In the magical land of Thailand, where every little girl has a pony and rainbows are a form of currency, a vegetarian festival exists for nine days of every year. Contrary to what tourist websites and boards will tell you, this isn't just local to Phuket, but is celebrated across the country. Street vendors swap out meat for vegetarian options, festival foodie events abound, and vegetarians can quite reliably eat anything so long as there's a yellow flag attached.
It's nine days of bliss, I tell you. Food coma vegan bliss. Unfortunately I was only in-country for three or 4 days of the festival, so had to eat twice as many meals to make up for lost time.
I ate a lot of great things in those four days, but I've got to share one of the most amazing experiences in my mental catalogue of cool shiitake: the vegetarian festival tent at Chatukchak weekend market in Bangkok.
The Chutuchak Market Vegetarian Tent
I had just returned to Bangkok a day or two prior to meet a friend and then fly home. A bit sad (home? already?), tired, and meh (constant rain), I force myself to get up early and head to the weekend market (one of the largest in the world). I figure I'll find some cool kitchen implements and snap some interesting photos at the very least. Around 11am I'm pretty much going to die from starvation and thirst, so I find a booth with the festival yellow flags and grab a bowl of water chestnuts in coconut milk.
Dodging puddles and ambling around the food, tie dye tee, and pottery stalls, I spot a tent surrounded by yellow flags. Still a bit peckish, I figure I'll take a peek and grab a few [tonnes of] further snacks. I finish my rubies fast for fear of rain drops diluting the coconut milk and stripping it of its richness and flavour.
Under cover of the tent everyone smiles big gracious smiles at me, the only tourist around. Heaving, people are everywhere, back to back, I'm overwhelmed and move to the side. This isn't within my comfort zone but the atmosphere is surely a sign the food is good?!
I'm standing by a long table and a group of older people start talking to me while a photographer snaps some pictures. Everyone is thrilled, and I somehow feel like I'm the guest of honour at a party I don't really understand. They encourage me to eat, ask questions about where I'm from, smile, smile, smile, take more pictures of us together like we're old friends. There are styrofoam bowls full of food everywhere. Hundreds.
Eventually I move away, curious to see all that's on offer and make some choices. Noodles, buns, and deep fried tofu call to me from one corner; soups and deserts from the adjacent tables, more of everything and then some from the other end. Popcorn, rice, curry, beans.
I'm already overwhelmed by all of the options but decide to suss out the Pad Thai, to start with something I know, but I can't for the life of me figure out how this system works! What's the custom, how do I pay, how are these people like perfectly balanced ballerinas with 4 bowls of soup, a stack of noodle trays, and 19 bags of popcorn stacked in their arms?
Then a woman offers a tray of Pad Thai. Smiling, she says “take it.” I smile back, a little unsure, and she reads my confusion. “free,” she says, “it's all free.”
My eyes begin to water. I'm overwhelmed and can't answer, so she places the tray in my hands. The photographer is still taking pictures of me and everyone is still smiling. For those seconds it's as if time has stopped, one of those moments where the present hits hard and I realise how incredibly lucky I am.
Suddenly I see the vegetarian tent in a whole new light. Outside a woman is filling a wagon with bowlfuls of food, to the other side is a huge offering table, and everyone appears to be so grateful for it all.
I spend the next hour sampling what my stomach can take, the photographer still snapping pictures of me with most vendors I visit, the vendors eager for me to try this and that. Some young men educate me about ingredients, telling me which dishes to choose (“that's my favourite, but you should try them all anyway”). People clear seats for me to sit while others bring me water. A man sitting next to me says “It's the culmination of the festival and this is the only day where it's like this.” An official stops beside my chair and chats to me about England while someone else brings me more water.
Complete strangers are enjoying both something nice being done for them and doing something nice for someone else. I'm so emotional over the experience that I feel like I'm in a dream and I can hardly fight back tears.
I don't want to leave because I feel naively safe and protected here, but I'm going to be sick if I take another bite so I wander away to dispose of the remaining piles of food.