Vegetarian Festival on the Thai Calendar
Every year, the people of Thailand celebrate a vegetarian festival. This Thailand festival is an annual celebration that occurs during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. The ninth lunar month can occur during the months of September or October in any given year. The Thailand vegetarian festival in 2010 will occur from October 8 through October 16, 2010. The following year, the vegetarian festival will occur from September 27 through October 5, 2011. Many Thai people observe this vegetarian festival, even if they do not eat Thai vegetarian food throughout the rest of the year. The festival is popular throughout Thailand, and especially in areas with large populations of Chinese immigrants, such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket.
Vegetarian Practice in Thailand
During this Thai festival, Thai people practice เจ, pronounced Jay. The word Jay comes from the language used by Chinese Mayahanna Buddhism which means eight precepts observance. One of the eight precepts is the avoidance of eating any animal meat during the vegetarian festival. When a Thai person practices Jay, they also keep up a high moral standard of good deeds in their action, speaking, and thinking. The Thai people have a saying for this Jay eating and religious precept observance, which is Teu Sil Gin Jay or Hold the precepts, eat Jay. During the Thailand vegetarian festival, Thai people practicing Jay must keep their body clean, keep their eating utensils clean, and make sure they do not share utensils with people not observing the Thai vegetarian festival. They must wear white clothing as often as possible, avoid killing or harming animals, and behave physically and mentally. During the Thailand vegetarian festival, practitioners must abstain from sex and alcohol.
Vegetarian Food during the Thailand Festival
Most importantly, during this Thailand festival, they must eat Jay food, which is more strict than normal Thai vegetarian food. Some vegetables cannot be eaten while practicing Jay during the vegetarian festival. These include the five pungent vegetables such as garlic or onions, because they are believed to inflame the passions and lead people to anger or lust. The pungent vegetables cause people to have too much energy and perspiration. Also, unlike Thai cooking which uses many hot and spicy chili peppers, Chinese vegetarian cooking finds a more even balance between bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and pungent flavors. In addition, Jay vegetarian food can not be made with milk or condensed milk.
Phuket Vegetarian Festival Origins
Nowhere in Thailand is the vegetarian festival more colorful, exciting, and memorable than in Phuket. The origins of this Thailand festival itself can be traced to Chinese immigrants in Phuket. In the early 1800’s, Phuket was a major center of trade between China, India, and Southeast Asia. A large number of Chinese immigrants worked in tin mines and on rubber plantations. In 1825, a traveling Chinese opera visited Phuket to entertain the Chinese immigrants. At this time, the whole town became sick with malaria. The traveling opera paused to observe a strict vegetarian diet and the Chinese Nine Emperor Gods Festival. The traveling opera all recovered from the malaria, even though many people in Phuket died. The people of Phuket were so amazed that they continue to observe this Thai vegetarian festival each year along with the Chinese Nine Emperor Gods Festival.
Celebrating the Phuket Vegetarian Festival
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is celebrated inside and outside Chinese temples throughout the city, as well as during processions between these temples and Phuket Bay. Each temple erects a pole, known as a Go Teng pole or lantern pole to welcome the Nine Emperor Gods of the Chinese Taoist religion. Each pole is decorated with nine lanterns, and devotees light candles around the poles. Devotees often bring shrines or deities from their own homes to the temples to receive spiritual energy. Along with the lantern pole, each temple has nine chairs for the gods to sit in. Some temples place statues in the chairs to simulate the invisible gods. These Nine Emperor Gods are associated with the ocean, sea, and sea-faring, so they may be based on pirates in ancient Chinese literature. Loud drums inside and outside the temples and along procession routes beat continuously to scare away evil spirits.
The Mah Song and the Phuket Vegetarian Festival
The most unique and amazing aspect of the Phuket vegetarian festival is the actions of the mah song. A mah song is a man (or very rarely, a woman) who believes they are possessed by a god during the vegetarian festival. Countless mah songs parade through the streets of Phuket, inflicting pain upon their own body through body piercing, self mutilation, walking across hot coals or exploding fireworks, bathing in hot oil, and more. They pierce their mouths, cheeks, ears, and arms with fish hooks, knives, razor blades, bamboo poles, etc. The mah song believes that the god within them protects their body from pain and injury, and often they show very little blood during the self mutilation or scars afterwards.
Becoming a Mah Song in Phuket
The word mah song is translated as entranced horses or horses of the gods, because the mah song is carrying a god within them. A person can be chosen by a god to become a mah song at any time in their life, as long as they are single and unmarried. Often, a person is contacted during a dream, vision, or period of long illness, and a god tells them that they have been chosen to become a mah song. A mah song can be chosen for various reasons. The person may be close to impending doom or death, and becoming a mah song extends their lifetime. Also, a person may be rewarded for maintaining good moral qualities during their lifetime. A mah song is chosen for life, and the god can choose to possess them at any time throughout the year. However, possession is most common during the vegetarian festival.
Mah Song’s Role in the Phuket Vegetarian Festival
Often, the chairs containing the statues of the Nine Emperor Gods are paraded through the streets of Phuket. The chairs are carried on men’s backs, and the chairs are rocked violently back and forth to simulate the Nine Emperor Gods sailing on a rough sea. The mah songs walk among the procession in a trance, wearing elaborate costumes with their bodies and faces pierced. The mah songs crack whips in the air or pass out candy to the crowd. Town residents quietly bow their heads in reverence and gratitude when the mah songs pass by, because the pain they inflict upon themselves shifts evil off of town residents. Mah songs bring their community spiritual cleanliness, good luck, and good fortune throughout the coming year. Town residents eagerly reach for and keep napkins and towels used to wipe a mah song’s sweat or blood. On the final day of the Thailand vegetarian festival in Phuket, the chairs are all carried down to Phuket Bay, so that the Nine Emperor Gods can return to the sea. As you can imagine, this is an extremely photogenic event.
Tourism and the Phuket Vegetarian Festival
The vegetarian festival in Phuket has become very popular with Asian tourists and is gaining popularity with Western tourists. Some vegetarians around the world plan their vacations to coincide with this Thai festival. In recent years, the Phuket vegetarian festival has taken on a carnival or freak show atmosphere. In order to generate more tourism, mah songs are encouraged to pierce themselves with more unusual items. Knives, skewers, and fish hooks in previous years have now been replaced with lamps, children’s bicycles, car and motorcycle parts, and more.
Thai Vegetarian Food
Of course, you don’t have to wait until the vegetarian festival to enjoy delicious and healthy vegetarian food in Thailand. Thai vegetarian food can include a colorful and tasty variety of fruits and vegetables which are readily available at fresh markets. Thai vegetarian food can include fruits such as banana, coconut, watermelon, pomelo, durian, rambutan, mango, pineapple, guava, orange, and more. Thai vegetarian food can also include healthy and delicious vegetables such as potato, carrot, cucumber, spinach, kale, eggplant, chick peas, pumpkin, squash, mushrooms, and more.
Thai Vegetarian Restaurants
Thai vegetarian restaurants identify themselves with yellow flags, yellow signs, and a Chinese symbol for vegetarianism. Most restaurants in Thailand can prepare Thai vegetarian food if requested by replacing meat with soy protein such as tofu and eliminating the fish sauce and oyster sauce. Other savory ingredients commonly found in Thai vegetarian cooking include soy sauce, soy bean paste, chili and chili powder, lemon grass, coconut milk, galangal root, ginger, coriander, kaffir lime leaves, and sweet Thai basil. For delicious vegetarian food, there are many options in Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Phuket.