Viva Thailand 2: Bangkok – Forever Festive

1a(Display at a shop near Piazza del Duomo, Firenze)

Cute bunnies and chocolate eggs announce Easter time – the most holy festival in the Christian year. Three weeks prior to Easter, we were toying with the idea of a charming and fulfilling Holy Week in Rome followed by a few days in Lugano, Switzerland’s third most important financial centre with parks, villas and sacred buildings. At that juncture, a pleasing stimulus was our reminiscence of the chance we had last year to witness the Scoppio del Carro (ref my post of October 25, 2012: Viva Italia 3: Scoppio del Carro, Florence) at the Piazza del Duomo of Firenze.

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Someone once wrote: Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans. What could have been a swell time in Rome attending the solemn Easter ceremonies at St. Peter’s Basilica led by Papa Francesco might have turned into a parade in winter clothes owing to the chilly temperatures and scattered showers in Italy.

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Having given up our earlier flirtation with the idea of Italy, we had shifted the venue to the bright tropical sunshine of Bangkok. Incidentally, just prior to our departure before Palm Sunday, Andrea ate something funny that didn’t agree with her stomach which culminated in cancellation of our trip though, thankfully, she has since got better.

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Here in Cochin, the schools and colleges had closed just in time for “Holi” – the festival of colour and joy (formerly Holika). Holi denotes triumph of truth over evil and proclaims the message of universal brotherhood, although originally it was celebrated for good harvest and fertility of the land.

5 a Holi

Rooted in Hindu mythology, the legend of Radha-Krishna has it that the dark-skinned Krishna having been jealous of the fair-skinned Radha, pestered his mother Yashoda about the inferiority of his skin tone. Fed up, she advised him to douse Radha’s fair skin in colours so that she will also sport dark hue like him. Yet another legend, one of the several legends and stories behind Holi, remembers it for the sacrifice of Holika who burned herself in fire on that day.

6 a commons.wikimedia.org Radha and Krishna

To commemorate this, each spring the Holi celebrators (preferably dressed in white kurtas or saris or shalwar kameez for maximum effect) enjoyed high moments by spraying gulal (colour) powder and vibrant coloured water of red, pink, yellow, magenta, green, etc at each other in festive merrymaking. The vibrant hues epitomize life, energy, joy and the beginning of spring. One of my friends in Delhi, a lovely warm person, once summarized the colours concisely: Green being healthy, blue lucky, red meaning wealth and pink pleasant anticipation. Caught up in commercial exploitation, Gulal powders are now available with glittering effect, perfumed, skin/echo friendly, non-toxic, easy to remove, even organic or herbal (made from natural Maize starch).

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At the wake of Holi came Easter. Being in Cochin for Easter offered us a rather happening atmosphere amongst the close ones and the inviting ambiance of our home. The mailing-list was fished out and the traditional greeting cards were all sent. The local market readily smartened up offering exciting wares, fare and fun – especially the newly opened Lulu Shopping Mall, the largest in India.

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(A window display in Aachen, Germany)

The Easter hampers in wicker baskets on display were fun – the latest craze was the Chocolate hampers of tasty treats such as edible decoupage eggs, handmade biscuits, sweeties, bunnies, Chocolate-topped hot cross buns, etc – all the Easter goodies were in there – excluding the bottle of Champagne!

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(A display in Central World Plaza, Bangkok)

Tradition is a guide that draws attention to our roots that stretch to our spiritual and blood ancestors. Numerous books and periodicals have traced the roots and facts about Easter traditions of the world. The custom of exchanging eggs goes back to the Egyptian and the Roman times when eggs were exchanged at spring festivals as a token of renewed life. Christianity adopted the eggs as an emblem of the Resurrection of Christ.

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(A window display in Firenze, Italy)

The Cocoa Easter bunnies came to be identified as the essence of life and the resurrection of Jesus Christ – an integral part of Easter tradition ever since they originated in Germany, the country of birth of Carina!

The hot cross buns possibly developed from small wheat cakes eaten at the spring festivals in honour of Astárte, the Phoenician goddess of fertility, sexuality and war, though the cross on it is of Christian origin.

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(Statues adoring the Battistero di San Giovanni, Firenze, Italy)

It all dated to a past I could know of only by reading about it initially in the Reader’s Digest and The Illustrated Weekly of India (now defunct) while I was a Seventies teenager.

