It is now Day 5 of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival and again the rain has been pouring down much of the day. I have eaten nothing but “Jae” food since the festival began Friday evening (well, I suppose cookies qualify…) and finally attended my first street procession of the year this morning. It was Sam Kong Shrine’s turn today and I figured the best vantage point would be at the “District Office Intersection” of Yaoworat and Mae Luan roads. Timing is everything and as I walked past the Phuket Merlin Hotel a police officer on a motorbike roared by on his way to block off the traffic.
The cars and scooters stopped for the time being (they kept trying to zoom across the road whenever the police weren’t looking, narrowly missing more than a few of the faithful), I ran to the small grassy “island” in the center of the road. Prime viewing area. I was just in time as the fleet of Rescue Association pickups (these are the guys that pick up dead and wounded bodies after accidents, competing for the profits involved in this) that led the parade. I always thought these should be at the back to pick up the carnage some of these processions seem to produce!
At any rate, the next in line were three or four small powered carts dispensing ice cream! As it had just begun to rain, I didn’t partake in the treats but covered my camera while waiting for the first of the banner carriers. This time around it was a bunch of guys in what appeared to be naval uniforms although it’s never certain in Thailand whether one actually belongs to the organization they were wearing the uniform for! (You can buy these in certain shots, complete with the ribbons already sewn on. However, to date I have been unsuccessful in a couple of attempts to purchase one!) A couple of these banner carriers got their poles tangled in the overhead electrical cables which was quite comical to the farang spectators.
The next groups of marching faithful were full of former students of mine. Sometimes it seems like I can’t go anywhere in Phuket without hearing shouts of “Teacher Mark!” That’s yet another reason that I tend to stay out of the bars…
All too soon the sedan chairs with the idols on them approached the intersection. You hear them before you see them – and then it’s the clouds of smoke rising above that alert you to keep your eyes open a bit more. It’s traditional (or great fun, depending on your age) to throw long strings of attached fireworks into these platforms. Oh, those fireworks are lit and explode in a multitude of explosions. Shrapnel flies everywhere which is why the guys and gals carrying them are covered in blankets or have towels wrapped about their heads. The streets quickly become covered in the red paper left over.
My favorite tends to be the machete-swinging guys. During the processions, they gather in a large circle in the center of each major intersection. They then proceed to swing the various scary-looking knives and swords over their heads and hit their backs with them! These aren’t dull cutting implements, either, as you can see blood flying if you get too close (but I don’t recommend that!). Some of this group also use their knives to slice across their tongues and the blood drips down their chins onto their previously-white shirts. I have yet to capture quality video or photos of this display of “belief” as the crowd tends to scatter in unpredictable ways when the machetes begin swinging!
In fact, most of my photos during the Vegetarian Festival tend to be disappointing when I look at them at home. I have a really crappy point-and-shoot camera that never wants to focus unless everything in the viewfinder is standing absolutely motionless. Everything during these processions is moving rather fast and nobody is looking where they are going! That includes the spectators and participants alike. Many times, I will anticipate a shot that I want to go for and try to get my camera to focus before the subject has approached. The majority of these planned shots fail as somebody will dart in front of me at the last minute or bump into me from behind. It can be VERY frustrating but one just has to grin and bear it and hope that some of the pictures turn out okay. Today, I believe I had a bit higher than average success rate!
Once all of the key elements of the procession had passed through the District Office Intersection (so named because of the Muang Phuket Amphoe, translated to “District Office”, is on the northwest corner), I turned and followed the parade down Yaoworat Road, catching a few instances of offerings made at shrines set up by families along the road. It then turned down Debuk Road (which means “tin mine”) and finally turned south onto Thepkassatri Road (named for the revered Phuket heroine, Lady Chan).
It was in this last block before Thalang Road (the “official” start to Old Town) that I turned and waited for the dragon that always brings up the rear of the processions. I’d never really taken a decent photo of the dragon before this morning’s parade but I managed to get several today! Notice, however, that the traffic again is trying to compete with the dragon as the drivers here are very impatient!
With my battery flashing red (another problem with my camera is that it EATS batteries faster than any other I’ve ever owned), I headed home. It was still only 8:00 a.m.!
Luckily, most of the Sam Kong procession stayed relatively dry except for the brief shower during my initial encounter with it. However, it’s been pouring heavily for most of the afternoon. I’d like to go to one of the shrines in the evening (and tonight would have been perfect), but I don’t want to get caught in the rain.
I may attend another early morning street procession this week (I actually can every morning with my current reduced work schedule – school holidays). But the BIG ONE will be the Sunday night mess when all the shrines will have processions to send the Emperor Gods back to the sea. I need to find some ear-plugs to wear this year as I have to teach Monday evening (last year, I couldn’t hear for almost a week after the grand finale!).