The Old… and the New

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I kept my previous design for Asian Meanderings for more than six years, using a modified version of WordPress’ Twenty-Ten theme with black background, customized headers, and other little tweaks here and there. The new design is actually the Twenty-Sixteen theme with gold-based background (although I may change this in the near future). It’s still basically the same, but different…

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Changes Are Afoot….

I would very much like to resurrect this blog and return to semi-regular posts. Over the past year or more, I have had very little motivation as I have developed into a very solid routine of working (I’m an English teacher in Phuket, Thailand) and being lazy during my limited days off. Indeed, the last time I went anywhere significant was my Cambodian trip in mid-April 2013 although there have been a few English camps in neighboring provinces since then.

With Aed Carabao, lead singer of Thailand's most popular rock group -- Carabao -- in Patong, April 2013
With Aed Carabao, lead singer of Thailand’s most popular rock group — Carabao — in Patong, April 2013

Asian Meanderings has never been the “chronicle of my life in Thailand” that I’d envisioned when I arrived here some twelve years ago. While I do a fairly good job at detailing my day-to-day activities on Facebook, I’ve never done the same with this blog. Too much “work” involved? I seem to suffer from chronically-slow Internet service whenever I do want to do something “significant” (such as uploading photos) online. I soon become frustrated and give up.

Aside from attending various local festivals each year, I don’t really do much during my free-time aside from read and work on my stamp and postcard collections. I have other blogs for those activities (and I haven’t missed a day on “A Stamp A Day” since I started on July 1, 2016). I have written about a number of the festivals over the years but, the only thing that really changes annually are the attempts at different photographic angles.

To put it simply, Asian Meanderings is in a RUT!

"I'm King of the World!" - High above Luang Prabang, Laos - mid-April 2010
“I’m King of the World!” – High above Luang Prabang, Laos – mid-April 2010

In the past, I tackled such lethargy simply by starting a new blog as a new theme/look surrounding my words always seems to do something to my brain.  Most of those attempts quickly fell by the wayside. I had reading and teaching blogs in the distant past that are long- (and best-) forgotten. My postcard blog (originally called “Please, Mr. Postman!” but re-titled The POSTCARD TRAVELLER Blog last year as I had begun creating a website by that name) and first stamp collecting blog (Philatelic Pursuits) are two that I’ve enjoyed doing and have new entries in the works for. Both were somewhat curtailed by my determination to maintain A Stamp A Day…

I have some ideas…

Rather than starting a new blog for my plans, I will try to incorporate them here. I am thinking about creating a new blog name (Mark’s Mindless Meanderings, perhaps?). I am also trying to decide on a new theme. I do like the old black-and-gold design but it hasn’t been changed for more than six years, I think, and these days I prefer something lighter. Other changes may include revamping categories and tags (daunting, to say the least).

What about content?

In Tiananmen Square, Beijing - June 2003
In Tiananmen Square, Beijing – June 2003

My idea is to create entries based on past experiences in my life. I have very few photographs that predate 2004 other than a mixed box of pictures my sister sent a few years ago. There are a few scattered from the earliest years of my childhood and then quite a few from around late 1992 through mid-1994 or so. I’m currently scanning the lot of them and trying to determine ballpark dates. I have long maintained a spreadsheet of significant events in my life and will attempt to assign spots to the scanned photos. From time to time in the recent past, I can use these resources as the basis for various articles, sort of a “jumbled autobiography”. If I tag them properly (year/month), I could use the entries as the basis if I ever decide to write a full autobiography (something I’d like to do for myself, at least; my grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease and that experience resulted in my becoming afraid of forgetting my own past).

One other change I would like to make is to cut down on the sheer wordiness of my entries (present one excluded). I may post a number of photos simply with (estimated) date and location/event. Other posts may include a bit of history surrounding the location/event or how it related to what I was doing at the time. In short, I’ll be making it up as I go along but with certain goals in mind.

Return to Johnson County Industrial Airport (Olathe, Kansas) following Damage Control training at the Fleet Training Center, Naval Air Station San Diego (California) - just prior to Christmas 1983
Return to Johnson County Industrial Airport (Olathe, Kansas) following Damage Control training at the Fleet Training Center, Naval Air Station San Diego (California) – just prior to Christmas 1983

Apart from these few general ideas, I have no clue as to when and in what form these changes will occur. I can only say that I am motivated enough — for the first time this year — to write on Asian Meanderings and let anybody still around know that, yes, changes are afoot….

