Chiang Mai, Thailand
Happy last full week of VeganMoFo! This time last September, Jules and I were on a plane to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport for 3 months of travel, purposely overlapping our dates with the annual Nine Emperor Gods Festival, aka the Thailand Vegetarian Festival. How could we resist?! The 2014 festival starts on September 24th, running til October 2, and being something I folded into my 2014 VeganMofo plans, the time has finally arrived to put all my other time-consuming projects and work on hold and share those damn photos! Now, I’ve uploaded nearly every single decent photo I took in Chiang Mai, Pai and Bangkok in Thailand last September and it’s utterly bittersweet to look back on our hiatus (hiatus), because it changed my life. It really influenced my sense of flavor, time, community and values. I saved up for two years after longing to return from my shorter month-long visit in 2011, and while there are countless places I want to explore around the world, returning to and seeing more (and by that I mean, further contemplation of location independence!) of SE Asia is preciously high on my list of travel priorities.
About the Thailand Vegetarian Festival:
This 10 day, country-wide festival of vegetarian ‘je’ food (and yes, that’s technically calling for it to be vegan), often called ‘Kin Jay’, is a dreamy and adventurous vegan vacation, to say the very least (just brace yourself for the traditional body mutilation thrown in there). Since Jules was off to the Elephant Nature Park and I had plans for some more-affordable dental work, we found ourselves in the northern province of Chiang Mai for the majority of the festival. Every single day, every single meal, and really, around every single corner, there was something new to try. Consider my eyes wide and heart & stomach both ecstatic.
Oh, dining at 7-11 wasn’t our dinner plan?
Starting with the very first spotting of the yellow and red flag-filled displays at 7-11, of all places (who really gets into things with a series of frozen meals, bakery items, signage and packaged goods, galore), from the fluffy and sweet, to the spicy, savory, fried, and famously noodled, I wanted to take a bite out of everything I saw.
“The Phuket Vegetarian Festival is an annual event held during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar. It is believed that the vegetarian festival and its accompanying sacred rituals bestow good fortune upon those who religiously observe this rite. During this time, local residents of Chinese ancestry strictly observe a 10-day vegetarian or vegan diet for the purposes of spiritual cleansing and merit-making. – phuketvegetarian.com
A quick handful of thoughts & highlights:
- Steamed buns, Chiang Mai. I’m going to go ahead and call this a pop-up because I hadn’t seen before the fest happened and it was in a fairly bare, corner storefront that I happened upon while biking around one afternoon. Sidenote: Rent a bike in Chiang Mai! I have a must-do’s list for Chiang Mai I’ve also been forever meaning to post, and that is in my tops! Back to the precious buns, there were so many sweet and savory, ridiculously soft and fluffy options. It was another example of something I just didn’t have enough time and stomach to enjoy. I wanted more, more, more and was flabbergasted that Jules didn’t wan to partak. Goodness, they were good. Thai Young Coconut! Black Pepper Seitan! Thai Iced Tea! Everything !
- Pai Vegetarian Festival center: Jules and I were in Pai for a few days of the happenings and noticed signs for the Vegetarian Festival (The official flags were more limited in this small although incredibly vegan-and-hippie-welcoming city) and found ourselves enjoying a pay-what-you-will, yet elaborate lunch buffet, with dozens and dozens of adorably uniformed school children and some fantastic soup with clear broth, strong herbs, long noodles, fresh vegetables and multiple condiments to sweet/heat/salt as desired. Photo below.
- Jay stand, Chiang Mai Night Market. Every day of the festival, Chiang Mai’s popular night market seemed to have another veg-specific stand open. It was breathtaking to behold! Some cooked on the spot and other brought prepared foods or did a combination. There were enormous offerings of stir fries, curries, veg. meats and tons of other curious and appetizing dishes. The one I kept going back to was pretty straight forward, just like a food cart I’d go to in Portland, where you picked from menu and tried to score some of the limited nearby seating. This stand cooked super hot and super good Chinese & Thai-style dishes per order. Never before did I comprehend such respect for stir fries. I tried out a bunch of stands and made sure to visit this one twice, and specifically taking Jules here for her first meal back (and first official festival special meal).
