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Guide to Thailand's Vegetarian Festival

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This complicated and often misunderstood religious festival is celebrated during the ninth lunar month of the year, usually in October, for ten days. Though abstaining from meat and other animal products is not the most significant piece of the festival from a spiritual or historical point of view, perhaps because it's the easiest facet to understand and most obvious, it's the one thing outsiders focus on. Even within Thailand, many people refer to the festival as the "jae" festival, or vegetarian festival.

History and How the Jae Festival is Celebrated:

History

As it is celebrated today, the Jae Festival is a purely Thai creation and tradition. The festival is rooted in Chinese Taoist tradition, though there is no exact equivalent celebrated in China and there are traces of Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism evident, too. The event began in Phuket in 1825 when the economic engine of the island was still primarily tin mining and beach resorts were unheard of. Chinese miners, so the story goes, were being entertained by an opera troupe visiting from the mainland. When the performers all fell ill in Phuket Town they followed a strict vegetarian diet and were cured within days. Locals and miners were so impressed with their quick recovery that they adopted the practice and adapted it into a celebratory festival. A procession on the 7th day was added (though there are processions on nearly all the days in Phuket now), as was a tradition of pole raising at temples to invite gods Yok Ong Hong Tae and Kiew Ong Tai Tae to descend to the earth. Other Taoist gods, including Lam Tao and Pak Tao also figure into the various processions and ceremonies that occur during the vegetarian festival.

The festival does involve many Taoist traditions and it's no coincidence that the Taoist Nine Emperor Gods Festival is celebrated in other parts of Southeast Asia during the same period though the Thai festival is not the same.

Bangkok and other parts of the country

In most parts of Thailand, you will notice lots of little yellow flags adorning restaurants and street vendors' carts during the festival. These flags are a sign that the food being prepared is vegan and even vendors and restaurants that usually serve meat will often offer at least something that is "jae" friendly.

In addition to lots of vegan-friendly foods being available everywhere, Bangkok's Chinatown has ceremonies, performances and other events throughout the week, though nothing like what you'll see in Phuket.

Strict Vegetarianism

During the celebration, observants must refrain from eating not only meat but any animal product, including dairy and eggs. Similar to the Jain religion, onions, garlic, scallions, chives and other strong bulb vegetables are also prohibited.

Phuket

Phuket is still where the festival is celebrated most intensely. The procession that take place in Phuket are full of celebrants engaged in shocking acts of self mutilation, typically facial piercings with objects (skewers, knives, television antennae, etc.) still sticking out. If you watch the procession or other events surrounding it you may also witness people walking on hot coals, or performing other dangerous acts.

The Ten (or Six) Official Rules of the Thailand Vegetarian Festival

It's tough to pin down the exact rules adherents are meant to follow during the festival, as different people recite different ones, but here are the six most common:

1. Do not eat meat

2. Do not drink

3. Do not gamble

4. Do not engage in sexual activity

5. Wear white

6. Behave physically and mentally

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