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The choice of Bangkok to spend Easter time there was quite natural. For us, Bangkok is not just a place for city sights or major landmarks or friends; it is also special due to one of our favourite churches, The Assumption Cathedral which has interwoven itself into our lives over the years ever since we first went there back in 2002.

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Situated at Oriental Avenue in the Bang Rak district within 100 meters from the famous Mandarin Oriental Bangkok Hotel, this principal Roman Catholic church of Thailand has its origins in Father Pasquale Gallo, a French missionary who sought permission to build it in 1809 as per design of an architect from his country. It was completed with imported materials from France and Italy in 1821 during the reign of King Rama II (1809-1824), the second monarch of the House of Chakri.

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Named Assumption Cathedral to honour the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heavenly glory, the church was rebuilt in the Romanesque style as a tall and rectangular structure with red brick exterior between 1909 and 1918.

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However, it underwent extensive restoration following serious damage in 1942 during World War II bombings. The layout of the building is in the form of a cross though the two hands of the cross used as sanctuaries are not wide and their lengths shorter in proportion to the length of the building. Although the exterior of the building looks very simple, the interior has a very luxurious and dignified appearance.

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The church is undergoing extensive renovations until December 2014, but even so, worship service is held there on special occasions. I can still feel the tranquility and stillness of its interior when I had sat on one of the polished wooden pews on numerous occasions and said quiet prayers or just meditated.

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Those were rare moments in which we were left with our thoughts in silence. Living in cities, seldom do we come face to face with a silent moment in our daily lives. To borrow a quote from Mother Teresa “See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.” It would explain why is it that many of the renowned vacation resorts are situated on secluded coasts, isolated mountains, sweeping oceans or on tranquil lakes.

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Easter, Christmas or New Years are not the only attractions for us in relation to the major events and festivals of Bangkok. Following Easter, the Chakri Day is celebrated on April 6 to commemorate the founding of the present Chakri Dynasty in 1782 by King Rama I (Phra Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke).

Earlier, on February 10, the Bangkokians had joined millions across the world to celebrate the Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) which is the most important event in the Chinese calendar.

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In Bangkok, the whole of Yaowarat Road in the historic Chinatown is decorated with colourful flags, lanterns, strings but was closed as thousands thronged there to taste the authentic Chinese food and partake in the street fanfare.

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People danced as the grandiose and colourful Chinese lion and dragon processions coursed through to the sound of drums and explosions of firecrackers.

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I have seen rows and rows of gastronomic display of shark’s fin soup, duck and pork noodle soup, steamed Chinese buns, dim sum, Chinese silky rice noodles, suckling pig, Peking duck, and fresh seafood at hotspot eateries just waiting to be plated into hot clay pots – although none of which I tasted since I had to meet someone later at the Jameson’s Irish Pub at Silom Road (Bang Rak).

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That evening at the Jameson’s, I was served a readily dressed Crab Salad in Vinaigrette. It’s a delicious salad with ingredients such as Cornichons (continental gherkins), capers, fresh coriander leaves, grated zest, fresh lime juice, shallot, white wine, olive oil, Tabasco sauce, milled black pepper, few crisp salad leaves to garnish and served with buttered brown bread.

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In other parts of Bangkok, restaurants (especially Chinese Thai owned) and shopping malls lured customers with promotions ranging from discounts to special offers to free feng-shui advice. To set the tone for the launch of the New Year, families of Chinese Thais sat together at their home to enjoy sumptuous Chinese banquets and to indulge in conversations that is fairly predictable.

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Following the banquet, the children were gifted with red envelopes (ang-pao) stuffed with pocket money as New Year gift. (Thais generally give money in envelopes as gifts rather than a present for weddings, a custom still practiced by many in my part of the world.)

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Shortly after Easter, the Thais welcome their traditional New Year called “Songkran” (April 12-16, 2013). But unlike the Chinese New Year Festival, Songkran is celebrated throughout the country, especially in Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, with rituals (like sprinkling water on sacred Buddha statues, making food offerings at temples, etc), parades, beauty pageants, oyster shelling competitions and merriment.

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In the scalding hot weather of April, the festival has an added fun for the fun-loving Thais since an integral part is friendly water splashing/hurling at each other, which includes locals and tourists, as a ‘gesture to give and request a blessing”. It also symbolizes the washing off all misfortunes of the past year and welcoming the New Year.