- Pad Thai, Chiang Mai Sunday Walking Street. So, walking streets can be a handful and you definitely begin to notice the same stuff being sold in every city quickly, but they’re a fun stroll for the experience, people-watching and food! For the festival, this large Pad Thai stand with 3 types of noodles went entirely vegan and with little packets of sugar and chiles by my side, served up the best Pad Thai of my life, no question…..for under a buck. As I sit here, reheating some soup, thinking about how delicious this was, I’m appalled at how any Pad Thai I’ve had in North America is maybe 1/5 as good. Maybe, if I’m in that odd place between courtesy and denial.
- Yes, 7-11 sorta kinda goes vegan! Okay, they’re a good place anyway to hit up for snacks (Hello, nori potato chips! Vegetarian ramen!), sanitary pads and drinks when you’re traveling through Thailand because they’re seriously around every other corner, and they embrace the festival with weeks of specially marked frozen vegetarian meat entrees, steamed buns, packaged snacks (including so many baked goods and sweets), drinks and all the fun signage. 7-11 gets started early and had the first yellow flags I saw of the happenings. Don’t get me wrong, I was way more excited about eating from street vendors and markets, but 7-11 totally has this zany novelty enthusiasm going for it that’s worth checking out.
- Vegan Croissants & Sweet Buns, Terminal 21 in Bangkok. On the final day of the Vegetarian Festival, J. Legume and I spent the night at Suk 11 (which I totally recommend, for the record) before catching an early flight to Siem Reap. This extravagant mall’s dining floor already has a bunch of vegetarian offerings and even more arose for the festival at unexpected restaurants and food court stands ⸺ we ended up having an impromptu lunch at a seafood restaurant of all things ⸺ but my personal highlight was spotting signage and popping into the bottom level grocery store for icing-glazed vegan croissants! I remain true to dear Blue Diamond’s whole wheat croissants, but who can complain! Also freshly and delicious: the tender baked goods I picked up from Bread Talk across the way.
- For Real: Being that we were primary in Chiang Mai and not Phuket or Bangkok, I never actually witnessed any mutilation or anything cringe-worthy festival happenings! (…fine, besides the set up of some night market stands next to non-veg ones, but I spent a lot of time in NYC’s Chinatown as a child, so I wasn’t fazed much).
- LISTEN UP: I never once got crazy sick eating street food or fresh fruit. I regret nothing. Sheesh, I can handle a bit of extraordinary digestive issues on rare occasions for the sake of eating my way through vegan Thailand. I bet you can, too.
- Stating the hopefully obvious: This is not the guide. This is Jess, sharing blatant photo captures of my experiences and captivating eats.
And that’s seriously just a snippet of my memories. I’m sure I’ve gotten many other highlights, so it’s a good thing I have 150+ photos coming at ya below.
Grilled veg. meat on a stick! Chiang Mai Night Market
My Pad Thai.
All THE PAD THAI.
The culture, the experience and the massive, entirely vegetarian food (again, pretty much vegan) offerings, everywhere! Chase those yellow flags.
Glorious buffet eats, Pai Vegetarian Festival
September 24th to October 2nd
Websites to browse:
Nine Emperor Gods Wikipedia page, Phuketvegetarian.com, Fest 3000, Thailand’s Vegetarian Festival is Spectacular and Bloody Procession Huffington Post; Agence France Presse, October 10, 2013
The following unedited photos were taken in Chiang Mai, Pai and Bangkok, Thailand in September 2013. Here’s nearly everything I saw and sampled (and keep in mind, we were also dining at non-festival happenings while traveling during this time, as well):
Follow along for 2014:
I have no doubt that I’ll be back.
If you have any questions about what’s in any of the photos above or other questions about traveling Thailand and Cambodia as a vegan, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out all the photos from our trip last year on Instagram under #hiatushiatus.