Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2012
Well, it's all over for another year. The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is probably my favourite event in Phuket, my favourite time of year and the most bizarre festival I have ever seen. Nothing else like it. The festival in 2012 ran from 14th - 24th October starting on the 14th with the raising of the Go Teng poles at all the Chinese shrines around the island, down which the gods are invited to descend. Last year I attended the ceremony for the pole raising and also a midnight ceremony - see here. This year, work got in the way - last year I was on holiday throughout the festival.
For the 2012 festival my wife and I decided to stick to the vegetarian (เจ) diet for 9 days. The festival started back in the early to mid 19th century (date unclear) when visiting Chinese used diet and ceremonies honouring the emperor gods to cure themselves of sickness. The locals in the Kathu area of Phuket were impressed and so the festival began. The food is actually vegan - no meat, no dairy, no eggs .. also no alcohol. A diet like that is not so easy for me! But we stuck to the diet, well done us!
I suppose over the years the festival with its somewhat gruesome piercing ceremonies and big street processions has lost some of its impact for me, it's much more familiar and I admit when this year's festival started and I was working every day, I wasn't quite feeling as enthusiastic as previous years. Last year, being on holiday I could pick and choose what days to attend ceremonies or processions and had lots of time to sort out photos, plus my parents were here and eager to see the festival too. I wrote 5 separate blog pages about the 2011 vegetarian festival! Which I admit was maybe too much. Fascinating for me, but maybe endless pierced cheeks and firecrackers is not everyone's cup of tea. Well this year the first ceremony I checked out was on the 17th, heading to Sapam shrine early in the morning (about 6am) to meet a photographer friend called Adriano, get some pics and discuss photo techniques. We actually got there a bit early - Sapam is a small shrine and nothing much happened until 7am. I was determined to get some different pictures, not just pierced faces!
(above) Scenes at Sapam Shrine, 17th October. More here.
Adriano teaches photography courses here in Phuket which include a walk in Phuket Town taking pictures and then an editing session where you can learn some tricks of the trade. A few days later Adriano gave me a Photoshop lesson at home - thanks!
On the evening of the 17th there was a street procession in Kathu village and just like last year I almost missed it. I drove to the village just before 7pm and almost drove into the front of the procession. Sitting in the car which I'd thrown to the side of the road while they ran past! A small gap appeared so I could nip into a side street, park and dash out with camera. This procession is for the birth and death gods, groups of young men carry statues through the streets and there are lots and lots of firecrackers...
OK, starting to feel the festival now.... And the very next morning, another 6am start at Sam Kong shrine on the north edge of Phuket Town. As I arrived I saw a group of about 20 Russians obviously on some kind of festival tour, all wearing brand new white clothes... wearing white is another aspect of the festival. The white colour represents cleanliness. I do try to wear a white shirt at the shrines, but I don't have white trousers. It's not vital but they do say you should not wear black. Sam Kong was quite busy. The first guy to get pierced had a scrum of people around him, lots of people trying to get a photo, holding cameras over heads, necks straining ... don't worry there'll be plenty more. Within 15 minutes there are Ma Song getting pierced all over the grounds of the shrine. I could not resist. Took lots of piercing photos that morning :)
The full set from Sam Kong Shrine is here. But I also got some very nice alternative photos. Not a drop of blood in sight.
Moving on and certainly in festival mood now, and already 5 days into "the diet", there was a big street procession on 20th October in Phuket Town, one of the biggest ones, starting at Bang Neow shrine. I did not go to the shrine, just stayed around the old town as the procession went by. Thalang Road is a good place to be, though I wandered around several streets following the smell of firecrackers.
The elderly couple above are Phuket natives, their family runs the old herb shop on Thalang Road and also the Kopitiam cafe where I stopped for breakfast as the procession passed right by the door! I finished in a hurry as the firecrackers started up, meaning the statues of the gods were passing. Many of the gangs carrying the statues stopped outside a house near the cafe to be pelted with firecrackers. I crouched down as close as I dared to try and get some photos of the Boom! I'm still waiting to get that perfect picture of exploding firecrackers, but the one below is pretty close.
The noise and smoke is incredible. Next time I might just think about a facemask and some cotton wool for my ears - it's deafening and you have to be careful not to breathe in too much smoke, but I love getting in close!
More photos from October 20th : Bang Neow Shrine Vegetarian Procession
Watching the processions in town in great, and since they normally hit town around 7 - 8am, no need to get up too early (compared to my 5:30am wake up to visit shrines at 6am for piercing). I like the fact that it all happens early, so I can still get to work on time! Getting photos in a procession can be tricky, as they just keep walking, so you have a moving subject. In the shrines is easier in one way, as the pierced Ma Song normally sit for a while before the procession starts, but on the other hand, it's early morning and light levels are low. I try to get "different" photos every year. Not just bloody pierced cheeks.
On Sunday 21st was the biggest procession, from Jui Tui shrine in town. I skipped this one. Later saw some video on TV while I was having lunch. Some of the nastiest piercing I have seen. After seeing so much of the festival .. this photo still shocked me! Don't look. And then on Monday 22nd, it was the turn of Kathu shrine - my local, just a 5 minute scooter ride from our house. They start early. I was there before 6am, sun not even up yet, but the shrine was packed and many piercings had already taken place. Have to get there 5:30am next year!
First thing I saw as I entered the shrine ...
It was crowded and with Ma Song and their helpers all over the shrine, it was hard to know where to look and where to stand when not taking photos. Actually that morning I had a slight feeling of "why did I wake up so early". Stood chatting with other photographers and bloggers including Tim, who writes his own Phuket blog and Diane who takes very nice photos. I feel that next year I need to find a new angle for photos, and I will try to see more of the other festival activities such as firewalking and bladed ladder climbing.
Kathu shrine has something that most of the other shrines don't have. Female Ma Song getting pierced faces. I think only Kathu and Jui Tui allow female piercing. I've not seen a lady with anything gruesome through their face, only the more traditional skewers like in the photos below.
Can be tricky sometimes getting a photo without other people getting in the way, or other cameras getting in the shot! Whoever is holding the camera above is sticking it right in her face. I've never seen any objection to photos at the festival, but ... I think a certain level of respect should be shown. Meanwhile the male Ma Song were getting the usual assortment of guns, knives, metal sculptures, swords, electrical goods and plants stuck through their cheeks and through tongues too.
Little by little, a few at a time, the pierced Ma Song and followers headed out of the shrine on the walk to Phuket Town. From Kathu to Sapan Hin is about 10km. At the rear of the procession come the statues of the gods ...
And a few stragglers ....
With the procession past, the clean up crews quickly arrive. The streets are all clean just minutes after the procession and normal daily life continues. The festival continued another 2 days, but that was enough for me this year. Hope to have more time for it next year. The Phuket vegetarian festival has many stories to tell. I've never really mentioned that much about the food before, so will try and write about that next year. Dates for the Phuket vegetarian festival 2013. The festival will start on the evening of October 4th and end on the 14th. Looking forward to it already!
One last photo .. at Sam Kong Shrine. A protest against gasoline prices?