Songkran: The Spirit of the Moment

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Thailand is in a festival cheer. Though rain was expected for sometime, as for now, the skies are clear above Bangkok. For the past few days, people were flocking to Don Mueang airport and to bus/metro terminal stations to head for their home provinces to celebrate the annual Songkran (The Water Festival) holidays.

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I heard that under the “Leave your homes in police care” programme, many houses in Bangkok have reportedly registered with the police for protection while the tenants are away on holidays. Owing to the heavy traffic on major routes out of Bangkok, the road safety campaigns for the “seven days of danger” are popularised.

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To prevent and reduce road accidents from drink driving, the provincial health officials nationwide are strictly enforcing an alcohol ban in designated areas during the 7-day period of the water festive season of Songkran which runs until Thursday.

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Believed to have been derived from the Sankranti Hindu festival, the uniquely beautiful tradition of Songkran (from the Sanskrit word samkrānti) marks the Thai New Year’s Day.

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Celebrated throughout the country, the occasion is a time for family re-unions and of bonding between family members, friends, etc.

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It is an occasion to show reverence and appreciation to one’s parents and seek blessings from the elders. Young people pour fragrant water into the elders’ palms in a gesture of humility to ask for their blessings.

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Traditionally, this is called the ‘Rod Nam Dum Hua’ ceremony which is performed on the first day of Songkran. Indeed, April 13th officially set as the day of Songkran also marks the National Elderly Day.

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The Songkran holidays signify the heritage and tradition of the people of Thailand. It marks the occasion for temple visits and annual house cleaning.

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Apart from the ritual of pouring water on sacred Buddha statues and making food offerings at temples, some enterprising Shopping Malls have also set up conveniences for the bathing of Buddha statues which includes five bowls containing different coloured (representing prosperity in a variety of forms) floating flowers for visitors to pour over the sacred statues.

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Our arrival here in Bangkok, the City of Angels, on April 4th was timed to coincide with the busy days of the special exhibitions, shopping promotions, entertaining activities including carnival games, craft and cooking demonstrations, traditional performances, etc, whilst Bangkok geared up for the start of Songkran.

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By April 12th, many fairs in Bangkok were offering a variety of attractions for the visitors. There is a fair where one can pay respect to the Buddha tooth relic from Tibet while another offered the opportunity to see a replica of Phra Narai Balaji or Lord Venkateswara from India. Then there are activities such as pail-kicking competitions for elderly people or facilities for children to build traditional Sand Piles (sand chedis), in addition to parades, beauty pageants, decorated floats, oyster shelling competitions and general merriment. Children can take enjoyment in splashing water at painted jumbos housed at the Elephant Camp in Ayutthaya.

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Water has a special meaning in Asia. It represents life, prosperity and, of course, a new beginning. It also symbolizes joy, tranquillity and coolness to hot summer days.

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During this festival, groups of farangs (expatriates) and local people armed with water-guns and buckets splash/hurl water at pedestrians and onto moving traffic as a ‘gesture to give and request a blessing”. The water splashing fun also symbolizes the washing off all misfortunes of the past year and welcoming the New Year.

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Many shops displayed water-guns of different colours and sizes to choose from. There are also places where barrels of water are sold or else, you can refill your water-gun from bottled undrinkable water on sale. Some shops sell beige coloured powder (Din sor pong) which is mixed with little water to smear on the faces and bodies.

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Also on sale are waterproof Songkran pouches to protect the cellphone, etc from the hurling water. It’s all part of the festival fun. When the water hits you – do it the Thai way. Don’t miss out on the fun. Just smile and move on, probably into the sunlight to dry off.

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A sure bet to get water-soaked in Bangkok is to be at the front courtyard of CentralWorld where a three-day event is held which includes a foam party.

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Apart from popular Songkran venues at the Ratchaprasong area, Silom Road, the biggest and wildest celebration was at Khao San Road, Bangkok’s backpacker quarters.

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Everywhere you are often greeted cheerfully with “sawatdi pi mai” (Happy New Year) as they try to drench you with water.

