Phuket Vegetarian Festival kicks off, poles raised to call spirits down from the heavens

Photo via PR Phuket

The famous Phuket Vegetarian Festival kicked off yesterday, with its traditional ceremony to welcome spirits to descend from the heavens, but under Covid-19 restrictions. Go Teng poles were raised at participating shrines as a call for the Jade Emperor and Nine Emperor Gods to come down to earth.

During the festival, some will practice self-mutilation, such as tongue slicing or body piercing, to enter a holy trance-like state and channel spirits through their bodies. These practitioners are known as “Mah Song,” or spirit mediums, and their bloody procession through the streets is viewed as a deeply spiritual event. The festival is marked by many other prayers, holy rituals and blessing ceremonies, as well.

Certain other customs are followed by some during the celebrations. These include refraining from eating meat, as the name would suggest, and also abstaining from drinking alcohol, lying, cheating, stealing, and sex. Attendees also wear white as a symbol of purity.

The celebration officially began at the Jui Tui Shrine in Phuket Town, and was overseen by most of the political and spiritual leaders of Phuket. These include the Governor Narong Woonciew, the Vice-Governors, the Phuket Provincial Administration Organisation officials, and many others.

The opening celebrations were viewed by a reduced number of festival-goers this year. Typically an extremely popular event attended by teeming crowds, Covid-19 restrictions are keeping many people home. Limits to the number of participants allowed in shrines and ceremonies are being enforced, temperature checks are mandated for all attendees, and the vegetarian food vendors have been asked not to cluster around shrines, in order to achieve some measure of social distancing. And of course face masks are required at all times.

The Mah Song spirit mediums will also not be allowed to perform their usual procession on foot, but will rather be required to travel by vehicle. They have also been asked to “refrain from performing miracles,” including their usual self mutilation, bladed-ladder climbing, fire walking and anything else that could potentially spread Covid-19. These rules are to be applied to all of the shrines across the island, big and small, that may be involved in the festivities.

Governor Narong warned that if 10% of attendees at a certain shrine or event contracted Covid, that specific event will be shut down for 3 days while the site is disinfected and the attendees are tested for the virus. If 20% of participants in a certain cluster are infected, the event will be cancelled.

The Festival will last until October 14, and will conclude at midnight with firecrackers and a feast.

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Tanutam Thawan

Local Thai journalist speaking fluent Thai and English. Tanutam studied in Khon Kaen before attending Bangkok’s Chulalongkhorn University.