CityNews – The vegetarian festival, tesagan kin jae, takes place in September or October annually. The festival, which serves as a self-purification and merit-making exercise, has Taoist origins and has slowly made its way into Thai Buddhism.
Reporter Vicky Waddon. Photo: Francis Wilmer.
During the festival many Thais will adopt, or pay closer attention to, a number of precepts. The most obvious of these is the avoidance of animal products, but others include keeping a clean body and mind, wearing white, and abstaining from sex and alcohol.
In some parts of the country the festival includes processions where people known as mah song will go into a trance and, they claim, let the gods enter their bodies. Mah song, literally “entranced horse”, perform ritualised self-torture in order to shift evil from others onto themselves, and to bring the community good luck. This usually involves piercing themselves with skewers, knives and other household items. The best place to see this is undoubtedly Phuket, where the festival first came to Thailand and around a third of the population is of Chinese heritage. Thankfully for the squeamish among us, I’ve seen no sign of this happening in Chiang Mai yet.
I wanted to join in this festival in order to gain a better understanding of it. Although I’m vegetarian already, this is not as easy as it sounds. The definition of a jae diet is best described as vegan in the West but it also excludes pungent foods such as garlic, onion and chives. I’ve heard two main reasons for this. One is that when only eating a vegetable diet, these ingredients apparently heat up the body and disrupt the digestive process. The other is that they work as an aphrodisiac, which is not so good when you’re avoiding sex! Quite how lucky you’d get after eating all that garlic and onion though I don’t know. Anyway…
With the exception of wearing white, I am observing all the other precepts – the most challenging for me being eating jae. But hey, Chiang Mai is the place to be vegetarian or vegan, with a huge number of vegetarian restaurants around town already. And now is the time. During the vegetarian festival some vegetarian restaurants extend their opening hours and many non-veg restaurants and vendors offer a special menu. Black Canyon, for instance, has a specially-produced two-page menu of delicious jae dishes, as well as many soy versions of their coffees and teas. You can also look out for the yellow flags with the word jae (เจ) written on them in red, which are displayed at many eateries.
Photo: Courtesy of Central Plaza.
A warning: If you’re planning a radical diet change, do be prepared a few days ahead of time. Otherwise you could be going hungry, or feeling rather guilty. Luckily for me, what I thought was day one, September 22, turned out to be an accidental practice run. While fretting over what to eat at lunch, I was told that the festival doesn’t start until the evening.
On the real day one my first challenge came after lunch, when my small plate of veggies and rice didn’t fill me up. I didn’t have to search far for a street vendor displaying the yellow and red flags. I buy some tofu, roasted peanuts, and what seemed to be deep-fried puffs of air with tiny bits of taro inside. They can only be described as very deep fried and very delicious. Perhaps this wouldn’t be as healthy as originally thought.
Chiang Mai Municipality and the Tai Lin Foundation is holding the ASEAN Vegetarian Fair at Tha Pae Gate until today, October 2. I arrive around 6pm and the fair is in full swing. There’s a designated “vegetarian zone” with two rows of vegetarian food stalls. There’s lot of veggie “meat” on a stick, pad Thai, rice paper roles with spicy dipping sauce, noodles and fruit juices (including the bright purple dragon fruit). There’s also an Indian food stall offering a plate of four curries and rice for 70 baht. Vegetarian heaven!
In the vegetarian section there’s a stage with speakers and performances. It’s all in Thai but I catch enough to hear them mentioning other Southeast Asian countries, reinforcing the fact that the vegetarian festival extends beyond Thailand.
Next door there are another two rows of non-vegetarian food, so non-veggie friends can join in the fair too. Just don’t share cutlery if you’re observing the precepts! In addition, there are several rows of market stalls selling the usual merchandise that you’d expect to find at the Sunday walking street market.
On day two I’m delighted to discover that 7-Eleven sells a range of jae ready-meals for around 30 baht: vegetarian protein in a red curry paste sauce, gyoza with mushroom and Thai basil, vegetarian “fish”, and vegetable fried rice. They’re all surprisingly tasty. In fact, they’re so good I’m stockpiling the meals for after the festival finishes.
In some 7-Elevens there are also helpful stickers on the deserts and breads showing which of them are safe if you’re eating jae.
