Smoky Streets: Vegetarian Festival in Thailand

IMG_4326The air is thick with smoke; it chokes the streets and shrinks visibility to just a few inches as I slowly pick my way through a crowd of white-clad teenagers in trances. The smell is heavily sulfuric and the hot, humid air creates a somewhat claustrophobic, sticky-sweater sensation. Suddenly out of nowhere a bang-pop and a flash of orange light, then another, then another until the sound is so deafening and the flashing so frequent that I have to turn and retrace my steps away from the smoggy mist.

IMG_4234Out of the cloud a delicate tap on my shoulder surprises me and I turn to find a small Thai woman offering two creamy-white cotton balls and pointing at her ears. At this same moment a delicate spray of blood stains a white shirt in front of me and a child carrying three plastic bags of half-burned fireworks pushes his way around my legs.

The blood is from a seemingly eye-ball-less man in a self-induced daze shaking his head vigorously and running the tip of his tongue over the sharp end of a shiny hatchet blade. Behind him others are doing the same. Further in the distance a woman with pink-scrunchied pigtails pushes a thick spear through her cheek and an elderly gentleman is swinging a large machete up and down over his head, narrowly missing the horde of bystanders as he dance-shimmies down the street.

As they pass the smoke begins to thicken again, and with it more pyrotechnics. People are throwing them from balconies and front stoops, in handfuls or sometimes just one at a time, onto the heads, and at the feet, of the procession in the street, now a group of young men stomping to the rhythm of a hand drum, swaying a large gold-painted spirit house between them.

IMG_4312These young guys began their day in perfect bleach-white but now look like unwashed street children in scorched brown and red stained costumes, raggedy at the pant hems, still sizzling from their last encounter with the popping mini-explosives through which they are dancing.

I am not sure exactly what any of it really means but it is fascinating to watch. And watching seems to be encouraged. As I make my way through the crowd old ladies and young men, even school children, push me into the street or drag me closer to the chaos encouraging the taking of photographs, the eating of blessed Jell-O and the general ogling of freaky self-mutilators.

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These hordes of Thai-Chinese-Buddhists are celebrating the Nine Emperor Gods Festival (known best to the western world as the Vegetarian Festival). This is an annual 9-day Taoist festival filled with all sorts of public festivities and fascinating rituals. Most famously these events can be viewed in Phuket Town, however there are smaller less tourist infiltrated events in many parts of Thailand (and elsewhere in Southeast Asia), like in the tiny old town of Takua Pa about 2 hours north of Phuket Town, where I find myself in the middle of the smoky, bloody incense-ridden insanity.

IMG_4305In the thick of it breathing is difficult, staring too long at bloody shredded tongues can cause goose bumps and the sweltering heat is oppressive and heavy, but the atmosphere is fanatic, the street food delicious and the photo opportunities endless. As there are almost no other western faces around me, the people are welcoming if not a little curious and possibly amused by my presence, although the cautious staring and mistakenly obvious whispers may also have something to do with the fact that I didn’t get the white-wardrobe memo and am the only person in head to toe black with blond hair! A mistake I will not make next time!IMG_4250

You Can Do It Too

beach A lot of people assume that I support my travel habit with some hidden disposable income somewhere that I covertly draw from when no one is looking, or that I am a trust fund child on the loose. An ex-boyfriend of mine once accused me of having a secret bank account I refused to tell him about. Not so. The fact is that many people have an inflated idea of what traveling really is in a monetary sense. In 1997 my husband spent less than $900 over a period of 6-months traveling India, and while that level of budget madness is sadly no longer possible, you can still manage to spend very little while seeing a great deal. All it takes is a little patience, some ingenuity and a bit of imagination.

 Get Creative:

When buying your plane tickets look into alternative airports, and similarly, alternative transport. Often times your cheapest option is something you don’t ever think of. Do a little research about where you want to end up and how other people get there; you might find that flying into a country or city altogether different from your final destination and hopping a bus, boat or train can save you hundreds of dollars.

