PHUKET – Swords, axe handles, kebab skewers and even a model boat were among the bizarre array of objects pushed through devotees’ cheeks on Sunday as Phuket’s gruesome vegetarian festival got under way.
Many Chinese communities across Southeast Asia go vegetarian this week for the annual Taoist “Nine Emperor Gods” festival but few do it with quite the gusto and shock factor of Phuket’s inhabitants.
Throughout the week devotees show their religious devotion through ritualistic self-mutilation and pain trials, including running over hot coals and piercing their bodies with an astonishing — and stomach-turning — variety of objects.
At a temple on the outskirts of Phuket’s main town on Sunday, dozens of people put themselves to the test.
Dressed in flowing robes they worked themselves into a trance-like frenzy against a constant backdrop of drums, a status they say allows them to feel no pain.
One man shook his head from side to side before another created a hole in his cheek with a large metal spike, watched over by medics.
The bowsprit of a large model boat was then threaded through the hole before he joined a parade through town to show off their new facial accessories.
“It’s an unforgettable experience,” 55-year-old Canadian tourist Barry Rafftery told AFP as he looked on. “I’m surprised by the lack of blood.”
Fellow Canadian traveler Julie Bedford, 33, was taken aback by the scale of festival.
“I figured there might be a handful but everywhere you look people are getting their faces pierced.”
The tropical island of Phuket — best known to holidaymakers for its parties and beaches — boasts a sizeable Chinese population, most of whom trace their roots back to Hokkien speaking areas of China’s southeast.
Local folklore has it that the island began celebrating the vegetarian festival en masse after 1825 when illness struck a visiting opera troupe from China.
The stricken troubadours adopted a vegetarian diet, paid homage to the Nine Emperor Gods and were miraculously cured.
The festival emphasizes purification, embodied by the giving up of meat for nine days and dressing in white.
Participants must adhere to a series of strict rules throughout the festival — including abstinence from sex, drinking and gambling.
But what makes Phuket stand out from the crowd is the devotees who choose to self-mutilate.
Later in the week, some also test their faith by running barefoot across burning coals or climbing bladed ladders.
A taxi driver, who gave his nickname Chang, said he had no plans to skewer his body but he had been abiding by the abstinence rules.
“It has already brought me good luck,” he grinned. Last week, there was no work but yesterday I had many fares after praying to Lord Buddha.”