Tesagaan Gin Jae - เทศกาลกินเจ
Every once in a while, we are fortunate to witness the profound spiritual transformations that define certain cultures and their traditions. One such soul-cleansing event is the Thai Vegetarian Festival; a time when believers embark on a journey, not just of taste, but also of deep personal purification.
Thailand is known for its many festivals and in October this year, it is the Taoist vegetarian festival known as Tesakan Gin Jae or Jae Festival. Whilst much of the celebrations will take place in Bangkok and Phuket, where they celebrate this festival with great gusto, Hua Hin and its surrounds also partake in the festivities, which begin on the 15th day of the waning of the 9th month of the Thai lunar calendar – phew!
In short, in 2023, the festival takes place from 14 to 23 October.
Depending where you participate in the festival, you may be lucky enough to witness the Maa Song parades.
The festival is reported to have started in the mid-1800s when a Chinese opera troupe was performing in Phuket for Chinese miners. Many of the troupe caught a serious illness and felt that they had failed to show sufficient respect to the 9 Emperor Gods in Taoist belief. These gods embody the 9 stars of the constellation knows as The Big Dipper. To appease the gods, they refrained from unclean activities and ate a strict vegetarian diet for 9 days as a way of cleansing themselves; hence why this festival is known for purity and cleansing.
According to the legend, after being initially invited to earth by the raising of a bamboo pole, the 9 Emperor Gods then descend to Earth each day during the festival; participating in a Jae diet and beliefs is a way to celebrate such visits.
People participate in the Jae Festival for various reasons; the most popular being to honour the Nine Emperor Gods, who embody the nine stars in our constellation. According to the story, nine gods descend to Earth every day during this period and participating in the Jae diet is the way to celebrate their visit.
Many Thais of Chinese heritage also take this opportunity to honour Guan Yin - Chinese Goddess of Mercy & Compassion. They do this by refraining eating living things. Some people choose to get involved not for religious reasons, but rather as a chance to cleanse the body and detox from the meat-heavy Thai and Chinese cuisine.
Temples & Shrines
More prominent amongst Thailand’s Chinese minority, this nationwide festival is also observed by millions of Thais sharing little or no Chinese background.
Thai people of Chinese decent will be at Chinese temples and shrines all over the Kingdom, burning candles and hanging lanterns. To awaken the spirits, loud drums are banged and to welcome the 9 Emperor Gods, fireworks are let off. In some areas, the fireworks can be absolutely overwhelming. Spiritual and physical cleansing, along with creating inner peace by merit-making, are the beliefs behind this festival.
Yellow & White
Around Thailand at this time, you will have no difficulty in recognising eateries or vendors offering Jae dishes or cuisine by their yellow flags with red writing. This will be most prominent in areas like Bangkok's Chinatown and its surrounds, as well as Phuket, but there are many other areas which also begin selling Jae food during the festival.
Most participants in the Jae Festival choose to wear white, signifying purity. They are also actively mindful of their thoughts and actions. It is about purity of both mind and body.
How To Order
To order a strict vegetarian meal, you would indicate Gin Jae; for food without any meat you can say Mâi Sài Néua-Sàt.
To indicate you are vegetarian, say Phŏm (male) or Chăn (female) Mang-Sà-Wí-Rát. This is always good to have rehearsed, so you can repeat this to the vendor or waiter.
Here is an example of how to order a particular dish, Pàd Thai, vegetarian style:
Ao Pàd Thai Mang-Sà-Wí-Rát • “I’ll take a vegetarian Pad Thai”
The other tip for travellers is to have vegetarian or without meat written in Thai script. Simply copy and paste the Thai script from below.
Vegetarian • Mang-Sà-Wí-Rát มังสวิรัติ
Without Meat • Mâi Sài Nʉ́ʉa-Sàt ไม่ใส่เนื้อสัตว์
It is totally acceptable to show this, as any cook just wants to please and deliver you a great dish.
If you don’t want fish sauce - Mâi Ao Naam Bplaa ไม่เอานำ้ปลา is what you say.
If you don't want oyster sauce - Mai Ao Naam Man Hoi ไม่เอาน้ำมันหอย.
Hailed as the cradle from which Thailand's revered Jae Festival emerged, Phuket doesn't merely celebrate - it immerses * transcends. Here, the passion of the devotees illuminates every corner; their fervour reaching dizzying heights in their quest for purification during the many trance-like Ma Song parades.
“Phuket people have been celebrating the vegetarian festival for more than 150 years and it is good that we can maintain our tradition. Local people here, especially those of Chinese ancestry, strictly adhere to a ‘Jae’ diet and observe the precepts for the purposes of spiritual cleansing and merit-making. So this really helps boost morale"
Places To Go - Phuket
Here are some of the places to go to:
Bang Neow Shrine - is one of the main shrines taking part in the Jae Festival
Jui Tui Shrine - a little bit away from the streets of the old town, it plays a significant role in the activities during the festival.
Tha Rua Shrine - is one of the oldest Chinese shrines in Phuket and is an important site during the festival.
Lim Hu Tai Su Shrine - aka Sam Kong Shrine, it has become a key part of the festival.
Lai Thu Tao Bo Keng - aka Kathu Shrine, is one of the oldest Chinese shrines in Phuket and believed to be the birthplace of the Jae festival.
In Bangkok, the festival is celebrated mostly in the Yaowarat district (Chinatown). Preparations often start up to a week in advance, with yellow flags and banners prominently placed all around the area. Religious rituals and activities revolve around the Kwang Tung Shrine, aka Canton Shrine, which is located just opposite the Wat Mangkorn MRT station.