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According to TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand), the occasion is fun time and attracts foreign tourists to the Kingdom. It’s the only time of the year one can bathe Buddha statues for blessings, enjoy a variety of themed activities and hurl water at one another!

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The water-guns were out on the streets by the afternoon of April 12th. We took the first hit from some children near our hotel while returning after a delicious lunch at the “Lord Jim’s” Restaurant of Bangkok’s legendary Mandarin Oriental Bangkok Hotel, cooked under the supervision of one of the top Executive Chefs of Bangkok, Chef Stefan Trepp. More about this in another write-up.

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Today April 13th, following the Palm Sunday Mass at the Assumption Cathedral we had taken an extensive drive through the water-splashing streets of Bangkok. At the wheel of the car was Mr. Vichai, a former employee of Saudi Aramco and later of Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, whose ardent fervour to receive maximum water-hits on his four-wheel drive perfectly matched the exhilarating enthusiasm of the young and old Songkran revellers engaged in the celebrations on the streets.

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I saw cheerful people everywhere – unified, smiling and cheerful. Some of them were dressed up in traditional costumes (Chud-Thai).

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The unity and the strong national spirit of the Thais will remain the underlining strength of this country – a need to be preserved. Earlier in the evening of this New Year’s day, just before we reached our hotel, it had rained. It is said that a light, lovely rain is always a blessing and a good sign of prosperity.

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To some, Thailand might just be a popular tourist destination. But to me, this country remains endearing not only for its charm and history but also for the many wonderful friends and memories I have gained since I first started visiting Thailand regularly (twice this year and counting) since 2002.

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At this late hour when I write this in the Suite in our hotel, I could hear the muffled sounds of merriment from the streets down below. Songkran is a time for togetherness, for love, for food, for fun, for exchanging-gifts, and for long holidays – and at the heart of this festival lie the important values of Thai Society. Sawasdee, Jo

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(© All photos except those credited to TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand): Carina-Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)

An Affordable Gift …..

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Every girl deserves flowers. The first time I gave a flower to a sweet girl was at the age of 11. I was in the middle of school vacation and we were staying at my mother’s parental house in Fort Cochin. This Anglo-Indian girl, almost my age, is the sister of one of my friends.

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She had shown great interest in me over the last one month when I saw her inadvertently at my friend’s house or when we hung out at the beach, though I didn’t have the nerve to utter a word other than smile back at her. I had spent hours imagining intimate conversations with her but when it actually happened, it was she who took the bull by the horn and spelled out that she liked me. El amor!!

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A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul. It brought me a touch of self-confidence charged with energy, enthusiasm – and more sensitivity. It also made me want to show her that she’s not just someone inconspicuous. Giving heeds to the whispers of my heart, I decided to give her a “special something”. But what could I give? The only thing that my student’s pocket could afford at that age was what the groundnuts (peanuts) seller sold by the beach.

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It was on a Sunday evening when a friend suggested that he could help with the idea of flowers. Though only three years older than me, he appeared ingenious – a bit “learned” in such subjects. By the following Monday afternoon, my Mom was looking for a white rose that had suddenly gone missing from our garden. (If she remembers, that riddle will be cleared to her now with this post. Alright, Mom, my cell phone is switched on)

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It is generally held that a red rose is a symbol of love – but the one available to me at that time was white. Later on I came to know that a white rose is nothing short of remarkable. A single white rose is a hopeful sign and means that the giver’s heart is innocent and hasn’t yet known love. That has to be true!

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Well, the girl was over the moon when she received that “Oh, It’s-soooo-lovely” flower. It opened several buds of flowers of happiness in me, too. Then again, that teeny adoration fizzled out over time as we both moved on with our studies and lives. Even so, that white rose planted in me the first seeds of the significance of flowers.

Flowers will die, but the fragrance and memories they sometimes leave behind has a lasting quality. Jo

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Pictures (from top)

1.. “Special Thanks” of Manningtree Archive to the “models” of our main title picture.

