Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Street Procession : Phuket Vegetarian Festival

The other day Bighead and I woke at the crack of dawn, pulled on our white clothing and headed to town to check out one of the festivals street processions. Each Chinese shrine has its own procession, usually starting at the shrine and ending up in Phuket Town. This particular procession was run by the Bang Neow Shrine which is located in town, so the procession followed a route around Phuket Town centre.
We jumped on the scoot and drove till we found a spot where people were gathering. The locals were buzzing with energy as they set up street side offerings of Chinese tea, fruit and other vegetarian treats. A great deal of care and attention is put into the presentation of these family shrines. What a fascinating and enjoyable religion to observe.

We waited patiently, with great anticipation. Small fire crackers popped up and down the street, creating excitement in the crowds of white-clothed people gathering at the road sides.

We spotted four large poles wrapped from tip to toe in crackers
(similar to double happies but much bigger) leaning up against a shops awning. We made a mental note to keep an eye out for the moment they were set alight.

We could hear the procession coming well before we could see it.

The sound is difficult to convey in words and the energy of the event is almost overwhelming. As the procession gathered momentum, families lingered by their shrines, welcoming the passing priests. It's been extremely moving to see how dedicated entire families are to
the ceremonies and rituals of this event. Being able to stand by and watch as priests approached shrines and blessed families was an experience I'll never forget.

There were points in the procession that I must say, I was secretly glad I'd only seen through the lens of my camera. These dudes are serious. Most of the procession was fairly graphic (some parts extremely so). If you are squeamish at all about such things, please do not scroll down the page. I take no responsibility.

Some of the objects seen protruding from people's cheeks, and other places, were very strange (I wonder how they decide which items to use?). The other thing that surprised me was how many participants there were, remember this is just one of the many shrines in the area. We must have seen hundreds of these dudes.
The procession took about two hours to pass us by, beginning in dribs and drabs and finishing with a finale that was way more spectacular than I had ever imagined. I mean, I knew that there would be very loud fireworks but I had NO IDEA.

At the end of the procession there were groups of people carrying, what I think, were shrines. As the final groups passed each road side shrine, the families began to set alight their biggest, loudest, most impressive fireworks (cue large poles wrapped from tip to toe in crackers).
Many of the fireworks were thrown out into the street at the passing procession. As they exploded all around, the participants continued on through the chaos. It became obvious why they had their heads and mouths protected by clothing. Can you imagine for a minute what it would be like to be apart of this section of the procession? It took the entire group four hours to complete the route. So that's four hours of continuous, ear piercing fire crackers being thrown at them. Wow. 15 minutes was enough for my ear drums.
Silhouettes of people could be seen through clouds of smoke as it began to rain red paper and ash. What a buzz! These EXTREMELY LOUD fireworks fired continuously for what seemed like an eternity (ouch). And then it was over.Even before the last participants in the parade had passed, two big street cleaners barreled their way down the street, sucking up everything in their path. A mere half an hour after the event, all traces had been cleared away. Such efficiency!

If I'm fortunate enough to be in Phuket for next years festival, I must remember to wear ear plugs. The locals did, they're not silly!

I've created a couple of videos which I'll post at a later date. Our internet connection is a bit shit at the moment so stay tuned!