For nine days, usually in October or November, at the start of the ninth lunar month, the celebrations for Ngan Kin Jeh – the Vegetarian Festival – set the streets of Phuket buzzing with processions, theatre shows and food stalls, culminating in the unnerving spectacle of men and women parading about with steel rods through their cheeks and tongues. The festival marks the beginning of Taoist Lent, a month-long period of purification observed by devout Chinese all over the world, but celebrated most ostentatiously in Phuket, by devotees of the island’s five Chinese temples. After six days’ abstention from meat (hence the festival’s name), alcohol and sex, the white-clad worshippers flock to their local temple, where drum rhythms help induce a trance state in which they become possessed by spirits. As proof of their new-found transcendence of the physical world they skewer themselves with any available sharp instrument – fishing rods and car wing-mirrors have done service in the past – before walking over red-hot coals or up ladders of swords as further testament to their otherworldliness. In the meantime there’s singing and dancing and almost continuous firework displays, with the grandest festivities held at Wat Jui Tui on Thanon Ranong in Phuket town.
The ceremony dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, when a travelling Chinese opera company turned up on the island to entertain emigrant Chinese working in the tin mines. They had been there almost a year when suddenly the whole troupe – together with a number of the miners – came down with a life-endangering fever. Realizing that they’d neglected their gods, the actors performed elaborate rites and kept to a vegetarian diet, and most were soon cured. The festival has been held ever since, though the self-mortification rites are a later modification, possibly of Hindu origin.