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.


  1. How fascinating. Do they injure themselves at all whilst walking on fire, or is there are technique that enables them to do it without causing harm?

  2. There were no injuries that I could see. The Ma Song as well as the devotees did roll up their trousers prior to walking across the fire. After completing their traverse of the fire, attendants check them out to ensure that they are OK and not in danger of catching fire from errant embers.

    The Mar Songs are protected by the Emperor God that have possessed them while other devotees are protected by their faith as well as from the Ma Song. I have seen documentaries concerning fire walking. Apparently non-believers are able to do it too without injury due to the compacted bed of embers and the boundary effect of air trapped beneath the feet as they traverse the fire - sort of like a drop of water skipping along the bottom of a hot skillet. We are free to select our own belief.