Daily Archives: October 11, 2005

Thai Vegetarian Festival: an inside look

The real thing
Today is a special day; the last day of the Vegetarian Festival, a celebraton lasting nine days. To the majority of people, the name is synonymous with the gruesome acts of self-mutilation going down there in Phuket. It became a regular tourist attraction; Richard already wrote a blog about that, complete with pictures.

What few people know is that the Phuket show is just the tip of the iceberg that we call the Vegetarian Festival here in Thailand. I would like to tell you the real story behind the surface.

If you are in Thailand during the festival, you may notice small signs cropping up at eating places all over the country. The signs say “เจ”, which means vegetarian. In the simplest terms, the occasion is marked by eating vegetarian food for nine days.

Apples and Oranges
The concept of vegetarianism is different here than what you may have seen in the West. It’s closer to vegan than regular vegetarian (no eggs, milk, or any other animal product). je food However, the largest difference between Western and Thai vegetarianism is the purpose. Over here, it’s not just a health fad, or a way to lose calories. The focus is on animal lives. For this reason, some Thai practitioners consider the Western way selfish.

So, to be vegetarian, a Thai would also have to abstain from killing animals, and have to consider a whole lot of other things: abstinence from impure thoughts, words and actions, including sexual abstinence. You see, it really affects their whole lives; it’s more than some nutrient mumbo-jumbo. Interestingly, they also cannot eat smelly veggies, like onions, spring onions etc.

This is considered the normal vegetarian practice here. However, there are further variations on the theme; the more strict devotees dress in all-white for the whole nine days, for instance. เจ shopkeepers don’t allow any meat on the premises, and will likely boot you out if you carry some. Beware.

Phuket vs. Thailand
Now a little bit more about the crazy folks who mutilate themselves to the amusment of onlookers on Phuket’s streets. What they are doing is really a sacrifice to นาจา , an angel. Such a heavely being cannot show his powers on earth, so he does so through his chosen devotees. So the ones you see doing it are not just everyday folks. They live in various Chinese temples, and observe several strict rules similar to the Five Precepts. If they live their lives in absolute purity, นาจา will impart his power into them, making them sort of invulnerable. The display of this power is what you see on the streets. Devotees who deviated from the rules will feel pain like an ordinary person.

And when the lights go down…
Does that hurt?So what will happen after the festival? The devotees will return to their temples. True believers will be lucky: the angel’s power will heal their wounds fast, while deviants will be left with their suffering and doubts. Normal Chinese-Thais will sigh with relief on the day they can finally sink their teeth into meat again.

I can tell you: this nine-day practice may sound short, but it’s no cakewalk. You’ll always feel hungry and weak. Some of the stuff tastes just horrible. Everything is mushy, nothing to chew. So… can you guess what will be on our menu tomorrow? A big fat German bratwurst. Yummy. And I leave the veggies to this guy and his friends, who just can’t seem to have enough.

The Gift

I am such a geek. Let me tell you.

Today, for you all over there in the Land of Smiles, but tomorrow for me here in the Land of McLife and Starbucks begins a small milestone. A tiny ripple in Life’s big pond yes but those ripples can become Tsunamis if you let ’em make you a basket case but that hasn’t happened to me. Yet.

So true believers what could be such a calamity in the making you ask? None other than the fact Wit here turns 42 years old in say about the next 10 minutes at midnight. 42. YEARS. Where did all this time go? And what did I do with it? On the good side at least I dealt with losing my hair long before I was even thirty so that’s one issue scratched off the list.

Should I start planning for payments on a Ferrari to pay for my mid-life crisis? Pish-tosh! Forget a hot set of wheels, buy me the first ticket I can to Thailand, less expensive than an Italian sports car for sure but a way more fun ride I’m willing to bet!

As much as I’d love a plane ticket to paradise for my birthday I don’t run with friends that have that kind of cash to celebrate my rapidly approaching middle age. Besides I’m not the type to ask for what I want people to give me for a present. I prefer to leave it up to them to give me something if they wish and it’s also a test to see how well they know me and what I like.

