Mystical Mayhem: Phuket’s vegetarian festival

During the grisliest and most riotously colourful festival in Southeast Asia, the participants claim to be possessed by a number of different deities who say the gods give them the strength to pierce their faces with skewers, swordfish, and the occasional AK-47.

This year’s celebration of Taoist Lent runs – and dances on strings of exploding firecrackers – from 8-16 October on Phuket. All the piercing and fire-walking rituals take place on the last three days of the innocuously named Vegetarian Festival. At this point, it’s probably too late to get a room in the city of Phuket, where much of the action takes place, including the incendiary grand finale during the “Farewell to the Gods” ceremony on the final night, but it’s easy enough to get there from other beaches, provided you don’t fall prey to the tuk-tuk extortionists.

Having been to the festival four different times over the course of a decade, in “Bizarre Thailand” I’ve come up with a much different take, looking at the similarities between these age-old body-modification rituals and rites of passage, juxtaposed against the “modern primitives” movement of body-piercing and shamanic rituals, plus a few asides about the fetish community attending the festival vis-à-vis some quotes from a Thai-Chinese dominatrix living and ‘playing’ on the island.

I’m grateful to Peter Davidson, the director of International Services at Phuket International Hospital, who enlightened me about the medical hazards involved with the piercing and why the supplicants don’t bleed more. Peter is one of the many Western sceptics; he does not believe the so-called “spirit warriors” are possessed by anything more than bravado.

I’m also grateful to Alan Morrison of, who was very generous with his time, quotes and sharing reminiscences from his many years of living on the island and attending the festivities.

An excerpt from the story:

Some of the feats the participants perform are not so easy to explain. At night the ‘entertainment’ includes demonstrations of walking through beds of glowing red coals that are a good 10-metres long and 20-metres wide in front of Chinese temples ablaze with shades of gold and scarlet, while some warriors scale 10-metre-high ladders runged with razorblades sharp enough to shave with. In 2009, one of the firewalkers at the temple of Tharua fell face first onto the coals. In a flash, flames engulfed his white trousers and the traditional apron. Several spectators ran to his rescue. They dragged him to safety but not nearly quick enough to prevent serious burns that kept him in the hospital for weeks of treatments followed by months of physiotherapy so he could learn how to walk again.

“That man clearly did not have the spirits inside him,” said Alan Morison. “It should satisfy the skeptics that these ‘warriors’ are doing some incredible things.”

There’s a free canapé for you gluttonous, and hopefully not too parsimonious, readers. For the main course, with garnishes of kinkiness and mystical mayhem, you will have to fork out for the book. Do it now or I’ll ask the Thai “ghost doctor” and spirit medium I interviewed for the story to put a curse on all the free-downloaders out there.

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