Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Meat-Free Photography: Phuket Vegetarian Fest

Words and pictures by moi. I took these shots a year ago (with a compact Sony DSC-P200), as my stay in Phuket was coming to an end. I think Phuket will always be my Thai hometown. I was real bored when I was there, but now I miss it a lot.

There are apparently a few Magnum Agency photographers who have ditched their SLR's in favor of compact cams, and, I must admit, for editorial work, it's hard to beat in terms of lightness and discretion. Still, a shallower DOF would have been nice on some of these pics, to get rid of cluttered backgrounds; and your compact digicam will never get you that. Then again, you have to try to picture yourself grunting under the weight of your gear, in a packed crowd, under the sticky tropical heat. But if she can do it, so can you, right?

Hats off to this whispy, white, eye-lined figure that managed to conserve a lot of grace despite a string of Hasselblads and Metz strobes around her neck.

And here's my article's text:

Meat-free Mysticism: Exploring the famous fair of flesh
by Grégoire Glachant

Poles strung with firecrackers are being lit up and held over a seemingly endless
procession of people. The sound is so deafening, people put their hands to their
ears. Young men, their bodies covered in camphor oil, deflect the firecrackers
by waving black and yellow flags covered in red Chinese characters. As they scramble
to counter approaching ranks, the object of their attention is suddenly revealed—a
man upholding a dozen three-foot long, one-inch wide saw blades coming out of two
incisions in his cheeks. He is skipping along, sideways, like some kind of animal, and is oblivious to everything: the rain of firecrackers, the dance of his flag-bearers, the massed crowd, the drool and blood oozing out of the yawning wounds in his cheeks and what must be intense pain. He wears the same traditional white pants as everybody else, but also a heavily embroidered apron covered in symbols and characters. He is a mah song, an entranced horse, possessed by an ancient Chinese spirit that confers him a temporary state of near godliness.

Every year, on the ninth month of the lunar calendar, the quiet face of Phuket,
usually marked by carefree tourist smiles, is changed into a mask of entrancement.
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival runs this year from October 22-30, and for the
hearty who have never experienced it, especially those with an interest in the occult—it’s a must-see event. This once-a-year celebration highlights the intense spiritual connection of the locals (as well as the many who migrate just for the festival) to the ancient gods from China—the motherland of many of Phuket Town’s original Hokien Chinese settlers. They came in the 1800s to rip tin from the island’s sandy soil and in their wake left some delicious Hokien cuisine, beautiful Sino-Portuguese architecture and quite a few holes in the ground. The Vegetarian Festival originated in 1825 when a visiting opera troop from China fell ill to malaria and followed a strict vegetarian lent to recover, with success.
The nine-day fest follows a precise calendar that you must study carefully to be
at the right place at the right time (available at www.phuketvegetarian.com). While
processions usually start at 7am, and converge at Sapan Hin (at the end of Phuket
Road), they originate from a different temple everyday. Get there by 6:30am to see the preparations. Also, don’t miss out on other amazing feats such as walking on red-hot embers (best seen at Sapan Hin), crossing nail-covered bridges and climbing ladders with bladed rungs (we recommend Bang Niao Shrine on Phuket Road). You’re always welcome to join the crowd as long as you follow a few rules, the most important being to dress in white, and stay away from booze and meat (near the processions and temples, that is—it’s life as usual elsewhere).

Those worried about going veggie, fear not, as there are still places that serve the island’s excellent seafood outside of town, closer to the beach-hugging tourist
resorts. But by and large, you’ll be missing out—the selection of vegetarian food
from hawker stalls is huge with something palatable for even the most hardcore carnivores. Scores of them can be found both on Phuket Road and at the northern end
of Yaowarat Road. If you’ve never walked the Sino-Portuguese streets of old Phuket Town, the festival is the perfect occasion to do so. The streets you’re looking for are Dibuk, Thalang and the east end of Krabi Road. Though pessimists may say that the beaches of the “Pearl of the Andaman” are already on a fast track to Pattaya-likeness, the town is finally making efforts to conserve its precious heritage—of which the Vegetarian Festival is definitely the most striking feature.
Though the food and architecture are great, the stars of the show are definitely
the mah song. The vegetarian festival is such an intense mystic experience that even
the most hard-boiled pragmatists are bound to feel moved by the spiritual fervor it
exhibits. It’s as if you are caught up in some intersection where reality and the spiritual world meet—an experience few quickly forget. ■

If you’re strictly going for the festival, it’s probably best to stay in Phuket Town rather than at a resort, as you will need to get up early and will be able to walk to the events. Here are a couple suggestions:

Royal City Inn
154 Phang-Nga Rd., Muang, 076-233-333, www.royalphuketcity.com. Rates: B3,500-10,000/night.
No particular charm, but this is a comfortable, high-standard address popular with businessmen.

The Taste
16-18 Rassada Rd, Muang, 02-712-8858, www.thetastephuket.com. Rates: B2,500-4,000/night.
Part of the Sri Group, this very elegant boutique hotel has only 12 rooms. Definitely the hippest address in town.

Sino House
1 Montree Rd., Muang, 076-232-494, www.sinohousephuket.com. Rates: B1,600 (standard) to B2,000
(Sino-suite). Pseudo-modern Sino-style rooms for Chinese flavor without the ghosts.


Blogger schuey said...

i remember this text and still like it.

you are ready to be a JRI

2:59 PM  
Anonymous Mathieu said...

congrats on the publication, dude!

that's a good article :-)

what the hell is that photographer holding in her left hand? A flash?

7:52 PM  
Blogger woman wandering said...

Thanks for taking me there with your article ...

Nice work.

8:09 AM  

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