Saturday, October 30, 2010

Now Pitching - Peelawat

Peelawat Winding Up To Pitch With Both Hands His Rocks

Yesterday, while the Animist rituals were being performed at our home, I got to spend some quality time with Peelawat, our 21 month old grandson.  We are never at a loss for things to do.  Peelawat has the natural talent to turn just about anything into a game.  He has an impish sense of humor and takes as much pleasure in making others laugh as laughing himself.  He is also very inquisitive which allows me to review and edit photographs on the computer while he sits on  my lap - good for me and good for him.

With most of the action occurring outside yesterday, we spent a good deal of our time outdoors.  When he wasn't "helping" with the relocation of one of the Spirit Houses, Peelawat busied himself with our landscaping.  Part of our home's landscaping consists of small flat rounded stones as a decorative element.  These rocks are just right for a 21 month old child to keep busy - very busy.

Peelawat Showing His "Look Away" Technique Prior to Pitching the Rocks
Peelawat started with using the rocks as trucks and cars - complete with sound effects.  He then he used a rock to bang on the concrete pavers.  Amused with his entertaining antics, I had brought out my camera to take some photographs. It was then that Peelawat got into what rocks are really meant for - to a two year old - throwing them.  Peelawat has thrown the rocks before, but yesterday he was really into it- much to my consternation.  After each of his sessions I have to find the the rocks in the grass, driveway, and shrubs to return them to their proper locations.  Peelawat gets so much pleasure out of the rocks that I can not bear to stop him.

Peelawat Fires Away - With Both Hands

Peelawat noticed that I was taking photographs so after each shot, he would run over to me to see the results on the digital camera's monitor.  It is nice to have such an enthusiastic model and a model who works so cheaply, too.

Peelawat Pitching More Rocks - Right and Left Simultaneously!
Peelawat kept busy tossing stones for a lengthy period of time.  My moaning and groaning as he spread rocks over the grass, into the shrubs, onto the driveway, and some even into the street seemed to only encourage him.  He was having a great time.

Peelawat Showing Some Proclivity for A Possible Major League Baseball Career
Towards the end of his performance, Peelawat showed a natural inclination for playing Major League Baseball.  He apparently had an itch that had to be scratched.  Just as many major leaguers will scratch or "adjust" themselves in the batter's box, Peelawat took care of his needs irregardless of the other people around him.  He pulled his diaper partially down and scratched away as he walked away to join his dad.

Some Habits, Bad Habits, Start At An Early Age
After his pitching of rocks, we played futbol (soccer) with a balloon prior to Peelawat returning home to Tahsang Village.  As Duang cleaned up the sahts, and plates from the ritual, I retrieved and relocated the rocks to their proper locations smiling - most of the time.

Peelawat and his Father, Bhet

Friday, October 29, 2010

Having the Answers - Faith

One of the Spirit Houses Being Relocated
Things are not what they always appear to be.

The more that you think that you understand, the less you know.  However it is this dichotomy of perception and reality that keeps life so interesting for a falang here in Isaan.

A little over two years ago, I wrote a blog regarding the installation of Spirit Houses at our home here in Udonthani.

Installing Spirit Houses at homes, businesses, government buildings, and industrial facilities to ensure good luck, prosperity, and harmony for the occupants and owners.  The belief is not related to Buddhism but to the Animist religion that preceded both Buddhism and Hinduism in this region.

A great deal has happened since that day.  There have been great times.  There have been good times.  There have been a few, very few, not so good times.  All in all it has been wonderful and the not so good times, the disappearance of some personal items and my traffic accident last May, have been within the realm of what I would consider normal living - nothing to prevent happiness.

For about a year now, one of Duang's uncles, the Brahman priest, who officiated over the installation of the Spirit Houses, has been in bad health.  After two visits to the Kumphawapi Hospital within a week back in April, he was sent home and instructed not to return.  The hospital had determined that they could not help him.  I have seen him a couple of times since then and while he does not appear to be in the best of health, he is still alive.

