by Beth Young
What is Kin Jae? Kin Jae (pronounced ‘gin jay’) is the popular name for the Phuket Vegetarian Festival held in October. The festival, also known as The Nine Emperor Gods Festival, is a nine-day Taoist celebration that takes place in the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. The vibrant event derives from the belief that abstaining from meat, animal products, and other stimulants (such as alcohol and cigarettes) will help ensure good physical health and peace of mind for those who partake in the ceremonies.
While the festival is famous for the thrilling celebrations, and somewhat gruesome traditions, it is a deeply spiritual experience for both participants and spectators. The origins of the Kin Jae Vegetarian Festival are still somewhat uncertain. However, generally, many believe that the festival was first introduced to Phuket by Chinese immigrants (performers and merchants) who later became sick while living on the island.
Nine Emperor Gods
As the tale goes, they adopted a strict vegetarian (more comparable to vegan) diet and prayed to the Nine Emperor Gods to ask for cleansing of their mind, body, and soul. In the telling of the story, after doing this for nine days, the community made a remarkable recovery. They astonishingly healed quickly from what was then a life-threatening illness. The people held a festival to honour the gods and express their gratitude. Over the years, the festival blossomed and progressed into an annual extravaganza. Thousands of participants and viewers from all over Asia and other western countries flock to it.
The Events and Ceremonies
The Kin Ja vegetarian festival is filled with several (and occasionally macabre), ceremonies that are believed to appeal to the gods. As well as the abstinence of meat products and stimulants, participants also take part in fire walking, body piercing, and other acts of self-mortification. They believe they are acting as mediums for the gods, or for spirits that they have a sacred ancestral connection to.
These events have only become more astonishing and audacious as the years’ progress Those who participate speak of being ‘possessed’ by the gods and spirits during these ceremonies. This is what allows them to feel no pain or harm from their acts of self-mutilation. It is believed that the Chinese gods protect them from physical and mental harm, as well as ensuring minuscule bleeding and scarring, during these times. This allows the vessels to go to great lengths to show their commitment. Puncturing skin (often cheeks) with various items (including knives, swords, skewers, and other domestic items – even bicycles!), wiping themselves with leather and rope, and even bathing in hot oil in past years are just a few of the ways in which devotees show their gratitude to the gods.
Hitting the Streets
The celebrations take place all over the island of Phuket but are concentrated around the area of the six main Chinese temples, which are dispersed around the island. The first event that takes place is the raising of the Lantern Pole. It is believed that this deed informs the nine gods about the onset of the festival. It acts as a means of calling them down to earth. The pole itself is around ten meters tall. Its erection is believed to mark the descending of the Hindu god, Shiva, who brings spiritual power to the festival. For the duration of the festival, Chinese-Thai families will bring their household gods to the various temples. They give offerings of food and drink. According to legend, this helps bring positive spiritual energy to the household.
Street processions are some of the main events during the Kin Jae Vegetarian Festival. It is in these events where participants will be embodied by the gods/spirits and take part in the body piercing and other self-disfigurement. These processions take place on the main roads in Phuket, often taking very long and somewhat illogical routes. Visitors can observe the participants in a trance-like state, while they are devoting themselves to their beliefs. These processions and events take place in the early mornings (6 AM and onwards) as well as in the evening.
Kin Jae Food and Cuisine
Aside from observing the spectacle and immersing yourself into the atmosphere, a big part of Kin Jae is the food! Many local restaurants will shut down their usual service and provide only Jae cuisine. Furthermore, many street food stalls solely provide Jae items throughout the festival period. To spot one of these stalls, look for yellow flags with red Chinese or Thai letters on them. Phuket displays these flags leading up to, and during, the festival. The vegetarian food and snacks are tasty, I must say.
One of my favorite dishes is sticky rice and coconut grilled inside a banana leaf. It is so cheap and so delicious! A lot of dishes use meat substitutes, like soybean protein and tofu. However, don’t be afraid to try these items, as they surprisingly resemble meat. Upon first experiencing the events, I felt intrigued to learn more about the spiritual beliefs of the festival. It is fascinating to me to not only observe the participants during such a celebration but also to try and understand the mindset behind the festival itself.
The purity of the sheer devotion to their spiritual beliefs is something I admire. Admittedly, the events may not be everyone’s taste. They are not to be witnessed by the faint-hearted. I know many people who have felt physically ill from just watching the acts — and some have even vomited! Nonetheless, I love to observe and try to understand the surreal atmosphere and ideas behind these acts of self-mortification.
Experiencing Kin Jae for What It Is
I try to always remember that I shouldn’t disrespect the beliefs of others, especially in something like Kin Jae. Who am I to decide what is or isn’t real, to a culture and community I am not part of, or for events I have never experienced first-hand? Sadly, I do know of some people who make fun of the participants and the beliefs behind Kin Jae. It makes me feel irritated to hear comments of such attitudes. The festival itself and the beliefs behind it are some of the most beautiful forms of spiritual expression I have even witnessed or learned about.
While I acknowledge that I felt taken aback when observing the events for the first time, I also felt entranced. Watching the participants, I admired their devotion. I am someone who is somewhat into body-modification. It is very interesting to see the act used as a form of spiritual manifestation and as a means to communicate with our gods and/or ancestors.
While I have only witnessed the festival twice, I look forward to observing the event again. I can’t wait to learn more about it in the future. I will warn you though, if you have a soft stomach, perhaps the morning processions are not for you! That doesn’t mean to say that you cannot experience any part of Kin Jae. There are plenty of events that do not involve body piercing. For example, prayers and offerings, which take place at the many temples and shrines. Visitors can take part in lighting incense and candles around these temples. They can also give offerings themselves to the participants during the firewalks and more subdued processions.
Kin Jae Vegetarian Festival in Thailand
So, does the Thailand Kin Jae Vegetarian Festival sound like something you would want to observe? If so, make sure you head to Phuket for the first two weeks of October next year! I will be more than happy to escort you to some of the events (and show you some of the best vegetarian/vegan foods around!). What are you waiting for? Why not check Phuket off your bucket list while being able to experience one of the biggest spiritual celebrations in Thailand, at the same time? See you then!