It started with chanting from the Chinese temple next door and, as New Year approached, so the chanting became more intense and the fire-crackers more frequent. They seemed to go off at random times of day or night causing me to jump out of my skin. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these fire-crackers, they consist of a long string of crackers, with the biggest and loudest one saved for the very last BANG, leaving your ears ringing.
The night before Chinese New Year we drove to the market place in Nathon to watch lion dances, acrobats and a dragon dance, all with the accompanying chanting, cymbals, drums and gongs. The lion dances consisted of two people under a large colourful lion mask and body; one controlled the head and the other the tail and they act out a story. The acrobats proceeded to stand on each other’s shoulders first two, then three, then four then five! Right on top of this human tower stood a little girl; she could not have been older than four and was completely fearless as she waved to the crowd. The same acrobatic trick was repeated, but this time from the top of a bus! Then a long palm pole was brought out, the little girl was strapped to the very top, and the pole was raised. She was joined on top by an adult acrobat and (of course) stood on his shoulders and waved. From there he pretended to lose his grip sending her little body tumbling down, as the crowd gasped in horror, only a long cord strapped to one leg, prevented her from crashing into the ground! (Please note this was all performed with no safety gear of any kind.)
The evening ended with the dragon dance; a large golden dragon that required about twelve people to operate it. It was lit up with flickering coloured lights and it twisted and twirled magically among the crowd. At the end of the performance people gathered around, and offered money for a strand or two from dragon’s beard. (meant to bring good luck)
The next morning we were back in Nathon, where the festivities continued. This time there was to be a parade from the Chinese temple along the main street of Nathon. When we arrived it seemed as if the parade was ready to go; a predominance of red and gold, small children dressed in traditional Chinese costume and holding banners waited, idols on litters were lined up and ready to be carried, two colourful lions were prancing about and a long golden dragon was shaking and shimmering in anticipation.
But there seemed to be a hold up in the temple where a crowd had gathered. We entered the temple complex to witness the most bizarre spectacle; devotees were working themselves up into a trance, with clashing gongs and moaning, shaking and rocking, so that skewers of different dimensions could be inserted through their cheeks, and they wouldn’t feel a thing. The whole process was quite chaotic and difficult to make sense of. Eventually, with drums and cymbals, and holding the idols aloft, the parade set off.
Each skewered devotee was accompanied by a small posse of minders in white, who directed them to the Chinese shops and held a small jar of red paint for the devotee to bless people by dabbing a spot on their forehead. They also made sure that all the bank notes offered were secured onto the skewer going through the devotee’s cheek. There were some devotees whose shirts were splattered with blood as they continually rasped and slashed away at their tongues with razor sharp tools. It was not for the feint-hearted.
All the way down the street the Chinese shops were decorated with red and gold Chinese lanterns. Decorated tables, laden with flowers and food offerings stood in front of shops and hanging outside were strands and strands of Chinese fire-crackers.
As the parade progressed down the street so firecrackers were lit, littering the street with shreds of red paper. Just when I thought I had secured a ‘safe spot’ to stand and observe the proceedings, a devotee ran down the centre of the street, dragging live fire-crackers behind him which he hurled down the street, right in front of the ‘safe spot’, where I was cowering!
Once again there was no regard for safety, as some crackers set a stall alight and another shot so hard into Stefan’s stomach it left him black-and-blue. (He was so brave and had not taken cover, and now had the battle wounds to show for it.) I was just recovering from my shellshock, wondering if my hearing would ever be the same again, when I was startled by an over-sized mask with red cheeks and a creepy grin, the kind that induces nightmares. Luckily Chinese New Year is only an annual event!
NATHON, KOH SAMUI, THAILAND: 21-02-2015