In a somewhat related matter, the same uncle has been having troubles with his daughter who is around 20 years old.  Her boyfriend has left Isaan, as so many other young Lao Loum men, to seek a livelihood in Bangkok.  He had decided to cast his lot in the factories of the metropolis rather than the subsistence fields of Isaan.  One week ago, Duang's niece decided to go with her boyfriend to Bangkok.  This became a cause celebre in Nong Dang Village and its environs which includes Tahsang Village.  As I have noted in several blogs, there are no secrets or privacy here in Isaan.  A young woman leaving her family to live with a man who is not her husband is frowned upon especially if she is leaving without her family's blessing.  In order to support their parents, many young women go to Pattaya or Bangkok to work in tourist or entertainment venues.  This is accepted and not discussed.  However leaving in order to cohabitate is a taboo.  I guess the difference is that one is being business and the other is being personal.

For a week and one-half there has been a family crisis involving the niece's desire to go to Bangkok.  Duang's uncle and aunt threatened to disown their daughter if she left. The niece went without eating for three days and threatened to commit suicide.  Duang was contacted to talk some "sense" into her niece.  Duang was apparently successful in getting her niece to recommence eating and to stop talking about suicide.  However her niece remains depressed.

Confronted with the uncle's ill health and problems with the niece, the family sort out outside assistance.  With this being Isaan, the assistance sort did not come from the local government, federal government, or mental health organizations.  With this being Isaan, the first out reach was to the local religious institution - the Monk of the local Wat.  The family also heard about a special Buddha (Monk), a white Buddha, from a village 25 kilometers from Tahsang Village.  "White Buddha" is Duang's term for a Brahman Priest or Shaman and not for a member of the Buddhist religious community.

It is believed that the local Brahman is reincarnated from a man who died one thousand years ago.  He has been possessed by "good" spirits and spends his time helping people.  It is said that he goes into trances in which he communicates with spirits to see how to solve problems, set things right, and to foretell the future.

He arrived in Tahsang Village yesterday afternoon, about one hour before Duang's niece was going to get on the bus to Bangkok.  He went into a trance.  He spoke to the family.  He put some stuff into a glass of water for the girl to drink and she then decided to not to go to Bangkok much to the family's relief.  With this wonderful development, Duang was called so that she could meet the Shaman.  In the course of conversation the Shaman determined many things - the biggest item was that the Uncle's health was compromised because he had performed the Spirit House installation at our home and was not properly qualified.  It turns out that Duang's uncle was qualified to perform weddings and Bai Sii ceremonies, he was not qualified for rituals such as Spirit House installations.  This was news to me and the rest of the family.

Offerings to the Spirits

According to the Shaman, Duang has been making the wrong offerings to the spirits at our home.  She had been making offerings of fruit, Fanta Strawberry Soda, flowers, and drinking water when the spirits actually wanted blood, pork, beef and fish.  Apparently Duang's Uncle in addition to not being properly qualified had also given her some bad advice on how to keep the spirits content.  The spirits were not happy and were wanting blood, kind of like as in wanting people dead.  Duang's Uncle is number 1 on their list and he would be dead within 10 days.  Duang would be dead with in one year with Duang's daughter being next to die.  I inquired about my status in this bad situation and Duang told me as she has on several occasions, "You OK, Phii (ghosts) afraid of falang (foreigners)".  Many foreigners complain or more accurate whine about perceived discrimination here in Thailand but this is obviously one situation where it pays to be a "falang".

Duang returned home yesterday afternoon and informed me of this development.  She told me that it would be good for her to have the Shaman come to our home the next morning and set things right.  Apparently the Shaman was going to consult the spirits and relocate the spirit house in a proper ritual that would set everything straight.  This would help Duang's uncle's health and remove the cause for my traffic accident and the loss of our personal property.  I asked her how much money it was going to cost me and she replied that it would not cost anything.  I asked her how much of our landscaping would be destroyed and she said very little.  Sounded like a good deal to me so I agreed especially when Duang added that our 21 month old grandson, Peelawat, would be coming along with the relatives for the ritual.

Preparing Offerings While Shaman Consults
 The relatives and Shaman arrived this morning around 8:00 A.M.  Peelawat and I amused ourselves looking at pictures of him on the computer while everyone else prepared for the ritual.  The ritual started with a sit down, as in cross legged on sahts, breakfast of fruits, rice, soft drinks, fish, and meat dishes that Duang had freshly prepared.  The Shaman maintained a vegetarian regimen unlike the Buddhist Monks in the area.

