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.

5 responses to “Thai Vegetarian Festival: an inside look

  1. From the devotees point of view/disposition… The piercing is much about ones ability to show the endurance in ones faith. Just like some people rolling on their bodies for 100 kms to arrive at a temple. Some also hang by their skin. And many more examples!

    Or some extreme sports?

  2. Siamjai: Wonderful addition!

    I’d have to dispute you on the food served during this week though. Although some really strict practiioners wouldn’t flavor their food, not even with salt, others enjoy the food a little more.

    The best lo-mein I’ve ever had in my life was from the festival. An even less strict bunch would actually throw in imitation meat made out of soy protein. I’ve had pad kraprao “chicken” and I could barely tell the difference!

    Here’s a caption to your last picture: “But mommy, I REALLY don’t like celery.”

  3. I’m surprise that you say self-mortification is done in the name of Na Cha…. that’s new to me.

    I always thought Na Cha is the ring-holding kid who is also one of the chief disciples of Chao Meh Kuan Imm.

    Anyway, I am not too familiar with Chinese Taoism, it is not as orthodox as Buddhism and there are very little ‘official’ text to follow.

  4. Kitjar, SiamJai may be right though. Besides the 9 emperor gods, there are other deities in Chinese temples or 9 gods may also invite their deity friends to join the celebrations. So NaCha may be invited to show his powess.

  5. Thank you for the comments.

    The piercing is much about ones ability to show the endurance in ones faith.

    Trangam, this is what I thought too, when I saw them doing it the first time (on pics). But I sort of dislike the exhibitionist behavior, especially when it comes to something as serious as religion. “See, I’m a true believer, look at me!“, that’s not very nice. So by now I’d rather think of such a person as a medium for an angel, rather than a faith-showoff. 🙂

    Oakley: I’m glad that you found veg food to your liking! 🙂 I guess it’s a matter of luck too. You are right, some of the stuff can look a lot like meat; I had something that looked exactly like lukchin pla, and even tasted a little bit like that, but it was actually some kind of Chinese mushroom.

    I like your caption, it’s really funny! I put in into the blog, I hope you don’t mind… 🙂

    Kitjar, I have to confess that much of this blog was written from other people’s knowledge. Before I started writing it, I asked practitioners who are doing this since they were born. Then I supplemented this insider knowledge with my meager experiences to give it a more personal feel.

    So this is how Naja got into it. Reading your informative post, I returned to my sources and asked them again, this time about the identity of Naja. They confirmed what you wrote here, and also repeated what I wrote up there. 🙂

    I think KhunChin’s reply explains it all. Thank you for both, guys. 🙂