At most vegetarian festivals in the West, vendors hawk fake meats with cute names like chick’n or tofurkey, a guitarist plucks away in the background and a lineup of speakers tout the benefits of a cruelty-free lifestyle. In Phuket, Thailand, however, a veggie fest looks entirely different: It’s an occasion for face-piercing, fire-walking and spirit-evoking.
A devotee of the Chinese Kathu shrine with his face pierced takes part in a procession during the annual vegetarian festival in central Phuket
The 10-day Phuket vegetarian festival, which began Oct. 14, celebrates the belief that abstinence from meat and stimulants during the ninth month of the Asian lunar calendar will bring about good health and peace of mind. Celebrated largely by the country’s Thai-Chinese community, the devotees dress in white and gather on the popular tourist island some 521 miles (840km) south of Bangkok for acts of unimaginable self-mutilation.
Celebrants first attain a trance-like state which they believe gives them supernatural powers to endure torture for the common good of the community around them. Many then climb ladders with bladed rungs, take baths in hot oil, walk atop burning coals or pierce their cheeks with any number of objects in myriad acts of devotion.
If it sounds dangerous, that’s because it is. Last year, some 74 people were seriously hurt and at least one person died because of injuries sustained at the event.
The festival has its roots in history. As legend goes, a wandering Chinese opera troupe came down with malaria while performing on the island, but after maintaining a strict vegetarian diet and performing deeds to two emperor gods, the company made a full recovery. Inspired by the miracle, thousands have gathered in Phuket for more than 150 years to repeat the act.
Phuket’s vegetarian festival grew over the years into an annual spectacle that now draws tens of thousands of visitors. Many fly in from China and other Asian destinations to witness the grisly public performances of piety.
Warning: Graphic Photos
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