2.. On the premises of St Mary Abbots Parish Church, London

3.. At Blumenmarkt (Flower Market), Remigiusplatz, Bonn, Germany

4.. At Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok, Thailand

5 & 6.. Floral display at Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Bangkok

7.. “Ring a Ring a Roses” by Myles Birket Foster (1825–1899) – Source: Bonhams / commons.wikimedia.org

8.. On Calle Floridablanca in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, near Madrid, Spain

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 (© Manningtree Archive)

On the Path of Il Poverello

How we remember, what we remember, and why we remember form the most personal map of our individuality

– writer Christina Baldwin

Pope-1Today March 13, 2014 marks the First Anniversary of the papacy of Pope Francis. Looking back, it brings to mind that Wednesday night of March 13, 2013 when the conclave of 115 cardinal-electors of the Roman Catholic church, gathered inside the Sistine Chapel, elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, (born December 17, 1936) the archbishop of Buenos Aires as the 266th pontiff, due to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on February 28, 2013.

Pope-2We were watching the late night news when the TV Station cut into this news and shifted the focus onto the central balcony called “Loggia della Benedizion” above the main entrance on the façade of the Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano, from where Cardinal Protodeacon (for the 2013 conclave) Jean-Louis Pierre Tauran would proclaim the newly elected Pope. Soon the announcement came:

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  • * Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; Habemus Papam: 
  • Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum,
  • Dominum Georgium Marium
  • Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio
  • qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum

Pope-4WhoBergoglio? As the world waited, the man in white robe finally made his first appearance before the rain-soaked crowds in the vast Piazza San Pietro, to give his solemn blessing “Urbi et Orbi”. Following the prayer for Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, the new Vicar of Peter from almost “the end of the world“, asked the faithful to pray to the Lord that he be blessed by Him – so that he may proceed with the mission as the Lord would wish. The crowd prayed, cheered and waved flags: Francesco! Francesco! A man clad in midnight-blue coveralls, with a look of happiness etched on his face, shouted: Viva il Papa! Viva il Papa!“. The journey Jorge Mario Bergoglio was destined to take has begun.

Pope-5A year has now passed and during this period the bespectacled Holy Father’s days were a continuous thread of revelation about himself; about his thinking on a variety of issues: religion, politics, global issues, lifestyle, … As his pontificate acquired a definite shape, he reasserted himself as a man who had let the potent power of simplicity work in his life – a man who radiated love and charm and concern for the common man.

Pope-6The Argentinian-born Pope who took the name of San Francesco de Assisi, Il Poverello (the little poor one), is currently on a Lenten spiritual of preaching and prayer at a spiritual retreat in the town of Ariccia, in the Alban Hills about 15 miles outside the Vaticano.

Pope-7At this time, in the run-up to the Supreme Pontiff’s first Easter, I could envisage the long days ahead of him in the journey of fraternity, of love, of trust; and his efforts to promote, safeguard and symbolize the unity of the church. May he receive the benefit of our prayers to remain admirably robust and our wishes that all his days will be lit with the brightness of God whom he represents. Jo

Pope-8 Benedict-(2005)* Note: English text of the announcement: “I announce to you, news of great joy: We have a Pope! The most eminent and most reverend Lord, Lord Jorge Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church Bergoglio, Who takes for himself the name of Francis.”