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Water has a special meaning in Asia. It represents life, prosperity and, of course, a new beginning.

However, to restrict drenching battles carried out by people on the back of trucks and to reduce possible fatalities, this year the authorities have banned all vehicles from carrying water on trucks for the duration of the Songkran festival.

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On a few occasions we were also not spared by the frolicking Thais from being miserably drenched by splashing perfumed water for coming within the hurling range.

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One takes it all in the stride since the majority of the Thais are friendly and often smile back at you pleasantly in return to your smile. This is a phenomenon you can notice amongst the Thais themselves who display a really warm community spirit by getting along a whole lot better with each other than people from other countries do.

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Being the most popular holiday, city life in Bangkok comes to a standstill during Songkran as masses of Thais travel back to their provinces for family reunions since the majority of Bangkokians hail from the countryside.

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It’s a time for them to revisit their home-grounds where they have grown up playing in paddy fields with water buffaloes.

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After the festival, they will be back in Bangkok like books finding its right place back on the shelf, carrying country grown fruits and vegetables, fermented fish, etc, their relatives had packed for them.

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On May 5, once again the nation joins the Royal Family to celebrate the Coronation Day to mark the day when Prince Bhumibol Adulyadej is crowned King (Rama IX), the ninth king of the Chakri Dynasty in 1950.

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We have not been in Bangkok on this day nor during the ancient Brahmanic ritual called The Ploughing Ceremony held in May at Sanam Luang, the big park next to the Palace.

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This ceremony was re-introduced in 1960 by H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the longest reigning king in Thai history, to commemorate the beginning of the rice-growing season and to bless the farmers with bumper harvests during the year. I remember, we too once had such an event in Kerala, and practises such as sowing the seeds from north to south across the land to obtain best crops.

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Bangkok is a rapidly modernizing city. But best of all, the Thais are conscientious enough to do not severe the threads of their past. On the full moon day of May, the Visakha Puja (May 24) is held. It is one of the most important holy days for the Theravada Buddhists. This day commemorates the birth, Enlightenment and death of Buddha.

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When Bangkok experiences rain during June to October, except for the unrelenting tropical heat which is breezed with occasional coolness, the energy and vibrancy and the intense traffic jams still prevail.

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Its Golden temples, serpentine canals, cacophony of street vendors and markets, Chinatown, are all still active and busy.

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People still strolled in Lumpini Park, made their wishes at Erawan Shrine, visited the Thewet Flower Market (Talaat Taywait), cruised downriver on rented motor launches (rua mai) or toured the Jim Thompson House or their showrooms.

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If you happen to be in Bangkok by mid-September, you could watch the International Swan Boat Races which take place under the Rama IX Bridge on the Chao Phraya River (River of Kings) which divides Bangkok into twin cities – Bangkok and Thonburi, but governed by the same municipality.

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The nightlife, lively as ever, would still be glaring, mainly in the stretch of nightclubs on Silom, Phat Phong, Sukhumvit, and Ratchadapisek (Royal City Avenue or RCA) Roads. Here is where the sanuk (fun and enjoyment) is – the fun-drenched possibilities, the world of delight hanging there like ripe golden fruit for whoever could leap high enough to take it.

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Though we were not on time to attend the 85th birthday celebrations of His Majesty the King on December 5 of last year, at one time our visit coincided with that event when huge crowds gathered on the evenings of 4th and 5th to celebrate the event at different locations in Bangkok. The city sported beautiful decorations and the excitement in the air was almost tangible. The decorative altars (Khrueang ratchasakkara) honouring the king and the queen were elegantly beautified.

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Apart from the existing decorative arches spanning the wide avenues, new temporary celebratory arches were erected. Possibly replicas derived from the Chinese “pai lou” or inspired by the earlier triumphal arches of Europe, these arches are called “sum chalerm phrakiat”, and come in various sizes and shapes featuring moulded garudas, nagas, angels, elephants, etc, in variant hues dominated by gold and blue. (In earlier days we had watered down versions of such arches erected across less wider roads in Cochin which has eventually evolved into plain arches that feature advertisements for events or commercials or traffic indications.)

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That year also provided us with the chance to see the regal pageantry of the Trooping of the Colours held on December 3 when the King reviewed the elite Royal Guards as they marched past the members of the Royal Family.