You'll find more than 100 vendors along Yaowarat Road and the surrounding areas selling Jae dishes.
Places To Go - Bangkok
Some of the more popular temples to visit during this festival are the following:
Wat Mangkon Kamalawat (Wat Leng Noei Yi) - they hold special prayer sessions during this time.
Wat Bamphen Chin Phrot (Teochew Yong Hok Yi) - this will be beautifully decorated in yellow lanterns.
Tai Hong Kong Shrine - people gather here to make merit by buying coffins and muslins for the deceased without families.
Chao Zhou Shi Kong Shrine (Sun Leng Yi Temple) - here you'll find Chinese opera as well as some of the most delectable Jae food in Bangkok.
Che Chin Khor Temple & Pagoda - they are well known for their free Jae food for all.
The Essence of Jae
Jae vs Vegan vs Vegetarian - While Jae, Vegan and Vegetarian paths converge at the principle of meat abstinence, the forks in their roads are intriguing. Vegetarians might find solace in dairy's embrace, relishing the likes of milk, eggs and cheese. Vegans, on the other hand, tread a path of complete detachment from all animal derivatives. Jae, however, is a spiritual journey intertwined with the threads of Chinese medicinal beliefs, steering clear not only from meats but also from specific herbs and spices, as well as some pungent vegetables; this all echo centuries of ancestral wisdom.
The Jae diet ventures beyond, delving into a realm where even select herbs and spices are viewed with caution. Categorised into five distinct groups, the Chinese wisdom attributes these ingredients to potential health ailments. For instance, the allure of garlic might be tempting, but ancient beliefs link it to heart concerns. The ever-crunchy onions? They're said to challenge the kidneys. And chives, with their delicate aroma, supposedly don't bode well for the liver.
Maa Song - ม้าทรง
Not practiced in China and believed to have been inspired by the Indian festival of Thaipusam, the acts of self-mutilation which occur during the Jae Festival, particularly in Phuket, are a sight to behold.
The term Maa Song ม้าทรง paints a vivid picture of this spiritual journey. Drawing from the Thai lexicon, Maa ม้า means horse and Song ทรง means seance or medium; this encapsulates the essence of these individuals being inhabited, or 'ridden' by the gods, much like a horse serves its rider. An intriguing aspect of this tradition is its exclusivity; only men who are pure and unmarried, or women without their own families are chosen as Maa Song. Upon entering the temple, they immerse themselves in protective rituals, preparing their minds and bodies for the festival's intense acts of self-sacrifice.
The Horses of the Gods
Often referred to as 'The Horses of the Gods', the revered Maa Song, are the chosen individuals who invite the spirits of the gods to possess their bodies. They partake in the intense rituals of piercings and sacred self-flagellation. Deeply rooted in faith, these individuals are believed to transform into divine vessels for the spirit gods. As legend has it, these gods pierce the cheeks of the Maa Song using pointed instruments. But why? To absorb the world's negative energies and, in a benevolent act, to liberate others from the chains of bad karma, ailments, or heartaches.
Watching the Maa Song in action is a sight to behold, though not for the faint-hearted. These brave hearts march in processions, bearing the weight of ever-larger piercings through their mouths and even slashing their tongues. Some also courageously tread over fiery coals. All this spiritual zeal is done while also embracing the sanctity of the strict vegetarian diet and the purity of mind. This mesmerising dance of faith unfolds in the backdrop of the city's numerous Taoist shrines, each echoing tales of devotion and transformation. These individuals are often ensconced by a protective circle of loved ones, shielding them from the overwhelming crowds. The extent of their devotion knows no bounds. From household items like furniture and appliances, to even the most unexpected items like bicycle parts, car exhausts and kitchen sinks; the bottom line is, if it's not anchored down, it might just find its way, in an act of deep faith, through a Maa Song's cheek.
Each year, Phuket bears witness to this spiritual marvel; a testament to Thailand's rich tapestry of traditions.
Basic Festival Principles
Fantastic Jae food is not the only thing to be mindful of when attending the events held all over the Kingdom, though the food is truly amazing. You've honestly never seen so many vegetarian dishes, many of which are reproductions of traditionally meat-based dishes. It is honestly difficult at times to believe the dish contains no animal protein.
Listed below are guidelines and do not necessarily apply to those simply attending the festival, though wearing white is a good way to at least feel part of the festivities. Those actually participating in the activities take these tenets to heart.
Wear white during the entire festival
The consumption of animal products is strictly prohibited
Keep your body clean - a no brainer!
Lying, cheating & stealing are also out
Alcohol consumption is not permitted
Refrain from sex during the festival - I know!
Those in mourning should not attend the festival
Pregnant women, or those menstruating are not to participate in the festival
Do not eat food with a strong smell (onions & garlic etc)
Wash and store cooking utensils separately from those used in the festival
In profound acts of selflessness and devotion, worshippers embark on a transformative journey, embracing all of the above principles to purify both body and soul. As they move in a harmonious procession, these selfless souls willingly endure intense personal sacrifices, drawing upon themselves the weight of others' misfortunes. In this poignant dance of faith and pain, they aim to absorb the community's darkness and, in its place, shower blessings and renewed hope upon every soul around them.
Thailand's Tesakan Gin Jae is a festival to be embraced by travellers and locals alike. Whether it be the intensity of Phuket's Maa Song devotees, Bangkok's proud Yaowarat (Chinatown) district, or whether you are elsewhere in the Kingdom and simply sampling some of the delicious Jae food on offer during this period, the festival has something for everyone.