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677: The Little Island
Escape the late-winter blues with a tropical blast from the past
675: Scenic Spirituality
Commune with religion and nature in an ancient land
673: Aoni Onsen
Return to a forgotten time at one of Honshu’s most remote getaways
671: The Golden Rock
One of Burma’s many splendid attractions hangs by a hair
669: Hida Takayama
For personal trips gentle to the soul, seek out the old-time charm of Hida Takayama
665: Okayama
A serene stroll through history awaits at this seaside retreat
663: Cruising the Bay
Ha Long Bay offers a breath of calm away from Vietnam’s urban rush
661: Agamachi
Fox fires and bar codes help a rural Niigata town reinvent itself
535: Hotel California
Mark Parren Taylor kicks up the desert dust in Palm Springs, the perennial Hollywood star retreat.
531: Race through time
The Xterra Saipan triathlon journeys through tropical jungle, up steep mountain paths and across the sands of history. Tama M. Lung joins the chase.
527: Bohemian rhapsody
No visit to Paris would be complete without taking in the Montmartre district. Bon vivant Simon Rowe dusts off his French to go exploring.
523: Slow Motion
Mark Parren Taylor touches down in the timeless former seaport of Lukang, Taiwan.
519: Rock of ages
From ancient times to the present, Gibraltar has always been an island of legends. Stephen Mansfield sifts through its history.
515: Go west, young man
Simon Rowe takes in the big skies and dust trails of Western Australia's East Kimberley region.
511: All mixed up
Mark Parren Taylor makes land on Macau and finds an enigmatic blend of cultures, cuisine and heated competition.
505: Earth, wind and fire
A historically imperiled town in Papua New Guinea holds the keys to a magical getaway. Carlo Niederberger splashes ashore.
501: Off the rails
Braving the 2,010 kilometers of Vietnam's Reunification Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is quite the adventure. Simon Rowe goes along for the ride.
493: Rites of passage
From firecrackers and cheek piercing to divinations and buffalo races, Thailand's most colorful customs come alive at two annual festivals. Mark Parren Taylor joins the crowds.
489: Paradise found
Beaches, battlefields and a colossal casino provide tropical pleasures on the Pacific isle of Tinian. Carlo Niederberger touches down.
485: Through the grapevine
Stephen Mansfield drinks up the delights of the Château Monbazillac in southwest France.
481: Pleasure island
Saipan awaits the young and young at heart with its pristine beaches, pointy peaks, and perfect amount of entertainment. Carlo Niederberger checks in.
477: Reservoir of dogs
Simon Rowe visits the Kingdom of Tonga, where storms burst without warning and wild canines rule the night.
473: Into the bat cave
Sarawak’s Niah Caves are home to hairless bats, birds on the brink of extinction, and lots of bugs, according to Simon Rowe.
469: A fork in the river
Laos’ ethnic minorities battle the forces of time. Stephen Mansfield goes upriver in search of them.
465: Action scene
Sick of the short, humid Japanese summer? Tired of the winter? In NZ it’s summertime and the living is easy, the food and drink inexpensive, and the evenings long and lazy. Mark Devlin heads south to explore and party.
457/458: In living color
Simon Rowe soaks in the glow of Samoa's kaleidoscopic streets.
454: From Jamaica with love
Michael McDonagh soaks up the atmosphere in James Bond's balmy birthplace
449: See worthy
Dan Grunebaum drops oar in the stunning caves of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay
445: Great heights
Simon Rowe packs his hiking boots and sets out for Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu
441: Split personality
There are few cities with such an exacting dividing line between past and present as Lijiang in China's southwestern province of Yunnan
438: Fierce creatures
Simon Rowe introduces us to the untamed charms of Australia's Kangaroo Island
434: Leap of Faith
Simon Rowe dives into a tropical island paradise of waterfalls, reefs and bush rugby on the Fijian archipelago
430: A week in Provence
Stephen Mansfield explores the historic festival city of Avignon, a medieval diamond in the south of France
426: Outer space
Surreal sites, lunar landscapes and UFO sightings go with the territory in Chile
422: The Big Easy
The Moorish streets of Granada, Spain are alive with a new Bohemian rhapsody
418: Small awakening
Japan's microbrewers
414: Fowl play
The animal kingdom comes alive in the Galapagos
410: The river of spirits
Wading through soulful waters in Varanasi, India
406: Heading north
Marching to the beat of a modern drum in North Korea
403: Santa's lap
Santa's lap - enjoy saunas, Santa and sightseeing in Finland’s Lapland
399: Shanghaied
Seeking the past in China's megacity
395: Rising from the ashes
Mary King explores the rich history, culture and art of Croatia’s phoenix city, Dubrovnik.
391: The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
387: Prague
World heritage site
383: South Africa
Land of hope
381: Hawaii
Pearl Harbor
377: Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
374: China
Suzhou and Hangzhou
370: The Nile
The river mild
367: Tibet
Top of the world
363: Laos
Memo from the Lower Mekong
360: Cuzco, Peru
Lost cities
357: Namibia
Call of the wild
354: Southern India
Mad about Madurai

