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Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival

First time visitors arriving in Thailand at the start of any October might be puzzled by the myriad of eye-catching bright yellow pennants displayed by street vendors or nowadays even strung out in front of restaurants. What it simply means is that the annual Vegetarian Festival is upon us once again.

This unique Thai festival had its origins on the southern island of Phuket some 180 years ago and has gradually spread to virtually all parts of the kingdom. Rather surprisingly, it is actually of Chinese origin and not really Thai at all. It began among the Chinese immigrants who had flocked to Phuket in the early 19th Century to work in the tin mines that once provided the island’s economy. According to local historians, about the year 1825, a mysterious epidemic struck the Chinese miners and their leaders met to discover the cause. They noted that the traditional Chinese rituals were being neglected, and the mining community was accordingly ordered to undergo a period of fasting as a penance. After nine days, the disease vanished as mystifyingly as it had arrived.

Now no one likes going hungry for days on end, so the village elders decided on a compromise. They vowed that each year on that anniversary the Chinese on the island would practice a period of cleansing by adopting a vegetarian diet. Offerings to the Chinese divinities would naturally be made and a strict code of conduct would be followed, which included sexual abstinence and foregoing the consumption of alcohol. As the years went by, something bizarre also took place. Individuals spontaneously began to be “possessed by spirits” during the festival and would take to impaling themselves with sharp object or slashing themselves with razor sharp knives. Yet once the spirit had left them, there would be no visible wounds or even the slightest scars. This Hindu like self-mutilation naturally drew Thai tourists to the island, and these Thais carried the idea of a vegetarian festival back to their home provinces.

Nowadays, the Vegetarian Festival is observed in virtually every fair sized city in Thailand. The yellow pennants one sees bear a Chinese character in red, with the Thai word “jeh” next to it. Both mean vegetarian. Any vendor displaying these flags will be selling flesh free food and the restaurants will have adapted their usual recipes to meatless cooking.

In Bangkok, the Vegetarian Festival is best seen in Yaowarat – the city’s picturesque Chinatown. It begins there on the first day of the 9th month of the Chinese lunar calendar with ceremonies similar to those on Phuket. Even before that, Chinatown residents will have started stocking up on vegetarian meat substitutes – usually high protein soy bean products, and it has been estimated that meat sales drop by as much as 70 percent during the ten days of the festival.

But the festival is not merely limited to Chinatown or the Chinese-Thais. Many ethnic Thais and even foreign expats welcome the change to a vegetarian diet, and perhaps one restaurant in five will switch over. In fact, vegetarian tourists have been known to plan their visits to the kingdom to coincide with this period.

The dishes offered during the Vegetarian Festival are nothing short of delightful. All of the Thai favourites are available, but with a slightly different twist. Instead of tom yam gung (spicy shrimp soup), there will be tom yam jeh (spicy vegetable soup). Gaeng matsaman, a delicious southern Thai curry made with chicken, potatoes, onions and peanuts, instead will have the chicken replaced by tofu. Gaeng kiao wan, a mild green curry usually made with chicken or fish, will now be made with soy protein. Mushrooms of all types will be used in abundance, and the big yellow Japanese soba noodles are used to produce a version of kweitiou pat Thai (noodles fried Thai style) that is well worth waiting for.

In fact, Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival is probably one of the best times to visit the country, even though it does fall within the rainy season. After all, you can always carry an umbrella. And the choices of food offered at this time of year rival the best of any cuisine that Asia has to offer.

So next time you come to Thailand, look for those yellow pennants. If it is not that time of year, just tell your waiter you want to try the aharn jeh, the dishes on the vegetarian menu. Most restaurants will have one. It makes a pleasant break from the usual meat heavy diet that is so common in the west.

Aharn jeh aroy mahk! Thai vegetarian food is delicious. Try it and see if you don’t agree. You should also visit us on http://www.foodinthai.com where you will be introduced to the origins and types of Thai food, Thai cooking, courses and the various Cooking Schools in Thailand. We hope you will stay with us and enjoy learning more about it.

Submitted by:

John Turner

John Turner lives in Bangkok and recently started work on http://www.foodinthai.com which is a journal where he hopes to capture some of the rare and very special moments he has experienced during the time he has spent in the Kingdom of Thailand





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