I hope to be back here very soon!


2016: My Year in Review and a Look Forward to 2017

I will long remember the year past as one of death. While nobody from my family or circle of friends died in 2016, a number of favorite musicians and actors did. I was also profoundly affected by the mid-October passing of the King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej. Over the decade-plus that I’ve lived in Phuket, I’ve become a staunch Royalist and the death of His Majesty came in the midst of my annual courses with Thai bank staff members. Seeing their sadness, as well as the intense mourning that occurred throughout the nation, deeply effected me and I continue to feel a bond with Thai people that is difficult to describe to other foreigners.

As 2017 dawns, I pray that it will be a year of much happiness and light after the darkness that pervaded much of 2016. Don’t misunderstand me: there were quite a few good times and the year is certainly ending on a high note in that I’m in my first “real” relationship in around six or seven years.

Continue reading “2016: My Year in Review and a Look Forward to 2017”

Phuket Vegetarian Festival

NOTE: This article, sourced almost entirely from Wikipedia, originally appeared in a slightly different form on my postcards blog — The POSTCARD TRAVELER.

Today marks the start of the annual Vegetarian Festival (thetsakan gin jeh — เทศกาลกินเจ), Phuket’s version of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival (九皇爺 — Jiǔhuángyé in Chinese pinyin or Kow Wong Yeh in Cantonese). This is a nine-day Taoist celebration beginning on the eve of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar and is widely celebrated throughout Southeast Asia. The biggest (and most dramatic) festivities occur within the numerous shrines and temples dotted primarily in the region of Phuket Town in the south-eastern portion of the island of Phuket, with the roadways between being the site of grand processions of the faithful and huge crowds of spectators, all dressed in white.

In accordance with the traditions, many religious devotees will perform ritualized mutilation upon themselves and one another (with the consent of, context and understanding of all involved and the practice itself) while under a trance-like state, including but not limited to: impaling through cheeks, arms, face, legs, back etc., with everything from as small as syringes to as large as is agreed upon between all members; partial skinning (the skin is not removed, just cut and flipped over); slashing of limbs, chest, stomach and especially tongue with swords, axes and knives; bloodletting; removal of tissue (normally limited to cysts) and intentionally wrapping or standing near fire crackers as they are lit.

This is done without anesthetic, always inside or near the temples surrounded by other devotees with only iodine, petroleum jelly and surgical gloves as precautionary measures. Despite this scenario, many of the same people performing the rituals are also the people who will care for many of the people in their recovery. The actual impaling is done by doctors and physicians in the community, is planned out for weeks if not months in advance and medical teams are present in and around temple grounds for the entire time of the festival, with spectators frequently needing more help than the devotees, who remain in a trance during this process and are monitored through the entire event in case they should drop out of concentration, in which case they are immediately taken to medical professionals regardless of the circumstances to minimize post trance bleeding.

To this effect few people ever need to have prolonged medical treatment, and although in the weeks after the festival many people will be seen covered in bandages, scarring is uncommon, stitching, even on individual devotees who impale their cheeks, is rare, and return to daily activity for the devotees occurs shortly after the completion of the ritual, frequently before the festival ends unless performed on the last days, much sooner than before the bandages themselves are removed.

The purpose of this practice is a mixture of veneration for their gods and ancestors, to display their devotion to their beliefs and the trance itself, which although anecdotal in nature to what is experienced, has a profound impact upon demeanor for days or weeks after, frequently with devotees appearing exceptionally calm and focused in their day-to-day activities after the festival is completed.

During a period of nine days, those who are participating in the festival dress all in white and gin jeh (กินเจ), which has come to be translated as abstinence from eating meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products. Vendors and proprietors of restaurants indicate that jeh food is for sale at their establishments by putting a yellow flag out with the word เจ (jeh) written on it in red. However, technically, only food prepared in the sacred kitchen of the Chinese temple (in Thailand, called sarnjao ศาลเจ้า or um อ๊ำ) is jeh, as it must undergo a series of rituals before it can be given that name.