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The Thai calendar is dotted with many other interesting events and regional festivals such as the annual Thai Traditional Boat Races, Phimai Festival (performing arts, art and culture) of Nakhon Ratchasima province, Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Chiang Mai Yi Peng Festival, to name a few.

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While we were in Bangkok last year, December 12 was treated by many as an auspicious day due to the three twelves’ “12-12-12” involved in it (which only happens once every hundred years). Given that Thailand loves to celebrate auspicious dates, the seasonal mood was one of high romance. I read somewhere that Bangkok’s Bang Rak district (literally the “village of love” which is always a hotspot for marriage registration), and districts in Chiang Mai, etc were much sought after by loving couples to register for their marriage on that auspicious day.

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Reports have indicated that, in spite of the economic difficulties of Europe and the United States, the tourism performance of Thailand for 2012 turned out quite impressive. Likewise, with their projections for 2013’s tourism prospects pointing in the same direction, many events to promote tourism have been scheduled – one of which is the Bangkok Bike 2013 during May 2-5 this year co-organized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to promote the use of bicycles for both recreational and regular use and to popularise the existing cycling tours for local and foreign visitors.

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The country’s accommodations industry has shown improvement as hotels in major tourism destinations registered bookings of 85-90 per cent in 2012 compared to the 70-75 per cent of 2011 even though many hotels have raised their room rates by 5 to 10 per cent to cover higher operating costs.

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One aspect in favour of the flourish in tourism is the strong Asian economy, which is encouraging people to travel. Keeping an eye on this development, the Thai Tourism Department has been allotted Bt.4.3 billion in 2014 which is substantially higher than 2012 and this year, to continue improving tourism sites nationwide to attract more foreign visitors and to encourage longer stays. In addition to the Visa on arrival facility which allows for certain number of days stay in Thailand based on different nationalities, should you require an extension, the Immigration Office in Bangkok currently provides visa extension for a further period up to seven days for deserving cases. The formalities for such services are simplified and made tourist-friendly so that the extension can be availed within an hour.

51 Chinese-NY

Thailand has long been ranked as one of the world’s best tourist destinations. According to media reports, the Thai Government is calling on all Thais, who are generally very tolerant of foreigners, to lend a hand to look after the tourists in their neighbourhood since on few occasions tourists are victims of scams and crimes including rape and assault. As in every touristy country, if you are aware of the ground you walk and keep an eye on your back, you can enjoy a wonderful time without coming across any sleaze.

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One of the activities I indulge in any city is to visit the local antique/second hand book shops of which a few can be found in Bangkok.  Even though Thailand has a rich literary tradition, and libraries containing religious books and ancient texts in palm leaves were part of many Buddhist temples, the reading habit is rather poor compared to its neighbours.

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Now that Bangkok has been awarded the World Book Capital of 2013 by UN cultural organization UNESCO, Thailand is encouraging its citizens to “read for life” and acquire better understanding of the political, legal and economic functions of adult society, and the social and moral awareness to thrive in it.

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It is much to their credit that, with sheer dedication and effort, Thailand has finally entered the Huffington Post’s list of top 20 destinations for New Year celebrations. The Christmas and New Year season is a good example of how the country as a whole rose up to encourage tourism. It was an all-out effort of which even the students lend a hand in support. In order to celebrate the festive season and promote tourism, the students of a school in Ayutthaya province dressed as Santa Claus and posed with elephants on Christmas Eve of every year.

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(At Hotel Amari Atrium, Bangkok)

Throughout the world late December has always been a time for celebration. Last year, we were sufficiently early in Bangkok for the Christmas and the New Year season.

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We could enjoy a vast array of display of beautiful Christmas trees put up in Bangkok including those forming part of decorations at Shangri-La Hotel, Gaysorn Plaza  (pic above) and of course, Mandarin Oriental Bangkok (pic below).

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How wonderful it is to realize that all this is part of that wonderful Victorian Christmas created by Charles Dickens and Prince Albert – “Christmas Carol” by Dickens while Prince Albert had popularised the Christmas tree.

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Free from problems like the political unrest and floods of the last couple of years, the Bangkokians appeared keen to join in the celebrations with shopping and dining experiences – buying gifts for others, merit-making and parties with relatives and friends – the same thing they did during last year’s season.