For instance, I travel too and from Thailand on a regular basis. When I am working in the south of Thailand it often makes more sense for me to fly into Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia than Bangkok. A train from either city to my final destination is an equidistant and a similarly priced journey, allowing me greater variety when choosing flights. Likewise a flight on Air Asia from either city to Phuket, or Hat Yai (two cities that I frequently fly into) is roughly the same cost.

Another good example is Central America. A lot of people arrive through the obvious large ports of entry, Guatemala City, Belize, San Jose, etc. Whereas I have found that, it is often hundreds of dollars cheaper to fly into Cancun, Mexico and catch a bus south. This sort of knowledge comes with experience and luckily, if you don’t have your own, you can access other people’s by way of online blogs like this one or sites like the Lonely Planet Thorntree Forum, Tripadvisor and other travel related pages.

With a little pre-flight exploration you can save yourself hundreds on transport, which, along with accommodation, often makes up the bulk of any trip’s expenses.

Be persistent and be flexible:

Don’t buy the first plane ticket you search out, unless it’s a ridiculously awesome deal. Check budget booking sites like Kayak.com and Travelocity.com on a regular basis, air fair changes from day to day and is often at its cheapest mid-week, early afternoon and within 6 months of your departure date. Play with different combinations of dates, times and destinations, if you have a few days leeway in your travel plans you are a lot more likely to find a cheap deal. In similar fashion, if you have to book your hotel online ahead of time check out sites like bookings.com, asiarooms.com or agoda.com and check often, there are always new deals popping up. However as long as you are not arriving in the middle of the night, you will often find better deals on accommodation once you’re on the ground, especially in bargaining cultures like India, Indonesia and Thailand (though not at peek travel times like Christmas or Easter).

Pay attention to local festivities and peek seasons:

 Find out what’s going on where you’re headed. Local holidays, carnivals and festivals can mean a huge discrepancy in the price and availability of food, transport and accommodation. Likewise seasonal highs and lows will affect what you pay for things. During the annual camel fair in Pushkar, India you will run up against heavily-booked hotels at double or even triple the regular price, while traveling the west coast of Thailand in the low season means easy bargaining and cheaper digs.

Pack light:

Carry as little luggage as possible. I know girls that will travel with their entire bathroom and half their wardrobe, including 4 pairs of shoes and a blow dryer, for a 3-week vacation. Think before you pack. What do you really need and what will you actually use. Traveling light will save you money. Equipped with only a backpack you are capable of using public transport rather than springing for overpriced airport cabs, it also decreases the likelihood of theft and/or loss of luggage and allows you to take internal flights without paying the ever-increasing excess baggage fees. Plus it’s just easier!

Think outside the box:

If you are on a short trip you are likely not going to get too far outside the heavily touristed areas, in some places this is difficult even on longer journeys. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get inventive. Don’t go falling for those glossy package deals and the flashy poster-advertised mini-adventures you see on every street corner. Forced fun is a false experience anyway. Instead do a little digging. Find local guides and boat captains, book with companies directly rather than through an agent or your hotel and whenever possible go for the independent exploration angle. Often guides are a luxury, not a necessity, and armed with a map and a rental bike you can go it alone at a much lower cost and have a farm more unique experience.

Manage your inner party persona:

One of the easiest ways to watch your money dwindle is by drinking it. If alcohol is a must on your vacation consider the local 7-11; grab a six-pack and head to the beach. If that’s not enough for you, keep your eyes out for the worldwide Happy Hour phenomena. In most places, in Central America and Southeast Asia especially, you can often get a good deal if you go in for an early start.

The Lonely Planet is a guidebook not a bible:

The guidebooks published by the Lonely Planet and other travel franchises are a great resource when beginning your travel research. They are also useful for last minute, late arrival necessities, but don’t get too attached. There is only so much space in a guidebook so suggestions are just that, suggestions. Don’t be afraid to find your own restaurants, hotels and tour guides. Sticking strictly to Lonely Planet recommendations means that you are literally following in the footsteps of thousands of others, step by step by unimaginative step. It also means you are missing out on some great grub, cheap deals and fascinating experiences.