It was October 2009. I’d arrived in Phuket city on an overnight bus from Bangkok. It was an eventful journey with constant stops, a puncture, a small child that screamed every half hour, and even a small fight breaking out. I hadn’t slept for one minute, so after arriving I booked myself into the first hotel I found.
The receptionist was a smiley talkative youth. ‘It’s the vegetarian festival now,’ he said, ‘final parade tonight. Very exciting.’
I smiled back at him, too tired to muster any real enthusiasm. ‘Sounds good,’ I said, ‘maybe I’ll check that out later,’ then took my key and retreated to my room.
I’d formed my ideas of a parade in the UK, watching the little yearly town festival where I grew up. A procession of a few trucks converted into floats by the local schoolchildren. Their weapons of choice were reams of crate paper and cardboard boxes. The children wore home made costumes and sat on the floats waving as they passed. Their parents waved back and took photos. Everyone else stood around and thought; ‘What the hell am I doing here?’
And this festival in the name of vegetarianism. Perhaps the kids would dress as carrots? I didn’t know, but, ‘very exciting,’ didn’t seem quite the right words for it. I found my room and bolted the door, then fell on the bed and let the stifling heat of the day carry me into a fitful sleep.
A vicious crack of machine gun fire jolted me back to consciousness. I scrambled away from the ear-splitting noise and found myself on the floor, flat on my back and fighting with a small wooden table. I couldn’t see my attackers, I couldn’t see anything. They must have blinded me the swine. The rattle of ferocious fire continued as I flailed around on the floor, kicking and punching like a demented beetle trying to right itself. After a few seconds of this half conscious delusion, my senses returned.
Oh, that’s right, Phuket. I must have slept all day and now it was nighttime. Kids were letting off firecrackers in the street outside my window, the little monsters. And I was on the floor of a hotel room tangled up in a bedside table now in three separate pieces. I laid there a while letting my eyes adjust to the darkness, then picked up the leg of the broken table. The thought of hurling it out the window to break the head of whoever let off those firecrackers flashed across my mind.
After regaining my composure, I realised I hadn’t eaten since leaving Bangkok twenty four hours ago. The thought of food reminded me of the vegetarian festival the receptionist had mentioned. I still didn’t feel too enthused, but I grabbed my camera anyway and headed out to find some food.
On my way out, I asked the receptionist about nearby restaurants or cafes. He gave me directions to the parade. I didn’t enquire further, assuming he meant there would be food there. I followed his directions and wandered the streets until I found a large crowd of people standing around waiting for something to happen.
Pushing my way into the crowd I soon realised they were a rowdy bunch. Some were letting off fireworks. One man walked about tossing large fire crackers at people’s feet. They looked like little sticks of red dynamite, the sort of things that would give a health and safety inspector heart palpitations. I moved a few paces away from him and continued to look for the vegetarian food.
I heard more bangers and fireworks going off in the distance. The bangs increased in frequency and volume. They were getting closer. A noticeable tension grew in the crowd. People pushed and shoved, other seemed desperate to run. A sense of panic was overcoming us. People tried to get to the edges of the street as if to make way for something. As they thinned out, I caught sight of what was coming.
A cloud of smoke full of flashing lights and explosions. It looked like a monstrous storm cloud full of lightning coming to get us. I took a few seconds to comprehend what I was seeing. It was the parade, and there were no children in carrot suits. More like a battle reenactment. It grew louder as it got nearer. People scrambled to get out of the way. I ran with the crowd. Just before it was upon us the noise became deafening.
It engulfed me like a wave swallowing a hapless surfer and barrelled me along in its wake. Hundreds of firecrackers filled the air. I had to dance around when they hit me to ensure they didn’t nestle in my clothes before exploding. Most people had wrapped themselves in thick clothing; I wore shorts and a T-shirt, clearly a disadvantage. Acrid smoke filled the air stinging my eyes and making me cough. Between the dancing about and the coughing I waved my camera around taking photos from the hip.
Most spectators had moved to the sides to allow the parade to pass, but for a few moments I was caught up in the middle being carried forward. As we reached a ninety degree corner, I stayed on the outside and broke clear of the main group to join the rest of the onlookers. It was only then I worked out what was going on. The parade comprised of groups of people carrying idols on litters. Everyone in the crowd threw explosives at these idols. Explosives by the thousands.
Having found a good vantage point I shot a few videos with my iPod. I also had time to look at the photos I’d taken. I switched on my cameras view screen and scrolled through the images. They were all garbage. Every one blurred and out of focus. I’d been so distracted by what was going on around me I’d forgotten even the most basic of photographic techniques. The main one being, keep still.
I knew I could do better, but I’d have to be quick. It would have been nice to stay where I was and take the photos from a distance. But there was a problem. My lens. That night, for no reason at all, I had a 28mm prime lens fitted to my camera. I had an 18-200mm zoom lens, but I’d left it in my hotel room. The 28mm (42mm equivalent on an APSC sensor) is a good focal length for street photography, in fact it’s one of my favourites. But, it works best if you get close to your subject, something easier to do when your subject isn’t throwing explosives at you. If only I’d researched this event rather than happening upon it. But I had no choice now. If I wanted more photos, I’d have to get back into the action, and this time use my camera properly.
Noticing the little bombs seemed to cause more noise than do any actual damage, I figured I only needed to protect my eyes. So I used my camera as a shield. Keeping it pressed up against my face, I edged my way back into the mayhem, doing my best to ignore the explosives bouncing off my head and body. On my second attempt I got a few good shots.
I had a ringing in my ears as things died down and the crowd dispersed. My hair was full of ash, my clothes covered in scorch marks. Everyone smiled at each other. There was a spirit of togetherness in the air as if we had all survived a traumatic event and it had left us feeling closer.
‘Isn’t there any food?’ I asked some of my new friends as they walked away. ‘Where’s the vegetarian food?’
They grinned and patted me on the back. ‘Ting tong falang.’

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