The Vegetarian Festival in Thailand
During a span of nine days, the Vegetarian Festival (เทศกาลกินเจ) engulfs the streets of southern Thailand with its intense ritualistic ceremonies, unsuitable for the faint-hearted.
There’s spirit possession. There’s self-mutilation. There’s bloodshed.
WARNING: This post contains graphic images.
The Ma Song, a group of religious devotees, summon Taoist dieties to possess their bodies, entering them in a trance devoid of human emotion.
With their heads swaying and eyes rolling back to reveal the whites, they slowly pierce their faces using metal rods and skewers, seemingly unaffected by pain.
While not all Ma Song partake in the face piercing after the summoning ritual, they simply elected to slash their tongues with swords, perfectly in sync with the explosions of fireworks.
Taoists believe that cutting a Ma Song’s flesh spills divine blood, which can then be harnessed to exorcise evil forces from a community.
Due to this belief, the Ma Song are regarded as spiritual warriors, dieties incarnate that can cure illnesses and bring good fortune to the broader community by expelling malevolent spirits.
To our astonishment, the Ma Song mutilated themselves without the aid of anesthetic.
Their insusceptibility to pain was a demonstration of the possessing deities’ power and a stark warning to evil forces – a message that boldly claims, “keep away from the community or suffer the consequences.”
Although the act of self-mutilation may appear extreme, it’s undertaken for a greater purpose and has been observed to positively affect the demeanor of the Ma Song.
For weeks after the completion of the Vegetarian Festival, the Ma Song are reported to be exceptionally calm and extremely focused in their day-to-day activities. Moreso than normal.
Ma Song spirit possession originated within the Minnan region of China’s Fujian province. Starting in the 13th century, the Hokkien people of Minnan began migrating to southern Thailand as maritime traders, bringing along their beliefs and rituals.
In Hokkien Taoist beliefs, humans are symbolized as vessels, with adults seen as fully-filled vessels and children as half-filled ones. Yet, certain adults don’t achieve fullness due to the unfortunate date and time of their birth (sheng chen ba zi – 生辰八字). These individuals are fated for a short life, but they can choose to extend it by becoming a Ma Song.
As half-filled vessels, the Ma Song have room for deities to inhabit their bodies, allowing these spirits to take charge and bring about positive impacts for the community’s well-being.
In anticipation of the sacred aspect of the Vegetarian Festival, the Ma Song undergo a purification ceremony marked by abstinence. This period involves refraining from violence, sex, falsehoods, alcohol, and certain foods – notably, dairy and meat consumption.
Leading up to and during the festival, eateries throughout southern Thailand craft vegetarian meals devoid of garlic, chili, and potent seasonings, as these elements are believed to possess aphrodisiac qualities.
The Thai Vegetarian Festival serves a profound spiritual purpose, centering on the collective effort to cleanse communities of malevolent forces and negative influences. Rooted in Taoist beliefs, the festival’s participants, particularly the Ma Song, undertake rigorous rituals and practices to attract the presence of protective deities.
By embracing a strict vegetarian diet and adhering to various self-purification methods, individuals aim to create a vessel for these deities to enter and take control. This divine possession is believed to empower the Ma Song to perform acts that dispel evil spirits, restore harmony, and safeguard their communities.
Essentially, the festival is a manifestation of spiritual devotion and a testament to the courage of those who seek to combat darkness through their unwavering faith.
The Thai Vegetarian Festival is marked by a series of intricate and intense rituals that reflect the depth of spiritual commitment among its participants. The festival is characterized by various ceremonies aimed at summoning and appeasing protective deities, often involving the Ma Song.
Some of the most striking rituals include spirit possession, where the Ma Song invite deities to enter their bodies, marked by entranced self-mutilation and altered states of consciousness.
Fasting and abstinence play also a pivotal role in the festival, with participants adhering to a strict vegetarian diet that excludes meat, dairy, and pungent spices. This dietary purification is intertwined with acts of self-mortification, symbolizing the shedding of impurities and negative energies.
Firewalking rituals, where participants walk barefoot across burning coals, are also performed as displays of spiritual devotion and endurance.
Overall, these rituals collectively serve as a channel for the eradication of evil forces, the promotion of community well-being, and the expression of profound religious dedication.
The biggest processions are held in Phuket and Trang. While Phuket is the most well-known procession, Trang is worth considering since there’s little-to-no tourists versus the ~500,000 tourists that attend the Phuket Vegetarian Festival annually.
All of the photos in this article were taken at the Trang Vegetarian Festival (which alternates between Mueang Trang and Kantang).
The Thai Vegetarian Festival is celebrated annually between the 1st and the 9th of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (mostly early- to mid-October).
In 1825, a deadly plague hit southern Thailand. After the Hokkien migrant communities performed the Ma Song rituals, the region was able to recover and since then, it has been performed annually.
Tip #1: Please dress respectfully when attending the Thai Vegetarian Festival. We highly recommend wearing white clothing (or at least a white shirt) to symbolically express “personal purity.” Also, cover your shoulders and knees during religious ceremonies and processions.
Tip #2: Try the vegetarian food. Local vendors line the streets with a mixture of vegetable dumplings and tofu treats – ones that are only made once a year, specifically for the festival.
Tip #3: Take non-invasive photos. Please keep your distance when photographing the Ma Song as they partake in this important religious ceremony. Our photos were taken with a telephoto lens and that enabled us to keep a respectful distance.