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

Thailand: Outside a Tourist World

Hat_YaiHat Yai, Thailand’s 4th largest city, is a dirty, sprawling metropolis in a province that has seen its fair share of terrorist bombings, religious uprisings and race-ridden ridiculousness. It is a scrappy town of seedy dive bars, aging expats and nervous Malaysian sex-tourists. It has more dentists than any town needs, a relatively unimpressive live animal market and a smattering of halfway decent street vendors. And its ugly.

There is absolutely nothing to attract tourism to Hat Yai and almost everything to deter it. But I love it.

khaokhamoo_v2lHat Yai is where I discovered Kao Ka Moo (a sickly sweet, fatty, slow-cooked pork dish usually served at street stalls or in shopping mall cafeterias). It’s where I came to terms with derelict squat toilets and found that bum guns are actually multi-purpose foot bathing, hand washing, dirty luggage cleaners. Its where I spend my nights between visa runs in a $10 concrete box in a repurposed utilitarian building which offers no amenities whatsoever, listening to the honking of midnight traffic. The only drink-able coffee is at the recently bombed-and-rebuilt McDonalds, but there is a surprisingly shiny sushi restaurant just out of town. And there isn’t much else. A few shopping malls, a pharmacy here and there and like everywhere in Thailand, a 7-11 on every street corner.

When you work in the Thai tourist industry as I do, you tend to get a little over-inundated with the unreal. Exaggerated smiles, yes mams and yes sirs, mamsir, sirmams. All around you there is an elevated and enforced desire to serve and please, but with a quiet undertone of resentment. You get used to tempered flavors, frustrated instructions and a habit of apologizing for you’re customers’ mis-managed behavior.

My semi-frequent mini-trips to Hat Yai are a refreshing dose of reality and welcome relief from forced civility. This is a city that is unapologetically genuine. And not in a travel brochure way. There is no pretense of “culture” here, no shiny resorts and very few western restaurants.1152_12991575794-tpfil02aw-3768

Hat Yai is nothing special in and of itself, it could be any of a hundred Thai towns just like it, but it reminds me of a different Thailand than the one I am accustomed to. It offers a glimpse into a the real lives of normal people who’s salaries and livelihoods don’t count on impressing me or coercing a sale out of me because of my foreign face; people who really don’t care that I am there at all. Despite being even more a minority in a place like this, I somehow feel less of an obvious target and I love it.