Shaman Prepares to Relocate A Spirit House While Peelawat Rearranges Decorative Rocks

Peelawat Watches the Ritual
After eating, the Shaman talked with Duang, her family and friends from Tahsang Village.  On several occasions he went into a trance to communicate with the spirits.  Duang's Uncle did not come due to his health but her Aunt and Niece had come to our home to ensure the benefits of the ritual for the Uncle.  The Shaman then walked around the Spirit Houses in our front yard and made the decision to relocate one of the Spirit Houses to our front side yard.

Peelawat "helps" his Grandmother and Father to relocate a Spirit House
 Under the supervision of the Shaman, the family relocated one of the Spirit Houses and made offerings at both of the Spirit Houses.  The Shaman preformed a proper ritual to appease the spirits and set everything back to where it needed to be.  Since we also have a shrine in our home, he went upstairs and had the shrine furniture rearranged to be in a proper configuration.

Shaman Performs Ritual for Relocated Spirit House
After the rituals, the Shaman did consultations for the family.  Duang's Uncle, according to the Shaman, will live for three more years.  Duang will live for five months longer than I will.  I will die in Thailand when I am 90 years old.  Peelawat will take care of us in our old(er) age.  When I am 36 and Duang is 32 years old, in our next life, we will have two children - one boy and one girl.

Peelawat and I have a very close relationship.  Duang and many of the Tahsang Villagers have attributed this close relationship to their belief that he was actually my son in a previous life.  The Shaman confirmed this to be the fact.

The family and Shaman piled into the pickup truck around 12:00 P.M. to return to their homes.  Duang was pleased and content that everything had been straightened out with the spirits.  She had answers for why things have happened and knowledge of things to come.  Her world had balance and harmony returned to it.  She had done the right thing and her faith gives her a road map for the future.

My wife is happy, so I am happy too.  She has answers.  I understand a little bit more and perhaps know a little more.

It was another interesting day here in Isaan.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A New Gallery Available - Phuket Vegetarian Festival

A Mother Shields Her Son from a Fusillade of Firecrackers

A new gallery, "Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2010", has been created on my photography website at the link below.

The gallery is a work in progress but is finally to the point were sharing is possible.  With over 2,000 photographs to review and edit, it has kept me very busy since our return from Phuket.

A Ma Song - His Cheek Pierced By a Samurai Sword

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Friday 15 October 2010 - Fire Walking

A Ban Neow Ma Song Fire Walks

Friday morning was rainy.  During an early morning lull in the rain, we headed out to the wet market.  We were out on the streets at 7:00 A.M. so Duang was able to earn merit by offering food to a Monk who was making his alms walk.  She may have earned some merit but her good deed did nothing to improve the weather situation.  We got just about one-half of the way there when the rains started up again.  We had brought our rain jackets and an umbrella so using them and taking advantage of balconies as well as canopies we arrived at the wet market relatively dry.  The market was not anything special but it offered protection from the rain.  We spent some time and took only a few photographs.

It rained fairly hard on our return to the hotel.  After waiting for the rain to diminish somewhat, we walked over to the procession route to observe the devotees from Kathu Shrine parade through town.  I took only about 41 photographs due to the inclement weather and fatigue setting in from combating the weather. Thinking that the procession was finished at 9:30 A.M., we returned to the hotel.  In reality it was only a brief respite in the procession, it continued on to late in the morning.

We spent the afternoon as we had spent the previous afternoons - in our room watching television, napping, and writing in my journal.  The weather continued to be horrible - I was actually beginning to contemplate the possibility that our flight the next afternoon would be cancelled.  The combination of wind and rain often reduced visibility to 300 meters.

One of my goals on this trip was to photograph the fire walking ritual.  We had not attempted to witness the previous scheduled fire walking rituals or sword ladder climbing due to bad weather.  I had attempted to photograph fire walking two years ago but failed due to a combination of distance and lack of light.  This year I had a new camera which is far superior for taking pictures in low light conditions.  In addition, the Ban Neow Shrine venue is much more intimate than the previous Saphan Hin location.

A Phuket Tuk-Tuk Taxi

The fire walking ritual was scheduled to commence at 8:00 P.M. so we left our hotel at 6:00 P.M.  We took a Tuk-Tuk, a small (very small) truck taxi to the Ocean Shopping Mall which is very close to Ban Neow Shrine.  We had dinner at the Pizza Company, Thailand's knock-off of Pizza Hut, and walked the remaining short distance to the shrine.