ISSUES 349-   

Rites of passage

From firecrackers and cheek piercing to divinations and buffalo races, Thailand's most colorful customs come alive at two annual festivals. Mark Parren Taylor joins the crowds.

Children screamed. Some women covered their heads as they crouched in corners or behind cars. A man ran along the street, grasping a bamboo pole with a belt of firecrackers flapping at its end. I dodged into a fabric store, where the manager clamped her hands over her ears and shook with laughter. The head-banging noise pushed smoke deep into the shop, but gold thread and azure silks still glittered in the orange-brown haze. An old man lit a banger with his cigarette then casually tossed the fizzing firework at the feet of a huddle of men.

Soon people stopped to take a breath. I stepped out onto Thalang Road, one of the oldest thoroughfares in Phuket Town. The entire street was crimson with the scattered casings of thousands of firecrackers.

The gang of young men stood for a moment, numb, as a final cracker sparked at their feet. They peered at the smoky mayhem surrounding other effigy bearers further up the procession where dozens of bamboo poles draped with yards of roaring firecrackers were just visible. After adjusting the portable shrine that was hoisted on their dusty shoulders, they headed on.

A ma song (entranced devotee) pauses while a supporter adjusts his piercing

Today's procession was one of nine that take place during the extraordinary Vegetarian Festival that grips Phuket each year during the ninth moon. Though its origin is disputed, by most accounts a catastrophic event struck Phuket in 1825. Chinese Taoists-mainly migrants who mined for tin in the vicinity-believed that malevolent spirits were to blame. They observed ritual vegetarianism in honor of Nine Emperor Gods, whose power is so immense that it can banish evil for months, maybe a year. Miraculously the misfortune came to nothing, and as a result this annual festival evolved.


Seeing red
The procession continued along the narrow street. A ma song strode by with a furious shaking of his head, frantically counting and recalculating with his fingers. A florist passed with a bunch of orchids piercing his cheeks. A girl danced between us, orange ribbons dangling from her mouth. The ma song are highly revered devotees who temporarily give their bodies over to the spirit world. The festival calls the Emperor Gods to Phuket, and with them comes a retinue of thousands of warrior spirits. These spirits then occupy the bodies of ma song and perform feats that will scare off malevolence.

I visited Jui Tui Temple at dawn on the morning of the key Red Procession. The surrounding lanes were already busy with the wet market and stalls selling vegetarian food. Climbing the few steps to the gate that opens onto the temple courtyard, I watched crowds of onlookers swaying and shifting as countless ma song crossed from the halls (where they entered trances) to the temple elders, piercing cheeks under a tree in the yard. The job was quick: a weighty steel spike cleanly cut through the cheek flesh. As the spike was withdrawn, the item chosen as the votive piercing was then pulled through the gash. In one corner a woman laughed manically as she chewed on the metal skewer crossing her mouth. Just beyond her a man stood in contemplation, slowly twisting the beaded necklace that passed through his cheek.
Two young boys stood by wide-eyed and open-mouthed; one pushed his finger into his cheek, mimicking the actions of the temple elder before him. Then, with a startling realization, he scurried between legs and through the temple gate screaming for his mother.


