“It’s not so much the facial piercings but indiscriminate use of firecrackers that causes injury and the occasional death,” muses our driver as we wait in Phuket Town for the annual Vegetarian Festival to begin.
The week has seen a packed program around the town’s main Chinese-Thai shrines that includes fire walking and an 8 metre bladed ladder climb (I kid you not!)
In front of Bangliao Shrine, the air is thick from a forest fire of joss sticks and ricocheting firecrackers. A heavily tattooed, bare-chested man wearing a gold dragon-embossed apron leads a loud drum beating, bell ringing procession while other men, clad in white, limber up with some primitive dance moves for their evening performance.
But it’s the street processions that draw the crowd and a word of warning, they’re not for the fainthearted!
Stemming from the local Chinese-Thai community-held belief that abstinence from meat during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar will bring good health and peace of mind, men and a few women puncture their cheeks with various household items from skewers and knives to swords and even a petrol pump and hose!!
Forget giving up meat. Seeing these bizarre ritualistic mutilations is enough to put me off food completely!!
Accompanied by a rolling hailstorm of firecrackers, rhythmic beating of drums and clashing of cymbals, the men emerge through the smoke haze walking in a trance-like state surrounded by bare chested acolytes.
The macabre procession winds its way through the main streets packed with locals and tourists before bizarrely concluding with upbeat pop music and Chinese dragon dancing. It’s like being in a parallel universe where suddenly everything reverts to normal. The crowd disburses, cars and bikes own the roads once again and street sweepers clean up spent firecracker papers with twig brooms.
Participants do a finger count and a siren wails mournfully as doctors are kept busy treating burns rather than patching faces, cheeks and tongues. So, as white-clad onlookers line-up at food kitchens to fill their tiffins, is vegetarianism really bad for you? I guess the answer is in the lap of the gods that the festival invokes.
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival takes place in Phuket Town over 9 days during the last week of September/early October. For 2015 dates go to www.phuket.com/festival/vegetarian.htm
Go to our menu and see IN THE PICTURE for a visual kaleidoscope of this month’s images