Tuesday 10 November 2015

Thailand's Vegetarian Festival: Phuket

As some of my interests lie firmly in the festivals, body modification and eating spectrums I feel like I have a unique take on the happenings at Phuket's vegetarian festival. Nick and I travelled down to Phuket from Bangkok via overnight train and bus which is a great way to get there if you have the time. It's cheaper than flying (unless you can plan a long way in advance), more fun, and you save money on accommodation by spending a night travelling. It's a win win!

I wrote more about the whats and whys of Thailand's vegetarian festival in last week's blog post about Bangkok's festivities but a quick explanation is that for ten days in the ninth lunar month on the Chinese calendar Thai Chinese people with Taoist beliefs abstain from animal products, sex, alcohol impure thoughts and more to honour the nine emperor gods. During this time cities across the country get seriously vegan friendly because the Jay way of eating almost exactly aligns with veganism.
Jay labelled foods appear in convenience stores (more on that next time), at malls, on kiosks, in the streets and down alleyways all over the country. As I said last time Phuket is the epicentre of the festivities due to the large Thai Chinese population there and the processions intensify because of this. Towards the end of this post there are photos of body piercings that may not be to everyone's taste.

At night Ranong Road is lined with stalls selling vegan eats and because of this the street is filled with throngs of people looking for a festival appropriate street food fix. The great news is that from about 6pm the road is closed making scoping out the food sitch' much easier than it is during the day.

The street food options were overwhelming at times and most nights I'd spend ages wandering up and down the street paralysed by indecision before finally deciding where to begin. Dumplings are a firm favourite of mine and the combination of familiar food and this young woman who helped her parents out on their stall every day always brought a smile to my face. The shumai dumplings weren't the best ever but they were always a tasty start and of course the steamed buns were delicious, you can't really go too wrong there though, steamed dough is always going to be a winning option in my book.

These "fried squares" as I came to know them became an almost daily occurrence during mine and Nick's street food wanderings. I think they were made from rice flour and potato and there was a nod in the direction of something green so I'm classing them as a heath food.

This sushi was a one off purchase because it looked prettier than it tasted. I did really enjoy the red pork maki in the back right hand corner as it was the most flavourful of the bunch but the tofu "egg" was a tad disappointing and the seaweed wasn't seasoned to my taste. I wish I'd seen the red pork maki again though because I definitely would have filled up a box.

One of my favourite stalls was this one selling sausages and mushrooms on sticks which, after you'd made your choice, would be brushed with oil and thrown onto the grill for a couple of minutes. They were wonderful hot or cold and I was pleased to be reunited with the little sausages I tried at breakfast one day at Elephant Nature Park earlier this year. 

Piles of deep fried foods are everywhere at the fest' but they weren't my favourite, obviously I like a bit of deep fry just as much as the next person but this was all a touch too greasy for me.

Now I have absolutely no idea at all what this next thing is called but it's a rice flour based pancake that was omelette like in texture and filled with bean sprouts, peanuts and carrots. It came with a side of pickles. It was flavourful and ridiculously messy to eat and I freaking loved it. I'm still feeling a little sad that I left it until towards the end of the festival to try it!

This soup was another favourite of mine, it had an almost sour flavour and was nicely peppery. I can't really describe it's deliciousness but I'm very glad Doni, Rika from Vegan Miam's partner, recommended it to me.

Situated on Soi Phuthom off of Ranong Road road right by Jui Tui shrine Torry's Ice Cream was one of my favourite festival finds. I was beyond excited to find a spot that made me want to come back for more (and more and more!).

I think I ate there every single day of the festival and on some days I visited twice. The corn ice cream was a firm favourite as was the avocado and their other flavours like Lychee, Thai Dessert, Pumpkin and Sweet Potato were delightful. I was of course pleased that they had vegan cones (it's like a cup you can eat!) and I hope that they might continue making them now that the festival is over.

Mind blowingly good ice cream aside the most fascinating thing about Torry's is that, when I was there during the festival, they'd only been open for a week! Run by a brother and sister team they went on an ice cream making course, ordered everything they needed from Italy, opened up shop and jumped into the festival with four feet. Amazing! I chatted to them and apparently there'll always be a couple of vegan options available so keep an eye on their Facebook page if you're heading to Phuket.

Right across the street from Torry's were these lovely ladies who were making vegan doriyaki! Vegan. Doriyaki. Wowza! This was probably the most exciting discovery ever. As I mentioned in my last post I didn't really discover Japanese cuisine until after I'd committed to veganism so I've never tried Doriyaki despite the idea of a pancake filled with something delicious appealing to me more than most other foods I could imagine. Between Nick and I we ate our way through most of the doriyaki available deciding that the matcha doriyaki with a cream filling and the jam filled doriyaki were our firm favourites. Nick also enjoyed the one filled with banana custard which I didn't try because it sounds like a nightmare and not even one dressed as a daydream. If you get that lyrical reference we can probably be friends! One day when we visited they even had little pancakes with a mini sausage in the centre covered in ketchup. I still regret not buying one. Or six.

The next door stall was selling wonderful sponge cake rectangles covered in a fudge like topping so basically I was in dessert heaven on Soi Phuthom for the wholes damned week. It was epic!

There were of course desserts located on the main festival thoroughfare too and two of our favourites were these little sweet fried balls and the super sugary and intensely sweet Japanese Taiyaki which came with four filling options including taro, red bean and banana custard. 

