Gruesome piercing at Thai vegetarian festival

PHUKET (AFP) - Vegetarianism and gruesome body-piercing may seem an unlikely combination, but the two represent the peak of devotion at a bloody and spectacular annual Thai festival which runs until Wednesday.

The Vegetarian Festival in the tourist island of Phuket features a Chinese Taoist procession in which participants pierce their cheeks with metre-long swords, spears and spikes to purify themselves.

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

Many ethnic Chinese across Thailand observe a strict vegetarian diet during the festival.

But for the mostly male participants of Phuket's procession, the rules also include abstinence from sex.

The piercing is carried out by temple volunteers, who push the thick metal objects through participants' cheeks.

Devotees also cradle larger swords and spears - as well as the occasional machine gun - as they follow the procession.

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

The festival each year attracts thousands of extra tourists to the popular resort island.