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Veg Fest: a time for cleansing

Not just a celebration of plant-based food, nor a sensational spectacle for tourists, the vegetarian (vegan) festival is steeped in history and tradition, and is a major event for the Chinese-Thai community, which makes up approximately 30 per cent of the population of Phuket. Although celebrated in other parts of Thailand, the tradition was originally started in Phuket in 1825.

By Sarah Nockles

Sunday 21 September 2014, 10:00AM

Now for a little history lesson! Phuket has been used as a port by merchants from Arabia, India and China for many years. It has been through periods of French, Dutch, British, Portuguese , Indian and Arab influence, and many say that this has contributed to its multiculturalism and spirit of true uniqueness. In the early 19th century the tin-mining boom brought many Chinese laborers to the island, and as they settled and integrated with Thai people, a whole new culture was born – the Baba people.

Eventually, many of these people became rich merchants and built a unique city of colourful architecture with Portuguese and Chinese accents, still standing in Phuket’s Old Town quarter today.

The vegetarian festival relates to the Baba people – and the most popular story regarding its origins is the journey of a travelling opera company visiting Kathu to perform for the Chinese miners. The governor, Praya Jerm, had changed the principle city to Get-Hoe in Kathu, where the majority of the tin mines and Chinese settlers resided.

The jungle-covered land was a hotbed infectious diseases, and the whole opera company fell sick when they arrived. In order to banish the mystery illness, they kept to a strict vegan diet to honour two of the emperor Gods, Kiew Ong Tai Teh and Yok Ong Sone Teh. And so began the festival of the ninth lunar month. It aims to bring good fortune to the community and its inhabitants.

Each year the date for the festival varies slightly, but in 2014 it is from September 23 to October 2. During the 9 days, observers dress only in white, and abstain from meat, alcohol, dairy products, eggs, onions and garlic.

This avoidance of “vice” promotes a strong mind and body, and of course leads to a feeling of lightness, brightness and remarkable purity. And herein lies the interesting part … the festival is not just about the food! After the poles at each of the Chinese temples are raised, to invite the gods to enter, the street processions start – and that is where things start to get interesting! (Also see schedule in News, page 8).

Mutilation through piercings and cuts is a gruesome aspect of the tradition, which is said to bring good luck through suffering.

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Throughout the festival, the streets are lined with Ma Song – men who have allowed the gods to enter their bodies, partaking in a variety of painful acts such as sticking sharp objects through their face, or cutting themselves with axes! This creates quite a spectacle, and is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should not be missed.

The endless firecrackers and smoke aimed at the statues of the gods during the street processions all add to the vibrant and enigmatic traditions that have shaped this festival into an event that hosts overseas visitors travelling to the island specifically to experience it.

Even if the spiritual aspect or the grotesque spectacles in the streets are not your thing, many areas in Phuket celebrate with vegetarian markets paying homage to the cuisine, and offering up a plethora of plant-based delicacies – even competing for the best dish.

Some expats also observe the traditions of the festival, and practice the same abstinence out of respect for the traditions and practices of the Baba people. The upshot of this is giving the liver and digestive system a much deserved break from the rigours of living in tropical paradise, and of course, the sometime indulgent lifestyle that accompanies it!

Vegetarian restaurants the island-over celebrate with special events to pay homage to the fabulous festival of purity and vibrant health, and Santosa is no exception. The newest and most prolific of the fine dining vegetarian restaurants in Phuket, will be holding a very special vegetarian buffet in celebration of this wonderful festival. On Saturday September 27, the restaurant will be open from 6pm with a selection of Santosa signature dishes, and of course, traditional Thai cuisine in honour of the traditions of the festival.

The cost will be a very special B350++ per person, and we welcome bookings on +66 76 330 600.



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