It was the moment (or rather the period) that I'd been waiting for ever since we moved to Thailand at the beginning of this year! The acclaimed Tesagan Gin Jay, or Vegetarian Festival, an annual event that is celebrated for 10 days all over Thailand, particularly among the Thai-Chinese community. Gin (or kin, as it's pronounced) means "to eat" in Thai, and jay (or je) refers to food that's void of any meat, poultry, seafood or dairy. The festival begins every year on the eve of the 9th lunar month of the Chinese calendar and is observed in several countries in Southeast Asia. This year it was celebrated here on October 14-23, and let me tell you, it was absolute paradise for a vegetarian (and Thai food lover) such as myself!
The Thai-Chinese community, many of whom are third or fourth generation who grew up in Thailand but practice Chinese customs, believes that nine emperor gods came down from heaven to inspect the Earth and note down people's good and bad deeds. The festival pays homage to these gods, and devotees symbolically dress in white and carry incense and candles to welcome the deities. Another legend says that the festival began 150 years ago in Phuket, where a wandering Chinese opera troupe caught malaria while visiting the island. Supposedly thanks to sticking to a strict vegetarian diet and performing rituals for two of the emperor gods, they got well, leading the locals to believe that they too should follow such a diet (as well as refrain from alcohol, cigarettes, sex and other vices) once a year. It's thus no wonder that the Phuket Vegetarian Festival is Thailand's largest and also the most gruesome, as many devotees practice flagellation and self-mutilation in order to get rid of evil spirits. Bangkok's version is much tamer and is concentrated in Chinatown (Yaowarat), where we headed on the first day of the festival to check out the scene.
Yellow flags (which during the festival announce that the vendor/stall/restaurant is serving jay or vegetarian-friendly food) were aflutter everywhere, people dressed in white (the color of purity worn throughout the festival) packed the streets and there was a big procession around the Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Bangkok's biggest Chinese-Buddhist temple.
After taking in all the sights and sounds, we got down to the true business of the day...eating! There was stand after stand offering the most interesting range of vegetarian food that I think I've ever seen outside of India. Endless piles of noodles, curries and stews with all manner of fake meat products (fake meat is a big thing during the festival...some people are not big fans of it but I generally like it), som tam (green papaya salad) and other salads with mushroom sauce substituting for the traditional fish sauce, fake fish and pork balls, fritters, desserts made with sesame and ginger...all seemingly as far as the eye could see and all 100% vegetarian!
Deciding what to eat was admittedly quite difficult! We started with some fresh sugar cane juice.
Then we sampled several delicious dishes, including pad phrik khing (a type of dry red curry with green beans and in this case soya chunks), tangy stir-fried noodles tossed with vegetables and slices of fake sausage, yellow Chinese noodles with lots of meaty shitake mushrooms and corn fritters. Everything was delicious, particularly topped with chopped up Thai chilies in mushroom sauce (instead of the typical fish sauce).
Dessert was fresh coconut ice cream topped with roasted peanuts. I swear, it was like eating pure coconut, frozen and sweetened. Bliss!
Yaowarat during the Vegetarian Festival is also a great place to stock up on all manner of vegetarian products, including mushroom sauce and other vegetarian seasonings, soy crumbles and chunks, vegetarian curry pastes, soy milk and vegetarian instant noodles.
Beyond Yaowarat, the best place to experience the festival in Bangkok is also where the best Thai food can be found...on the street! I was thrilled to see the yellow flags at virtually all of my favorite street food stalls, and Sukhumvit Soi 38 near our house was quite positively blazing with yellow. The meal we enjoyed there on the second night of the festival (a deliciously spicy vegetarian tom yum) was so good and spicy that I didn't even pause to take a picture. Except for this one!
Almost all of the city's restaurants offer special vegetarian dishes during the festival as well. Check out the awesome penang curry with vegetarian "chicken" and grilled mushrooms with lemongrass sauce that we enjoyed at Bangkok Bar Infinity, a cool new rooftop spot that opened up a few months ago right next to our place (bonus, their happy hour goes until 9pm!). On the right side, some baked taro rice (taro is a root vegetable not unlike sweet potato which is commonly used in Thai desserts...in this dish, it substituted for pork balls) and a summer roll stuffed with tofu, sprouts and mushrooms from the Cheesecake House, a dessert chain that does surprisingly decent Thai.
Bangkok's glitzy shopping malls are also always a great place to enjoy a great, cheap Thai meal. Most of them have a vegetarian stand (my favorites are the ones at Terminal 21 and Central World), but during the Gin Jay Festival the options multiply tenfold. Check out the delicious stir-fried morning glory and pad phrik khing that I had for lunch one day at the Gateway Ekamai mall next to my work (top photo below) and the incredible green curry and tofu larb that I had at Central World.
Even the ubiquitous 7-11's and other convenience stores that dot the city (yes, there's literally a 7-11 on every block!) get into the spirit, selling readymade and frozen jay meals as well as tasty snacks. I'm generally wary of overly processed food or anything that comes out of a box, but I decided to try one of the frozen jay meals, stir fried basil vegetarian "meat" with red rice. It was ridiculously delicious! I can't imagine how anything from a 7-11 could actually taste so good, but it certainly can during the Vegetarian Festival in Thailand. I couldn't help but to stock up on a few of these meals for those tired nights when we're not up for cooking.
I also stocked up at the supermarkets, which were also offering all manner of vegetarian products that are difficult if not impossible to find during other times of the year.
Now sadly, the Gin Jay Festival is all over for this year and the yellow flags are coming down as Bangkok goes back to its carnivorous ways. My only complaint with this fabulous tradition is the fact that 10 days is too short of a time! I didn't feel as though the festival purified me in any way considering that I'm vegetarian anyway, in fact I probably put on some weight after all this delicious food (I did absolutely no cooking during the entire festival!). But it was well worth it, and sharing in this beautiful tradition and the spirit of community that accompanies it will have me counting down the days until next year's festival!