When most people think about Phuket it’s the gorgeous beaches, sparkling blue waters, fabulous landscape and spectacular diving sites that spring to mind, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll discover surprising cultural riches that most visitors never get to see.

One of Thailand’s biggest Taoist celebrations is the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. Known locally as the ‘Vegetarian Festival’, it’s a unique experience, with devotees in trances, sacred ritualistic acts, and religious passion.

The festival is held all over Phuket, but mainly in the Old Town, during September / October. For 9 days, participants must observe ritual cleansing activities, this includes no alcohol, dairy, meat or sex, to attain good health and peace of mind, and gain merits.

The local Thai people take the festival seriously, for them it’s a powerful religious experience. It certainly isn’t to everyone’s taste; the ceremonies can be a little scary as they involve self-mutilation and bold acts of walking on hot coals and climbing knife-blade ladders. During the procession, participants walk in trance-like states through exploding firecrackers proudly displaying their body piercings and mutilated faces.

After saying all that, it is a mesmerizing festival to witness, something you are unlikely to see anywhere else. Take it as an opportunity to experience a unique cultural event, buy yourself a white outfit, some fisherman pants and a T-shirt, from a local stall and get your camera ready to take some very interesting, and somewhat grisly photos.

The festival kicks off with a sunset ritual, the raising of the Go Teng poles, held at the ancient Juitui Tao Bo Keng Chinese Shrine, in Old Phuket Town, and several other shrines around the island. The ceremony is an invitation to the Jade Emperor and the Nine Emperor Gods to descend from the heavens.


Morning Processions

The morning processions start early, if you want to watch you can join the locals waiting patiently on the streets of Phuket Town. You’ll hear the procession before you see it, loud firecrackers and drumbeats to ward off evil spirits, and then the smell of wafting smoke fills the air as the ‘mah song’ come into sight.

Horses of the Gods

Mah song, ‘horses of the gods’ in Thai, are the chosen ones who have invited the spirits of the Nine Emperor Gods to possess their bodies. In a trance-like state, dressed in brightly coloured traditional costumes you’ll be shocked as you see all kinds of strange objects piercing their cheeks and tongues.

Everything from bicycles, spears and steel rods, to swords, kitchen knives and spikes, some of them so heavy and large they have someone to help hold it up whilst they walk.

Not everybody can be a mah song, they have to be accepted by the gods, this can be through a dream or a vision. When in their trance state they are said to feel no pain, and some are even known to start speaking Chinese, with no prior knowledge of the language.


The Story Behind the Festival

The festival started after a visiting troupe of Chinese performers suddenly became seriously ill. The performers realised they had neglected to pay their respects to the Nine Emperor Gods and saw the illness as their punishment. One was sent back to China to invite the angry gods to Phuket, and they began observing traditional methods of devotion to the gods, giving up meat, alcohol, and sex. Subsequently, the performers fully recovered, and so was the start of the annual vegetarian festival in Phuket.
After you’ve seen as much as you can stomach, take a walk down Ranong Road and the surrounding streets where local restaurants hang yellow and red flags to show they serve vegetarian food. Grab yourself some delicious Tofu Pad Thai or Saku Sai Moo, sweet and savoury steamed tapioca balls dumplings, from one of the many festival stalls and enjoy the atmosphere.


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