Devotees Tend the Large Wood Fire in the Ban Neow Shrine Courtyard
 Ban Neow is a small shrine in the heart of the commercial district of Phuket Town.  The front courtyard of the shrine was just about completely barricaded off to form a large rectangle.  In the middle of the barricaded area area was a very large wood fire.  When we first arrived, the fire was about a meter and a half, 4 feet, high.  Occasionally eight men would drag a wide board across the coals and embers to flatten as well as to spread out the fire.  They also used the same board and bamboo pole assembly to tamp down the coals to form a dense bed of coals.  The men wore white clothing as is required of participants during the festival along with tee shirts or towels that had been drenched in water as some protection from the fire.  Interestingly, most of the men were barefoot.

Devotees Spread Out The Coals In Preparation for Fire Walking Ritual

We arrived just in time.  The courtyard was rapidly filling up we spectators.  We ended up 3 people back from the metal barricade at the lower right hand corner of the rectangle - at one of the four altars set up in each of the corners.  We were not there very long when the rains began - once again.  The Public Address announced that the coming one hour before the start of the fire walking was a good omen.  She was 1/2 right it was an omen but not a good omen!    We had arrived prepared for rain - we each had a rain jacket, hat and umbrella.  We had brought one of the large hotel umbrellas from our room.  We put on our rain jacket and I placed my camera underneath my jacket.  Some men moved some large beach umbrellas from the refreshment booths over to protect the crowd along the barricade.  It was my good fortune to be directly beneath the center of one of the umbrellas.

We had been talking and joking with the people around us, so we gave our umbrellas to the people at the barricade who had no protection from the rain.  I tried to collect rent for the use of umbrellas but the people knew that I was only joking.  There were at least three showers, some of them with strong wind gusts, prior to the start of the fire walking ritual.  There were several announcements to be aware and on alert to pick pockets.  Surprisingly the warning was specifically warning about child pick pockets.  There were no children around us and my wallet was in in my front pants pocket underneath my rain coat.  Duang also was keeping a good lookout over me.

The announcer also warned that people born in the year of the snake or monkey to not look at the ritual.  This was in addition to the warning to menstruating women (Duang's "friend" was no longer visiting so she was safe), pregnant women, or people who were mourning.  No warnings other than being born in the year of the snake or monkey applied to falang (foreign) men - so I was good to go - at least in my mind.  I don't know what year I was actually born in.  Since I really wanted to photograph the ritual, I adopted the US Military policy of "Don't ask, Don't tell."  After about one-half of these warnings there was a correction - it was for people born in the year of the D-R-A-G-O-N or Monkey.  It turned out that people born in the year of the snake could watch the ritual after all!  I wonder how many snake people had already left.

Shooting the ritual was a great challenge.  Besides the rain to contend with, everyone was sticking their hand up to shoot photos with their cell phone.  I took several blind shots by extending my arms above my head and eye balling the bottom of my lens to get the angle.  The English language television channel at the hotel had been broadcasting a program about modern day military snipers so I was inspired as well as motivated.  After a while and a big rain shower, 2 people left the metal barricade.  Although somewhat easier, shooting was still a challenge.  Attendants inside of the rectangle were constantly in the way.

Offerings to the Nine Emperor Gods and Spirits Are Made at One of the Altars

The fire walking ritual commenced around 8:15 P.M. due to the adverse weather conditions.  A big part of the pre-ritual preparations was preparing the fire bed.  The attendants ensured that the embers were spread out to form a bed about 3 feet (1 meter) thick.  They also took great efforts to compact the embers to create a dense bed.

Ma Song Throws Prayer Papers On To the Fire
One of the Ma Song was supervising the fire bed preparation.  Other Ma Song came out to pray and make offerings at the altars in the corners of the large barricaded area.  Part of the worship at the altars involved lighting candles and burning wood.  Based upon the copious amount of smoke that I ended up inhaling, I believe the wood was some type of cedar. The Mar Song did some chanting, and would crack the whip that they carried.  You could see that they were working themselves into a trance-like state.

Final Preparations Being Completed

Prayer Papers Burn In Front of a Ma Song

A Ma Song Walks Across the Fire
A Ma Song, who appeared to be a leader, inspected the bed, threw some rice on the embers, and threw some prayer paper on the bed.  The rice popped like popcorn and the paper immediately ignited.  Seemingly satisfied with the preparations, the Ma Song walked to the far end of the fire.  Many other Ma Song were at the far end of the fire awaiting the word to proceed.  Upon the leaders arrival at the far end, the Mar Song commenced walking across the fire.

