Resurrecting Tradition: Phuket's Holiest – and Goriest – Festival Returns with a Spectacular Bang

In the midst of Phuket’s vibrant and enigmatic Vegetarian Festival, I found myself immersed in a sensory onslaught. The crackling explosions of plastic-coated gunpowder, mere inches from my feet, constantly jolted my senses. As smoke enveloped my vision and deafening blasts reverberated in my ears, I couldn't help but be startled by the spectacle unfolding before me.

In this paradoxically named festival, where everyone embraces veganism, hurling firecrackers at wooden god effigies is considered an auspicious act, believed to bring good luck. The crowd, numbering in the thousands, reveled in this explosive tradition. Yet, for newcomers like myself, the experience teetered on the edge of mild terror.

Amidst the chaos, I observed an elderly man to my right, unfazed by the explosive display. A knowing smile adorned his face, a testament to the familiarity of the annual spectacle. The festival, spanning nine days every October, transforms the island's streets into vibrant processions, but one particular element stands out across Thailand – the ritualistic piercing of individuals with swords, skewers, umbrellas, and an array of unconventional objects through their cheeks.

Expecting queasiness, I instead found myself captivated as men and women, young and old, paraded with objects embedded in their faces. The context, crucial to understanding the significance, revealed that the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, as it is also known, is not a celebration of violence for its own sake. Rather, it is an expression of devotion, weaving through Phuket's multicultural and multi-faith community, marking the pinnacle of their annual calendar.

Participation in the piercing ritual is not open to all; it is a privilege reserved for the Mah Song, individuals considered earthly embodiments of the gods, angels, or bodhisattvas. This Taoist tradition, introduced by the Peranakan community from south China, calls upon chosen Mah Song to represent their respective deities during the festival. Throughout the event, these individuals adopt the characteristics, mannerisms, and language of their chosen god, with many becoming mediums in their teenage years—a commitment for life.

As I arrived at Jui Tui Shrine at 5:30 am, clad in the requisite white attire worn by all attendees who aren't Mah Song, the air buzzed with anticipation. Guided by local expert Jo Lecourt, I traversed the sprawling Chinese temple, surrounded by a sea of people and countless yellow flags fluttering against the pre-dawn indigo sky. The festival's essence, a tapestry of tradition, devotion, and spectacle, unfolded before me, leaving an indelible mark on my senses and understanding of Phuket's cultural richness.

As the sun ascended, casting its golden glow over Phuket Old Town, a vibrant assembly of almost 2,000 Mah Song prepared for the grand procession—the crowning spectacle of the nine-day revelry, a meandering 10km route through the historic streets. Jo, my ever-enthusiastic guide, posed a tantalizing question, her eyes glinting with mischief: "Would you venture to the piercing tent?"

Despite the allure of the Mah Song adorned in a kaleidoscope of hues, a stark contrast to the sea of white-clad onlookers, I hesitated. Witnessing the elegant procession was one thing; however, the prospect of observing the intricate act of metal being pressed into flesh proved a challenge to my squeamish disposition, and I politely declined the invitation.

This marked the festival's triumphant return to full glory after enduring three years of pandemic-induced constraints—a comeback warmly embraced by the community. Chanachon "Jood" Tandavanitj, the proprietor of the Chinpracha House museum, shed light on the festival's historical resilience. "The festival originated nearly a century ago to commemorate the end of a pandemic. Even during recent Covid times, the procession continued, albeit exclusively by the Mah Song. This year, with improved conditions, the festivities are not only better but also busier than usual, drawing in a multitude of Thai tourists."

The allure of the event is undeniable, attracting domestic visitors eager to witness the Phuket treasure—a legacy of the local Peranakan Chinese, constituting about 60 percent of the island's population. Centuries ago, these communities migrated from Malaysia, contributing their expertise and labor to Phuket's tin mining industry. While similar celebrations unfold in Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan, the piercing and mutilation spectacle remains uniquely Phuketian.

"It never hurts, and it never scars," reassures Kaewalee Siripohn, affectionately known as Pie. Over lunch, held the day after the Jui Tui Shrine procession, Pie shared her 23-year journey as a Mah Song. In a transcendent state, she and others undergo piercing within the temple's sacred confines. "I can't speak Hokkien; I don't know it. But when my god first came to me, I went to the temple and wrote down her name in that language." In her "goddess mode," Pie imparts blessings to devoted onlookers lining the streets, some moved to tears as they pray while being blessed by a Mah Song. The convergence of tradition, faith, and the enduring spirit of Phuket unfolded in this mesmerizing tapestry of devotion.

