Vegetarianism has hugely grown in popularity over the last decade or so – ‘clean eating’ has taken off, and greater awareness of the effect the food we eat has on our health means that more and more people are trying to limit the amount of meat in their diet. But despite its growing popularity, vegetarians still take a bit of stick. Often perceived as a fussy preoccupation with health and calories, it isn’t exactly seen as living life on the wild side – after all, ordering broccoli as a main course at a restaurant isn’t exactly “live fast, die young”. But take a trip to Phuket, Thailand for the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, and you might discover a whole new take on the veggie lifestyle.
The population of Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, which is one of the reasons Thai food is such a great veggie option – but the province of Phuket, which consists of Phuket Island and 32 smaller surrounding islands, also has a large Muslim and Chinese population, making for a delicious melting pot of different styles of cuisine. But that’s not something you’d necessarily associate with vegetarianism – and vegetarianism isn’t something you’d necessarily associate with the carnival of colour, festivities, fire-eating, self-mortification and abundance you’ll find at Phuket Vegetarian Festival. So prepare to be initiated into the wildest, wackiest, most extraordinary veggie festival in the world – and never let your meat-eating friends get away with saying vegetarians are dull ever again
Once upon a time (about 150 years ago, to be precise), in the bustling Kathu district of idyllic Phuket Island, the sizeable local community of Chinese tin mine workers were hit by disaster. An epidemic of deadly disease had struck, and many lives were lost – not just of the tin miners, but also of the Chinese opera performers who had also settled in the district, to provide the many workers with entertainment. In despair, the community wracked their brains to try to understand why this plague had been visited upon them – and suddenly, they realised what had happened.
It was the ninth Chinese lunar month when the epidemic hit – and while they should have spent the first nine days of the month paying homage to the Nine Emperor Gods (Kiu Ong Lah), they’d forgotten. Traditionally, this period would see processions take place from temples to the seashore to invite the arrival of the gods, devotees wear white and carry incense, refrain from meat-eating and other corrupting activities and chant – and so the Phuket settlers resolved to pray, follow a strict vegetarian diet and to make a pilgrimage, inviting the Kiu Ong Lah to Phuket. Their illness (now believed to have been malaria), was resolved, and the Phuket Vegetarian Festival was made a yearly festival, where devotees hold ceremonies to invoke the gods, abstain from sex, meat and alcohol, bring their household gods to the temples, and pay homage at the Chinese shrines in Phuket town – but with all this abstinence, where does getting wild come in? Well…
In the West, we may associate religion with restraint – quiet, organized ceremonies in church, synagogue or mosque. Well, this is nothing like that – a fervoured festival which both invokes and celebrates the Kiu Ong Lah, participants perform religious rituals which may be astounding to Western onlookers. Firstly, the Lantern Pole is raised to alert the Kui Ong Lah that the festival has commenced – this pole is believed to allow Hindu god Shiva to descend, bringing spiritual power to the festival.
Then, a schedule of religious rituals takes place – street processions to various shrines, fire walking ceremonies where locals enter trances and run across beds of burning coals, bladed ladder climbing (which is exactly what it sounds like – climbing tall ladders made of sharp blades), and nail bridge crossing, to name but a few. It may sound crazy, but it’s an incredible spectacle of mind over matter – the Chinese gods are believed to protect participants from harm. Body piercing is also performed, with an array of mind-boggling unconventional items – experienced performers are said to feel no pain, and show no sign of real injury. Throughout this all, incense is burned, chanting is heard, participants are clad in white and the island is awash with delectable veggie morsels…
During the festival, the island is a vegetarian’s dream. The island abounds with food stalls overflowing with veggie fare the likes of which you’ve never tasted – yellow signs and flags outside restaurants and stalls declare them meat-free zones, creating a sea of vivid yellow. Pad Thai (fried rice noodles), Pad tau-hu priew waan (sweet and sour fried tofu), Pak thod (deep fried vegetables in batter) and the ever popular Po pia thod (fried spring rolls) are just a few of the delicious dishes you’ll feast upon – isn’t it lucky that all those festivities work up an appetite?
Phuket Vegetarian Festival isn’t for the easily alarmed, but it’s certainly a whole lot of fun, and goes a long way to dispelling some of those enduring myths about vegetarians being boring and staid – not to mention the myth that you can’t eat great food on a vegetarian diet! At Banana Tree, we offer a whole range of Thai and Indochinese vegetarian dishes – from flavoursome meat-free South Asian stews like our Tamarind Spicy Aubergine, to fresh, aromatic stir fries and noodle dishes like our Blackened Monks Noodles – who says you have to go abroad to eat good vegetarian food?