The Vegetarian Festival in Phuket, an annual Taoist tradition observed in many Southeast Asian countries, came to a close last week. We visited Phuket in Thailand where many of the celebration’s most unusual and violent religious rituals are performed.
All over Phuket, red lanterns were hung as decorations for the Chinese-inspired festival. Delicious vegan-friendly food was being served buffet-style in a plethora of stalls and restaurants, where herds of people grabbed plates and a good helping of whatever vegan options there were.
Not all Thai people were masongs, or possessed by a medium, for the festival. Many were there with families and masks in tow, just looking to enjoy the good food and festival atmosphere.
All ages participated in the festivities Saturday evening in Phuket Town, including this crew of kids. They set off firecrackers all night, even throughout the ceremonies that were taking place just feet away from their shenanigans.
Herds of people dressed in white made their way through the food stalls and merchants, selling everything from firecrackers to french fries. As night approached, the streets continued to get busier.
At 7 p.m., those celebrating the Vegetarian Festival made their way to Jui Tui Shrine, a popular destination for religious ceremonies and celebrations. This is the entrance to the shrine before the crowd made their way to participate in the bridge-walking ceremony to achieve purification.
The line began to form, each person wanting to cross the bridge of purification. Only those who followed the ten rules of the Vegetarian Festival could cross the bridge. Bridge crossing ceremonies took place around the city at its many shrines.
By the time the bridge crossing ceremony proceeded, thousands were lined up and ready to take part in the ceremony.
Masongs (those who are possessed by spirits or spirit mediums) lined either side of the two bridges as thousands of participants began to cross.
Those who could not or did not partake in the ceremony explored the grounds.
There are three statues of Chinese gods found within the shrine, as well as places for people to make merit. This shrine is one of the oldest shrines in Phuket, and it is highly regarded by Thai people.
This structure on the grounds of the Jui Tui Shrine was specifically made for lighting and setting off fireworks. Completed in 2011, it was built so people could throw fireworks in it, thus stifling the sound and encasing some of the smoke.
There was a parade the next morning. Those who gathered here have described the scene as entrancing and scary as the masongs made their way down Phuket’s roads with knives and axes piercing their skin. At every large intersection, the masongs would stop and chant while swinging their weapons into their bodies.
While the scenes might be shocking and gruesome to spectators, the masong are said to be protected from feeling any pain.
The crowd and masong continued to make their way down the streets of Phuket, axes and knives in tow.
The masong were not the only people participating in the parade. They were followed by a long line of vehicles, each one decorated with colorful flowers and shrines. The aftermath was a colorful one, with red firecrackers and colorful shreds of paper littering the streets.