If you missed out on Thailand’s annual vegetarian festival this year, don’t worry because you have another chance to catch it at the end of this month. Vegetarians in Thailand have an extra reason to celebrate this year, as 2014 is scheduled for a double dose of the yearly vegetarian food feast.
If you’re in Thailand this year, consider yourself extremely lucky—the double festival only occurs once every 180 years. Much like sighting a rare comet, it’s something you’ll only experience once in your lifetime.
The reason for the double festival is due to the difference between the traditional Chinese lunar calendar and the solar calendar. Since 12 lunar months of 29-30 days each add up to slightly less than a full 365 day year, the lunar calendar has to add a 13th month every so often to keep the months lined up with the seasons. The extra month will be one of the regular months repeated, and any yearly events slated for that month are also repeated. It would be like the western calendar not adding a 29th day to February every four years, and instead making a leap year once every 112 years that added a second month of February—complete with a double shot at Valentine’s Day.
The festival is known in Thai as เทศกาลกินเจ tet-sa-gan gin je, which means “eating vegetarian food festival,” but this would be a little like calling Christmas “Gift Opening Day” or Halloween “Costume and Candy Fest”—it describes the main activity but doesn’t indicate the reason for the celebration. The festival is actually of Taoist origins and honors the Nine Emperor Gods, who are the personification of the seven stars in the Big Dipper plus two additional “invisible” stars.
The festival began in China, but is now celebrated more in Southeast Asian countries with large populations of Chinese immigrants such as Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. In Thailand, there are festivities all over the country, but the most famous place to experience the festival is in Phuket. There you’ll find festival participants who become possessed by the gods and enter a trance-like state, under which they’ll have their skin pierced with all manner of bizarre items including everything from swords and guns to bicycle frames.
In most parts of Thailand, however, the nine days of the festival are seen as a way to earn merit as a Buddhist activity of refraining from eating meat. Popular participation of the festival has grown greatly over the past decade, with signs of it visible everywhere.
Chain stores such as 7-Eleven and Tesco Lotus feature many vegetarian products during the month of the festival. If you’re a vegetarian living in Thailand this is a great time to stock up on vegetarian versions of instant ramen noodles and other specialty foods that are more difficult to find the rest of the year. Lots of restaurant chains also come out with special vegetarian menu items to coincide with the festival.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan traveler, this is a great time to visit Thailand. Usually it’s not difficult to get vegetarian food made for you by special request even if it’s not on the menu, but during the vegetarian festival it is just so easy to find a wide variety of veggie food available that you’ll feel like you’re in a vegetarian heaven. Just look for the Thai word “เจ” (je) in red letters on a yellow background, which are the standard colors used to represent the style of Chinese Buddhist vegetarian cooking found in Thailand.
So if you missed the festival the first time around, this year’s second vegetarian festival will take place between October 24–November 1. Be on the lookout for yellow flags at shopping centers, supermarkets, restaurants, and temporary roadside eateries to announce healthy and delicious vegetarian food.