Thai piercers missing the point; Festival: Critics say a religious event involving self-mutilation is being turned into a dangerous freak show to draw tourists.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHUKET, Thailand -- Just outside the Chinese-Thai shrine, a crowd mills around a long row of men whose faces are pierced with knives, swords and other sharp objects.

Seemingly unimpressed, members of the crowd barely give these faces a second glance. At the end of the row of men, a small audience has formed around an innovative Thai adolescent who has pushed a small lamp through one cheek, between his teeth, and out the other cheek. "Now that's original," says a tourist.

For almost 200 years, residents of Thailand's Phuket Island have held their nine-day Vegetarian Festival, in which believers abstain from eating meat and mutilate their bodies to demonstrate their faith. Recently, the festival has grown larger, crazier and -- to some people -- less genuine.

Young men who used to show their religious devotion by sticking a spike through their cheeks now ram larger objects through their faces. Thai and foreign tourists swarm to Phuket to watch the gory proceedings. Some self-mutilators are sponsored by local businesses.

As the Vegetarian Festival grows in size and popularity, traditionalists worry that it is turning into a spiritually empty and potentially dangerous extravaganza.

The Vegetarian Festival has always been something of a spectacle. It began in the early 1800s when a group of Chinese miners on Phuket fell ill with malaria. A visiting theater troupe advised them to show their belief in Chinese folk deities by making wild, bountiful offerings and by abstaining from meat and alcohol. The miners heeded the advice, and the malaria scare waned.

Phuket residents have since gathered for nine days in autumn at local shrines. Many of them are descendants of the original Chinese immigrants. They have adopted Thai names, speak both Thai and Chinese, and worship animist spirits that they call Taoist deities, from the religion that predominated in south China.

The celebrants set off huge strings of firecrackers, burn thousands of sticks of incense offerings, eat 5-foot-long platters of vegetarian curries and generally create a scene of intense devotion to the deities.

To become spirit mediums, or "mah songs," many men work themselves into deep trances characterized by flailing limbs and rolling eyes. Townspeople carry an urn representing a Taoist god around town. At the festival's close, residents push the urn out to sea to show that the god has returned to heaven.

The piercing rituals, which developed years after the festival was inaugurated, are a spirit medium's way of demonstrating that a Taoist god has entered his body and made him impervious to pain.

Until the mid-1990s, the Vegetarian Festival remained a local curiosity. From year to year, festival procedures hardly changed. Tourists ignored it, preferring to visit the island's beaches.

But, as Thailand has become wealthier, Phuket residents spend more time at work and less at the shrines, which depend for survival on spectators emptying their pockets into donation boxes at the Vegetarian Festival.

To supplement festival-goers' donations, town leaders have recruited commercial sponsors and have encouraged the tourism industry to promote the event. "Without the business and tourist money," says Piyapong Naropakorn, a Phuket merchant, "the festival would die."

Tour operators and businesses have responded to the economic opportunity. Phuket and Bangkok travel agents have created promotional brochures in English, German and French and have organized "pilgrimage tours" to Phuket for wealthy Bangkok Thais.

Car dealerships, hotels and restaurants provide clothing adorned with company logos to self-mutilating devotees and their handlers, who guide the mah songs out of the shrines and along parade routes, where they bless spectators. Several years ago, one mah song pierced his face with a swordfish to promote a local fishing-boat operator.

"Our festival used to be unique," laments one Phuket resident. "Now it is just for money."

As the number of tour promoters and corporate sponsors has increased, crowds at the shrines have multiplied, and self-mutilators have had to become more outrageous to hold spectators' interest.

In addition to walking on hot coals, a long-standing tradition, mah songs now stop along the parade route to slice their tongues with axes, spit blood on each other and rip open their backs with maces. To the delight of many observers, ascetics skewer their faces not only with rods but also with tree branches, tennis rackets, saws, umbrellas and radio antennae.

The mah songs are mostly young men, either local high school students or employees of the island's main industries -- tourism, fishing and local commerce. They pierce themselves for a variety of reasons -- to purge guilt for some sin; to ensure prosperity; because of peer pressure; or because the men in their families have always been mah songs.

The one-upmanship of modern mah songs suggests to some longtime festival-goers that they are trying to shock rather than inspire their audience. "They've lost the beauty and compensated with the bizarre," says Kim Gooi, a journalist who has observed the festival for years.

There are also safety concerns. As mah songs pierce their faces with larger items, and as more spectators add pineapples and other heavy objects to the ends of impaled items, some mah songs have permanently destroyed their facial tissue. In addition, the blood sprayed from sliced tongues and swinging maces is alarming in a country with an extremely high HIV-AIDS rate.

Inspired by the devotees, tourists sometimes try to get in on the action. Foreigners sometimes join the line of mah songs walking over a pit of coals -- and on at least one occasion, according to Gooi, a tourist hesitated, fell onto the coals and sustained serious burns.

Officials from the local trauma center, Bangkok Phuket Hospital, dismiss safety fears. According to Preeyarat Kullavanich, the hospital's marketing director, the facial piercings normally do not cut major arteries and heal quickly. He notes that hospital admittance rates do not rise during the festival, that many people who work in the festival wear latex gloves, that cases of mah songs ruining facial tissues are rare, and that there is no record of festival fatalities. This year, all face-piercers had to undergo HIV tests.

The Vegetarian Festival is only going to become more popular. Thai Airways and the country's largest travel-industry promoter, Tourism Authority of Thailand, have included the festival on their list of major events to be advertised overseas. Phuket officials expect Vegetarian 2000 to be the biggest extravaganza yet.

Yet, festival purists have not given up. Some merchants and religious leaders are planning more traditional festival activities, such as street parties, children's games and fortune-telling sessions at Vegetarian 2000. Several shrines have decided to limit or eliminate corporate sponsorships.

"You probably won't see any swordfish piercings next year," says Piyapong.

Pub Date: 12/24/99

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