Self-mutilation for virtue in bloody Thai festival

PHUKET - Walking on fire or driving a brace of swords through your cheeks may not be activities most commonly associated with vegetarianism. But for participants of one Thai festival it's the height of religious devotion.

Thailand's nine-day Vegetarian Festival in the tourist island of Phuket is a spectacular - and bloody - Chinese Taoist procession in which devotees purify themselves in public displays of self-mutilation.

"It is not a trick, it is real, real bodies," said Chanchai Doungjit, director of Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) in Phuket.

"It is believed that pure men can walk on fire without getting burned," he said.

Thousands of people, almost all dressed in white, lined the procession route on Thursday to pay their respects and receive blessings.

Mediums taking part - the majority of them men - eschew meat for several months before the festival, which began on October 5 and will finish on Sunday.

These participants believe they become possessed by spirits and, imbued with the power of otherworldly beings, are able to skewer their bodies and faces with a variety of imaginative implements, including guns, guitars and garden umbrellas.

The aim is to rid the area of evil spirits and thus bring good fortune to local communities.

"Even children can watch it," said Chanchai, but added that "they might find it frightening and might wonder why the mediums have to torture themselves".

The Vegetarian Festival honours Chinese gods and is thought to have begun in 1825 in Phuket, which has a sizeable ethnic Chinese population.

During the festival, celebrants refrain from vice and maintain a vegetarian diet.

Pregnant women are forbidden to watch any of the rituals because they are considered impure.

The purification festival attracts some 100,000 people, according to TAT.

Half of those visiting the festival tend to be Thais from nearby provinces, with a further 40 per cent from other Asian nations and 10 per cent from countries further afield like Russia and Australia.

"Phuket has the biggest vegetarian festival in the country," said Chanchai, adding that some 600 million baht (S$23.79 million) is spent by visitors in Phuket province during the festivities.