To me that means more to put some thought into a gift that shows you know the person your giving it to. Growing up with my family in Alabama I had too many experiences of horrible gift giving each birthday and Christmas. My folks just don’t get it, or rather they didn’t get me. You want an example? For Christmas 2002 my Mom sent me a big surprise present. When I opened it you know what it was? A plaster statuette of the firemen raising the flag at Ground Zero after 9/11. For Christmas. I’m not kidding you. As we speak it’s still in it’s original box gathering dust in the attic. My family tries I know but some things we just don’t ‘get’ about each other or maybe I’m just difficult!

Lately I’ve started seeing someone (Thai of course) and as with any new relationship there is the learning curve of getting to know each other. Whenever my impending birthday popped up I would get the same question.

“What do you want for your birthday?” To wit I would always give the same reply “Baby, it doesn’t matter you don’t have to give me anything I already have the best gift in you”

Usually that was enough to settle the question and earn me bonus Juup จูบ points to boot!

But lately the question got more persistent and my reply would lead more to a look of consternation on someone’s face than a sweet blush. Someone was determined to get me something nice for my birthday but didn’t have a clue what I’d really like. I finally leaked my Amazon.com wish list and hinted at one item in particular. I just hate to see anyone suffer with agonizing decisions.

So why am I such a geek? Because I wanted a book for my birthday? Not even a book really but, wait for it, a dictionary but not just any dictionary!

So what did I tell you before? Geek. I’m sure some of you are thinking only Wit would want a Thai dictionary for his birthday. But do I even need to tell you how cool this one is? Expensive too, Amazon.com was the cheapest price by far and that was $42! I’m going to be owing someone some Juup myself for awhile to be sure!!

Usually I also buy some stuff for myself for my birthday as an excuse to indulge a little. Going with the same theme here I bought two other books from Barnes and Noble, ‘Thai Syntax an Outline’ by Udom Warotamasikkhadit and ‘Aspects of Meaning in Thai Nominals: A Study in Structural Semantics’ by Thomas W. Gething. Can we say Super Thai Geek?

Quite a mouthful those two titles, eh? Brassy in the pocket too considering most days I still can’t pronounce half of what I say in Thai with the right tone!

Breaking with my mantra of all things Thai for a moment I did get one other goodie for myself and that was the DVD of Francis Coppolas ‘The Outsiders-The Complete Novel.’ Like many Junior and High School kids in America I read the book The Outsiders as required reading. I liked the story which was really cool and also touched a deep sense of belonging in me. Of course this was circa 1970’s B.T. (Before Thailand)

It was over 20 years ago when the movie was first released with a lot of the book cut out of it. Francis Coppola being the genius director that he is re-released the DVD this month with all the footage put back in that was in the book but cut out of the movie.

Here’s the weird thing and why I am telling ya’ll this. When I first saw this movie I was 20 years old but it was like falling into a time warp going back to a place I always wanted to belong in my youth but never did. Now 20 plus years later I’m falling into a time warp again watching the DVD and revisiting who I was and where I was in my life back then at 20. A Double Warp making me do a Double Take! If turning 40 does that to you I wonder what turning 60 does?

I never would have dreamed at 20 where I would be now almost a whole two and a half decades later. Does anyone? And I sure couldn’t tell you where I will be in another two and half decades if me and the World manage to make it that far together. Will I be living in Thailand? If so I wonder will I look back through all the years and adventures, loves and losses of my Thai life to peek inside a window to today?

Will I look back to here in wonder or regret at my life here that I am living now? If I could know the future for my birthday would I really want to open Pandora’s Box? Tempting but I don’t think so, if I knew how my life would be in the future I think I would forever spend my life trying to change it. Maybe ignorance is bliss. Take the surprises as they come and don’t worry about what’s waiting for you in the dark.

If you spend enough time on the internet you get these funny or quaint or sometimes just plain lame sayings e-mailed to you. Sometimes you get a good one to remember like this one.

Why is life a gift? Because the past is history, the future a mystery, that’s why today is called the present.

Could all this we know really be that simple? Life is the Gift? Mai bpen rai, Wit, make a wish and blow out the candles. Happy Birthday to me.