing their faces with anything from tree branches to bicycle handlebars. By such self-mutilation, the Ma Song – usually men, although there are a handful of women – are believed to draw bad fortune from others onto themselves, and so are highly respected.
There are rituals and activities at all of the many Taoist temples on the island, and most take place at or near the temple concerned, but after devotees held a procession to welcome some holy writings, which arrived in Phuket from China during the festival one year, parades too became an integral part of the events.
Each temple holds its own procession, usually through Phuket City, and they are noisy affairs, as participants bang drums and gongs and let off firecrackers in an attempt to make enough noise to frighten away evil spirits.
Images of the nine emperor gods are carried in sedan chairs by young men with scarves and shirts wrapped round their heads to protect them from the hail of firecrackers thrown at them.
The Ma Song stop at little temporary altars outside homes and businesses where they drink from one of nine cups of tea (one for each emperor god), while accepting gifts of flowers and fruit from the owners of the businesses and houses who hope that paying respect to the gods in such a way will bring them luck.
The biggest parade of all takes place on the last night of the festival, when members of all the island’s temples unite in Phuket City and the narrowest streets reverberate to countless firecrackers – one million during the 2004 event, it was claimed – as the gods are carried through the city for the final time.
The procession ends just outside the city centre, where the final ritual is to lower the nine Ko Teng poles which are erected on the first night of the festival to signify the arrival of the gods on Earth.
By the time the Ko Teng have been lowered and the lanterns they bore have been extinguished, cleaners are already sweeping the inches-deep carpet of red firecracker paper from the streets. The smell of gunpowder, though, is still overwhelming. This is a festival that ends with a bang, not a whimper.