After the Ma Song completed their fire walking, some of the other devotees walked across the fire under the supervision of the Mar Song.

A Devotee Walks Across the Fire
 We left as the fire walking was coming to a close.  One-half a block from the shrine the sky opened up - the heaviest rains of the trip up to that point.  Fortunately we were clear of the jam packed crowd back at the shrine.  We quickly sought and found shelter under the extended balcony of a store front.  With the heavy rain and ensuing street flooding, it was obvious that we were not going to be walking back to the hotel.

A motorbike pulled up and the operator asked if we wanted a ride.  In Thailand there are four main modes of transportation in urban areas - motorbikes, Tuk-Tuks, Somlaws, and Songthaews or buses.  In Phuket I did not see any somlaws, three wheeled motorcycles, but there were plenty of roving motorbikes offering rides for a negogtiated price.  Motorbikes are involved in many accidents.  With the rain, road conditions, poor lighting, and crowds, I did not want to hop on the back of a small motorbike.  I told Duang that I did not want to ride on a motorbike.  I told her that I was afraid.  She told the motorbike woman.  The motorbike woman told Duang to stay where we were and she would return with a taxi for us.  About five minutes later the motorbike returned followed by a sedan.  The motorbike woman was concerned about me crossing te street and assisted me to cross the street in heavy traffic.  We returned to our hotel safe and sound - thanks to the kindness of a stranger.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Thursday 14 October 2010 - Phuket Vegetarian Festival

Spectators In Front of a 7-11 Store
After a good night's sleep, we were up at 5:00 A.M. to get to Jui Tui Shrine for the morning's preparations for the downtown procession.  I checked outside and was pleased to see that there was no wind.  It also appeared to be no longer raining.  We were dressed and prepared to head out 30 minutes later.

As we exited the hotel, we discovered that although there was no wind, it was raining - not a torrential downpour but enough to dissuade me from risking damage to my photography gear.  We turned around and returned to our room.  The hotel breakfast buffet commences at 6 A. M. so we were able to experience the start of the service as opposed to the close of service the day before.  The buffet had also been switched from the ground floor to the 19th floor of the hotel.

The 19th floor location was a surprise.  Three sides of the 19th floor were just about floor to ceiling glass with views of the city, harbor, Andaman Sea, islands, and surrounding hill sides - provided rain and low clouds did not obscure the visibility.  There was also two doors that lead to an outdoor observation deck.  During our breakfast, I kept an eye on the outside weather.  Since the wet market (so called because seafood, meat, poultry, and vegetables are sold there and having nothing to do with the current weather conditions) was not far from the hotel I harbored the hopes of getting down there for some morning photos.  As we continued our breakfast, the rain only intensified.  We returned to our room to watch some television with one eye on the TV and one eye out the window for the weather.  Around 8:00 the weather seemed to stabilize - somewhat.  The sounds of firecrackers exploding along the procession route and the immediate lack of precipitation were too much for me to resist.  I set up the new camera with the lens that I figured on using the most, I strapped the flash case to my hip, placed a couple of CF cards and a spare battery into my pants pocket, stuck the umbrella into my pants (carefully) like a sword, put on my Goretex rain jacket and headed out.  Duang still not feeling 100% elected to remain in the room.

Firecrackers Explode At the Feet of a Mar Song
I knew that what little gear that I brought with me would be safe and protected under my jacket if the rain returned.  The secret was to get past the two blocks from the hotel to the procession without any rain.  Once at my vantage point, it would all be manageable.  It was the impediment of setting off in the rain that I feared and would have to overcome.  With this being the tropics, local architecture, in general, takes into account the torrential rains.  The buildings have balconies or canopies from the second story that extend almost all the way across the sidewalk.  This sheltered space provides protection from the sun as well as rain.  This sheltered space is also sometimes used as displaying merchandise for some of the businesses.

A Female Devotee Marches in Procession With A Steel Rod Piercing Both Her Cheeks

A Jui Tui Shrine Ma Song and His Attendants March

A Ma Song Causes His Tongue to Bleed With a Sword

Something Different - A Ma Song Eats Burning Wood
My gamble with the weather paid off.  At the three locations where I stopped to take photographs of the morning procession, it only rained twice for short periods of time.  I but more importantly my camera gear were protected by either an extended balcony or canopy.

