Thailand has been my destination of choice for an R&R foodie holiday for years, and on multiple occasions I’ve landed in Bangkok to enjoy the national vegetarian festival (also known as nine emperor gods festival and the jay festival).
Phuket is reknown as the centre of this nationwide vegan food party, but the accompanying extreme facial piercings (swords, skewers, table candles) that come as part of the festival package have in past put me off hitting this popular island. This year however, is my inaugural year at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, and it’s pretty damned marvelous.
Nine Emperor Gods Folklore
While its origins are unknown, the tale of the festival is one of a 19th century Chinese operatic group who came down with an illness that was in those times considered fatal. In order to purify their bodies and minds, the performers adopted a vegetarian diet while praying to the Nine Emperor Gods. The singers recovered, miraculously, ushering in an annual ten day festival to celebrate their wellness and to thank the gods.
Each year the gods are invoked to return for the festival. So-called mediums (called ma song) perform acts of facial mutilation, climbing on knives, and walking over hot coals as part of the ritual invocation. These feats are believed to bring protection and bestow good fortune on participants, as well as to the community, by the gods.
An outsider’s perspective
While folklore and religious rites are captivating and engaging, I relish in watching the world around me in unfold as a story rather than as individual acts with implicit meaning. As the procession of merit makers and ma song pass by, I am reminded that each individual made a decision that day to put a blade through their cheek before committing to an entranced parade about town in fancy dress. Fascinating.
By 10 in the morning passersby and onlookers have already witnessed thumping bass tunes from gussied up automobiles and trucks full of people with drums, cymbals, and sometimes candy to give me. Entranced head-shaking ma song of course feature throughout this seeming potluck of a parade. Alongside them are groups of devoted supporters in white and caregivers to clean dripping saliva and blood.
Sometimes ma song will stop outside of homes to visit what look like makeshift street shrines featuring religious objects, egg cups of water, and bowls of candy. They crack their whip a few times (yes), bless the water, and give it back to the family. Then they pick up a handful of candy and give that back too.
One ma song approaches while foaming at the mouth (does vegetarianism cause rabies?) while my favourite breaks the whole damned pattern by keeping all the candy for himself.
Radio stations and local businesses like to drive their cars in the procession as well. Sometimes an unmarked vehicle shows up too, and I wonder if they ended up there by accident. Oops.
Chinese dragon puppets dart in and out of the crowds and god figures on raised platforms are toted down the street by volunteers who light them with firecrackers that get blown at everyone’s faces. Some locals tut.
Here’s a brief video, which features me running away at the end because I worried I would lose my face.
Ambulances also form a major part of the procession and sirens are audible throughout the day and night.
The second the last procession participant passes, the floodgates are opened and usual city traffic resumes while women dart between vehicles to sweep firework shrapnel to the curb. Motorbike and tuk tuk drivers are already asking where I want to go (“this way,” I tell them as they reel off a list of random destinations).
Other parades pop up around town, such as the evening procession of trucks kitted out with ribbons and displays of fruit and vegetable arrangements. See more in the video I took below.
Navigating the streets of Phuket, like any Thai city, is invigorating and you will find things that otherwise would go unnoticed. I walk (stumble) everywhere. During Kin Jay, however, pay attention to your surroundings, especially at night. Specifically be careful of five year olds lighting fireworks. The 14 year olds are much more brazen about their pyromania, so are easier to avoid, whereas preschoolers and toddlers are just throwing sparkling banging shit everywhere.
Fireworks happen 24 hours a day. Don’t bother setting an alarm.
My primary interest is, surprise surprise, the food. Those who participate in the festival are expected to abide by ten rules, two of which are to eat vegan food and to wear all white. I’m surrounded by thousands of people in brilliant bright white and they are all stain free.
HOW DO THEY EVEN DO THAT?
By the way, along with the eschewing of animal products sex, alcohol, periods, and dirty utensils are also on the proscribed list.
Strict jay food does not contain strong-smelling ingredients like garlic and onion, but there does seem to be some grey area (I have seen plenty of chive filled dumplings, for instance). The exclusion of these vegetables stems to some extend from Jain philosophy, but its purpose in the jay diet is that it’s also considered cleansing to avoid such foods.
Phuket vegetarian festival food snaps
There’s a cat in there somewhere.