Saturday, October 4, 2008

Phuket Vegetarian Festival aka Veggie Heaven (for real)

If I had to name my top five travel experiences, this would be right up there vying for number one.

The Festival
Apparently, back in 1825 the main town on Phuket Island was Kathu. It was a tin mining town with a large number of Chinese miners. One day, a traveling opera company arrived in town to perform for the miners. The opera performers kept to a vegetarian diet to honour two of the emperor gods. Whilst visiting Kathu, the entire opera troupe became sick with an unknown illness running a muck in the area at the time. The troupe got over the illness very quickly and the towns folk were amazed by this, wanting to know how they'd recovered so quickly. The troupe insisted it was due to their ritual vegetarianism and accompanying ceremonies. Viola! The towns people embraced the faith and this is how the Phuket Vegetarian Festival began (known as Jia Chai in Chinese). The festival starts on the first day of the ninth lunar month and ends on the ninth. The aim is to bring good fortune to all.

There are loads of interesting ceremonies and rituals that take place within the nine days. Ma Song (devotees whom the gods enter) are said to manifest supernatural powers and perform self-tortures in order to shift evil from individuals onto themselves. Ma Song are either specially chosen by the gods for their morality or have had an experience of impending doom. Each of the Chinese shrines has a street procession, most end up, or walk through, Phuket Town. Other activities to be seen include bladed ladder climbing, bathing in hot oil, and fire walking (more on this later). Oh! and there are always lots of fireworks. Apparently the louder they are, the better it is as they scare off evil spirits (believe me, they are loud). All participants stick to a set of rules including a strict vegetarian diet and wearing white clothing.

The Tourist Authority of Thailand print a booklet with all you need to know and The Phuket Vegetarian Festival have a website.

The Food
Usually, both Chinese and Thai cuisine can be some what of a minefield for us pinkies. A lot of the time it's very difficult to know what to order as a lot of the local food stalls don't have English menus. It's tough to tell what level of spice the dish will have (intimidating). They often use quite strong fishy flavours that even I, the fish lover, have difficulty stomaching. And they use ALL of the animal they've killed in the process (which in theory I think is great but haven't come to terms with yet).

Being apart of this festival is truly like I've died and gone to heaven.As you walk the street through a sea of smiling faces and white clothing, bright balloon men and colourful dragons poke at the horizon. Chinese lanterns light the way, with yellow and red all around. Row upon row of glorious vegetarian stalls line the streets. Every dish is unique and tasty, often imitating a meaty counterpart with ease. If you've been wondering where I'd got to with feedback regarding the festival, wonder no more. I have been totally and utterly drowning myself in the delights of soya products like you've never seen. We've spent so much time in 'the food zone' (Phuket/Ranong Rd area, can't miss it) that we're treated like locals. We've been returning day after day for lunch and dinner (and sometimes even second lunch!). The coolest thing is that we've tried something completely new each time. I'm not entirely sure what half of the food has been that we've been eating, but it sure is nice to dig in knowing that it's completely and utterly meat free. And so damn tasty. All we need to check for is spiciness (which can be done with a combination of charade like actions).

This is by far one of the best festivals I've been too. If you are a vegetarian or enjoy vegetarian food, you must put this on your list of things to do. I've been quite surprised by the lack of tourists at this event.