A Resident Making An Offering to Ma Song
Around 10:00 A.M. I was tired and had 421 new photographs.  I was also once again soaking wet - not from the rain but from perspiration and the increased humidity of wearing a rain jacket while bending, along with squatting to shoot more interesting perspectives of the event.  I decided to head back to the hotel.  Just as I turned the corner to return, I ran into a smiling face - Duang.  She had been looking for me for 1-1/2 hours carrying the remainder of my camera gear.  She had felt guilty about not accompanying me and was concerned that I would need to change my camera or lens so she had set out to find me.  We returned to the hotel together with Duang carrying all the gear.  Fortunately Duang's efforts were not entirely wasted, she got to enjoy the procession just as I was able to do.

Morning Procession Spectator

I spent the remainder of the day writing in my journal, reviewing photos, drying off my gear, and watching both TV and the deteriorating weather.  Duang -  "relaxed" as in napped.

As I wrote earlier, one of the "rules" to be followed was "Pregnant or menstruating women should not attend the ceremonies"  Two hours before we left our home in Udon Thani to go to the airport for the flight to Phuket, Duang's "Friend came to visit" (an expression that I picked up from some Southern good ole boys back in 1971).  On our previous trip for the Festival the weather, other than being hot and blinding sunlight had not been an issue at all.  This trip was completely opposite.  I mentioned to her that I thought that it was because of her that the weather was so terrible.  I was only joking because the rains had actually started days before our arrival.  I suspect that must have been a pregnant woman or two and several other women who had their "friends visiting" attending the ceremonies who had angered the gods.  Is it "Climate Change"?  Or were we just lucky two years ago?

The bad weather forced us to adapt to the situation that we were faced with.  It was a condition that we had no influence or control over.  It did present us with different opportunities than we had expected or hoped for.  Just as in life, we had to make the most of what we were given.  Just as in life we had to make the best of what we had when we had it.  Waiting and hoping for something better to come along or just plain procrastinating were too great a risk on this trip - just as in life.  Every day is to be lived fully, joyfully, and as best you can.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Wednesday 13 October 2010 - Phuket Vegetarian Festival

Mar Song From Ban Neow Shrine Parade Through Phuket Town

We arrived in Phuket the evening of October 12, 2010.  In researching this trip to attend the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, I had been tracking the weather forecasts.  The forecasts were for thunderstorms and 20 to 60% possibilities of rain for each day of our stay.  Two years ago we had spent 7 days in Phuket and had about one hour of intense rain one afternoon during a thunderstorm.  Based upon that experience and our knowledge of brief daily rains here in Isaan during the monsoon season , the Phuket forecast was not a major concern.  We brought an umbrella and two Goretex rain jackets as a precaution.

One half of the way from the Phuket International Airport to our hotel in Phuket Town it began to rain. By the time that we went to bed, there was a hurricane outside - well not really a hurricane but definitely squall lines raking across the city.  There were horizontal rains and winds around 60 to 70 KPH.  The wind continued all night and it rained most of the night - due to the wind we were asleep at 10:30, 12:00, 1:30, and 3:30.

Tuesday morning, I woke up at 5:00 A.M.  I could hear the the wind outside but I did not hear any rain.  I opened the curtains on both sides of our room and although it was very dark, I could tell that it was not raining.  I could also tell that there was a very ugly sky - fast moving storm clouds - but it was not raining!   Duang and I showered and prepared to get to Ban Neouw Shrine by 6:00 A.M. for the preparation of the Mar Song for the morning's 7:00 A.M. procession.

A Mar Song Pierced By An Umbrella As Well As Steel Skewers
Ban Neow Shrine was close to our hotel so we decided to walk over to the shrine.  Quickly all the sights from 2 years ago came back to us.  We had walked the same area before on our last visit to Phuket.  The shrine is near the large morning market - about 4 or 5 blocks from our hotel.  the morning market was very busy as we passed by.  Fish, meat, vegetables, along with hard goods and household items were being shopped and sold.  The route for the upcoming procession became apparent as we walked towards the shrine.  Merchants together with residents along the procession route had set up altars outside of their businesses and homes for the Mar Song to stop at.

