Extreme piercing for purity in Thai vegetarian festival

PHUKET, Thailand - There is no pain once the gods enter your body, said Jampen Deebuk, after puncturing the cheeks of a young devotee with metal skewers at Thailand's bloody vegetarian festival.

Bearing fresh wounds from his own act of devotion, Jampen is following an ancient Chinese Taoist ritual on the island of Phuket where celebrants eschew meat and undergo public self-mutilation in search of virtue.

"I don't feel any pain. It doesn't hurt. Once the gods have arrived you don't feel anything," said the 49-year-old, who, like other participants, believes he is possessed by spirits and imbued with special powers during the rites.

But agonised shrieks can be heard from some other devotees as their bloodied faces are skewered with knives and swords, or more obscure objects including household ornaments and cardboard cut-out signs.

Phuket, which has a sizeable ethnic Chinese population, is thought to have started the annual festival in honour of Taoist gods in 1825 - after a plague-stricken opera troupe from China was cured by adopting a vegetarian diet.

On Monday thousands of white-clad believers filled the streets of Phuket Town to seek blessings from participants, who are thought to cleanse the sins of the entire community through their devotion.

"The devotees receive the pain on behalf of the people. They get rid of any bad luck for all of the followers," Teeravut Sritularak, chief of local Jui Tui shrine, told AFP.

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Walking on fire

Participants, who must adhere to strict rules - including abstinence from meat and sex - during the festival, are mostly male.

At night some devotees test their faith by running barefoot across mounds of burning coal.

"I didn't feel hot at all while I was running on it - I felt like the gods are protecting me," Chaowarit Attatham, 29, told AFP after braving the fire.

"You have to follow the rules... You have to be very pure," he said.

The festival is expected to attract an extra 300,000 tourists to the already popular resort island, according to Anoma Vongyai, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand in Phuket.

She said the majority of visitors are ethnic Chinese from Malaysia but also come from Singapore, Taiwan and China, as well as Thais from other provinces.

"We expect 1.5 billion baht (S$59 million) will be spent by visitors during the festival," Anoma told AFP.

The spectacular festivities have drawn strong reactions from onlookers.

"It is exciting, fun, a miracle," said local Thai Sakchan Pongthepparak who brought his seven-year-old daughter to see the fire-walking ceremony Monday, attended by an audience of several hundred.

But the procession of pierced devotees has evoked more mixed feelings.

"Some are awesome - but with respect - I can't bear (to watch) it," said Samira Halih, 32, from Iran, turning her back to the passing parade.

The nine-day festival, due to end on Thursday, has so far reported fewer than 20 injuries, according to the head of the local rescue team Santan Sanguanngam.

The most harm suffered by devotees involved stitches to their cheeks after their piercings were "cut too wide", he said.

The risks of self-mutilation seem far from the minds of the near 2,000 faithful actively participating in the ritual.

"I feel good," Chaowarit said after his walk across the scorching coals. "It felt like I just threw away bad luck in the fire."