At Thailand veggie festival, only flesh of the devout harmed

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PHUKET, Thailand (AP) — Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival is more than sprouts and tofu — it’s an assault on the senses, and for the most devout, on the body itself.

The most striking element of the nine-day Taoist celebration has little to do with food. In sacred rituals, devotees known as “Mah Song” or “Spirit Horses” work themselves into trances to have all manner of items pierced through their cheeks, from daggers and swords to a bicycle. Then they dance as massive strings of fireworks explode all around them.

Devotees gather prior to a street procession. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)

A devotee screams as her face is pierced prior to a street procession.(AP Photo/David Longstreath)

The annual festival in Phuket has become a tourist attraction, with several large, noisy processions complete with fireworks, gongs and drums passing through the streets. Many Phuket residents have Chinese ancestors, and devotees to the many Chinese temples on the island parade their shrines’ emperor gods on hand-carried carriages.

A devotees work himself into a trance(AP Photo/David Longstreath)

Thai children offer prayers.(AP Photo/David Longstreath)

One devotee has spikes pierced through his face. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)

A devotee has his cheek pierced with a bicycle as he and others walk in the street procession.(AP Photo/David Longstreath)

Devotees have fireworks exploded over them as they carry a portable shrine during a street procession.(AP Photo/David Longstreath)

(AP Photo/David Longstreath)

Devotees to the Chinese shrine of Bang Liao walk in a street procession. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)

(AP Photo/David Longstreath)

A devotee goes into a trance with her tongue and face pierced. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)

Devotees to the Chinese shrine Ban Tha Rue gather for a street procession. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)

Chinese emperor gods spikes are displayed outside the Chinese shrine of Ban Tha Rue in Phuket(AP Photo/David Longstreath)

The Vegetarian Festival begins on the eve of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar and is observed primarily in Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar. It traces its origins to the early 1800s, when a troupe of Chinese actors on tour in Phuket fell ill. It was decided that they should abstain from eating meat and soon all were well again.

The festival and its sacred rituals are believed to bestow good fortune. Devotees observe a strict vegetarian or vegan diet that is believed to cleanse the body and grant merit. It is believed that those who endure piercings experience no pain while in the trance.

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