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.
Horses of the Gods
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.