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As Asian countries go, Thailand is not so easy for vegetarians or vegans. Yet for nine days each year during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar (typically late September/October), a large portion of the country’s population eat exclusively vegan foods in observation of the Chinese cleansing festival known as Tesakan Gin Jay (literally, ‘festival for eating vegan’), or the Vegetarian Festival. Elaborate festivities take place in Phuket, but Bangkok’s Chinatown is also a great place to sample vegan fare while soaking up the festive atmosphere.
An expression of the deeply rooted Chinese influence in Thailand, the Vegetarian Festival honours the nine Taoist emperor gods embodied by the nine stars of the big dipper constellation. Although its popularity has declined within China itself, the festival is also a big deal in Singapore, Malaysia and Burma.
The festival is most prominent among Thailand’s Chinese minority, but it’s also observed by millions of Thais with little or no Chinese background. Throughout the nine days, Chinese temples and shrines are abuzz with a carnival-like atmosphere that incorporates chanting by monks, noisy percussive routines (to awaken the spirits) and plenty of vegan feasting.
Many in Thailand celebrate the festival in whatever way that suits them, but 10 rules are traditionally observed. These are: to keep the body clean; to prepare food only with utensils that have never touched meat; to wear all white or yellow; to keep the mind mentally calm and serene; to eat entirely vegan and to refrain from pungent foods like garlic and onion; to refrain from sex; to refrain from alcohol and drugs; to refrain from attending the festival while in mourning; and to refrain from attending while pregnant or menstruating.
In Phuket, the festival also incorporates acts of self-mutilation known as maa song. Maa is the Thai word for horse, and those who carry out this custom are believed to become possessed by the emperor spirits as a horse is controlled by a rider. The most common act of maa song is to pierce the cheeks with large knives and swords, and those who participate are thought to be protected from pain by the spirits. This aspect of the festival never existed in China and is believed to have been adopted from the Hindu festival, Thaipusam, which is celebrated in Singapore, India and Malaysia.
For the casual traveller who’s not keen on sticking blades through their face, a day of sampling ahaan jay (vegan food) is a less dramatic way to enjoy the festival. Countless regular noodle shops, street stalls and restaurants discontinue serving meat during Tesakan Kin Jay, instead preparing totally vegan dishes that often incorporate tofu and a range of delicious handmade meat substitutes.
Vendors taking part in the festival are marked by yellow flags and aprons with the word jay written in red Thai script. Vegan food sellers may be found in urban neighbourhoods and rural villages throughout the country across the Vegetarian Festival, but in Chinatown you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone selling meat. Strictly speaking, those who aren’t refraining from meat are not permitted to enter an area surrounded by yellow flags for fear that they'll attract unwholesome spirits.
A dizzying array of vegan dishes and finger foods are found during the festival in Chinatown. We sampled fried bean cakes, grilled lotus root and a range of vegetable dumplings before choosing from a healthy selection of kap khao style vegan curries and stir-fries and sauteed egg-wheat noodles tossed with meat substitutes and veggies.
The average Thai will eat vegan foods for three to 10 days while making a conscious effort to cleanse both the body and mind. Observing the festival each year is believed to contribute to a long and healthy life.
No matter where you are in Thailand, Tesakan Gin Jay offers a unique opportunity to enjoy some fantastic vegan food in an otherwise meat-obsessed country. If you happen to be in Phuket, an unexpected dose of self-mutilation might sneak its way into your beach holiday, but Bangkok’s Chinatown offers a worthy alternative. The festival culminates with a rip-roaring street procession on Yaowarat Road. Hope you like the sound of huge cymbals and drums being banged upon.
How to get there
The festival centres on Yaowarat Road in Bangkok's Chinatown.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 11th April, 2016.