Bang Neow Shrine - Street Procession in Phuket Town
October 13th was the day for devotees from Bang Neow shrine to strut their stuff. Bang Neow and Jui Tui shrines have the 2 largest processions. I had been to the Jui Tui procession last year, which was huge, and very crowded around the shrine. The weather thus far in the festival had not been great. I'd been along to 2 shrines (see previous blog entry) in the morning of the 10th and 11th under grey skies, and when I woke at 6am on the 13th, the sky looked heavy. I almost headed straight back to bed, but after a coffee, I decided that fortune favours the bold (Latin lesson: fortuna audax iuvat). And, fortune did indeed smile on Phuket Town that morning. It turned out to be a sunny, hot morning. Great for photos, maybe not to great for walking 5 miles with swords in your face under a burning sun.
I was there before the procession hit the old town - they first walked south to Sapan Hin, then back up towards to old town. The procession route was shown on a map from the TAT office so I had some idea where might be the best places to stand for photos. On a sunny morning, the sun shines right along the East-West streets of the old town. I walked around past the market and began taking photos there as the procession started to pass.
These were the first in line (above) walking along the road between the market and Jui Tui shrine. The sunlight was very strong so I tried to find another place where the sun would shine on the faces of the people in the procession. It was one of those hot mornings where it's already roasting before 8am, especially if you're dashing around trying to keep up with entranced Ma Song! Standing in one place does not really work if you want to take photos. You need to walk along with the procession, walk backwards in front of devotees, hope your camera can focus on the move, keep out of the way of sharp spikes jutting from cheeks... sometimes those with pierced faces will stop for a second for a photo, some seem more entranced and keep moving, eyed fixed.
I walked and jogged along with my trusty Canon looking for both sides of the festival. There is deep tradition here, one has to be aware of this, I am acutely aware of not getting too much in the way when taking photos. The faces of the local people watching show the respect they have for the participants in the procession and the respect they have for the festival. The respect is passed down to the younger generation...
The Bang Neow procession is a big one. I was in town for over 2 hours and the procession was still going on. I actually ran out of memory, filled a 2 GB card on the camera. Too easy to do when shooting in RAW but I had not filled a whole card in a couple of hours before! Will be sure to have a 4 or 8 GB card next time. Of course some were all blurry or not all that great but I have distilled them down and put some of the good ones on Flickr.
Oops, sorry, should have warned you about that one. Too late now.
After seeing a few years worth of vegetarian festivals I have got used to seeing the pierced faces, a bit of blood and gore. The participants who suffer in this way are doing it for the good of their community. Their pain brings good luck to everyone. At the rear of the procession, statues of the emperor gods are paraded. It's considered an honour, maybe even a proof of manhood in the community to carry one of the statues. Nothing too hard about it except you're walking miles through a hail of firecrackers aimed at the statue (next to your head) or at your feet. You'll see from the photos below, these guys are not too macho - they wear shoes that cover the feet and cover heads and faces with towels or face masks to avoid too much smoke inhalation. Just walking along with the procession for a while, I was choking on smoke and my ears were ringing from the firecrackers. Quite a buzz really!
Unfortunately I ought to be at the dive shop by 9am, and so maybe the full memory card was a good thing or I may have lost track of time and followed the procession for another hour. The watching crowds were big by 9am. This festival is important here, although it is celebrated in other areas where there are Chinese-Thai communities (Bangkok, Trang). My wife was in Chumphon this week and they do it there too, but Phuket is where it's at! This is ground zero, this is the epicentre. Walking along with the procession and being surrounded by the tradition, the noise, the Ma Song and the endless firecrackers - love it.
To come - more from the vegetarian festival, morning of the 15th I was at my "local" shrine in Kathu.. and after that I can get back to blogging about the other, less bloody Phuket! I was on holiday before the festival started so have a few little things to write about.
• More photos from Bang Neow procession (on Flickr)