Rooted in Taoist Chinese origins, the Phuket Vegetarian Festival has evolved into a distinctly Phuketian celebration, encompassing islanders of all faiths in various roles. Jood Tandavanitj, a local voice, emphasizes Phuket's long-standing international character, where Thai temples, Chinese shrines, Malay Muslim mosques, and Christian churches coexist harmoniously on the same streets. "We're very close to other cultures here," Jood reflects, encapsulating the rich tapestry of Phuket's cultural diversity.

This multicultural harmony extends to Phuket Old Town, renowned for its vibrant architecture and eclectic mix of restaurants, stores, and museums. A melting pot of influences from different communities, the Old Town has emerged as a cultural hub, rivaling the charm of Penang and Singapore. As tourism shifts from the beaches, the Old Town is gaining prominence, attracting boutique establishments like Hotel Verdigris, where proprietor Peach Pichakorn infuses Peranakan culture into the design.

Peach, a proud custodian of Phuket's uniqueness, notes that the festival acts as a magnetic pull for Phuketians scattered across Thailand, Malaysia, and even as far as the US or Europe. The allure of the Old Town's cultural richness and the festival's vibrant energy draws them back annually, a testament to the profound connection Phuketians maintain with their roots.

In the midst of this cultural extravaganza, festivalgoers are treated to a unique experience. The lively streets of Phuket Old Town come alive during the festival, attracting both locals and global travelers. The enchanting scenes witnessed from Hotel Verdigris or the Courtyard Marriot Hotel, strategically positioned along the parade route, provide an immersive view of the festivities.

As I bid farewell to Phuket's Old Town, promising to return for the festival as a fully committed vegan, I reflect on the harmonious blend of tradition and modernity that defines this captivating destination. Perhaps, on my next visit, the crackling firecrackers won't evoke the same trepidation, as I immerse myself once again in the unique allure of Phuket's Old Town and its mesmerizing festival traditions.

Immersed in the heart of Phuket Old Town, the vibrant architecture tells tales of centuries past, each building a testament to the confluence of cultures that have shaped this enchanting locale. The streets, pulsating with life and color, bear witness to a rich history etched into the very fabric of the city. As I stroll through this living canvas, I am captivated by the intricate details of each structure, a harmonious blend of Thai, Chinese, Malay, and Western influences.

Captured in the lens of Getty Images, the essence of Phuket Old Town unfolds, a visual narrative of architectural diversity and cultural fusion. The snapshots encapsulate the spirit of a place where Thai temples, Chinese shrines, Malay Muslim mosques, and Christian churches stand side by side, creating a visual symphony that resonates with the island's international character.

The vivid imagery evokes a sense of timelessness, as if the streets themselves are storytellers recounting the tales of generations that have walked these paths. Every October, these very streets become the stage for processions that unfold over nine days, a dynamic spectacle that further weaves the tapestry of Phuket's cultural identity.

The photographs, frozen moments in time, invite contemplation and appreciation for the intricate beauty that Phuket Old Town offers. Beyond the visual feast, they beckon one to explore the narratives hidden within the architectural marvels, inviting a deeper connection with the rich heritage that defines this captivating destination.

In the spirit of preserving these vivid memories, the Independent Premium offers a chance to bookmark favorite articles and stories. A tangible link to the past and a gateway to future adventures, these visual chronicles of Phuket Old Town serve as a reminder that some stories are best savored, revisited, and shared over time.

In conclusion, Phuket Old Town stands as a living testament to the rich cultural mosaic that defines this enchanting destination. Its vibrant architecture, captured eloquently by Getty Images, tells a story of harmonious coexistence, where diverse influences converge to create a visually captivating landscape. As one meanders through the streets, the intricate details of Thai, Chinese, Malay, and Western architectural elements form a symphony that transcends time.

The October processions, documented in these visual chronicles, add a dynamic layer to the narrative, highlighting the cultural festivities that bring the streets to life for nine days each year. This annual celebration not only honors tradition but also reflects the resilience of a community that continues to embrace its uniqueness amidst the ever-changing tides of time.

As we bookmark these visual stories for later exploration, the Independent Premium offers a valuable resource to revisit and share the tales of Phuket Old Town. Beyond the pixels and prints, these images serve as windows to the past and doors to future adventures. In the essence of Phuket's cultural richness, the streets and structures become storytellers, inviting us to appreciate, contemplate, and celebrate the enduring spirit of this captivating destination.