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  • Photo credits (from top):
  • 1.. The marble bas-relief “Delivery of the Keys” (Consegna delle chiavi) by Ambrogio Bonvicino (1552-1622) put up in 1614 just below the central balcony called “Loggia della Benedizion” (Loggia of the Benedictions) (May 19, 2010 – Photo by Andrea Lalis Sebastine)
  • 2.. Pope Benedict XVI at Piazza San Pietro. (October 22, 2008, Manningtree Archive)
  • 3.. Basilica di San Pietro, Vaticano (October 22, 2008 – Photo by Bianca Celine Diane)
  • 4.. Pope Francis
  • 5.. March 13, 2013: Pope Francis just after his election at the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica (author: Tenan – Source: http://en.wikipedia.org)
  • 6.. San Francesco d’Assisi – painting by Cimabue (part of Frescoes in the Church of San Francesco, Assisi) – (Source: commons.wikimedia.org)
  • 7.. Pope Francis (Source: en.wikinews.org)
  • 8.. Pope Benedict XVI at his window on the third floor of the papal apartments facing Piazza San Pietro. (March, 2005, Manningtree Archive)
  • 9.. Pope Benedict XVI during his weekly general audience in Piazza San Pietro (October 22, 2008 – Photo by Bianca Celine Diane)
  • 10.. Architectural elements on the façade belltowers of Basilica di San Pietro. The Saints on both sides of one of the clocks (designed by Giuseppe Valadier) are S. Thaddeus and S. Matthew (April, 2012, Manningtree Archive)

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(© Manningtree Archive)

That Cyd! The Beautiful Dynamite *

cyd1MARCH 8: Remembering American actress and dancer Cyd Charisse (1922 – 2008) of films: Ziegfeld Follies (1945); Singin’ in the Rain (1952); The Band Wagon (1953); It’s Always Fair Weather (1956); Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956); Silk Stockings (1957); Party Girl (1958); Something’s Got to Give (1962); The Silencers (1966), etc. cyd2cyd3Born on March 8, 1922, she was originally known as Tula Ellice Finklea, and later by the name “Lily Norwood” before she became popular as Cyd Charisse – the leggy fabulous dancer who brightened up the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s, notably opposite Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. In her autobiography, “Debbie: My Life”, actress Debbie Reynolds quoted: “Cyd did everything perfectly. Her legs went over her head and into the sky.” cyd4Cyd Charisse will be missed by many. She now reposes at the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, Los Angeles County, California where actress Shelley Winters is also buried. One of the most beautiful talented dancers on film, Cyd will always be in our hearts.

cyd5Cyd, You danced into our hearts. You will never be forgotten.  Jo

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Notes:

a)       The DVDs and music albums of most of the movies referred in this post are available with main dealers such as amazon.com, TCM Shop, etc.

b)       This illustrated article is meant for the promotion of the actors and movies referred therein. Please refer to “About” for more details.

c)       * Referred as “beautiful dynamite” in “Steps in Time: An Autobiography” by Fred Astaire

(© Manningtree Archive)

MICHELANGELO – IL DIVINO

Painting is good to the extent that it resembles sculpture; sculpture is bad to the extent that it resembles painting” – Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) *

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Pietà (1498–1499) at Basilica di San Pietro, Vaticano

A son was born to Francesca di Neri del Miniato di Siena and local Podestà, Lodovico di Leonardo Buonarotto Simoni,  on THIS DAY (March 6th) in 1475 (1474 – according to Giorgio Vasari) in the small village of Caprese (today known as Caprese Michelangelo) in the province of Arezzo in Tuscany, Italy.

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Left: Rebellious Slave – Right: Dying Slave (1513–1516) at the Louvre, Paris

Second of five brothers, he will be commonly known as Michelangelo and would go on to create wonders in sculpting, architecture, poetry, and engineering. Besides being an architect in the creation of Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano, this Italian High Renaissance artist who painted the ceiling and altar wall of the Sistine Chapel which includes “The Last Judgement” and created his most famous sculptures, “Pietà” and “David” amongst others; would capture the hearts and imagination of millions all over the world.

McMichelangelo’s original “David” displayed at Galleria dell’Accademia in Firenze

The endless hours spent reading a plethora of sound biographical material on Michelangelo; the hours spent studying his arts displayed at the Louvre in Paris and at various places in Firenze and Roma; the visual documentaries and movies like “The Agony and The Ecstasy” that had flashed past before my eyes – all of these conjure up an image of an extraordinary genius with infinite talent. One this day, we salute this Il Divino (“the divine one“) of Firenze who once walked upon this Earth.  Jo

MdBasilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross), Firenze where Michelangelo’s tomb (designed by Vasari) is located right opposite to the tomb of Galileo Galilei  (designed by Giulio Foggini). The cenotaph of Niccolò Machiavelli is on the same aisle in close vicinity.

