The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is one of the most extraordinary religious festivals in the world. It has also become a major tourist attraction with thousands of people coming from all around the world to witness and even join the strange rituals and ceremonies.
There is actually a vegetarian festival held throughout Thailand during this time, but Phuket has unique activities at this time.
NINE DAYS VEGETARIAN FESTIVAL
The event always takes place over nine days, starting on the first evening of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. This means the event always takes place in September or October.
HISTORY OF THE PHUKET VEGETARIAN FESTIVAL
Phuket’s Vegetarian festival (or jia chai in local Hokkien Chinese dialect) began in 1825. The governor of Thalang, Praya Jerm, moved the island’s principal town from Ta Reua in Thalang District to Get-Hoe in Kathu District, where there were tin mines and Chinese miners. Kathu was then still covered by jungle and fever was rife. It happened that a traveling opera company (called ngiu in Thai or pua-hee in Hokkien dialect) came from China to perform for the miners.
When the whole company grew sick from an unnamed malady, they kept to a vegetarian diet to honor two fo the emperor gods, Kiew Ong Tai Teh and Yok Ong Sone Teh. The sickness afflicting the opera troupe then disappeared. This greatly interested the people of Kathu, who asked how it was done. The answer came that ritual vegetarianism with its attendant ceremonies had been the cause, with the result that people embraced the faith enthusiastically.
Thus the festival began: starting the first evening of the ninth lunar month, it continued until the ninth evening. The aim was to bring good luck to individuals as well as to the community.
It later happened that one familiar with the festival volunteered to return to Kansai, in China, where he invited the sacred Hiao Ho-le or Hiao Ian (incense smoke) and Lian Tui (name plaques), which have the status of gods, to come stay in Kathu. He also brought holy writings used in the ceremonies, returing to Phuket on the seventh night of the ninth month. The people, upon hearing of his arrival, went in procession to Bang Niao Pier to bring him and his sacred cargo back. This was the origin of the processions that figure so greatly in the festival.