INT. TRAVEL ARCHIVE:
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
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
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
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
Sarawaks 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 its
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
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
Santa's lap - enjoy saunas, Santa and sightseeing in Finland’s Lapland
Seeking the past in China's megacity
Rising from the ashes
Mary King explores the rich history, culture and art of Croatias phoenix
The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
World heritage site
Land of hope
Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
Suzhou and Hangzhou
The river mild
Top of the world
Memo from the Lower Mekong
Call of the wild
Mad about Madurai
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
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
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
|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.
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
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
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.
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 www.asiahotels.com
are an excellent resource. Metropole Hotel (1 Soi Surin, Montri
Road, Phuket Town, tel: 076-215050, firstname.lastname@example.org)
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, email@example.com)
is a short walk from the bus station and shopping/nightlife
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, www.phukettourism.org)
publishes an excellent booklet with timetables and maps.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (www.tourismthailand.org)
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