Prasert Fakthongkol, President of the Phuket Chinese Shrines Association, which acts as the lead organising body for Vegetarian Festival in Phuket said concerns were raised during the traditional raising of the Go Teng poles at participating shrines last Friday (Oct 16), the eve of the nine-day festival.
The raising of the Go Teng poles is to allow the Nine Emperor Gods to descend from the heavens to walk the Earth during the nine days of purification rituals. The raising of the poles usually sees crowds thronging at the temples, jammed tight in the confines of the temple compounds. This year the crowds were much smaller, but still close personal contact was a key concern, Mr Prasert said.
“This year far fewer people are joining the festival events, but I have already seen – and admit – that some parts of the events have been beyond our control. There have been many people not wearing masks or maintaining social distance during the street processions and the rituals performed at the shrines,” he stressed.
The smaller attendance at the festivals has been a godsend, even with crowd control measures implemented at all temples, Mr Prasert noted.
“All participating temples are controlling the number of people who enter the temple compounds by using the Thai Chana app, but once people have entered the temple they go back to their normal behaviour. The temple volunteers are doing what they can, but this has proved very difficult to control,” he added.
“The festival this year is under the ‘New Normal’ health protection measures. All people joining the festival are urged to ensure they wear face masks at all times and to maintain a social distance of at least one metre from other people,” Mr Prasert urged.
“I want people to follow New Normal measures. Many devotees seem to be not aware of their own behaviour while they are taking part in the events.
“I worry very much about the risk of COVID-19 surfacing from an event at the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket,” Mr Prasert said.
The New Normal measures implemented has seen several of the key purification rituals banned this year, including the climbing of bladed ladders, bathing with hot oil and walking across bridges of nails.
However, earlier warnings that Mah Song spirit mediums must travel in vehicles separate from the crowds during street processions have fallen by the wayside, with Mah Song this year still walking the streets with their traditional face piercings as usual.
Also allowed at the last minute were the fire-walking rituals.
The festival will conclude with the traditional bonfire of written prayers and blessings for the gods, and the barrage of firecrackers, at the shrine at Saphan Hin on Sunday night (Oct 25).
The Go Teng poles will be lowered the next day, as is tradition, Mr Prasert confirmed.
The New Normal measures are understood as having little impact on the traditional ceremonies performed at the shrines.
“The new normal measures have not changed our activities much, and has not affected any rituals,” said Bopit ‘Rat’ Saetan, 32, a shrine administrator at Lim Hu Tai Su Shrine in Samkong.
“There have been only small changes at the shrine. For example, there are fewer tables offering food inside the shrine compound than last year, and we are limiting the number of people allowed into the temple at the same time. Other things are not really different,” he said.
Of note, he explained that Lim Hu Tai Su is a high-ranking god, with about 150 gods considered as “lower” in status. Also of note is that Lim Hu Tai Su is a god of healing.
Mr Bopit also admitted, “There are not many devotees taking part in the festival this year.”
Srinaun Yarangsri, who operates one of the 30 vegetarian food stalls in front of the shrine, agrees.
“This year, there are much less people on the street. Most of them are just local people. There are no tourists joining the festival this year,” he said.
“People walk past, but they do not buy anything. With fewer customers, people like me are earning less income,” he added.
Mr Srinaun’s testament on Monday (Oct 19) follows Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) Governor Yuthasak Supasorn last week announcing that the Phuket Vegetarian Festival was expected to attract some 60,000 people to take part in the festivities, altogether generating a projected more than B350 million in revenues for local businesses.
“According to reports from 54 of 200 hotels open in Phuket, about 20% of rooms have been booked for weekdays, and more bookings were made for the weekend during the nine days of the festival, from Oct 17-25.” Mr Yuthasak said, reported state news broadcaster MCOT.
“We expect 60,000 tourists and local people to join the festival. Most of the tourists will come from nearby provinces, up to about 300 kilometres from Phuket,” he said.
However, Mr Yuthasak admitted, “The number of tourists from other regions may not be high.
“We expect the festival to generate more than B350mn [in revenues]. Even though the number cannot be as high as past years, in a situation like this, it will help to stimulate tourism and the economy well,” Mr Yuthasak said.