A Ma Song Delivers A Blessing At A Local Altar
 Ma Song through their pain and suffering from piercings and self mortification are believed to be able to take away bad luck and evil of others as well as for the community thus ensuring them good luck as well as success during the up coming year.  To assist in the departure of evil and bad spirits, people and especially businesses will ignite firecrackers to scare off the evil as well as any bad spirits.  We were told that in front of one local gold exchange, 100,000 firecrackers were exploded.

Just as on our previous visit to the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, I found myself in the middle of one of the firecracker barrages.  For a former young boy who loved the smell of gun caps, this was pure ecstasy.  Five hours after the procession had ended as I was writing in my journal, the smell of sulfur and the other components of gunpowder was still discernible on our bodies and clothing.

We arrived at Ban Neow Shrine around 6:00 A.M., but it was too late to stake out prime territory at any of the Ma Song piercing stations scattered about the shrine courtyard.  Each station was surrounded by 4 to 6 deep rings of photographers.  Undeterred, I muscled up and sometimes below the myriad cellphone cameras as well as point and shoot cameras to take some shops.  Wednesday was the first of four scheduled morning opportunities to photograph and document the preparations for the processions.

Mar Song Being Pierced By Many Hypodermic Needles

An Assistant Adds Another Row of Needles to a Mar Song

A Ma Song Awaiting the Start of the Procession
As the light improved with the passage of time so did the weather.  The wind died down.  The clouds rose higher and became lighter.  By 9:00 A.M. there was actually abundant sunshine.  We never had to use the umbrella or the rain jackets that we had in the camera backpacks for the procession.  I did have to use my floppy hat from the camera backpack for protection from the sun.

Duang was not at 100% strength so I sought and found a great location for both of us.  At a street intersection where the sun was shining on the marchers and at my back, where the procession had to take a 90 degree turn to continue their trek, I found a club named "Fantasea"which had a beer garden at the sidewalk level.  The beer garden was closed but the tables and benches remained outside under a roof.  The location besides being convenient, sheltered and comfortable had full visibility of the street.  It was a great place for Duang to sit and enjoy the procession while I photographed the event 30 feet away in the middle of the street.  An added bonus for this location was that it was directly across from a business that had 8 long bamboo poles from which six to eight foot long strings of firecrackers were dangling.

It was a great morning - 775 photographs of which 709 were with my one year old camera - a new camera since our last Phuket trip.  This might bring up the question of why return to a place that you have been to before.  I have been to Machu Pichuu twice - why?  I had three reasons - 1. I had a new camera with greater capabilities than the previous cameras.  2.  I wanted some specific shots that I did not get during my first visit.  3.  I wanted to experience, enjoy and appreciate the location more fully.  So it also was with my return trips to Yellowstone National Park, Foz do Iguacu, Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, Paris, Maehongson, Bangkok, and so many other wonderful locations and events.  So it was with this Phuket Vegetarian Festival.

A Ma Song Possessed By An Emperor God
At the conclusion of the morning's procession, I was soaking wet - not from rain but perspiration.  We returned to our hotel at 10:00 A.M., 2 blocks away from our last procession vantage point.  We arrived at the hotel in time to have the breakfast buffet which stopped serving at 10:30 A.M.  After  showering and changing our clothing, we watched the return of the squalls - wave upon wave of torrential rain and gale force winds that rattle the windows of our room. 

The remainder of the day was spent relaxing in our room and working on my journal.  We were fortunate to not to have to leave the protection of the hotel.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2010 - Background

Phuket Vegetarian Festival - Background

Devotees Carrying Shrine Idol Through Phuket Town

We arrived home last night (Saturday 16 October in Thailand) after a 1-3/4 hour direct flight on Air Asia back from Phuket.  The flight besides being economical was a vast improvement over our last journey back from Phuket two years ago - 12 hour; a combination of taxi, plane and bus.

We had spent 4 days and 5 nights in Phuket to observe and photograph the 9 day Phuket Vegetarian Festival.  The Festival, this year started on Friday October 8th and ended on Saturday October 16th.  We arrived Tuesday night and left on Saturday afternoon before the grand closing rituals.

The Vegetarian Festival is Phuket's biggest celebration and is a grand event for Phuket's Chinese community. Phuket was once a large tin mining as well as trading center. The Chinese immigrated to trade and to work in the mines.  Today a large proportion of Phuket's population is Chinese.  During the Vegetarian Festival, there are many ethnic Chinese visitors from throughout Thailand as well as from Malaysia and China.

