The 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.
Out 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.
These 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.
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.
In 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!