Vegetarians and Vegans rejoice! Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival is starting today. It is held every year in the 10th month of the Thai Lunar Calendar, starting on the 15th day of the waning of the moon. In 2014 the festival is from September 23 until October 3.
Although Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist country, eating a vegetarian diet is an exception rather than the norm on most days of the year. There are some Thai people who eat vegetarian once a month on Buddha days (full moon) and some eat vegetarian once a week, often on the day of the week they were born. However, during the Vegetarian Festival, you will find a large number of Thais practicing เจ (pronounced jay). The word jay is taken from Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, and means observing the eight precepts. One of these precepts is to refrain from destroying living creatures.
Beyond Avoiding Meat
Despite its name, the Vegetarian Festival is about more than just the avoidance of eating animal meat. It is about keeping up high moral standards, keeping one’s body and eating utensils clean, being mindful of thoughts and actions, and abstaining from sex and alcohol. To me this sounds like a good recipe for life in general, except the sex and alcohol part.
Jay food is comparable to the Western concept of a vegan diet, also excluding milk and eggs in addition to meat, poultry, and fish. It goes even a step further and also excludes some pungent vegetables and spices like onions, garlic and scallion. It is believed those ingredients ignite passion, lead people to anger or lust, and cause people to have too much energy and perspiration.
Dishes I enjoyed at previous Vegetarian Festivals. To see more, check out the gallery.
The Thai Vegetarian Festival is held all over the country, especially in large cities with a high Chinese population. It is celebrated for spiritual and physical cleansing, merit-making, and to create a sense of inner peace. People bring their shrines to Chinese temples to renew their spiritual energy, hang lanterns at the Chinese temples, and light candles outside. Loud drums inside and outside of temples scare away evil spirits. Vendors sell toys, fireworks, and, of course, delicious vegan food.
Restaurants and food stalls offering Jay food during the festival identify themselves with yellow flags and signs with the Chinese symbol for vegetarianism. Most other restaurants will be happy to replace meat with soy protein and bean curd, and they eliminate fish sauce and oyster sauce to accommodate their guests if requested.
The Most Popular Thai Vegetarian Festival
The most colorful and unique festival is the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. It is believed that the festival and its accompanying sacred rituals bestow good fortune upon those who religiously observe this rite. Sacred rituals are performed at various Chinese shrines and temples by entranced devotees known as Mah Song. A Mah Song is a man (or rarely, a woman) possessed by a god during the vegetarian festival. Mah Songs parade through the streets of Phuket, walking across hot coals or exploding fireworks, ascending ladders with bladed rungs, and bathing in hot oil. They pierce their mouths, cheeks, ears, and arms with fish hooks, knives, razor blades, bamboo poles, or even guns and giant wrenches. The deity residing within the Mah Song protects their body from pain and injury. This is confirmed to onlookers by the fact that that very little blood or scarring occurs.
You don’t have to be Buddhist or become a vegetarian to enjoy the festival. There is no pressure to participate. However, sampling an occasional meatless meal, becoming more mindful, and watching the activities during the festival can be a memorable experience. In that sense: Enjoy and have a good time during the Thai Vegetarian Festival!