PHUKET: Our front page headline this week says it all: the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is a serious commercial success. (See “Festival reels in millions” in the current issue of the Phuket Gazette. Digital subscribers can download their copy here.)
Not only is this year’s festival being touted as the creator of a much-welcomed 200-million-baht boost to the island’s economy, but it is doing so during one of Phuket’s lowest months for tourism.
The festival began with the arrival of the new moon on Friday and ends next Saturday (October 16).
Penang, just over our border with Malaysia, offers similar fare.
And the Brahman festivals in India, which predate the 185-year-old Phuket festival by centuries, stage proceedings of the same genre we witness here – complete with trances, seances, appeals to gods, extreme body piercings and other esoteric rituals conducted in an atmosphere at times suggestive of havoc.
Tourists in large numbers, particularly from Asia, are drawn to such happenings and seem to have earmarked Phuket as their venue of choice.
With broad support from the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the success of the Phuket festival has inspired similar events to be held elsewhere in Thailand this week, including Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Haad Yai, Phang Nga, Trang and Krabi.
What the island has learned from the Vegetarian Festival is how to market an event. The festival’s success in marketing terms has been managed well. But not all aspects of the event enjoy unanimous public support.
Wherever they go this week, the processions will cause their usual major disruptions to traffic, and injuries to both participants and spectators, particularly from firecrackers thrown at random in the crowds, will keep the hospitals busy as always.
But some progress in the management of problem areas may be in evidence. Police say they will be making an extra effort to manage the traffic jams this year, and that they will also be paying particular attention to the crime which often rises with the swell in tourist numbers.
In recent years, the mah song (spirit mediums) have also been better managed to reduce the number, if not the severity, of self-inflicted wounds.
Each mah song joining the processions must register with one of the participating shrines. The organizers take no responsibility for “unregistered” mah song, one of whom was internally ‘dealt with’ a few years ago for repeatedly slicing open a pig’s tongue, instead of his own, during a procession.
With Phuket expected to reel in 200 million baht from tourists alone during this year’s event, and given the importance attached to the island’s unique cultural identity, the Vegetarian Festival is a landmark likely to be further developed as a national asset in the future.