Man On Fire – by Jack Kurtz

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A man runs through the fire pit during the firewalking at Wat Yannawa.
A man runs through the fire pit during the firewalking at Wat Yannawa.

The Vegetarian Festival just ended in Thailand. The festival is celebrated in Chinese communities throughout Thailand. Bangkok generally gets dismissed as a Veg Fest destination but with hundreds of thousands of Thais of Chinese ancestry in Bangkok, it’s mostly a matter of knowing where to go to enjoy the Vegetarian Festival.

Wat Yannawa is a couple of blocks south of the Saphan Taksin BTS station (you can see the temple from the station) but most people go north on the river towards “old” Bangkok and bypass the temple.

The temple is a part of Bangkok’s history though. The Chao Phraya River used to be Thailand’s gateway to the world. The tall ships and 19th century steamers dropped anchor and unloaded their freight at piers along the river. Foreign embassies were along the riverfront. Chinese junks used to drop anchor near a pier at what is now Wat Yannawa. Tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants coming to Thailand made landfall at that pier. In some ways, it’s Thailand’s “Ellis Island.” Because of its role in the Chinese influx into Thailand it hosts one of the city’s better Vegetarian Festival ceremonies.

A man waits for the food distribution to start at Wat Yannawa.
A man waits for the food distribution to start at Wat Yannawa. Food distributions for poorer members of the community are a regular part of the observances of religious holidays in Thailand.

I’ve always consider myself pretty lucky when it comes to photographing religious and cultural events in Thailand. Whether it’s Buddhist events, like Vesak or Hindu events like the Ganesh Festival or Muslim holidays like Eid al Adha or any of the many cultural events here, I’ve always been able to cover them pretty much the way I want to.

I call it “luck” but that’s not really accurate. Even though I don’t plan it out, I try to pay attention to local customs and respect local traditions. And although I’m not a very patient person or one who’s good at “hanging out” and seeing what happens, sometimes that’s exactly what it takes.

I went to Wat Yannawa in search of Vegetarian Festival events. I had seen banners advertising the Vegetarian Festival on walls near the temple so I wandered down there not knowing what to expect. I got down there about 1.30PM and planned to just hang out. Because I wanted to photograph religious events I was dressed in white – white slacks and a white shirt (Buddhists traditionally wear white when they go to temples for religious ceremonies).

When I cover a religious or cultural event I dress appropriately.

I chose to wear white not because I wanted to camouflage myself or pass myself off as a Buddhist, which would have been dishonest and, with my cameras, pointless. People would have seen through the subterfuge in a second. Wearing white was about respect. I didn’t want to disrespect the people I was photographing.

A crowd was gathering for the food distribution and people were praying at shrines set up in the parking lots specifically for the Festival. I’ve been photographing Vegetarian Festival events all week in Bangkok, so I didn’t photograph very much at this time. I mostly watched.

I photographed a Vegetarian Festival procession on Yaowarat Rd in the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown last week.
I photographed a Vegetarian Festival procession on Yaowarat Rd in the heart of Bangkok’s Chinatown last week.

In the middle of the afternoon a truck delivered a big load of charcoal and dropped it in the middle of a parking lot. I took that as a good sign because firewalking ceremonies are held on beds of burning charcoal. The prayer services ended and I was getting ready to go outside the temple to get a bite to eat when a couple invited me to join them at their table for the vegetarian banquet that was coming.

They didn’t speak much English and I don’t speak Thai, but we enjoyed a great meal of Thai-Chinese vegetarian dishes like stewed duck (with tofu playing the role of the duck), and pork (with tofu playing the role of the pork). It’s a good thing I like tofu because I ate a lot of it at the Vegetarian Festival banquet.

A fire tender keeps the coals hot.
A fire tender keeps the coals hot.

After dinner people gathered for another prayer service and procession. The procession circled the parking lot (which had been turned into a large shrine) three times, each time around the parking lot people stepped over a small pot of burning coals. A couple of tourists showed up halfway through the procession.

This is where dressing appropriately pays off. They were dressed in shorts and tee shirts. One of the attendants at the service asked them to stay at the edge of the ceremony while I was allowed to wander freely and photograph. While he was talking to them, he specifically pointed at their clothes. They stayed for about 10 minutes but left before the main event started.

A man runs through the fire pit at Wat Yannawa.
A man runs through the fire pit at Wat Yannawa.

The procession ended with a clash of cymbals and people moved over to the fire pit. A few men and women lined up at the end of the fire pit while men tending the fire stirred the coals and sprayed it with alcohol (to keep things toasty).

Then men and women ran through the coals. The whole time I photographed freely.

A man comes out of the smoke holding a statue above his head.
A man comes out of the smoke holding a statue above his head.

I tried to be as respectful as I could. Showing respect at an event like this is a complicated equation. I am there to photograph it but I don’t want to interfere or lessen the experience for the participants. At the same time, I need to make pictures that accurately capture the emotion and reality of what’s going on around me.

A firewalker goes into a trance before crossing the burning coals.
A firewalker goes into a trance before crossing the burning coals.

Showing respect means sometimes using lenses longer than I normally would – at this firewalking ceremony I mostly used my 50mm and 100mm lenses when I normally would have used my 24mm and 40mm lenses. It meant moving to a vantage point that was not as clean as I would have liked because the best vantage point would have obstructed the view of participants.

Covering events like this is frequently as much about overcoming obstacles as it is pushing the shutter button. It’s about dressing appropriately, being patient and working respectfully.

One thought on “Man On Fire – by Jack Kurtz

    desi Traveler said:
    October 7, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    Very interesting, we have similar fire walking rituals in various parts of India..I had no idea Thailand also has similar traditions….

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