A typical vegetarian festival might entail stalls with fake meats such as “chick’n” or “tofurkey,” organic and locally grown grub, and speakers from animal-rights organizations like PETA or the Humane Society.
Thailand’s annual Phuket Vegetarian Festival, however, isn't your typical veggie fest. Instead of touting the benefits of a “cruelty-free lifestyle,” cruelty is very much on display in the form of face-piercing, fire-walking and spirit-evoking acts of self-mutilation.
The 2013 Phuket Vegetarian Festival began on Oct. 5 and wrapped up over the weekend with one final parade. The nine-day event celebrated 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.
As legend goes, a wandering Chinese opera troupe came down with malaria while performing on the popular tourist island some 521 miles (840 kilometers) south of Bangkok, 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.
Over the past decade, tens of thousands of visitors have arrived in Phuket to watch the white-clad devotees, largely from the Thai-Chinese community, gather on the island for acts of unimaginable pain. Celebrants first attain a trance-like state that is believed to give them supernatural powers, in order to endure a prescribed torture for the common good of the community. Some skewer their cheeks with spears, guns or umbrellas, while others walk atop burning coals, take baths in hot oil or climb ladders adorned with bladed rungs.
If it sounds a bit dangerous, that’s because it is. Dozens of people are seriously injured each year, but that doesn’t stop the crowds from pouring in for a glimpse of the world’s goriest gathering.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand believes the purification festival attracted some 100,000 people this year, though half of the visitors were likely Thais from neighboring provinces. Another 40 percent came from other Asian nations such as China, while the remaining 10 percent came from further afield to witness these grisly public performances of piety.
Warning: Graphic Photos