I think banana custard is an abomination but Nick ate one every day so I think they're probably amazing if you aren't averse to such things. The taiyaki I was into was taro filled and I adored the pastry which reminded me of a Spanish palmerita with a creme brûlée-esque burnt sugar topping. They were truly wonderful and probably totally untraditional as I think that that Japanese version is a whole lot less sugary.

Sometimes a break was needed from the relative madness of Ranong Road and we'd take our food back to our hotel to eat in the quiet solace of our balcony from where we could watch fireworks exploding in the sky from a safe distance. This is a classic mix of 7/11 vegan eats, dumplings, banana muffins and taro filled Chinese pancakes.

The Limelight Mall across the road from where we were staying became our go-to lunch spot when we were craving air conditioning and a break from the hustle and bustle of the main area where the festival was taking place. Our favourite stall had no name as far as we could tell but was flying Jay flags proudly and had simple daily lunch plates of rice, mock meat, cucumbers and coriander which you could doctor up with any of the sauces available. We decided our favourite was a hoi sin / teriyaki sauce that we squeezed all over our meals with abandon before topping it off with a few decent shakes of pepper. These plates came with a simple brothy, peppery mushroom soup which rounded out the meal nicely and, as you can see, I headed straight for the sweet red faux pork again because it is seriously the best.

I spent a while trying to decide whether the festival food was better in Bangkok or Phuket and I'm pretty sure I've decided that Phuket wins. There was a winder variety of things to nibble on there and more of the standout dishes were definitely ones I ate in Phuket. Phuket also has the edge because of the sheer amount of processions and rituals taking place. Processions are a daily occurrence during the festival. They depart from shrines all over the city and parade through the city's streets in the early morning bringing with them a cacophony of sound and light shrouded in a thick blanket of smoke. 

The rituals that take place are oft described as aesthetic displays or even as mutilation but I don't like the using the word mutilation in this or any body modification related context but I don't think that body modification is correct in this case either; these aren't really even semi permanent so I think rituals is the best fit. These rituals take place without anaesthetic at the shrines or in the streets just outside them and the ritual piercings run the gauntlet from large scale cheek, tongue and lip piercings to tongue slashing or repeatedly hitting your forehead or chest with an axe or other sharp implement. As the week wears on I spot more and more people with the plasters and brand new scars showing that they had taken part in the rituals. From what I've gleaned the meaning behind them is to shift evil from others onto themselves or to bring the community good luck.

Having had my cheeks pierced (albeit with a much smaller needle) I have no idea how these people have managed to get this done before getting up and dancing their way down the street past hoards of people wielding cameras. I read online that they’re in a trance like state which seems feasible now that I’ve seen this spectacle with my own eyes. Back when I was a body piercer the other piercers and modification artists would head out into the woods to take part in suspensions something that I was told felt like being on drugs. As a recent quitter of all things chemical and herbal I wanted nothing to do with it but from what I’ve heard participants are in a similarly dreamy / out of it state whilst swinging from the trees on the hooks inserted through their skin.

The parades were an amazing thing to have been able to see with my own eyes, to give Brit’s a little context these processions are like Lewes bonfire night happening and nobody considering closing the roads and I was pleased that I threw myself into this side of the festival as well as focussing on the food despite having to set alarms with a five in them! The final night is when things really kick off, as we'd say in the UK, as you can tell by the outfit I donned to go and observe. Scared for both my vital senses and expensive tattoos I dressed in most of my clothes, a mask, earplugs and sunglasses and prepared to get hella sweaty.

Fat slow burning sticks resembling incense are used by children, teens and adults alike to light square red packs of firecrackers which are then hurled over the heads of white wearing worshippers towards the gods and the people and trucks carrying them. The crowd certainly wasn't safe from these airborne missiles and pieces of exploded firework hit me in the head, legs and body more times than I could count. Singed trousers and the red remains of firecrackers stuck to the processors sweaty, often tattooed bodies are a festival mainstay. Fireworks explode under cars and busses and in between motorbikes because, of course, the roads aren't closed - it is both beautiful and terrifying all at once. Every so often the crowd quietens and kneels when the signal is given that someone or something important is passing but as quickly as it began the silence is broken when another firework is thrown, it's quickly followed by another and another until firecrackers rain down like a monsoon and some of the glass shrouding the gods becomes so tarnished from smoke that you can't even catch a glimpse of the god within. 

At one point we bump into who I have come to know as Torry from Torry’s ice cream in the street, we smile and nod a quick hello as we dash in opposite directions giving the night a sense of village like intimacy. As midnight passes and the night draws on white faces are few and far between as most assume that the earlier processions are the main event and retire to hostels to drink, smoke and chat about the evenings events. Eventually the lions are fed with baht and the processions draw to a close, small bonfires are lit and rather than hurling fireworks into the flames people begin to burn their shrines. The streets are left littered with red paper wrappers and it's all over for another year. 


  1. Wow, all the food looks amazing. And that dude with the sword in his cheek! Ow!!

    1. I spent a lot of time being super amazed by people's pain thresholds.

  2. The food looks amazing, though the fireworks sound terrifying.
    I also second Bianca's ow about the sword in the cheek!

    1. I thought the fireworks were super fun but I kinda love fireworks!

  3. Seriously amazing. Next time I plan a trip to Thailand it will most definately coincide with this!! keep having amazing travels!

    1. Thanks Shelly. You should definitely try to visit Thailand during the festival, it's a totally different and wonderful experience.


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