Every year, in the ninth month on the lunar calendar, tourists from all over the world visiting Thailand find rows of posters and colourful flags hung along food stalls and in front of restaurants. This image is an invitation for tourists to join Thailand’s traditional vegetarian festival. Locals are happy to explain the origin, features and meaning of this festival which attracts so many participants. Thai people value this traditional event and are eager to maintain the festival and introduce its delights to travellers from around the world.
The vegetarian festival is a celebration that, by some accounts, began on an island south of Phuket about 180 years ago and from there spread to other provinces in Thailand. You may be surprised to learn that the vegetarian festival originated not among the Thai, but from the Chinese community. In the beginning of the 19th century, Chinese labourers working in tin mines, which were at that time the main industry on this small island, began the vegetarian festival. According to local historians, a mysterious disease afflicted many Chinese miners in 1825. Community leaders meeting to discuss the cause of the disease realized that they had forgotten their traditional rites. Immediately, the leaders declared a period of full vegetarian diet for the miners as repentance. After 9 days, the disease disappeared just as mysteriously as it had come.
In hopes of improving their lives and averting further epidemics, the leaders made the decision to have a vegetarian period every year. During this event, people present offerings to the gods and follow all the regulations, taking a strict vegetarian diet and abstaining from sex and alcohol.
Another legend says that this vegetarian festival started among Buddhists in Southern China centuries ago. The legend recounts that the festival was born at a time when local people were suffering greatly from floods, fires and hunger. The Bodhisattva appeared and saved their lives, so local people today in Thailand hold the vegetarian festival as an expression of thankfulness to the Bodhisattva. For a period of 10 days, people do not eat eggs, pork or onions.
Today, the vegetarian festival is held in most provinces of Thailand. During the festival, tourists can see the character “齋” printed in red on yellow flags everywhere, which means vegetarian. Food stalls along the streets only sell vegetarian fare and restaurants change their ingredients to make meat-free dishes.
In Phuket, the vegetarian festival is marked by celebrations in Chinese temples, pagodas, shrines and even in big restaurants. Participants believe that the vegetarian festival and other sacred festivals will bring them luck. People eat a vegetarian diet to cleanse their minds and pray for happiness and good fortune.
In Bangkok, vegetarian festival celebrations are most common around Yaowarat Road, the city’s Chinatown. The festival is held from September 1st on the lunar calendar, with the same rites as in Phuket. Over a 10 day period, people prepare offerings for the gods and pray for happiness and safety, as well as for the peace of ancestors’ souls. In some areas, local people invite monks to read I Ching for good luck. Street processions are also held, during which people give offerings to the poor or release turtles for longevity.
In Phuket, local people hold entertainment activities such as lion or dragon dancing. There is also a macabre circus-style performance called “Living Ghost” where performers appear to use pointed objects to punch through their own flesh without being injured; all for the sake of entertainment!
The vegetarian festival is not restricted to Chinese people; both Thai people and international tourists are free to take part in it. Many tourists plan their trip to Thailand around this occasion. Before the festival, people prepare vegetarian foods. Most of these vegetarian foods are made from vitamin enriched tofu. There are many delicious vegetarian dishes popular with Thai people which are based on the traditional local dishes. Chilli shrimp soup becomes chilli vegetarian soup, and chicken curry is replaced with tofu curry.
The vegetarian festival is a special occasion for tourists to visit Thailand, although this festival is during the rainy season. It is a chance for chefs at food stalls and restaurants to demonstrate their cooking ability. The festival provides both entertainment and cultural education about Thailand’s many fascinating communities.