Friday, 19 November 2010

The Temple Fair

Happy Loy Kratong everybody! I'm breaking my hiatus to post a piece I wrote about the Wat Saket temple fair last year. It's a mad and magical experience, a real old-fashioned ngan wat the likes of which it's hard to come by in the city, and anyone with nothing to do on any of the next couple of nights should head on over there. It's a bit of a mystery fair, hard to track down the exact dates online, but it generally happens over several days around Loy Kratong night.
If you're coming from around Silom the number 15 bus should get you there, or if coming from Sukhumvit take the saen saep taxi-boat.

Wat Saket

All the waterways are brimming, inky-black with city lights floating on them like heralds of the krathongs that will be launched in a few nights’ time. This moon’s waiting patiently to be filled to overflowing with light, the streets less so. Kratong stalls on any street near water, little floats of banana-trunk or lotus-petalled bread or the banned-in-theory polystyrene. Firework shops bought out. And fairs on temple grounds: in side streets tucked behind shops, or either side of the grand river-bridges, but most throngingly, blazily, blaringly at Wat Saket, the Golden Mount, temple and its surrounds packed, reveller-heaving.

Mixing currents of traffic and people under this brightlit hazy night—I’m not entirely sure this is the right bus or that the right stop, except on some level I am—the fair has a magnetism of its own, assures me this is the way. And suddenly the crowd’s pattern becomes obvious, turns from milling people and vendors and crawling tuktuks and balloon-sellers to a flow with a single direction, we’re both funnel and funnel’s contents, pouring like water into the temple’s grounds.

And I’m one with the crowd—it would take an effort not to be, to stay an onlooker only. There’s nowhere to duck out of the scene in order to photograph it; any snapshot will just have to contain half a dozen half-heads of fellow fair-goers. And here, at Loy Krathong that’s what everyone is, even if I’m a particularly lonely specimen, everyone else here with friends, family, parents with clouds of kids, bubbles of teenagers, close-pressed couples. We’re still not in the grounds proper, but a long fleshpacked avenue selling toys, 69-baht jeans, and sweets, roofed and walled with patchwork tin and tarpaulin, bulbs hanging all along it like fat buzzing stars on strings. No knowing how long it goes on—but here’s an opening, and through it a glimpse of open space. A Nang Nopamas talent show on a stage, blue-sequinned singer crooning Northeastern songs; shining in the air behind her, the Golden Mount itself, hanging between the black of the trees and of the sky as if floating on the night. There are folk crowding up its spiralling sides to pay respects at the top, and encircling its base, a great ring, a neon-sprinkled donut: the fair.

There are games stands—here, a father coaxing his son to shoot the bamboo arrow at a target, like a King Thotsarot teaching a young Rama—and souvenir sellers, and every other stall sells food: noodle shops with hook-pierced jellyfish hanging down in front of the counter, crepe-makers with sizzling hotplates, sweet-shops, meat shops.

‘This way!’ calls a man, into a megaphone; ‘Haunted shack, ten baht only!’ Real Wat Saket ghosts, I wonder? Could this tin shack with garish ghouls painted on crude banners over its facade house the ghosts of old plague-victims, the crowds of corpses that were once heaped on this ground? One way to find out: be packed into the entrance with a crowd of stranger, pushed in. The walls are all covered on the inside with black cloth, backdrop for the neon paint-spattered skeletons that dance about us, animated by string. A man in a white sheet with a devil mask follows us—CLANG! He rings the metal wall while we're distracted by something moving ahead. We press forward against each other to get away from the sound, jumpier than we should be in this tiny space that reverberates when struck. We're in for maybe a minute before being forced to escape by running past a leaping ghoul’s head—no way back, with more crowd pressing in behind us—the head is rubbery, jerking wildly on its rope, controlled from somewhere unseen. And we’re out, into the equally cramped outdoors.

Temple fair crowd

There best way to get breathing space, it seems, is a 25-baht ticket onto one of the fun-sized ferris wheels that turn and turn, dwarfed by the ancient trees. I'm locked into a little round cage by myself, my weight lop-siding it. My 25 baht gets me more turns than I can keep count of. The lights from up here make the leaves look painted, cheaply enamelled, as they shake (it’s November, after all, itchy humid heat stirred by a smear of winter breeze). Through the leaves I can see a portion of the crowd, all heads and shoulders from up here, hemmed in by rides and sideshows and shops selling glazed grilled chickens, carousel-bright bottles of orange and lime juices. They’re so crammed together they’ve lost all sense of their way, looking back and forth for lost companions and finding a roving jam donut seller instead.

Tiny ferris wheels and enormous balloons, music and noise from everywhere, a radiance from the coil of pilgrims and a haze from the food-sellers, shrieking crowd, spirit-shrines, everything in this light, in these colours, disturbed, distorted, stretched or squashed out of proportion, all of us trapped in some yaksa’s human kaleidoscope. I go with the jostling flow, bumping up against a line of coin-operated fortune-telling shrines, finding coal-hot squid and shining bags of Chinese peanut toffee to buy. These stalls like the ones I came in by, though I haven’t passed the haunted house again. Everything’s kaleidoscope-shifted for real—surely that’s the ferris wheel I just got off—but suddenly I’m face-to-face with an oversized two-headed baby peering wide-eyed from a glossy banner. ‘See the mermaid’s child! Real live ghosts and monsters!' blare the megaphones. The banner also advertises Pii Krasue, Nang Tanee, pin-up mermaids. I know these ghosts well from my creased folklore books and B-movies watched disjointedly on youtube, but I’ve never seen one up close. Ferried along on the crowd-flow, I pay my coin and enter.

Sideshow 2

The inside space is outdoors too, a tree growing up from the dirt floor out through the roof, the only spot that could be found unfilled by food stalls. The promised ghouls are kept in booths, human heads growing from papier-mache ghost-bodies. A Pii Krasue's with a little girl's face, entrails hanging from her neck glistening red, sticks her tongue out; Nang Tanee's face grins, perched on a slender banana stem. You can see the mirrors if you look, but spotting them doesn't make the effect any less gruesome. Along the other wall is a narrow table supporting jars of foetuses—where in the wide warped city can those be from? Loaned from a hospital, the show-keeper’s private collection, or a black-magic-man? The two-headed human foetus floats there as advertised, another has its ears growing in its neck. Then the mer-baby—a real mermaid’s child, or a stillborn human with legs fused together? Goats and pigs with too many legs, and a naga—a real one, I’m sure of it, with a snout and crest like flames, shapes that should exist in carved gilded wood, not colourless flesh in formaldehyde. Thai teenagers peer with mild interest, and a tourist with his heavy black camera stays much longer than anyone else, leaning in to capture these strange sad en-jared beings, lens ghoulishly close.


  1. I'm so glad you broke silence. Please do it again soon.

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