Friday, November 9, 2012

Phuket: enjoying the contrasts

October saw us go from working on Ketoro-on-the-hardstand (whilst we were apartment-dwellers), to working on our home whilst she was tied up in the marina, to free-as-a-bird cruisers when we finally said enough! … and set out into Phang Nga Bay to enjoy its incredible beauty and peace.

It was a month of many contrasts that also saw us juxtaposing work and thorough enjoyment of some new Phuket experiences. For example, we heard of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival and decided to investigate…

Phuket has several different communities (amongst whom: Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim; Thai, Burmese, Indian, Malay, Chinese and expat) that appear to exist mostly-companionably alongside one other, allowing one another space and freedom for individual expression.
 The large Chinese community recently (for nine evenings in October, the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar) held their annual Vegetarian Festival, with accompanying sacred rituals which are said to bestow good fortune upon those who religiously observe the rites: hold to a vegetarian or vegan diet for spiritual cleansing and merit-making, and pray regularly to certain gods. Chinese shrines and temples were homes to these sacred rituals, food markets, prayer, fire-walking and body-piercing.
 Boat Lagoon Marina is close to a large and beautiful Chinese Temple so we decided to investigate; early one morning we, on motorbike, joined (inadvertently) the procession of trucks and cars carrying the devotees part-way to Phuket town, then got a good spot to view the proceedings from where they started their walk to Sapan Hin, their final destination.
 This festival commemorates a travelling company of Chinese opera singers in the first half of the 1800s who got terribly ill soon after arriving in the jungles of Kathu on Phuket Island, but astonishingly all recovered after honouring two of their emperor gods through prayer and observing a vegetarian diet.
 Most procession participants dressed in white; many carried shrines, flags, and joss sticks, but the most stunning part for observers was to see the extensive body piercings of the entranced devotees ("Ma Song"), dressed in particular clothing to indicate that the gods have entered them during the festival. They are said to manifest supernatural powers, and perform self-torture (as we understand it) in order to shift evil from others onto themselves, and to bring the community good luck. They demonstrated that through their beliefs they can withstand body hardship and are spared pain. The man above has a long pole piercing both cheeks and supporting a Chinese lantern on each side.
To our eyes, it was all quite incredible, albeit gruesome. All manner of implements were used: one man put the tall handlebar of his children's scooter through his cheek, one had a large fan-palm frond on either side of his face, piercing his cheeks; one guy was pierced by two curved-handle walking-stick type umbrellas. This was on top of the usual knives, swords, skewers etc. We saw almost no blood.
 Throughout the festival, fireworks and drums are a constant backdrop, especially during ceremonies; the louder the better, because the noise drives away evil spirits. Street scenes are bedlam: crowds of participants being waved across intersections, others going about their daily business as best they could, dealing with traffic jams, crackers, smoke, dragons.
 All wonderful for observers, and no doubt a bonus for those on the tourist bus stuck in the traffic below!
After the procession, it was back at 9am, a cup of coffee and back to work on the boat: just another ordinary day for us!

October also saw Ketoro’s re-launch into the sea (well, the filthy muck that is the marina water in Boat Lagoon). This marina, dredged out of a mangrove swamp, is generally very shallow and all yachting activity must wait for high tide. For our non-yachtie friends: monohulls (yachts with single hull) have very deep drafts (very deep keels) and so cannot enter or leave the marina except at very high tides. The catamarans like us have shallower drafts so, although we still can only leave the marina at high tides, the actual water depth required is somewhat less.

But we have other issues, like our broad beams. (Yes, Irene’s beam IS becoming broader with all the convivial local food court meals with friends, but we are referring to Ketoro’s beam here!) So, here is the picture of our launch:
 The sides of the launching slip slope inwards, so we can only be put into the water when it is near the top of the slip; the tidal range here can be more than 2m. A nerve-wracking exercise, the launch:  there are few centimetres to spare, and one is very concerned at the thought of scratches on freshly painted and polished, gleaming hulls…

The deed was done (successfully); all the furnishings, dive gear, locker storage items that had been stored at a friend’s home were brought back to the boat, we moved back on board, further work was completed on it, and, with the tides dropping each day, committed to leave the marina while we still could do so.
But of course we had to prepare for the change from a life with access to transport and shops (at a marina, easy bike hire) and unlimited fresh water and electricity, to one for which the boat had to provide all that we could need: it was shopping time! It was occasionally difficult to figure out which was our bike…
Most importantly, there was still fun to be had whilst tied to land… and it was Halloween! So Ketoro saw her first Halloween celebration when Melisa, her friend and their children came to “trick or treat” us on board.

 It was time to leave this marina which has now seen Ketoro three times taken out of the water for working on, since our arrival in 2010. It is a great base to do boat work, with all the contractors and chandleries at hand; it is well placed to access the rest of the island, and a walk around the hard-stand provides endless interest, not least for the fact that some workers bring their pets to work…
 Thai people love birds, and they, in their decorative cages, are often seen carried by men-on-motorbikes to and from work. They sing beautifully on the hardstand, providing a wonderful contrast to the angle-grinders, hammering and general noise that is a boatyard. And it appears that they do not mind sitting in their cage in the sun at lunchtime, while their owners take lunch in the shade of a boat!

Well, after a time of feeling caged by all the work that was demanded by the boat, we have now fuelled up…
 And are dancing at anchor in magnificent Phang Nga Bay, sometimes (like here) alone in a spectacular spot, feeling that there is nobody else in the world. We revel in the contrast with the previous 6 weeks…
 … but look forward to the days of springs high tide when friends on monohulls can escape the marina and come and play in the bay!