Less than 24 hours from my previous post, and I decided to write again. How’s that for predictability?
Last night I went to the Vegetarian Festival right after publishing my previous blog, and I think it’s crucial to write about it now, before I head to Malaysia tomorrow.
I realized that the major factor that was preventing me from going to see the events in Phuket Town was that I didn’t want to drive through the madness and traffic. I realized I was being silly, and I hopped in a taxi and made it over there. I have recently discovered the app GrabTaxi, and I’ve found it has saved me a ton of time and money. This isn’t a plug, but they should definitely be paying me as their promoter. The app allows you to set your pickup and drop-off destinations on a map, it estimates the fare, and shows the metered taxis in the surrounding areas. If you’re walking down the street in any part of Phuket, it’s normally very time consuming to find a metered taxi. All of the taxi drivers, tuk tuks, and motorbike taxis set their own rates, because they know they can make far more by ripping you off. For example, I was once charged 350 baht for a normal taxi to take me from my place in Kathu to Phuket Town. Yesterday, it cost me 180. That’s a difference of about $5, and $5 goes a long way here.
Anyhow, I was incredibly relieved that I hadn’t driven, because the traffic was out of control. The taxi driver dropped me off at the apartments that I used to stay in, and I met up with Michelle, a friend from my TEFL course. We walked to the festival with plans to grab dinner along the way. The streets were packed with food stalls offering an overwhelming amount of food. It was funny to see that although it’s a vegetarian festival, a few of the stalls had managed to make imitation hot dogs, and other food that looked like it was meat. As I usually do, I bought a little bit of everything, and then only ate about 1/3 of it. I get really excited to try new things, but then I’m way too full to eat all of it. My favorite of the night were some super spicy deep fried seaweed fritters. Everything tastes good fried.
We walked down to the end of the street where the Jui Tui Shrine is. The online schedule said that the fire walking was supposed to start at 8, and we made it there at 7:30 to secure a good spot. The festival is so noisy due in part to the sheer amount of people, but definitely the major contributor is the firecrackers being set off everywhere you look. I’ll get to the fireworks in a bit. We were standing out front of the Chinese temple, with a pretty good view of what was going on in front. There were about a dozen tattooed men standing in a circle, showing only the whites of their eyes, chanting and shaking their heads back and forth. They were all barefoot, and wearing white pants and multicolored bejeweled aprons. There was one elderly woman in the circle, and she was wearing a bright pink outfit that looked exactly like a graduation cap and gown. I’ve read online that the men in aprons are the mediums, that they are the ones who channel the gods during the ceremony. I have no idea about the woman, though. Man, I wish I knew.
The mediums are highly respected- any time a person had to walk past one of them, they gave them a wai (folding hands in a prayer position at the chest, and bowing the head). The height of the hands during the wai changes with levels of respect, and the people were giving them the highest version of the wai, which meant they were holy figures.
Michelle and I were taken back just watching the chanting and the head shaking. There was a lot going on, and then one of the mediums turned around and yelled super loud and motioned for everyone to sit down. There weren’t any chairs or anything, everyone just plopped right down where they were standing. Shortly after we had sat down, another man yelled and pointed and there was a type of panic set off. He motioned for everyone to stand up. Michelle and I just went with whatever the crowd was doing, even though it was somewhat alarming. When we stood up, two men walked through carrying a wooden sculpture. Another man yelled at us again to sit down. He was holding a long wooden stick with long blonde hair at the end, and was waving it in the air. I made a joke to Michelle (she also has blonde hair) that it was the hair of the foreigner who didn’t follow directions. The whole ordeal was confusing and intense.
They lit off some fireworks in the center of their circle, and then they left the shrine and walked down the street in a procession. Everyone was following them, so we did too. At this point, I realized that maybe we had gone to the wrong shrine for the fire walking. This was intensely cultural, though, so we followed along with them. We quickly realized that it is protocol for the bystanders to chuck fireworks into the crowd. There were pregnant women, small children, and elderly people throughout the crowd. Nobody seemed to bat an eye.
Everyone thought it was especially funny to throw them at the foreigners. When we were near the shrine, it was impossible to escape them. The narrow alleys left us really no choice but to run through them. Once we got to the bigger street, we were able to stand behind the people who were throwing the firecrackers. It was so intense that we both had our head on a swivel, and we ran at even the sight of a single firework. I remember looking up and seeing one coming straight at my face. I wasn’t sure if waving a white flag would be a sign of surrender here. The whole crowd was dressed in white, and everyone seemed pretty cool with having fireworks thrown at them.
People had set up shrines in front of their restaurants that were in the path of the procession. As everyone was walking, some of the mediums would come over and bless the shrines. The children lined up on the side of the streets in a wai position, and the mediums would come over and bless them. All of my pictures turned out blurry, because I was taking them while dodging fireworks.
After it was clear that it was the end of the procession, Michelle and I headed back to the temple to see if maybe it was time for fire walking. I was pretty sure we’d missed it, but part of me was holding out hope that we’d get to see some. They had some projector screens setup, and they were showing clips from the face piercings earlier in the day. Upon seeing them, I realized that seeing them on a screen had been overwhelming enough, and I felt okay that I hadn’t seen them in person. I wasn’t even too concerned about seeing the fire walking anymore. At this point, my ears were ringing so hard from the fireworks that it was painful. Next year I’ll bring earplugs.
We walked back to the temple on a side road, as to take a break from the fireworks. The ally was quiet, and we walked past a sweet old man sitting on his porch. I nodded my head and smiled, and just as I looked up, the old man had a lit firework in his hand. Before I could finish a “what the….?!” he started laughing and tossed it right at my feet!!! Of course I screamed and started running, but he got me good. I didn’t get burned, but I did feel the pings of them hitting me.
With enough excitement for the night, we decided to head home. I walked with Michelle back to the apartments, and then decided to walk a little ways out of the street to try to catch a taxi. I walked out and down a road that I knew had enough traffic to have a taxi, but figured it was far enough away from the excitement. I was wrong. I walked straight to a different Chinese temple, where they were using the big boy fireworks to shoot them at each other. I quickly ran into a narrow alley for shelter, when I heard too little boys giggling. I looked down and saw both of them looking up at me with their ears covered, one of them with a lighter in hand. What the….. boom. These two little boys were all by themselves in a little alley, lighting off fireworks of their own. There was literally no escaping the boom.
Instead of waiting for a GrabTaxi, I walked straight up to a motorbike taxi (yes, they provide helmets), accepted his overpriced fare, and got the hell out of there. I actually got what I paid for with this guy, though. He is in a reggae band, and he loudly sang reggae the entire drive home.
I slept like a baby last night.