The annual Vegetarian Festival in Thailand (known as the Gin Jay Festival) is now in full swing. It started with the raising of a pole at Chinese temples around the country which signaled the nine gods to come down to earth. In Samut Prakan, the festival will run for ten days from 29th September to 8th October 2009. In other parts of the country it will run for nine days and nights. The dates are different each year as they are set by the phases of the moon. Most of the attention is on the events happening in Phuket, but really you will find that Chinese communities all around Thailand will be celebrating the Vegetarian Festival at this time. The main venue in Samut Prakan city is at Rongjae Thongsiang near Taiban Circle. That is where I went last night. But first, I went to eat at Taiban Circle where there were dozens of food stalls selling vegetarian food. These roadside vendors are easy to spot as they fly yellow flags with the Thai words “jay” written in red letters. Most of my favourite stalls had gone vegetarian with special versions of pad thai and red curry. I had a dish that looked very much like minced pork fried with basil and chili but the vendor assured me it was 100% “jay”.
Every evening for the ten day festival there is a special ceremony at Rongjae starting at 7 p.m. when I turned up there were about 150 people already sitting down and chanting in a large hall. At the front were about five monks leading the ceremony. I was actually expecting more people because out on the street that there were literally hundreds of people either eating the vegetarian food or waiting for take-away. I was a bit nervous about going in as I don’t normally visit Chinese shrines. At the doorway, two lay people motioned that I should put on a white cloak which was the kind of thing that doctors wore. I hadn’t come wearing white as I didn’t think it would be so strict for observers. Luckily, I was also wearing my white jacket and so I asked if it was alright if I just zipped that up. As I was also wearing grey coloured trousers, they said it would be alright. I didn’t take pictures at first but just sat and observed the proceedings. It wasn’t long before someone came up to offer me some warm and sweet tasting tea. They asked if I had eaten already. Then a bit later someone else came over to chat. Everyone was so welcoming and warm. They kept asking if I had eaten yet. They were obviously pleased to hear that I was eating vegetarian for the full ten days of the festival.
Although I didn’t fully understand everything that was going on, it was similar in many ways to Buddhist ceremonies that I have attended in the past. After the chanting, everyone took part in “wien tien” a procession around the main shrine. The yellow and white sheets that everyone was holding during the chanting and procession were then collected up and taken outside to be burned. Next, one of the monks walked around the hall blessing everyone with sacred water. Then came “kruat nam” where the people poured water from one container to the next to pass the merit onto dead ancestors. The ceremony concluded about one hour after it started with some more chanting. As people started to leave, one of the lay people reminded everyone that there would be another “wien tien” the following day. I was about to go myself when one of the organizers came up to me. He turned out to be the main supplier for uniforms at my school. He proved to be very useful as he filled me in with the details of all the events that will be happening. The next big event will be on Friday with “Loy Krathong Jay” at the city hall. I know that sounds strange to have Loy Krathong in October, but I will tell you more about that later.
I am now on day four of the Vegetarian Festival. It hasn’t actually been that difficult keeping to the strict diet. I have never done a vegan diet before. I think I was going through withdrawal symptoms the first few days as I had headaches and fatigue. I am not sure if that was to do with not eating meat or the fact that I had stopped drinking coffee as well. But, I feel a lot better now. I am confident I can keep going until the end. A number of my Thai colleagues at school have already finished as they had only planned to do three days. But, I want to do this properly. The meals in the evenings have been very easy. There are vegetarian shops all around Paknam. The best places though are at Racha Market and Taiban Circle. There is such a variety of food on offer and really good stuff. The only thing I have to do is make sure that I don’t eat too many fried dishes as I am sure that is not healthy. The teachers at school keep saying that they always put on weight during the vegetarian festival but I have been losing it so far. If you are interested in taking part yourself either this year or the next, then here are the ten rules:
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