Yesterday marked the official start of the Vegetarian Festival in Thailand. In Samut Prakan it runs from 26th September to 6th October 2011. We went to Thong Siang Vegetarian House in Samut Prakan to watch this opening ceremony. The event was a signal for the nine Gods to come down to earth. Something similar happened all over Thailand. During the following ten days, people will keep a strict vegetarian diet and also obey ten basic rules which will help cleanse their mind and body. The symbol for the festival is a small yellow flag with the words in Thai “jay” which means “vegetarian”. In Thai culture, yellow represents Buddhism and good moral conduct. When looking to buy vegetarian food, we need to look out for the small yellow flags on the foodstalls.
According to legend, the nine Gods come down from heaven to inspect the earth and to record the good and bad deeds of everyone. So, during the festival it is important for Chinese people to be on their best behaviour. Refraining from eating meat means less animals being slaughtered which will gain them some merit. People taking part in the festival will often wear white and will visit their local shrines to pay respect to the spirits. If you want to visit a shrine then you should wear white too out of respect. In addition to not eating meat, strong smelling vegetables cannot be eaten. Such as garlic, onion, spring onion, Chinese chives and Chinese parsley. In Thailand, many popular Thai dishes are replicated by using tofu and extra mushrooms.
These days, it is not only people of Chinese descent that are following the strict vegetarian diet. It is also Thai people and foreigners who are living here in Thailand. Here are the ten rules that you must keep during the festival:
1. Keep your body clean during the nine days of the festival
2. Use special kitchen utensils that have never been used to prepare and cook meat
3. Wear white or yellow during the festival
4. Make your mind pure and mentally calm
5. Do not eat meat or animal products such as milk and butter, and strong smelling ingredients such as garlic and onion
6. No sex
7. No alcoholic drinks or tobacco
8. People who are mourning should not attend the festival
9. Pregnant ladies should not attend any of the ceremonies
10. Ladies who are having a period should not attend any of the ceremonies
The annual Vegetarian Festival is about to start here in Thailand. It happens every year in the tenth Thai lunar month on the first new moon after the equinox. This year it is celebrated between 26th September and 5th October 2011. Most people make the mistake in thinking that this is a festival only celebrated in Phuket. Although it is true that their version is certainly livelier, it is actually celebrated in many places around Thailand wherever there are large Chinese communities. Samut Prakan is no exception. All through the town we have had large yellow banners hung across the roads for the past week. Also, food stalls selling vegetarian food have been flying little yellow flags. This will now be my fourth year of taking part in this festival.
At school, about 15% of our students and teachers have signed up for vegetarian meals. As well as a vegetarian meal for lunch, the students will have soy milk during break time. Not everyone has Chinese ancestors as there are people like myself who are doing it as a kind of purification of the body and mind. Personally I think it is a great form of detox not to eat animal products for ten days. However, some teachers have already admitted to me that they will probably only do it for three days. Most of them are worried about gaining weight. But this is mainly because of the deep fried snacks. Some of them are very addictive. Strangely, I usually lose weight during this period.
For my preparation I went to Tesco Lotus to see what I could eat. A large section of the supermarket had shelves stacked with food that we can safely eat during the vegetarian festival. It is easy to spot as there are always yellow flags with the word “jay” written in Thai in red letters. In the picture above, you can see some of the things I bought. These include soy bean milk and mama noodles. There were even cup noodles of tom yum with mushrooms and tofu. Last time I also bought plenty of vegetables as I was planning on cooking for myself. However, there are so many food stalls here that are selling vegetarian food that it is usually easier to eat out every day.
One of the oldest markets in Thailand that is still operating is the Bang Phli Riverside Market in Samut Prakan. It was first started by Chinese traders back in the 1850’s. This now makes it older than 150 years. The original name for the market is “Talad Siri Sopon”. It is situated along the Samrong Canal which used to be a major trading route between the Chao Phraya River and Chachoengsao. I visited Bang Phli this morning for the launch of their Old Market Fair which will run every weekend between now and 2nd October 2011.
The market consists of wooden two storey shop houses along the northern bank of the canal. The market stretches for about 500 meters along two sections which is broken up by a bridge. You can gain access to the market from Wat Bang Phli Yai Klang. There are shops along the entire length which are selling a diversity of old and new products. When I first visited this riverside market they were mainly selling items for local people. These were practical things like household items and school clothes. However, there is now more of a variety and shops selling items that are of interest to tourists. However, it still maintains its unique charm and beauty.
If you come and visit this market now, you will have a good opportunity to see the traditional way of life of the Bang Phli people living along the canal. Every weekend there will be special activities that include folk plays, sea boxing, boat tours, traditional sword fighting and of course local food. In fact, I think the variety of food on offer is one of the highlights of the market. The market runs throughout the year but they always have special activities during September in the run up to the Rub Bua Festival. The boat tours exploring the local canals also also run for the whole year.
