Vegetarian Festival 2015 - Part 1
My favourite Phuket festival is over for another year! The vegetarian festival is just a little bit crazy. A lot of people look at photos and can't quite understand what or why. The photos that get shown most often show the pierced faces and maybe a bit of blood for good measure. Sorry for that in advance! The festival lasts 11 days. This year it started on 12th October and the final ceremonies were on 22nd October. There were morning street parades in Phuket Town every day from 14th - 21st October, and plenty of local street parades and evening events such as fire walking and bladed ladder climbing. There's a lot going on. A lot to see. And the food too! The general idea is that people will eat only vegan food during the festival, or at least the last 3 days, to cleanse the body. Those who take part with pierced faces in the processions are known as Ma Song, and they are said to be possessed by the spirits of the emperor gods. Not all have pierced faces. Some take on the spirits of birth and death gods. You see men walking bent over like they are 100 years old and women skipping down the road like children. They too are Ma Song. All with their groups of helpers. And then come groups of young men carrying statues of the gods, and the local people throw firecrackers into the street to greet them. The smoke and noise (and blood) can be too much for a timid soul! The processions are to bring good luck to the community.
I've been going to watch parts of the festival since about 2005. The first few years I was in Phuket, to be honest I had no idea about the festival! I guess it was not promoted that much. It's certainly better known now, but even now, you really don't see too many tourists watching the processions or visiting the shrines. I know most people come here for beaches, sun, nice food, fair enough. If this became just a tourist spectacle, it would mean a lot less. Well, this year I have to say, until the last few days I was not really in the mood for the festival. I was on holiday until October 17th, so was not in Phuket for half the festival, and when I got back here, I was tired and felt no great desire to wake up early. Finally by the 20th I was "in the zone" after a couple of days eating vegan food (I normally do that for the whole duration of the festival). Very early on October 20th, I rode my scooter to Kathu shrine, not far from our house. I was there by just after 5:30am. The good stuff happens early.
(above) It's early morning, the Ma Song are getting ready. Some odd stuff happens. Some of them really do look possessed. I do struggle with reality here. This can't be a show. Who is the show for?
(above) The same guy a few minutes later at the shrine with his helpers.
(above) And a few moments after the previous photo. Is this real life? This all happened before dawn, timestamp on the 3 photos is from 5:42 - 5:49am. And the shrine is already very crowded by this time. There are people coming and going, lighting incense and candles and saying prayers and there are Ma Song suddenly rushing into the shrine in an agitated state, their helpers aid them to put on ceremonial clothes. Some of them head outside to get pierced.
(above) A video inside Kathu shrine, a little before 6am on October 20th 2015. You can see several Ma Song approach the altar in the shrine. I try my best to blend into a wall and keep out of the way.
Outside the shrine, it's just as crowded. And there are faces getting pierced everywhere. In some past years I have tended to take a lot of rather gory piercing photos. Other times, more "spiritual" photos. Well, to be honest, there's no plan, I just hang around and snap photos of what I see. There did not seem to be too many pro photographers around on this day, sometimes I see plenty of big lenses! I find that at Kathu it can be a little quieter, as I guess the pros get their photos earlier in the festival, plus the biggest street processions from Bang Neow and Jui Tui shrines in Phuket Town are on the preceding 2 mornings. However, I did bump into blogger Tim (see his photos of the same morning at Kathu Shrine) and pro Adriano (see his website @ Phuket Paparazzi). We all wandered around squeezing through the crowds to get a few decent photos. Can be hard sometimes with so many people, you just can't get into the right position for the right photo, or you have to try and stick your lens between people's legs! Well, here's a couple of pierced Ma Song ...
And a non-pierced female Ma Song. Actually at Kathu there is some female piercing. Some shrines have only males. The ladies who do get pierced tend to not go overboard like the men!
By 6:30am, the procession was ready to leave the shrine and walk to Phuket Town - and back! About 20km of walking. On a hot day, with spikes in your cheeks, or carrying statues? It's got to be hard work. The procession starts through the old village of Kathu and the locals greet the Ma Song and the gods with a barrage of firecrackers. Strings of firecrackers are hung on long bamboo poles and dangled over the road as the parade passes. Or people just throw firecrackers in the street at the feet of the Ma Song. For 15 minutes it's absolutely nuts. Taking photos is a bit of a gamble. If you want to get close to your subject, you're going to get hit by shrapnel and the smoke is choking at times and also means you can barely see the procession! Having felt rather apathetic towards the festival this year, this was what was needed. Get out there and smell the smoke!
(above) Carrying the emperor gods through the streets in Kathu village. It's all a bit crazy for a few minutes!
(above) Ma Song, pierced and non-pierced walking through Kathu village.
By 7am the procession has just about cleared Kathu. It's quite a hike to town. Now, if I had more time, one of these days, I'd like to walk all the way with the procession. Just to get an idea of what they go through. And also, one of these days, I'd like to see what happens when they return to the shrine and the pierced faces get un-pierced and presumably the Ma Song get released of the spirits? There is a lot to see and understand at the festival. Next blog post coming soon (part 2) will cover the final night in Phuket Town. Now that really IS crazy!