Ligaya in West Thailand

Phuket's Vegetarian Festival.

Parade of the Sapam Shrine.

The vegetarian festival dates back to 1825. Tin mining was a big industry for the island. The main town was in Kathu district, the heart of the mining industry.

A group of Chinese performers came to entertain the miners, and they all got sick with some unknown fever. Much to the surprise of the locals, they all recovered. The people of Kathu wanted to know the secret. The Chinese said it was because they had made some special ceremonies and had observed a strict ritualised vegetarian diet. The local people took to the faith in droves, and the Vegetarian Festival was born.

It begins on the first evening of the ninth lunar month and goes for nine days. The evening before the festival starts, a big pole is raised in front of each temple. The Gods are invited to descend this pole to join in the festivities.

Certain devotees indulge in self mutilation. This is said to shift evil from other people onto themselves, and they are generally thought to bring good luck to their communities. Particularly popular is piercing the face with a variety of skewers, knives and sword.

The parades are noisy, to say the least. There is a plethora of drums, cymbals and horns, and literally thousands of firecrackers are lit and thrown about with gay abandon.

Each shirne has it's own special day to parade in town. This was the Sapam Shrine who paraded down to the Sapam Hin Shrine on the beach, south of the city.


Many men, and it was exclusively men, pierced their faces with knives and swords. It is said that they feel no pain and suffer no scars. I find this a little hard believe as none of them looked too comfortable with their piercings, and we saw one young man getting his face sewn back together at the end of the parade.

Many of the guys who pierced their face with skewers, put fruit on the skewer, like a big kebab. They would then offer for people to eat the fruit off the kebab. No thanks!!

One guy here is carrying two pineapples on his skewers.

It is not just knives and skewers. This guy has the handle of a flower-box threaded through his face.  

We understood that all the participants were from just one temple. Each temple has their special day, and the parades all go down to the beach at the south side of the city.

The parade was split into several sections, and each group usually had some kind of band.

The guys with the big horns played the same few bars over and over, and to me it sounded like the opening to 2001 Space Odyssey!

Many of the bands, if you can call them that, had big brass drum, or are they cymbals?

Whatever they are termed, they make a lot of noise.

The cymbals and drums come in many sizes. Here a group on the back of a pickup truck seemed to make an inordinate amount of noise from very small instruments.

The real noise though comes from the firecrackers. Literally thousands and thousands are lit and thrown about with gay abandon.

I could not see what would suddenly trigger a firecracker storm, but one minute all would be relatively calm and then the next moment mayhem would break out.

The majority of the crackers were thrown from the crowd into the parade, but from time to time, the marchers retaliated and chucked some back into the crowd.

Many of the marchers wore earplugs as the noise is quite literally deafening.

This one chap was well prepared with his earplugs, safety goggles and the sheet to hide beneath.

All along the route of the parade, offerings were set out on tables. Mainly it was fruit and small glasses of some yellow liquid.

I saw only one guy take anything. He was some kind of priest who was stumbling along behind the parade, doling out blessings. He seemed to take quite a few of the little cups of liquid refreshment, which maybe contributed to his unsteady gait?

Several of the groups carried a small chair, or maybe throne, on a platform. In some cases the chair was empty and in others, like this one, there was a small statue sitting on it.

The last group in the parade must have been the most holy. The escorts in front of this group was making everybody kneel down or squat before they passed.

Spectators as well as the participants are supposed to wear white, and you can see that indeed most did wear white.

This was obviously this particular temple's most holy relic. Once they had passed we were all allowed to stand once more.

At the tail of the parade came several ambulances. We were particularly taken by this one, from the Phuket Tourist Rescue Center.

I can imagine that plenty of tourists in Phuket need rescuing, but calling it the Tourist Rescue Center made it sound to us a bit like an animal shelter. On reflection, that is probably just what it is like after a Saturday night in Patong!

It seems like all the parades start at the various temples, but all make their way to this little one on the beach to the south of Phuket.

I liked the symbolic boat that was set up on the temple steps.

Again the onlookers were asked to kneel or squat while the participants did their prayers, and most of them had their piercing "implements" removed.
The prayers were led by this man, who beat a strange and very hypnotic rhythm on the tiny drum that looked to be made from some kind of gourd. For such a little drum it had a very strong note and he interspersed the beat with chants and a ding on a little bell that sounded like it was off a bicycle.
The parades and the ceremonies were almost exclusively male, but these three ladies did join in the prayers on the beach.

Eventually the ceremonies finished and we headed back into town to see the "Food Street".

Click here to follow us there.


The second parade that we saw - even more blood and gore.


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