In late January and early February, those of us in Phuket look forward to the year’s second big New Year’s blow-out. There is a huge Chinese population centered on Phuket Town. Many of the older families began during the tin-mining boom starting in the mid-nineteenth century and their clan shrines still dot the small lanes of the community. The Old Town Phuket Festival, celebrating the area’s rich history and unique culture, is usually held a few days following the start of Chinese New Year. It is my favorite of the local festivals, even more so than September/October’s Vegetarian Festival.
In the weeks preceding Chinese New Year, the color red becomes predominant throughout the area. Chinese lanterns are strung from businesses and along the famous 5-meter walkways. Firecrackers are exploded to frighten away evil spirits at all times of the day and night (often just as I’m trying to fall asleep). There is a local clan shrine in the middle of the relatively rural lane in which I live. On the actual Chinese New Year night, members of the family here set off strings of very loud firecrackers every fifteen minutes for several hours straight starting one or two o’clock in the morning. This, in turn, wakes the local dogs who will continue barking until the dawn. I haven’t yet become accustomed to this little “tradition” of the holiday!
I imagine similar scenes play out at all of the local shrines in Phuket Town and beyond, particularly in the week surrounding the start of Chinese New Year. Unusually, I didn’t see very many displays of horses this past year – Year of the Horse – as I did during the Years of the Snake or the Dragon.
The Phuket Old Town Festival is held the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday following the start of Chinese New Year. All the major streets surrounding the historic center are closed to traffic and filled with food and souvenir vendors, street performers, and interesting things to see in every direction. The Sea Dragon park is the center of action with a huge stage set up in the northern section on which numerous Chinese musical and acrobat troupes will perform. The southern section features a large shrine at which people can make merit to the Chinese gods.
Every year brings larger crowds, including a great many foreigners and not only the Chinese. Unfortunately, this past year I observed many Eastern European men getting very drunk in the streets (a number of pubs have opened recently near the Thepkassatri and Thalang intersection). This has become a bit of a problem recently, even during the weekly Sunday-night Walking Street on Thalang Road – many signs are set up stating “No Drinking” and “No Smoking” in the street but each week I see foreigners (Australian, British, plus the Russians) ignoring these and becoming obnoxious to the dismay of the locals.
But despite a few bad farang who have mistaken our chaste community for the hedonism of Patong, I still enjoy the Old Town Festival. My favorite thing to see are the many Baba-Nagoya wearing their traditional clothing, often this is wedding garb and a number do get married during this period. As a stamp collector, I’m also happy to see the Thailand Post booth which is always very crowded. I believe a number of locals buy the annual stamps yearbook at this event as it becomes available usually about the time of the festival.
Each year, I attend all three nights of the Old Town Festival. The odd thing is that I rarely buy anything to eat, just an occasional orange juice. This is not because there is nothing I want to eat – the fact is that the selection is too great as are the crowds. Whenever I spy a food stall that looks interesting, I usually get swept up in the flow of the crowd and am unable to push against that stream towards the stall! But I enjoy that sea of humanity – watching the people is half the fun.
And I take plenty of photographs as I always find something new I’d like to preserve on film (well, digital). In this respect (and others), it is quite similar to the Vegetarian Festival the major difference being that you can safely take pictures without worrying about getting hit by exploding firecrackers!
Another pleasing aspect is the number of people I bump into at the festival that I know – the majority being former students or Thai teachers I’ve worked with over the years. As I walk through the crowds, I often hear the exclamation “Teacher Mark!” It always feels me with pride that they remember my name. Many times my students will be busking – so many are talented musically or vocally and I always through 20 baht or so into their basket. It’s always a good thing to encourage young talent.