Do not get the wrong idea. The Vegetarian Festival, though featuring vegetarian and vegan food, is so much more complex than simply indulging in some meat-free cooking. From self-mutilating ceremonies to going sex-free for a week, the Vegetarian Festival in Thailand is one that is rooted in tradition and certainly one of the most interesting of all the celebrations in the country, specifically on the island of Phuket. So, what is the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket? Let’s find out.
The Vegetarian Festival: เทศกาลกินเจ
The Vegetarian Festival, also known as Tesagan Gin Jay, is a time in which many locals across the country will abide by a meat-free or vegan diet. This is much stricter than the vegan diet visitors might be familiar with, however. On top of not consuming meat, seafood, and dairy products, those abiding by the rules of the Vegetarian Festival cannot eat food that has a potent smell, like garlic and scallions, for example.
What are the rules?
In addition to abstaining from eating these food products and practicing a jay (vegan) diet, those seriously partaking in the festival will also abide by a number of seemingly strange rules. They include:
1. Do not lie
2. Do not kill any living thing
3. Do not steal
4. Do not gamble
5. Wear white during the festival to symbolize purity
6. Do not keep containers and cutlery that has touched meat near containers with food from the festival in them
7. Do not drink alcohol
8. Do not commit adultery and do not have sex
9. People who are in menstruation, pregnant, or in mourning cannot participate in the festival
10. Behave mentally and physically
What is the origin of the festival?
The Vegetarian Festival in Thailand actually originated in China and is based on Taoist beliefs. The religious festival came to be after a Chinese opera troupe was working on the island of Phuket in Kathu. Their jobs were to entertain miners some 200 years ago. Slowly but surely, however, the troupe was hit by some type of plague and members of the troupe were dying. The theater closed, and people started to speculate why it was they were hit with this epidemic.
Some of the members, fearing for their lives, stopped eating meat and animal oil for nine days and nights. Those who were sick got better, and those who were healthy did not get sick after abstaining from eating meat. The festival is believed to have begun then, and the act of abstaining from eating meat during this time started to spread and become popular in other parts of the country. The festival, known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, is also observed to honor the nine Taoist emperor gods. Though the majority of the people who used to celebrate were Thai-Chinese, locals and tourists alike all join in on the festivities, regardless of their roots.
What can I expect?
Today, spirit possessions, or ma songs, are commonly seen during the street processions in Phuket Town. Some of the ceremonies visitors can expect to come across during the festival include fire-walking ceremonies, bladed-ladder climbing, oil-bathing, nail-bridge crossing, and a large parade complete with self-mutilation taking place along the way. This is because those who are possessed by the spirit god, or ma song, are protected by them and do not feel pain. People will line the streets of Phuket during the festival to ask for the blessings of those with the ma songs in them, as well. These are just a few things people can expect to witness at this magnificent and oftentimes gruesome festival.
Is the celebration only in Phuket?
While the celebrations are certainly the largest and most interesting on the island of Phuket, festivities will take place across Thailand. In addition to the island, Yaowarat Road in Chinatown, Bangkok is argueably the second most noteworthy place in the Land of Smiles to frequent to partake in the festival.
Where are the biggest celebrations on Phuket?
The biggest celebrations take place in Phuket Town, the capital of the Phuket province. The city was established towards the end of the 19th century and is a melting pot of Portuguese and Chinese heritage. This is reflected in both the architecture as well as the traditions in which take place here, including the Vegetarian Festival. The two areas that put on the largest celebrations in Phuket Town are Saphan Hin Park and the Jui Tui Shrine. In addition to Thailand, other Southeast Asia countries including Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore all have their own take on this meat-free festival, as well.
What is the history behind the Jui Tui Shrine?
The Jui Tui Shrine is the most revered and significant shrine on the island during the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket. It is here that Chinese lanterns are lit, fireworks are set off, and Thais and Chinese alike come to pay tribute. The shrine is both red and gold in color, as it is believed to give the temple an aura of luxury and bring good luck to those who visit.
When is the festival?
The Vegetarian Festival falls on different days of the week each year as it is celebrated on the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. This normally occurs in October, and the festival lasts for nine days in total.
What do I eat?
The only thing holding visitors back from indulging in every vendor lining the streets in Phuket Town (or anywhere else celebrating, for that matter) is the size of their appetite. We suggest skipping out on breakfast to save room for the scrumptious and unique foodie finds.
Some of the items visitors can expect to find during the Vegetarian Festival include faux duck, chicken, beef, pork, sushi, fish, and really every type of faux meat you could possibly imagine. Entire meals are available for as little as ฿60 (approximately $US1.80), while street food can be purchased by the bag full for about half that price.
How do I get to Phuket Town?
Visitors are advised to rent a moped in order to explore the entirety of the island at their own convenience during the festival. Visitors can also take the local bus from different stops around the island, and it is only ฿40 (approximately $US1.20) a person.