By JOHN LEGASPI
One of the oldest stories in Thai culture, Lilit Phra Lo, is a narrative poem about the passionate love shared by Phra Lo, a man of immeasurable beauty, with two princesses from another city. Though their love is rooted in war between their home cities, nothing is strong enough to stop their yearning for each other. It is enough to make Phra Lo travel to rival cities, not minding conflicts from the past. With the help of the Lord Tiger Spirit, the two princesses and Phra Lo meet, make love in the lake, and ultimately meet their end as an arrow of revenge strikes all three of them down—a moment that makes for a tragic love story.
Folklore, in many ancient places, tells a people’s cultural heritage and always with values and morals to reap in the end. This particular story mirrors Thailand in more ways than one. It shows its people’s devotion to religion, respect for the monarchy, and the warmth and passion that are in the heart of every Thai. It showcases their country’s beauty, the sights to see in every city, and the prevalence of water as a central element.
Formerly known as Siam—meaning dark and brown, as a reference to its native people’s skin complexion—the country was baptized in 1939 as the Kingdom of Thailand. “Thai” is defined by George Cœdès as “free.” It’s a word that fits a country as diverse as Thailand. This diversity is among the things celebrated at the water fest that is the Songkran Festival, Thailand’s New Year following the Buddhist Calendar. It was observed this year from April 13 to 16.
There is a lot to celebrate in Thailand, from its ancient places to its modern interpretations, from delicious delicacies to places to get lost in for a good time after dark. Here you can party with your religion, wrapping both glee and worship in drapes of white and yellow—colors the Thai wore in support of their new royal leader, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who will soon be formally crowned.
THE OLD AND THE NEW
The city of Bangkok is a perfect image of modern Thailand. Its tall skyscrapers, designed in the most stunning architecture, house luxury brands. Shops and other establishments in almost every corner have a Buddha figure perched on white and yellow flowers, offering a serene welcome to weary travelers.
Thailand is known for its markets that offer great products at bargain prices. There’s Chatuchak Market, located in Kamphaeng Phet 2. Divided into 27 sections, it houses stalls that sell everything from antique pieces, art, and ceramics to gardening tools, home decorations, food, clothing, and a lot more.
During Songkran, the Thai word for passing or approaching, mischievous locals come prepared to “dampen” your shopping spirit with their water guns and buckets of water. Customers swarm shops selling water guns in varying sizes to get ready for the afternoon water fight.
You can also enjoy the cool treats you can find while shopping—colorful Thai popsicles, delightful coconut ice cream, and fresh fruit shakes. Thai nibbles of sweet dried fruits, smoky grilled octopus, deep-fried pork, and local varieties of soup are available in every alley. Everywhere you can find masseurs, offering you a chance to relax in their small air-conditioned hubs.
If you’re looking for a more posh place to shop, there’s Icon Siam, which pays homage to the floating market of Thailand by having a manmade river inside the mall. Merchants in multi-colored robes sell everything from traditional clothing to delectable eats. A ride up the escalator takes you to the luxury brands like Hermès, Bulgari, Gucci, and Tiffany and Co.
SHRINES AND DEVOTIONS
Solemn towering temples of gold and white dominate the Buddhist temple complex of Wat Pho. One of these temples houses the Reclining Buddha, the jewel of Wat Pho. This colossal structure is covered with gold leaf that measures 46 meters long. The Reclining Buddha represents entry to nirvana. At the feet of this golden statue, you’ll see auspicious laksanas (mark) made out of mother-of-pearl. Round disks at the center of each foot represent chakra points.
On the way out of the emerald temple are 108 bronze bowls, each symbolizing positive actions, where visitors can drop coins to ask for good fortune and also serve as donations to the monks that keep Wat Pho’s temples in good condition.
Outside the temple, people line to ask for blessings from the monks. Others line up toward the garden of Buddha to pray and to wan payawan, or bathe the Buddha with fragrant water as an act of purification and washing away of sins.
In Thailand, water is everywhere—inside malls with manmade water formations, in the floating markets, and in the streets during the Songkran Festival, to cleanse the Thai soul as people welcome the coming year.
SPICING THE SENSES
The streets of Bangkok are also full of flavors. Try those banana pancakes cooked by sleight of hand or those specially brewed Thai milk tea. In every plate of Thai delicacies, you can taste the warmth and hospitality of the people. One good spot to have dinner in is at Krua Khun Kung near the Royal Thai Navy Club. Thai food—warm, spicy, and served in large proportions—is always about abundance. Krua Khun Kung is a wonderful place to get phad thai, fried sea bass topped with crispy vegetables, and of course, the famous Thai sticky rice mango pudding dessert. The restaurant, located along the Chao Phraya River, offers a perfect view of the fiery sunset that outlines the pagodas and temples on the other side of the riverbank.
Riding a tuktuk can take you to places with ease. Or you can travel by foot and discover hidden gems, be it a quaint pharmacy filled with herbal fumes or a rustic beer house that’s chill and cozy.
CREATURES OF THE NIGHT
Bangkok comes even more alive during the night as night markets, shops, and bars start to open. Sway, a modern contemporary bar located at Arena 10, is frequented by young people. Another place to visit is Asiatique: The Riverfront, an open-air mall that has neon carnival booths, exotic food (scorpions and crocs), riverside pubs, and a Muay Thai arena that showcases Thailand’s unique martial art in a theatrical show called Muay Thai Live: The Legend Lives.
The most festive of all is a gay bar called The Balcony, located on Silom Soi 4. Peek inside, and you’ll see a stage surrounded by dancing people. There, you will also find some of the most beautiful people in Thailand: Drag queens or ladyboys who perform with such grace and poise or camp to the tunes of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé.
WATER FIGHTS ARE FOUGHT
The Buddhist New Year always has the element of water. In Thailand, water is everywhere—inside malls with manmade water formations, in the floating markets, and on the streets during the Songkran Festival, to cleanse the Thai soul as people welcome the coming year.
The streets of Thanon in Silom become a wet battlefield. There droves of people decked in florals, dashiki, tie-dye, and all sorts of” mad” costumes converge, each carrying water guns loaded to shoot, not spray, everyone they meet on the street. It’s an activity that works as a fun ice breaker for everyone. It doesn’t matter if one knows the other. The important thing is to shoot everybody with cold water. It was wild and wet and nothing could have made it better than a cold bottle of beer in between rounds of water wars.
There is more to see, feel, and taste in Bangkok, especially during Songkran. Just always be on the lookout for those waiting for their next dry victim.