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Between Trance and Tradition: The Spiritual Spectacle of Phuket's Vegetarian Festival

3 May 2024
Piercings works
Piercings works
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is a nine-day Taoist event held in honor of the Nine Emperor Gods. Devotees march through Phuket, some undergoing extreme piercings as a sign of penance and devotion.

Despite the intense rituals, participants experience little pain, and they believe that the purification ritual brings them good fortune. This festival, which combines deep religious devotion with historical traditions, fascinates both residents and visitors.

The nine-day Taoist celebration, also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, is celebrated annually in the fall.

In the heart of Phuket, hundreds of devotees and worshippers march in a procession honoring the Chinese gods. Some with sharp objects pierced through their faces say that the meaning of the piercing is a symbol of the sinful things they may have said during the non-vegetarian season.


Devotees said that after the process is completed, they feel no pain but feel that they have contributed by showing respect to the gods and goddesses they worship.

It is a sacred ritual for religious devotees in Phuket.

Some of the most notable features of the Vegetarian Festival are the many, often gruesome, ceremonies held to appease the gods. During the festival, religious devotees, dressed in white to symbolize compliance, walk barefoot over hot coals and participate in extreme body piercing rituals, including piercing cheeks with swords and spears to ward off evil spirits and invite prosperity for the new year.

Although its origins are largely unknown, it is widely accepted that it was established by a Chinese opera group in Kathu. The story goes that a member of the group contracted malaria during the ninth Chinese lunar month. Soon, people on the island began to fall ill. As a result, the Chinese artists adhered to a vegetarian diet while seeking forgiveness from the Nine Emperor Gods for not having prayed during the first nine days. To everyone's surprise, the sick member recovered quickly.


Since then, the festival has brought people from Asian countries to Phuket every year for nine days in October.

During the festival, there is complete abstinence from meat, alcohol, sex, fighting, and lying.

Those who voluntarily get pierced, known as 'mediums', believe they have a personal connection with one of the gods. They must register in advance and are carefully considered before being granted the honor.

Lovers of the Thai vegetarian festival go all out by piercing their cheeks with samurai swords, steak knives, bicycles, guns, and even the sharpened handles of badminton rackets during an annual event that is both cheerful and bloody.

Contrary to the belief that this could be painful, men sometimes sustain real injuries and feel no sign of pain. This is because they enter a trance before their face is pierced. As bearers of the piercing, they represent the fearsome gods. People believe that evil spirits are intimidated at their sight and flee.

All this happens without anesthesia, always in or near temples surrounded by other devotees with only iodine, vaseline, and surgical gloves as precautions. Despite this scenario, many of the people who perform the rituals are also the people who will take care of many of the people during their recovery.

Few people ever need prolonged medical treatment, and although in the weeks following the festival many people will be seen covered with bandages, scars are uncommon and sutures, even among individual devotees who tear their cheeks, are rare and rarely return. The daily activities for the devotees take place shortly after the completion of the ritual, often before the festival ends, much earlier than before the bandage itself is removed.

To complete this purification ritual, the people of Phuket depart from the main temple before moving into different processes by walking on hot coals in the 24 temples built by their ancestors.

It is believed that this purification festival brings good luck.