I am very impressed in how the local people have gone about conserving the local market and also restoring the local traditions and customs to their former glory. They have certainly gone to a lot of effort. If you are in the area now then I do strongly urge you to go and visit Bang Phli and this market fair. Also make sure that you pay a visit to their local museum which is situated in the market. Although most of the displays are in Thai, there are plenty of pictures to view as well as scale models. At present the market doesn’t get many foreign tourists so this is the best time to come.
I have posted more pictures over at my Facebook Page.
22nd September has been designated as International Car Free Day. All around the world, people have been making the effort to not use their cars today, but instead use public transport or even get on their bicycle. Thailand has been taking part in World Car Free Day now for the last five years. To begin with, only major cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai organized bike rallies in order to promote alternative modes of transport. However, as word has spread, many more provinces have organized their own events.
Last Sunday, Samut Prakan organized their first Car Free Day Event. Nearly 800 local cyclists came together at the City Hall and then took part in a cycle rally around the city. Never before have so many bicycles been seen on our streets. It was really a great feeling to be a part of this. As you know, I have recently bought my own bike and have been using it a lot around town instead of taking my car. It has given me a lot more freedom as I don’t need to worry about where I can park my car. Nor do I get stuck in traffic jams any more.
In the past, if you rode a bicycle people felt sorry for you as if you didn’t have enough money to buy a motorcycle. But, attitudes are changing. You see more people cycling these days. You also see a lot more cycle clubs where people go out on trips in groups. For myself I am not that serious about it. It is more about convenience for me. I have a bag on the back of my bicycle so I can go out and buy some supplies at the local mini mart. The last few weeks I have even started to cycle to school instead of walking.
So far I haven’t been very far on my bicycle. The longest distance that I have cycled was about 25 kms. I am not exactly that fit so I am not sure if I can keep going all day. But, I am playing with the idea of cycling to Samut Sakhon for the day and then maybe come back by train. Another thing that I have been doing more often is putting my bicycle into the back of the car. I have to take off the front wheel but it is very quick. This is making some of my Bangkok day trips a bit more interesting. I have even been going into Bangkok with my bike on the sky train. I am beginning to enjoy that too.
According to the Energy Minister, quoted in The Nation, “If only 10 per cent of 4 million vehicles in Bangkok is parked at home and the owners use public services once a week, this could save fuel by 1.6 million litres a day or about Bt64 million.” It is doubtful that they will manage to get 10% of cars off the roads any time soon. For that to happen we need an extensive public transport system. It also doesn’t really help much that the government are offering tax rebates for first time car buyers. The billions in lost revenue could have been spent elsewhere. Maybe even subsidising bicycles and more building bike lanes!
There are not too many places in Bangkok where cyclists can go with their bicycle and feel safe. It is true that the BMA have built more cycling lanes around the city but many of these are either blocked by parked cars or are being used by motorcyclists. I know we shouldn’t complain as they are at least making an effort to make Bangkok a haven for cyclists. Indeed, the Bangkok Governor has been very supportive of the monthly Car Free Sunday events that have been taking place over the last three months. He has even promised more cycle lanes. With more people taking to the roads each month on bicycles, I hope in the future that Bangkok will become safer for cyclists.
I have tried cycling at some of the parks in Bangkok but the majority don’t allow bicycle or they restrict the hours which you can use them. So, I was really pleased to find out about Suan Rot Fai, or The Railway Park, which is a cyclists paradise in the heart of Bangkok. The park covers an area of about 150 acres and used to be part of a golf course belonging to the State Railway of Thailand. I was there for the first time at the weekend and it was great to see so many people out enjoying themselves cycling around the track. The main route around the park is about three kilometers long, but there are a number of interconnecting tracks. The place is almost big enough to get lost for a short while.
One of the best things about Suan Rot Fai is that it is very family friendly. In fact, when I was there at the weekend there were many youngsters cycling around. Some of them were obviously with their friends and others were with their family. Cycling is not the only activity as there is plenty to see for nature lovers such as the botanical gardens and there are also bird watching opportunities. I also spotted a Butterfly Garden which I will check out next time. In addition, there are a couple of play areas with swings and slides as well as a swimming pool. I also spotted a basketball court where the hoops were lower than normal . Another popular activity seemed to be eating a picnic on the grass in the shade of a tree. All very nice and I think I will be going back soon with Nong Grace.
Suan Rot Fai is very close to Chatuchak Weekend Market. I went there on the BTS and got off at Mo Chit. You can take your bicycle on the sky train for free. Just make sure that you travel outside rush hour and use the end carriage. From the BTS station you head North-West through Chatuchak Park (see map). Incidentally, you cannot ride your bike in this park. The Suan Rot Fai is open from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. I don’t recommend being there at night as there isn’t enough lighting and it could be dangerous. If you don’t have your own bike you can rent one for as little as 20 Baht for the day at a row of shops outside the Northern gate. There are also many food stalls here if you want to buy something for your picnic.