Masong (ม้าทรง) are the people who invite the spirits of gods to possess their bodies. Ma (ม้า) is the word for horse in Thai, and the name masong refers to how the spirits of the gods use the bodies of these people as a vehicle, as one rides a horse. Only pure, unmarried men or women without families of their own can become masong. At the temple they undergo a series of rituals to protect them for the duration of the festival, during which flagellation and self-mutilation is practiced. The masong tradition doesn’t exist in China and is believed to have been adopted from the Indian festival of Thaipusam.

The festivities in Phuket include processions of masong wearing elaborate costumes who pierce their cheeks and tongues with all manner of things, including swords, banners, machine guns, table lamps, and flowers. While the face is the most common area pierced, some also pierce their arms with pins and fishhooks. Teams of people accompany the masong to keep their wounds clean and to help support the heavier piercings. It is believed that while they are possessed the masong will not feel any pain. They can also be seen shaking their heads back and forth continually, and usually do not seem to “see” their surroundings. At the temple during the festival there is also firewalking and blade-ladder climbing. While large crowds of people gather to watch, the entranced masong distribute blessed candy and pieces of orange cloth with Chinese characters printed on them yang (ยังต์) for good luck.

The Nine Emperor Gods (Jiǔ Huáng Xīng Jūn / Jiǔ Huáng Da Di — 九皇星君/九皇大帝 are the nine sons manifested by Father Emperor Zhou YuDou Fu Yuan Jun (斗父周御國王天尊) and Mother of the Big Dipper Dou Mu Yuan Jun (斗母元君) who holds the Registrar of Life and Death. The worship of Dou Fu Yuan Jun has declined strongly as proper teachings of Taoism degenerate since being exported out of China. Today, most Nine Emperor God temples do not acknowledge the existence of Dou Fu Yuan Jun. However, Dou Fu Yuan Jun is invoked alongside Dou Mu Yuan Jun in Great Dipper Honoring known as Li Dou (禮斗) ceremonies. Honoring the Northern Dipper stars prolongs one’s life, eliminate calamities, and absolves sins and past debts of oneself and his family.

The term Ye (爺) as in Jiu Huang Ye (九皇爺) loosely translates as “Grandfather”, a title worshipers commonly use to bring a more intimate relationship between themselves and the Nine Emperors. The Nine Emperor Gods should not be mixed up with the Wang Ye or Princes of the Ming rebels. Popular folk culture has it that the Nine Emperor Gods are actually sea pirates of the Ming dynasty that plotted to overthrow the Qing dynasty.Some interpret the teachings to be that the Nine Emperor Gods are actually high-ranking Star Lords who preside over the movement of planets and coordinate mortal Life and Death issues.

On the eve of the ninth moon (September 30 in 2016), temples of the deities hold a ceremony to invoke and welcome the Nine Emperor Gods. Since the arrival of the gods is believed to be through the waterways, processions are held from temples to the sea shore or river to symbolize this belief. Devotees dressed in traditional white, carrying incense and candles, await the arrival of the Nine Emperor Gods.

A carnival-like atmosphere pervades the temple throughout the nine-day festival. During this period of time, the constant tinkling of a prayer bell and chants from the temple priests are heard. Most devotees stay at the temple, eat vegetarian meals and recite continuous chanting of prayer. It is believed that there will be rain throughout the nine days of celebration.

The ninth day of the festival is its climax. Processions which draw scores of devotees sends the deities back home. In Phuket, this means that each of the temples throughout the island (some walking as far as the northern town of Thalang or the west coast community of Cherng Talay) has its own grand procession, all of which converge on Phuket Town while traveling to the seacoast at a section of shoreline called Sapan Hin, south of town.

During this grand finale, from about 9:00 pm until the wee hours of the morning, most areas of the town are quite chaotic. I tend to observe the proceedings from the area of a large traffic circle just south of the town center. Six roads from different directions enter the circle with another running parallel. Every procession passes through this area numerous times and the air becomes so thick with smoke from the fireworks that everyone’s white clothes soon turn black from the soot. All the spectators throw huge strings of powerful firecrackers, not only towards the masong but also at each other and any cars or motorbikes attempting to pass through the area. I’ve often compared it to a Baghdad firefight!