PS: Quoted on Page 337 of “In the Arena” The Autobiography of Charlton Heston.

(Photos: © Manningtree Archive)

KNOCK ON BANGKOK’S DOOR

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I am in no way interested in immortality,  But only in the taste of tea.”

 – Lú Tung (790-835), Tang Dynasty poet

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(Above: The first tea garden in Ootacamund (Udhagamandalam/Ooty), South India, was planted in 1863)

Everybody knows something about Tea. With its distinct flavour and aroma, it is arguably world’s best-loved refreshment. Tea had reached the West from China where it was consumed for more than four thousand years. Last December, just in time when the old year was wrapping up and launching into the Year of the Horse, dressed in the best British heritage and its colonial history, the fragrant cup of green gold finally came knocking on the door of Bangkok.

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Harrods, the globally renowned British Department Store synonymous with quality, luxury and an array of merchandise and with a history that spans over 160 years, has opened their first “Harrods Tea Room” in Bangkok where the equilibrium of “coffee culture” is rapidly tilting to “tea culture” – an aspiring lifestyle.

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A Thai newspaper recently wrote: “Coffee is Out; Tea is In” – a trend that is also catching up in large cities here in India where tea shops are common features in villages. As Carina, who favours coffee, recently quipped, “The moment ‘you’ shifted from Coffee to Tea back in 2008, I knew this is bound to happen!

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Reportedly a project between Harrods and the CEO of LME Co., Ltd (distributor of ready-to-wear fashion brands) in partnership with Thai-MC (Mitsubishi Corporation Japan), Harrods Tea Room is located at Siam Paragon, a trendy luxury shopping mall in the centre of Bangkok.

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There, in Harrods traditional ambiance, we can enjoy not only tea, clipped from plantations in Sri Lanka (earlier Ceylon), India and Kenya (all former British colonies), but a variety of British delicacies.

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Harrods is no stranger to trade in tea. Indeed, the humble beginnings of Harrods is linked to tea since Charles Henry Harrod (1799–1885) moved to Knightsbridge, London in 1849 as a small tea merchant– at a time when tea could be afforded only by the wealthy due to its high price.

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Being one of the English tea traders was advantageous since they had unrivalled access to tea from India and Ceylon due to the involvement of the British East India Company. Tea was also sold as medicine to cure cold, fever, giddiness, headache, stomach-ache, pain in the joints, cleansing the kidneys, for clear eye-sight, to strengthen the memory, to prevent sleepiness, etc.

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Harrods Tea Room has a rather conspicuous statement of no pretences to anything but luxury. You could feel a palpable air of optimism as you walk into it. In addition to the tables set outdoors, the main split-level dining area of about 280 Square metres offers a seating capacity of approximately 80 plus guests.

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Brightly lit, the whole area has the colour-scheme of Harrods green and cream. Clean and convivial, the high ceiling, marble floor, ceiling-to-floor windows, furniture and interior decor characterise a classical British elegant theme, even though some extra unique elements have been added to bring newness.

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Each dining table is set in definite Harrods style with their insignia inscribed on the tableware.

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All of these are calibrated to inspire an authentic Harrods look and feel that would ensure that the clients feel they are at Harrods Knightsbridge Store in London.

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In spite of the present political adversity, Thailand has retained its position as a giant amongst tourist destinations where echo-tourism is encouraged in the right manner. Getting into figures, the revenue from tourist visitation adds up to more than 10 percent of its gross domestic product.

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Located at the centre of Asia, the first European presence in Ayutthaya/Siam came with the arrival of Portuguese in 1511, followed by the Dutch (1605), the British (1612), the Danes (1621) and the French (1662).

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The Tea Room emphasises the four core elements in equal balance: the cuisine, the wine, the service, and the total ambience.

