The famed Phuket Vegetarian Festival: where to start? I could write about the food stalls stocked with vegetarian fare lining the roads, the yellow and red colored flags scattered all over Phuket town (just 20 minutes from our site at Kata Rocks) , or the neon-lit temple at the closing night of the Festival. I could even write about the noisy firecrackers, the lanterns people lit and sent into the sky, or the way families gathered with picnic-like offerings of food and tea for the departing gods by the beach.
But what really stood out to me, having attended the Festival for the first time, was the overwhelming feeling in the air. It’s hard to describe, but just thinking about it now, the feeling comes back. The best way to put it is that the air was filled with a sort of somber excitement–and it was truly memorable.
In short, the Festival is a span of 9 days in which the Buddhists of Phuket believe the gods come down to earth to mingle with mortals. They bring with them luck and good fortune for those who observe the rules of the ritual: namely, keeping a vegetarian or vegan diet and abstaining from most carnal pleasures. Devotees see these few days as a time of spiritual and physical cleansing, in effect earning them favor from the gods.
I arrived by speeding motorbike with a friend to a very smoky Phuket town at about 9 pm, with no plan and no expectations. We found what seemed to be the only parking spot available right by a temple. Dressed in white from head to toe, we wandered about for a bit until we had the courage to get closer to the temple to try and decipher the hustle and bustle.
Once there we saw a mah song (spirit medium) dressed very ornately in red, surrounded by devotees, chanting and giving out bracelets as good luck charms. Somehow, we ended up with two for ourselves. As we stood watching the woman in the trance, a bell rang and a few men came running out of the temple towards the beach, carrying a small wooden boat on their shoulders. We followed them and saw that they had sent the boat out to sea, as the gods who had descended for the Festival were now making their way back up to the heavens.
On the beach, many people were lighting lanterns with Chinese writing on them and releasing them into the sky. We were invited to light one, as the symbolism of the lantern is that you send your written wish into the heavens in the hopes it comes true. It was quite a wistful sight; seeing the lanterns go up into the night sky, wondering what everyone wished for.
Afterwards, we walked to the main strip in Phuket town and joined the crowds who were lining up to enjoy the parade portion of the closing night. Before leaving the office that Saturday afternoon, I had been advised by my Buddhist co-workers at Kata Rocks that I should take a surgical mask and earplugs to the parade. At the time, I didn’t quite understand why, but I should have taken their advice! The air was acrid with the smell of incense and freshly lit firecrackers, and the resulting noise was at times overwhelming. That evening I learned (the hard way!) that the louder the noise the better, as it scares away evil spirits.
People at the parade were so kind and generous, offering my friend and I crackers so that we could join in the festivities, while explaining to us what we were witnessing. We watched along with them as men carried idols of Buddhist gods down the road while spectators threw crackers in their direction. It was something akin to watching men walk on fire and it was quite a sight!
Crackers alight, my friend and I happily joined in the fun—after all, how could we resist? It was such an interesting evening, experiencing the intensity of a religious event combined with the joyful send-off of the gods back to the heavens. After the parade we grabbed a quick bite at a nearby roadside stall and just sat and recounted what we had witnessed. We were both so impressed and moved by the event—we arrived with no expectations and left with so many great memories and experiences. I would definitely recommend that anyone staying at Kata Rocks take part in the event…in fact, I’m sure I’ll take a few people there myself and share what I learned the year before!