Day three is not a good one. In a split-second in the morning I make another exception to my precepts when I kill a mosquito. Unfortunately for the mosquito, my fear of contracting dengue fever outweighs my commitment to the precept that I shouldn’t harm any person or animal – sorry mozzie. Then in the evening, while helping out at Citylife’s Grape Appreciation Walk, I cave in and have a beer. I don’t feel too bad about it until the end of the night, when I bump into the only other person I know who’s observing the precepts and find her innocently sipping water. I feel guilty for the rest of the night.
Still feeling bad the next morning I go in search of vegetarian eateries in Nimmanahaemin. Yes I know there are a few, but today my navigational skills fail me and I can’t find them. Instead I settle myself at Cafe Kantary, where I discover a small jae stall and a couple of soy coffee options.
A sign in Thai, which a colleague had earlier translated for me, told me that I wanted to head to Central Airport Plaza this afternoon because “handsome man ask you to eat vegan.” Handsome man? I was sold already. Here’s the full spiel: “Share in and continue the religious tradition that is eating vegan, cleansing the body and creating a pure heart with the delicious vegan menus from the most prominent markets of Chiang Mai. This year, handsome man Kan Kantathavorn will be there to encourage and introduce you all to enjoy and eat vegan food, reinforcing merit and encouraging healthy eating at Central Airport Plaza.”
I’m not sure who Mr Kantathavorn is, but I enjoyed watching his cooking demonstration while dozens of young Thai girls excitedly snapped pictures on their phones. And I can confirm that the food on offer was delicious (I had vegetable sushi and spring rolls), and Khun Kan was indeed handsome.
Photo: Courtesy of Central Plaza.
Central Festival also has a similar set up of jae food stalls in the basement, but unfortunately no guest handsome man as far as I can tell. Both of Centrals’ supermarkets have a couple of tables of interesting-looking jae snacks close to the check out. Veggie pork ribs anyone?
A second chance
So how did I do? There have been two minor lunch mishaps involving some sneaky cheese and devious egg which weren’t mentioned on the menu. Evidently, eating jae can be challenging when you’re in a place without a special menu. But aside from that, I’ve successfully eaten only jae food. And for the record, I scrapped off as much of the cheese as possible and donated it to a cheese-loving colleague.
Eating jae has forced me to try new foods. Being vegetarian already, I’m often cautious about what I order in places where I don’t speak the language, as more often than not dishes contain meat. The vegetarian festival has opened me up to more delicious Thai and Chinese food, because those yellow flags mean that everything’s safe. And it’s shaken up my eating habits. For anyone who’s considering going vegetarian or vegan, or giving up anything, whether for the festival or more long term, I really encourage you to try it. You might be surprised at what new experiences you find, and how little you miss the food/coffee/whatever you thought you needed so badly.
As for the other precepts, aside from one beer and one murdered mosquito, I’ve achieved what I set out to do. I’ve carefully removed any ants and bugs that wander into my vicinity so as to not harm them, and I’ve effectively let go of any bad thoughts about people as soon as they’ve popped into my head. The latter has been so surprisingly easy that I wonder why I don’t do it all the time.
In fact, there’s a time to observe the precepts all over again. The Vegetarian Festival occurs on the first evening of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese lunar calendar, which is September or October annually. However, this year is extra special because it will see two ninth lunar months. The last time this happened was over 100 years ago! The second festival will run from October 24 to November 1, although it will be slightly lower-key than the first.
I’ve enjoyed the vegetarian festival so much that I’m going to observe the second festival too. Will you join me?
In Thailand there are two main concepts for eating meat-free:
Jae is the equivalent of Western veganism but also excludes onions and garlic. This term is well-known. Yaak kin jae = I want to eat jae.
Mangsawirat is the equivalent of lacto-ovo vegetarianism in the West. You can say yaak gin mangsawirat (I want to eat mangsawirat), but as the concept of this type of diet is less well-known you may struggle getting your point across.
Photo: Weerasak Panyachod.
Rules/precepts for the Vegetarian Festival:
Maintain a clean body.
Clean kitchen utensils and use separate utensils to those people not participating in the festival.
Behave yourself both mentally and physically. Do not harm any person or animal.
Do not eat meat or other animal-based products. Do not eat onion, garlic or chives.
Abstain from sexual activities.
Do not consume alcohol.
Do not take part in the festival if you are in a state of mourning.
Please note that these precepts can vary slightly, for example some sources say that you should also refrain from using perfume and wearing jewellery. Some people also ban chilli from their diet.