Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival: A Photo Essay
For nine days a year, the Thai Vegetarian Festival (เทศกาลกินเจ) takes over the streets of southern Thailand and fills them with intense ritualistic ceremonies that are not for the faint-hearted.
There’s spirit possession. There’s self-mutilation. There’s blood.
Unlike most people who actively avoid the trauma of physical pain, the most ardent participants of the Vegetarian Festival sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the community.
WARNING: This post contains graphic images.
As a group of religious devotees, the Ma Song summon spirits (a variety of Taoist deities) to possess their bodies and put them in a trance-like state with zero human emotion.
As their heads swayed from side-to-side and their eyes rolled back to show the whites, the Ma Song slowly pierced their faces with long metal rods and skewers. To our eyes, no pain was discernable – only an other-worldly presence.
During the summoning ritual, not all of the Ma Song engaged in the face piercing. A handful of the Ma Song simply walked out to the procession entranced and thereby slashed their tongues with swords whenever fireworks exploded.
Devotees of Taoism believe that the cutting of a Ma Song’s flesh spills divine blood, which can then be used to exorcise forces of evil from a community.
Fundamentally, the Ma Song are believed to be spirit warriors (incarnate deities) that can cure illnesses and bring good fortune to people by vanquishing malevolent spirits.
To our surprise, the Ma Song mutilated themselves without the aid of anesthetic.
Their insusceptibility to pain was perceived to be a demonstration of the possessing deities’ power and a stark warning to evil forces – a message that boldly states, “keep away from the community or suffer the consequences.”
While the act of self-mutilation may seem extreme, it’s done for a higher purpose and has been documented to have a profound impact upon the demeanor of the Ma Song.
For days or even 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.
Ma Song spirit possession originated with the people of the Minnan region of China’s Fujian province. Since the 13th century, the Hokkien communities of Minnan immigrated to southern Thailand as maritime traders – taking their beliefs and rituals with them.
According to Hokkien Taoist beliefs, humans are likened to vessels. Adults are fully-filled vessels while children are only half-filled vessels. However, some adults never become fully-filled vessels due to the unfortunate “date and time” of their birth (sheng chen ba zi – 生辰八字).
Such individuals are destined to live a short life but are capable of prolonging their lifespan by becoming a Ma Song. As a half-filled vessel, the Ma Song have enough space for deities to enter their body and take control of them, for the betterment of the community.
To prepare for the divine element of the Vegetarian Festival, the Ma Song and all devotees must endure a cleansing ritual of abstinence. This includes abstaining from violence, sex, telling lies, alcohol, and most importantly… dairy and meat.
Before and during the festival, restaurants across southern Thailand prepare vegetarian dishes that are cooked without the use of garlic, chili, and strong spices, as these ingredients are considered to be aphrodisiacs.
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 immigrant 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.