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The few times we had been to this Harrods Tea Room, we had enjoyed delicious dishes (Harrods Heritage hand-wrapped Beef Wellington, Roast Beef with Yorkshire pudding, etc.) personally prepared and impressively set up for both visual and consumption perspectives by Chef Nicolas Bourel. People eat with their eyes first. Bon appetit.

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21Good cooking starts with the best ingredients. When the heat is on in Harrods’ new kitchen, a succession of British gourmet favourites like Bangers and Mash, Blue Water River Prawn Thermidor, Homemade Shepherd’s Pie, Truffle-poached eggs Benedict with Scottish Smoked Salmon, Fish & Chips (reputed to be the traditional meal of England and the first English take-home dish), Spicy Crab Cakes, Salads, etc., and for the Continental spin, Quiche Lorraine, pasta and risotto, are cooked.

Besides the choice of wine and traditional appetizers, the bold and beautiful Menu offers an extensive range of food which also forms part of their Take-away service.

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The quintessential British Afternoon Tea, a staple in British culture, is regarded as a Pick-me-up. It offers a choice of premium teas from Harrods tea gardens; gourmet coffees with a cloud of milk and chic café sweets and pastries.  We were served special treats of freshly cut finger sandwiches, home-Baked English scones and fine tea pastries.

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Open for all-day dining on every day, swift, efficient and genuinely friendly members of staff greet each customer with much enthusiasm – and most importantly, with smile, the Thai national charm and reality.

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Professionally trained and neatly attired in crisp black and white with ‘Boater’ (hat), they display ‘timeless, sophisticated elegance”, not flamboyance. The energy and grace of these floor attendants is complemented by the optimism and enthusiasm of Ms. Rapeeporn Onsuratoom, the Tea Room Manager.

27aGood staff is the backbone of any successful restaurant and it is amazing what you can achieve if you do not care who gets the credit.

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Closer to the Tea Room is Harrods Boutique displaying a variety of their souvenirs such as bags, cute bears, soft toys, hampers, cookies, chocolates, coffees, teas, etc. Large size dressed teddy bears adorned the Harrods-wing at strategic locations.

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Food is a vast bridge across cultures. Think for a moment about fine dining in Bangkok. It is a world-class city where you can find trendy restaurants with Michelin-starred chefs to street eateries, teeming with diners at any given time of the day.

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According to an expatriate Chef, “Bangkok is now the food centre of Southeast Asia.” Bangkok Thais are aware of their cosmopolitan city’s delightful array of eateries offering culinary options of various countries.

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Speciality restaurants, Coffee houses, Irish pubs, Bistros, Bars abound in the contemporary food culture.

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The globalisation has increased the number of entrants into the domestic market, exerting a strong influence on expectations and options of the customers. They know which eateries hold their faith by keeping the same standards, quality and consistency.

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They are aware of the various global brands, including KFC, McDonald’s, Mister Donut, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Auntie Anne’s, Swensen’s, etc – they are all there and more are entering the increasingly competitive environment of Thai foodie market.

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Like Donq Bakery, the 100-plus year old bakery chain of Japan that opened its first branch in Bangkok at Central World Plaza and the Japanese Restaurant “Tenya” (Tempura Tendon Tenya), more foreign foodservice outlets are establishing their brand-name franchise options.

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No wonder, plans are in progress to open further Harrods outlets there. Complementing these outlets would be Harrods’ Café in Suria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and “Harrods: The Plantation Rooms” in Ginza Mitsukoshi, Tokyo (Japan).

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The constant queue of clienteles which includes many farangs (Westerners) waiting to savour the Harrods experience affords a clear-eyed perspective about the success of this flagship Tea Room on the Ground Floor (G32) of Siam Paragon.

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It also validates the fact that the City of Angels is an ideal choice for Harrods’ winner business plan to create value and gain competitive advantage in the global market.

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Then again, with all those food lovers coming in, expect the room to erupt into frenzied activity.

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Nothing can substitute experience. When you think of the personalities and principles behind this restaurant, none is short of expectation for a little taste of good living that could possibly become part of all the good times that deserve to be remembered. Enjoy every day.  Jo.

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(© Photos: Carina-Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)