Already convinced of vegetarianism when I moved to Thailand a few years ago, I was wondering before arriving on how I would be able to satisfy my food requirements in the land of smiles.
I must say at the outset that I was quickly reassured. I want to share my experience with those who are interested in it.
A vegetarian in Bangkok
Not very familiar with the habits and customs and unable to speak a word of Thai when I arrived, I found myself a little like everyone else in the famous Khao San street in the Banglamphu district during my first days in the capital.
Entry hatch and passage almost obligatory for all new travelers who disembark at Bangkok, this mythical district is mainly intended to welcome foreigners from all over the world.
So I had no trouble finding food in this very cosmopolitan place where almost all the cultures of the world live together.
Each shop, restaurant, or inn offers vegetarian dishes on its menu to satisfy their precious and diverse clientele.
I also found this offer in all the tourist places I could visit throughout the country.
The “vegetarian food” in Chiang Mai
In Chiang Mai, in the north of the country, it is a whole district where cheap hotels and guest houses are concentrated that seems to have specialized in this ethical choice to eat.
In this area, almost all restaurants proudly display ” Vegetarian food “ and offer no other alternative.
I even remember one notable exception, this restaurant that had written a giant letter on its front, probably to stand out and attract refractories:
” Here, NOT vegetarian food.” That’s an understatement…..
Phuket and its vegetarian festival
But it was when I arrived in the south of the country, at Phuket – where I had committed myself to work voluntarily on the gibbon’s rehabilitation project in which I worked for three years (see: Say no to pictures with a Gibbons baby) – that I had my real encounter with Thai vegetarian culture.
In Phuket, much more than elsewhere, the vegetarian tradition is deeply rooted in daily life.
The island is renowned for its incredible and impressive vegetarian festival, which has been held nine days a year for more than 180 years and is worth the trip. Sensitive soul abstain!
The different types of vegetarianism in Thailand
At this stage, some semantics and vocabulary are required. The word ” mangsawirat “ (มังสวิริรัติ), not very often used by the Thai themselves, refers to vegetarianism in the broad sense as it is understood in the West.
It is mainly used to satisfy foreign customers on a diet ovo lacto-vegetarian (*).
It is this food that is found almost everywhere in the tourist districts already mentioned.
The term ” Djè “ (เจ) is much stricter and more widespread since it is found in almost all the country.
It refers to a diet exclusively vegan (**) that is served only in restaurants (ran.a/han djè – ร้านอาหารเจ) – often very cheap – exclusively dedicated to the cause that is more religious than anything else as we will see below.
These very special restaurants are mostly located near Chinese Taoist temples. They are only very rarely mentioned in English and rarely appear in tourist guides.
I would, therefore, advise too much to végans (***) who want to travel to Thailand to learn to recognize this word before leaving.
It looks like a large 17 almost always written in red on a yellow background.
It also acts as a label and is found on all food packaging that meets the criteria of Thai-style vegetarianism.
You will also find it in Asian grocery stores throughout the major Western cities.
Although usually translated as ” vegetarian,” the term ” djè “ means much more than that.
Translations “vegan” or ” vegan “ could not satisfy them either.
In fact, “djè” implies not only a strictly vegan diet but also a formal prohibition of all consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, food additives – including the famous monosodium glutamate (MSG, pong shu rot in Thai) as widespread as it is controversial – as well as sex for nonprocreative purposes…
It also bans garlic and onion!
Another notable difference I would like to mention between the vegan lifestyle as we understand it in the West and the diet ” djè “ omnipresent in Thailand concerns mainly their respective purposes.
If in the case of the former, the motivation is mainly ecological or political or even anti-speciesist, Thai people who engage in this type of consumption do so mainly for religious reasons.
Vegetarian eating (kin djè) allows above all to acquire merit (tham-boon) in order, as much as possible, to be forgiven for sins (tham-bhaap) thus covering the healthy hope of living a better life in the infinite cycle of reincarnation and achieving the ultimate goal of the end of the cycle: nirvana.
If the végan acts for reasons that could be described as terrestrial, the Thai vegetarian (khon djè) is motivated by purely celestial justification.
Despite this notable difference and although, as far as I am concerned, I must say that I have always been very warmly welcomed in these restaurants that I have frequented on a daily basis for several years, where food is not only the cheapest and most delicious that I have ever been given to eat, but also, it seems, blessed by the gods…
พูดดี ทำดี คิดดี กินเจ (phout dii, tham dii, khit dii, kin djé – talk well, do well, think well, vegetarian food): their favorite slogan that sums it up.
A whole program…
(*) Ovo Lacto vegetarianism refers to a diet based on the consumption of plants, eggs, milk, and honey as well as their derivatives. It is this diet that is commonly referred to as “vegetarianism.”
(**) Veganism refers to an exclusively vegetable diet. This regime prohibits the consumption of milk and eggs as well as any other food of animal origin.
(***) Veganism (also called integral veganism) refers to a way of life that prohibits all products of animal origin both for food and for any other form of consumption (clothing, furniture, cosmetics, etc.). The vegan does not wear leather, wool, or silk and does not use, for example, any products previously tested on animals.
Photos from the Phuket Vegetarian Festival : Joseph Ferris III