Vegetarian Festival in Thailand
The origin of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is lost in history but it's believed to go back to around 1825, when a troupe of travelling actors from China were infected with malaria/plague (we found many different accounts of the origin and malaria was most widely the reason).
For 9 days they used ritualistic cleansing practices from their homeland to fight the disease and cleanse their minds and bodies of evil spirits. After 9 days of not eating meat, not having sex, not drinking alcohol, and treating all beings with absolute kindness they were all cured. The result was that this 9 day cleansing ritual became a widely celebrated yearly event.
During the festival, many of the restaurants put their menus aside and serve only buffet style vegetarian food, some with up to 30 buffet items to choose from. Hundreds of little vegetarian food stalls are set up along the main streets and the smell of veggie curry and coconut sweets fills the air.
The festival begins with the ninth moon of the Chinese calendar. so every year it begins on a different day. The number 9 is considered by the Chinese to be extremely lucky. When a Chinese (or Thai) monk makes merit, he usually invites nine monks to perform the preliminary chants. Also, the ninth hours (am/pm) are very good times for the commencement of important projects.
On the eve of the festival (which is the last day of the Chinese 8th moon) the preliminary rites begin when Kiu Ong Ian (representing the Nine Emperor Gods) is brought down from heaven to preside over the festivities. (The Nine Emperor Gods are gods of the stars that are said to control the fate of living things on earth.
Seven of the gods reside on the seven stars of the Big Dipper and the other two gods reside on nearby stars, which are only visible to the eyes of immortals). Hundreds of Nagas (people who are chosen to become 'spirit mediums' for the spirits when they come down to Earth) and local people meet to call the gods and spirits down from the heavens and escort them into town.
Meanwhile, shops, businesses and homes prepare offering tables on the sidewalks in front of their buildings. Red tablecloths cover the offering tables (the color red is supposed to repel evil spirits), and each table is prepared with tea cups, hot tea, fresh fruit, fresh flowers, candles, bunches of smoking joss sticks (incense sticks), and bowls of candy.
Every table leg is placed on small square pieces of red paper. Each piece of red paper has a beautifully laminated gold emblem in the center. The table has to sit on the gold laminated emblem to elevate it from the earth, making the offering table suitable for the gods (if the table were touching the ground it would be meant for mere mortals).