Thailand Vegetarian Festival
by Michael Commons
This month we introduce Michael Commons who shares his vegetarian experiences in Southeast Asia. Commons currently resides in Thailand where he works as a writer and filmmaker. A native Californian and graduate in Linguistics and Anthropology from UCLA, he has taken the opportunities in his work and studies to travel through much of the world and learn from the peoples and cultures of our planet.
It is the first new moon after the autumnal equinox, which for a vegetarian in Thailand means that life suddenly got much better. This date corresponds to the Chinese lunar calendar as the beginning of what is known in Thailand as the Vegetarian Festival. For those who follow the local Chinese Buddhist teachings, this is a period of ritual and physical cleansing in reverence to Kwan Yin, the goddess of compassion, as well as other deities.
For the rest of us, it is a chance to find vegetarian food in greater abundance and variety than any other period of the year. Thailand is one of the great eating countries of the world with its wonderful fruits, fragrant rice, and bountiful choices of produce, meats, and seafood prepared with stirring, yet not heavy herbs and spices: lemon grass, galanga, kaffir lime leaves, basils, mints, coconut, curry, fiery little red peppers, tamarind, green peppercorns just picked from the vine, palm sugar, shallots, and toasted rice. The country now becomes a paradise for vegetarians and even vegans as the dictates of this festival prohibit use of any animal products as well as much beloved condiments like garlic, onions, and cilantro, somehow not much missed, perhaps, as there is so much else to choose from.
Whereas most of us who would call ourselves vegetarian in the English-speaking world have made a lifestyle choice to forgo eating meat, local Thai-Chinese and others who observe the festival, mostly just do so during this period. Bangkok's Chinatown, known as Yaowarat, is a delight to the nose and the palate any time of year. It can be challenging if not frustrating for a vegetarian gourmet most of the year, as there is little attention to having vegetarian options, and pork is found in many dishes whether as a meat, a seasoning, or as shortening. Now it is vegetarian festival central with 4 out of 5 vendors having replaced their usual dish, be it pork sate, noodles with fishballs, or Chinese crabcakes, with the vegetarian imitation equivalent.
Those of you who feel the primary reason for travel is the culinary experience may wish to spend much time in Yaowarat, Sampeng, or Talad Noi where dozens of vendors provide vegetarian dishes. If food is just a part of your experience, you will be pleased to note that this festival is celebrated in Thai-Chinese communities throughout the country.
I went to Aranya Pratet, a mid-sized town to the east of Bangkok, near the border of Cambodia. Although much smaller and much less of Chinese heritage, the community sports the bright yellow flags with red writing, that mean that this restaurant or vendor is serving vegetarian food for the festival. This flag system is wonderful for the vegetarian tourist who can look for the flags on the street, in the markets, or wherever food is being served and know that they are serving vegetarian. The word for this version of vegetarianism is most simple to learn as well, it is "J," pronounced like Mr. Leno's first name.
Centers of celebration and consequently clusters of vendors preparing vegetarian food, are the "rowng 'J." These are halls often associated with Chinese temples where celebrations are held. There are many "rowng 'J" in the more Chinese districts of Bangkok. Aranya Pratet has a "rowng 'J" with vendors of vegetarian noodles, Thai food, Vietnamese food, drinks, and desserts. When I came upon an area near the "rowng 'J" on Maitri Chit Street close to Hualamphong, the main train station of Bangkok, I felt my stomach was not large enough to taste even a third of the delicious vegetarian dishes available there. I found 30 to 40 vendors in this small area with a plethora of choices, and everything was vegetarian.
Talad Noi near the Harbor Department pier and Chareon Panit Street, and Yaowarat Street are two other centers of celebration for this festival. One can tour about almost anywhere in the city and find someone serving some vegetarian food during this festival. I estimate about 15 to 20 percent of the food vendors switch over during the festival. Many larger restaurants also offer vegetarian menus during this period. Attending a book fair at the convention center, I found a whole wing of the cafeteria had been converted. In the market area by Sirirat Hospital near my house, I had some faux duck noodles and could pick up a variety of Thai curries to take home with vege-meats or tofu rather than the usual chicken, pork, or seafood.
The Vegetarian Festival in Thailand has been a tourist attraction for sometime, but the energy has almost always focused on Phuket, the island city in the south that has the biggest celebration. Along with abundant vegetarian food, one can witness amazing acts, such as walking on fire, climbing ladders of swords, or participants who channel spirits into themselves and then while "possessed" commit acts of self-mutilation. Yet, they are returned to a normal uninjured state immediately after the spirit departs. It is a wondrous spectacle to say the least, but for those who are more interested in enjoying good vegetarian Thai food while seeing the historical, natural, and cultural sights of this country, this period is probably the ideal time to make such a journey.
Thailand is a great country to visit anytime of the year. There are vegetarian restaurants and restaurants serving vegetarian food in the larger cities and at many popular tourist destinations. Why not consider planning your trip to coincide with the Vegetarian Festival and enjoy a culinary celebration as you visit the temples, mountains, valleys, beaches, islands, and everything else this wonderful country has to offer?
The festival lasts ten days starting with the 1st new moon after the autumnal equinox, which can be between the end of September and mid-October. You could contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand for precise dates (www.tourismthailand.org). Citizens of most developed countries, such as USA, Canada, EU, Japan, and Australia, may stay 30 days without a visa.
There is competition to keep airfares low; a roundtrip economy class ticket from the US normally ranges between $500 to $1000 depending upon airline, date, availability, and departure city. Once there, lodging and other expenses are low; a five-star hotel room is around $100 a night; a nice guest-house room is around $10 a night; a tasty vegetarian meal during the festival on Yaowarat Rd. is $2 to $3 a person. Many visitors also enjoy Thai massage, facials, and other health spa treatments, as well as shopping for clothing, handicrafts, antiques, and gifts.