Buffalo boys
While Phuket celebrates a month of abstinence from sex, meat, swearing and alcohol with striking-and at times intense-acts of religious devotion, the farmers of Chonburi mark the end of Buddhist Lent a week or so later with high-speed merrymaking. Chonburi lies halfway between Bangkok and Pattaya. It is a middle-of-the-road sort of place that languishes in the shade of the popular beach resort some 60 kilometers to the south. It can be reached by bus from Bangkok in the north within two hours; but few people notice as they pass en route to Pattaya.

As the rainy season draws off, hundreds of rice farmers who work the surrounding plains gather for the annual (131st at the last count) water-buffalo races. This particular Sunday, many farmers had set off before sunrise; those without trucks walked their buffalo to town-a slow journey that encouraged at least one entrant to hire a songthaew (public minibus) to bring his animals to the show.

Getting a buffalo to stop is even harder than getting it to move

Without fanfare or pomp, last year's champion jockey and mount made a self-conscious tour of the track. Then the first racers thundered by. As soon as the next batch of buffalo had ambled to the start, they were off again-regardless of whether the rider was attached. But, assuming jockeys aren't left at the start line, they ride bareback, gripping a rope that loops the buffalo's neck and ties through its nose. An added kick was that very little mind had been set to public safety-large numbers of spectators took great pleasure in congesting the finish line, only to dive out of the way as a ton of ox nearly scooped them up in its horns.

After some 40 or more races, the champion buffalo was crowned and its owner walked away with 5,000 baht and an electric fan (no doubt to help cool down his rear after a day of bouncing on a buffalo's bony rump).

As the day was winding up, an aging jockey approached me. He pointed to the track and said, smiling, "Is happy?" I agreed that it was great fun, as a selection of curious farmers flocked to the scene, chuckling encouragingly and tipping back their Stetsons. He led me to his animal and proudly pointed to a shocking pink scarf around its neck. "I win," said the jockey, "good buffalo." Everyone laughed. Again I agreed, and asked if the animal had a name. Silence. The farmer looked at me-and then up at the sun-as if I was mad.


Getting there
Many airlines, including JAL (tel: 03-5460-0511) and Thai Airways (tel: 03-3503-3311), serve Bangkok from Tokyo. From Bangkok, Thai Airways and Bangkok Airlines (tel: 03-5798-7560) serve Phuket frequently throughout the day. Chonburi can be reached from Bangkok by train or bus in two hours.

Where to stay
Phuket provides hotels that suit all needs and pockets. Discount hotel websites such as are an excellent resource. Metropole Hotel (1 Soi Surin, Montri Road, Phuket Town, tel: 076-215050, is one of the best hotels in town and offers breathtaking views of the final night's procession from its bar. Hotel Mercure Chonburi (934 Sukhumvit Road, Bangplasoi, Muang, Chonburi, tel: 038-781363, is a short walk from the bus station and shopping/nightlife district.

More information
This year's Phuket Vegetarian Festival takes place Sep 25-Oct 5 (the Red Procession is planned for 8am, Oct 2). Chonburi Water Buffalo Racing takes place Oct 12 in the park surrounding the City Hall. Racing starts about 10am; crowds start gathering at 8:30am. Plenty of water and other drinks are available, but little shade.

Phuket Tourism Office (73-75 Phuket Road, Phuket Town, tel: 076-212213, publishes an excellent booklet with timetables and maps.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand ( operates three offices in Japan. The Tokyo branch is located at Room 259, 2F South Tower, Yurakucho Denki Bldg, 1-7-1ÊYurakucho, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-3218-0337.

Photo credit: Mark Parren Taylor