International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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Congress Logo 33rd World Vegetarian Congress
Chiang Mai, Thailand, January 4 - 10, 1999
'Vegetarianism is the Way'
an unforgettable visual, cultural and gastronomic experience

Vegetarianism is the way
Impressions from the World Vegetarian Congress in Chiang Mai
from EVU News, Issue 2/1999

It wasn't quite what I expected; over 450 visitors with 400 of them Thais. At the opening dinner I had near me a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Zarathrustian, Sikhs, an evangelist Finn, Catholics from Ireland and an Indian Muslim. Once again I noticed how comfortable I felt in such a varied, multi-cultural society and how much I would like to live in such a society.

I got over the first shock, that of a giant, impersonal hotel and an equally giant shopping centre and the enormous amount of noise that came with that. Everything still decorated for Christmas, super-dimensional Father Christmas, even on the 12-floor lifts; the piping of "Silent Night". The organisers were due to arrive the next day, nobody knew anything about a room reservation for me, or about my lost luggage. I just wanted to sit on the floor, amid all the bustle of the reception hall, and burst into tears. Then I saw a familiar face - Ernst Roegler, President of the Norwegian Vegetarian Society, who I had got to know at the congress in Bratislava and a 19 year old Finnish student. Then some previously unknown English people joined us and we went for a fantastic moonlit dinner on the roof of a local restaurant. Two days later my luggage reappeared and the congress began.

Superb hospitality

The usual speeches - many Thai organisations and the IVU had done a magnificent job making it all possible. To come straight to the point, the hospitality was superb, as was the range of interesting talks and the food was excellent. I can only use superlatives when it comes to what was on offer. Of course, there were the usual mishaps; a workshop was cancelled or took place in a location which was different from the one announced, people rushing about looking for things but that happens at all world congresses.

King eats brown rice

"It is said that the poor like to eat brown rice. We eat brown rice every day, so we belong to the poor".

This sentence, said by the Thais' very popular king, first appeared to me to be cynicism. The King is supposed to have repeated these words on television when he visited the rice harvest of a project which he, himself, was leading. He has given himself the task of converting the Thais to whole-food eating and to get away from the accusation that brown rice is the food of prisoners. Rather, brown rice is healthy and will help the total population to be healthier. A "Rice No. 5" project has even been started to encourage approx. 30,000 mills to supply more brown rice. Compared with the production of white rice, this should save approx. 60% of the electricity costs required. In order to familiarise the population with brown rice this is even going to be sold 5% cheaper than white rice. At the same time, people should be encouraged to eat less and to look for quality rather than quantity in their whole way of life, as well.

"Long live his Majesty the King"; it remains to be seen if the people will follow his advice.

Why vegetarian sausage and fish?

A producer from Singapore pressed a leaflet into my hand, with which I was not so impressed. The photos looked like a butcher's platter - sausages, liver-sausage, ham - but all vegetarian; "contains no eggs, preservatives, cholesterol or animal fat; a great new taste - 100 % purely vegetarian healthy food".

Not a word about what sort of chemical cocktails were brewed together in the laboratory so that a soya sausage finally tasted like a pork sausage. For ethical vegetarians it is also a puzzle, why the wonderful products of nature have to look like the animal products that we refuse. There is said to be even a vegetarian "stuffed fish" and when I asked what this strange crispness on my plate was, I received the answer that it was the vegetarian version of pork crackling!

It is difficult to imagine, but it must be true, that people who like the taste of animal flesh need these imitations in order to avoid it. Nevertheless, the vegan buffet was very well attended and I was very pleased with the marvellous fruit, pineapples, papayas and the tiny ripe, freshly harvested bananas. The food was altogether wonderful. At the end there was even a Round-the-World cooking competition by the hotel cooks.

I asked the restaurant manager if he, like most Thais, was Buddhist and he said he was. Was he also a vegetarian? No, he wasn't. But, I persevered, surely Buddha demanded ahimsa, you must not kill. Yes, if he himself killed the animal, he said, but other people killed the animals ...

Workshops and exhibition

Workshops gave information on the preparation of tofu, on detoxification using wheat plant juice, vegetarianism and AIDS, Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, anti-oxidants, the advantages of eating nuts, and, and, and ... and parallel to all this was an exhibition of natural products of all types.

At all lectures and workshops, and I found this particularly good, the ethical, ecological and economical aspects of the discussion were mentioned. If the planet is to survive, this can only happen if there is a conversion to the vegetarian way of life, world-wide webmaster John Davis, explained the advantages of the Internet and e-mail to beginners. Paul Turner, President of Food for Life Global, presented his organisation which, since 1974, has supplied over 70 million needy people in over 60 countries with free vegetarian meals; meanwhile, it has been supported by governments and sponsors and has been made possible in particular thanks to the selfless efforts of numerous voluntary aid workers, who have even dared to go into areas of conflict, such as Grozny and Sarajevo; an amazing initiative.

Arne Wingqvist gives a lecture in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Impressive persons

An impressive person at the congress was 79 year-old Arne Wingqvist; born in Sweden in 1919 he has been a vegetarian since 1931. Since 1985 he has only eaten fruit, nuts, seeds and fresh, raw vegetables. In 1987 he took part in a l9-day intemational, 1,140 kilometre cycling tour of Sweden. It's no wonder he swears by raw food. After an operation for cancer, Dr. Ruth Heidrich fed herself with a vegan diet and even became a triathlete! Ruth Heidrich is 64 years old today and looks 40 at most. Her very personal report was a leading light for the joy of life and infectious optimism. Arne Wingqvist said this vegan should now become a fruitarian.

The lecture by Prof. Leitzmann was very important. His large-scale study at the University of Giessen clearly showed that vegetarians are healthier and, in general, have a longer life-expectancy. This study not only looked at ovo-lacto vegetarians, lacto-vegetarians and vegans but also tested those who eat only raw food and fruit.

What irritated me, when I had a blood test on the occasion of my meniscus operation, was the finding of the supposed typical deficiencies of a vegetarian, namely, too little iron and too little vitamin B.Prof. Leitzmann pointed out that these so-called standards were based on large-scale surveys of an average section of the population who, naturally, were mostly meat eaters!

Yet another indication that science only sets its values according to the latest state of knowledge, which is very questionable, is shown by the supposed amount of protein necessary which, during the last few decades, has changed drastically again and again.

Marvellous trips

Of course, marvellous trips were also on offer; trips to the elephant hospital, the orchid garden, to Queen Sirinik's botanical garden, to an organic farm with demonstrations of cultivation met hods, to a spirulina farm, etc., etc.During all these wonderful activities the hotel's chimney was belching out black clouds of smoke from burnt rubbish. World-wide, Chaing-Mai has the highest rate of lung cancer in women, becauseof the smog and because ever more young women smoke.

IVU Meeting

And then the IVU had its turbulent meeting. Maxwell G. Lee was again elected President with Kevin Pickard as Vice-President. Peter McQueen showed a video of Toronto; the next World Vegetarian Congress will take place there in 2000 - but before then we will all have met in Switzerland at the EVU Congress.

Barbara Rütting
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