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival started in the early 19th century.  In 1825, a visiting Chinese opera company, that had visited from China to entertain the tin miners, caught malaria while performing in Kathu. In those days, malaria was often fatal. The opera company decided to adhere to a strict vegetarian diet as an offering to two of the Nine Emperor Gods. The opera company recovered from their illness. The people of Kathu celebrated by holding a vegetarian festival each year to thank the gods and celebrate the opera group's recovery. An additional belief that inspires the festival is to bring good luck to individuals as well to a community.

The festival is held over nine days during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calender which is usually late September or early October. Two years ago it was held from 28 September to 7 October.  This year it was October 8 to October 16.

The central belief of the festival is that by eating vegetarian food and observing 10 rules, believers can purify their body as well as their soul while bringing good luck to themselves along with their community.

The 10 rules that believers are supposed to follow are:

     Maintain body cleanliness

     Use only clean kitchenware that hasn't been used by people who are not participating in  the       festival

     Dress in white

     Be moral in thoughts and actions
     Do not eat meat

     Do not have sex

     Do not drink alcohol

     Avoid foods with strong flavor such as garlic and onion

     People in mourning should not participate in the festival

     Pregnant or menstruating women should not attend the ceremonies

During the festival, many rituals are conducted to call upon the gods. These ceremonies include body piercing, fire walking, bathing with hot oil, and climbing ladders constructed with sword rungs. The ceremonies are held at each of the nine Chinese shrines.

The largest rituals are the daily processions of believers during the morning through Phuket Town.  The origins of the processions go back to the early days of the festival when a local resident went to Kansai, China to invite two deities to reside in Kathu, a district of Phuket.  He returned to Phuket on the seventh night of the ninth lunar month.  He brought back with him the sacred documents used in the ritual back in China.  Residents of Phuket had a grand procession down to the dock to welcome him back upon his arrival from China.  Today's processions commemorate his original welcoming ceremony.

A Ma Song From Bang Neow Shrine In Phuket Town
Spiritual Mediums, called "Mar Song", also written as "Ma Song", become possessed by the Nine Emperor Gods. The Mar Song are dressed in clothes befitting the god that has possessed them. People believe that the god will protect the mediums from harm while they perform the various rituals and acts of self mutilation.

Each of the main Chinese shrines parades through Phuket Town on their appointed day during the festival. During the parade the Mar Song demonstrate the power of their respective Emperor God by withstanding the pain of their ordeal. For devotees, the Mar Song through their ordeal, are able to remove evil spirits and can bestow good luck upon others as well as for the community.  With their power and devotion Ma Song are highly respected and revered.  Along the parade route many people and businesses set up tables of offerings to receive blessings from the passing Mar Song.  Long strands of firecrackers are set off as a Mar Song approaches to scare away the evil spirits.  The greater the sound and noise the more effective the ritual of driving the evil spirits away on to the Ma Song.

A Devotee Helping to Carry Shrine Idol

A Shrine Idol Under Bombardment
As the processions advance, huge amounts of firecrackers are set off. The air becomes filled with the sharp staccato of bursting firecrackers, flashes of light, flying shards of bright red firecracker paper wrapping, and huge clouds of choking sulphurous smoke.  The fusillade of firecrackers is especially heavy for the passing of the shrine idol.  The shrine idol is placed on a chair that is carried upon the shoulders of several young men.  The young men wrap shirts around their heads to afford some protection from the onslaught of firecrackers that are thrown at their bare feet or explode above their head from suspended strings.  Power of the Emperor God is manifested in the ability of the young men to not be frightened or injured by the sound, fire, and confusion created by hundreds of firecrackers exploding about them.  Other followers assist the young men when the firecrackers commence small fires on the shrine idol.  They rapidly wave cotton tee shirts around the suspended chair to extinguish the flames.

Ma Song Gives His Blessing to A Resident
The Mar Song are considered to be warriors. Their bodies are typically heavily tattooed - Oriental designs. These tattoos are much more elaborate and sophisticated than the religious body ink that I have seen here in Isaan. The Mar Song are in a trance like state - they appeared to be talking or chanting to themselves with their heads trembling from side to side almost as if they had Parkinson's disease. The trance-like state for some people is attributable to a form of self hypnosis.  For the devotees, the trance is due to possession by an Emperor God.


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