Jamie's Phuket Blog

Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2011 - Part 1

The 2011 Phuket Vegetarian Festival started 26th September in the evening and continues until 6th October. A few days into the festival now, and the street processions have started. I have not been to watch one of these early morning processions yet this year, might do that tomorrow, and will certainly be in town on Sunday 2nd October for the procession from Bang Nieow Shrine in Phuket Town. My parents are visiting from England and they want to see various aspects of the festival, though we also want to do other things in and around Phuket. The weather has not been to kind. Quite a lot of rain on the 26th and 27th for the first couple of festival days. And yet, the rain has a habit of easing off if you are brave enough to get out there. On September 26th we all went to Kathu Shrine (our local - about 2km from our house) for the opening ceremonies of the vegetarian festival.

At 5pm the Go Teng pole is raised over the shrine - a huge wooden pole on which is hung a bamboo branch and 9 lanterns. This is the "spirit pole" down which the Emperor Gods can descend into the shrine. Kathu is not such a busy shrine, so it's easier than the main Phuket Town shrines to move around and take photos. The pole was hauled up into place by ropes and by men armed with forked sticks. Lo-tech, human power, with anyone welcome to help pull the ropes.. I would help, but also want to take photos! Here's the Go Teng pole being raised and fixed in place... all a bit frantic, as it seems that the pole might be raised and then fall back the other way!

Raising the Go Teng pole

Go Teng Pole Raising

The rain held off for this part of the ceremony which was preceded by a village elder saying prayers at a small altar next to the pole. These early days of the festival don't have the bloody ceremonies that come later although one Ma Song was part of the prayers, coming out from the shrine and cutting his tongue with sharp axes. Maybe a little blood is needed to convince the gods to come!

Ma Song cutting himself at Kathu Shrine

Ma Song at Kathu Shrine

The guy below was leading the prayers. At the time of the pole raising he was dressed in more ceremonial clothes and dancing around kind of trance-like. Not really in a trance though, but it's all part of the ceremony. The very old man who I had seen the last couple of years leading the prayers was nowhere to be seen. I believe he may have passed on this year. Without being one of the community here I can't say how the tradition is passed down, or why certain people are chosen to pray or chosen to be Ma Song.

Kathu shrine elder

The rain did start again once the pole was up. A strong wind blew in too. Guy ropes were quickly checked and tightened. And people were coming in and out of the shrine all the time, praying inside and taking incense outside to bless the Go Teng Pole. The furnace just outside the shrine is used to burn the money for the spirits (not real money!). Umbrellas needed to use the furnace:

Rainy evening at Kathu shrine

I always enjoy spending a little time at the shrine and watching people saying their prayers. Have to remind myself that this is Phuket. The same Phuket that is full of tourists, hotels, beach chairs, bars, massage parlours, dive shops, tuk tuks and tailors. That is also Phuket - that's a new side to Phuket. Remember that the history of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival goes back to 1825. I find this side of Phuket to be far more interesting than the beach life. But judging by the numbers of foreigners that I see every year watching the festivals, I am in a minority - well, this blog is "Jamie's Phuket" - hope it can convert a few more people to the REAL Phuket! A couple of "people watching" photos:

Prayers at Kathu Shrine

Inside Kathu Shrine, Phuket

A photo below that says something about traditions and how they are passed on. Kids come to the shrine with their families from a young age, get scared by firecrackers, watch bizarre rituals, see and feel the respect afforded to the ceremonies by the adults. When the adults pray, the children pray. The eyes below I think hold a mixture of respect, fear, excitement and bewilderment... They were watching the Ma Song with the axes coming out of the shrine.

Worried eyes

These photos were all taken early evening between 5pm and 6:30pm. The Go Teng pole had been raised and hung with 9 lanterns for the 9 gods. I knew that something would happen at the shrine at midnight. I had not been at midnight before. Surely there would be some strange rituals, wild men in trances and bloody sacrifices for the gods? The rain was falling again as we drove into a dark an silent Kathu village just before midnight. Very dark and silent. Er.. maybe I was wrong and nothing happens at midnight? My parents came along with me and I am supposed to know these things! As we approached the shrine, the lights were on and we could see activity, but it was still very quiet. This midnight prayer turned out to be less dramatic that I had anticipated. No blood, no crazy possessed old men, just prayers, and for the most part these prayers were the quietest and most reverential that I have seen.

It was all adults.. well maybe a few teenagers. Mostly men. And the men were the ones leading prayers and carrying incense and flags in and out of the shrine. Prayers were said inside the shrine in front of the altar:

Prayers at the Altar

A small temporary altar was set up outside with incense and burning wood. Prayers were said outside and the bowl of incense was surrounded with flags and taken inside by a group of very devoted looking men who formed something like a ruck around the bowl and rushed it inside. This was repeated a couple of times. Prayers were said at the temporary altar outside and then everyone moved inside.

Kathu Shrine after midnight

Only 3 foreigners there - me, Mum and Dad. Witnessing the quiet prayers was quite special. We crept around like mice. The shrine was so silent during the prayers. Only the sound of one voice and the sounds made when the "priest" knocked on a metal bowl or a wooden statue. We watched from the window. The inside of the shrine was pretty well packed. These prayers went on for about 20 minutes.

Kathu shrine after midnight

Kathu shrine prayers

Prayers in Kathu Shrine

And then .. everything moved outside again with more carrying of incense and flags in and out of the shrine. The photo below was taken at almost 1am. I had not planned to be up so late hanging around listening to prayers! But despite heavy eyes we did not want to leave just yet. On the other hand, this could go on all night ...

Kathu Shrine 1am

Finally the relative silence of these late night prayers was broken by firecrackers. You can't have a Chinese festival without firecrackers. At times during the vegetarian festival you might need ear protection. When the processions pass through town, long strings of firecrackers are held on bamboo poles over the statues of the gods as they are carried through the streets. Those carrying the gods certainly do need earplugs! Here at Kathu shrine, one long burst of bangs signalled the end of the ceremonies for the night.

Firecrackers at Kathu shrine

The festival is now in full swing. We plan to visit Sam Kong shrine in the north of Phuket Town tomorrow morning (30th) at 6:30am to witness some piercing and the start of their procession into the center of town, and tonight (29th) in Kathu village there is a procession around the village. The main street processions continue until 5th October. See you here!

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