BANGKOK – The beginning of the ninth lunar month on Chinese calendar marks the start of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, a Taoist celebration observed in countries in Southeast Asia. The festival can be seen in Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia’s Riau Islands. But this nine day celebration is the biggest in Thailand where it is called the Vegetarian Festival.
During the festival, streets in Chinatown are decorated with yellow flags and yellow lanterns with participants dressing in white and refraining from consuming all animal products. The bustling street of Yaowarat is busy with food vendors selling all kinds of vegetable products. Chinese temples are filled with people chanting and praying. Yaowarat, the main road of Bangkok’s Chinatown, is the prime spot for this celebration in Bangkok.
However, in Phuket, the celebration takes the festival to a whole new level. The Vegetarian Festival on this resort island features many unusual religious rituals performed by many strong believers of Chinese Gods. These devotees pierce themselves through cheeks with large knives or needles, slash their tongue to make it bleed, climb up a ladder made with blades, or walk on fire to start off the festival.
The Vegetarian Festival this year is very special as the festival will be held twice as 2014 is a leap year, which means that it has 13 lunar months. The ninth lunar month happens to be repeated this year. The first celebration runs from September 24 to October 2. The second one will run from October 24 to November 2. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the blood filled celebration in Phuket is only celebrated once during the first round of the festival.
This is the time of the year where people become seasonal vegetarians. They stop eating meat of all kinds and consume only vegetables and products made of vegetables during the festival. The purposes of being vegetarian are to make merits to the animals, avoid contributing to bad karma, and to make healthier lifestyle choices. This vegetable frenzy usually brings with it a price hike of vegetables, fruits and vegetarian foods in general.
Similar to Christmas and Thanksgiving, the festival has become so commercialised that it seems to defeat the purpose of being vegetarians. Some people are doing it just so that they will not miss out on the opportunity to be ‘cool.’ Many become a vegetarian only because most people around them are doing it. Food companies, restaurants and street vendors roll out products labeled as ‘Je’ or vegetarian to attract customers.
People take the idea of not consuming meat to the next level. Food products are designed to emulate all kinds of meat from pork and chicken to shrimp and squid. Vegetarian products are now made to look like real meat and taste like the real meat. These products make it easier to be a vegetarian but raise questions in the point of being one. Products that are suitable for vegetarians have proven to gain more sale during the festival. So many products on the supermarket shelves now start to label themselves as suitable for vegetarians with yellow flag with red Chinese letter.
The photo on the left shows a vegetarian dish called ‘pork’ noodles sold in Chinatown during the festival. The ‘pork’ is made from beans but emulate the look and texture of the meat. Although eating vegetables has been made easier with artificial meat, the harder part for many is abstaining from alcohol. The observers of the Vegetarian Festival have to avoid drinking all kind of alcoholic beverages.
The observers of the Vegetarian Festival have to avoid doing the following: (1) consuming every kind of meat and every product of animals including eggs and milk, (2) consuming vegetables of strong scent such as garlic, every kind of onions, (3) consuming spicy food or any food that has strong taste, (4) eating food that is not cooked by vegetarians, (5) eating food from dishes that has non-vegetarian food in them, (6) killing animals or people, (7) using vulgar languages and lying, (8) drinking alcohol and using drugs, (9) smoking and (10) having extramarital affairs.
The observers should also do the following: (1) eat vegetarian food, (2) be patient and calm, (3) make merit, (4) wear white clothing and (5) follow five Buddhism’s precepts, which are to abstain from killing, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, false speech, and fermented drinks and that causes drunkenness. It is a period of purity, with the concept of purifying or cleansing after a year of sinning similar to Loy Krathong and Navarati.