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(Inside Central World Plaza, Bangkok)

As usual, the stores slashed prices and put up festive promotions and discount offers of the season, trade fairs and exhibitions in the run up to Christmas, in a last ditch attempt to get people through their doors – as if reminding them to have a terrific clear-out of their wardrobes or let their love of beautiful and luxurious things grab them.

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Apart from the original brands of international fashionistas, you could also find the fakes at lesser price. Only the discerning could distinguish the counterfeit brands and cheap copies that are abound in the market.

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SF Cinema came up with a movie gift pack of 10 tickets for Bt1,300/- (about US$45/-) to welcome the new year.

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Just as in Singapore, the year-end spending for the Thais was not confined to merely Christmas and New Year, but also intended for the Chinese New Year which falls during February.

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New Year’s party is everyone’s birthday party. Thousands turned up for the “New Year countdown to 2013” at locations such as Siam Square, Asiatique the Riverfront, Khao San Road (the backpacker ghetto and unofficial gateway to Southeast Asia), Bangkok Countdown Novotel, etc, while the biggest party with dazzling fireworks and stage entertainments was again at the Rajprasong intersection, with a huge stage set up in front of the Central World Plaza that showcased the theme: “Big Hug Big Fun.”

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The long stretch from Four Seasons Bangkok to Gaysorn Plaza to Central World was lit up with thousands of fairy lights. Groups of celebrators flocked to national parks to enjoy a festive tipple though they are urged not to use cooking stoves inside their tents.

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The New Year’s Eve party beckoned at many star hotels – the choice belonged to us. For a change from the beaten track, there is the famous Mandarin Oriental Bangkok. An innate sense of comfort, combined with a feel for history, luxury and location epitomise that hotel.

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For the affluent and society doyennes, the answer to all their pampering needs awaited in that pioneering place, the lawns of which came alive with fun and gaiety in a party called “Mama Mia” featuring sumptuous food, music, dance, entertainment and fireworks.

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To some participants from Britain and Europe, the cooking fire at live gastronomic-stations at the party helped to defuse the superstitious belief that prevailed in their countries that considered it bad luck to let fire go out on New Year’s Eve.

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I heard that some went to the banks of Chao Phraya River to watch the midnight fireworks go off on both sides of the river while some couples went to Rama VIII Bridge for an inspiring and illuminated New Year kiss as the clock struck midnight.

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A wonderful sight also to be seen occasionally is pre-wedding pictures being taken of happy couples kissing on this breezy bridge while a fleet of every kind of boats – from klong boats to deep-sea fishing trawlers, ornamental tourist junks to long-tailed boats, or even dragon racers to the revived magnificent Royal Barges, passed under the bridge.

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Love – that thing between a man and woman is beautiful – the most natural thing in the world.

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As for our New Year lunch, it was served to us at The Veranda of Mandarin Oriental. I had a Seared Black eye Tuna in Almond and Pistachio Crust with South American Quinoa, diced vegetables, couscous medley, green asparagus, butter and a soy sauce emulsion for main course.

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Carina went for Khaw Phad Oriental – the Oriental fried rice with Chicken, pork and prawns topped with fried eggs with assorted satays as accompaniment. The bottles of wine and strains of romantic music were another perfect accompaniment.

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However, as much as Rome and Bangkok inspired us and how wonderful it was to be away, there are always those little homely pleasures that tug at your heart strings to return home, sweet home.

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Someone has remarked that you should be careful what you wish for because you might end up getting it. Easter at home was our final wish for Easter.

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Ours is a family home and we like it to be lived in. Spending Easter in our house in Cochin amongst close ones was ample proof that wherever you are, the greatest fun in any festivity is the presence of your loved ones and the joy that you feel when you see the glow of happiness in their eyes. Then you realize that there is a feeling of renewal in the air. It is life’s enrichments rather than the riches of life that bring us true contentment. Hold that thought. Until next time. Ciao, Jo

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a)  Exact dates for festivals vary from year to year since many are based on the lunar cycle.

b)  The paintings of “Holi being played in the courtyard” and “Radha-Krishna” are from Wikipedia: Public domain;

c)   Reproduction of pictures credited to “Thailand Authority of Tourism” appearing in this post was made possible through the permission of International Public Relations Division, TAT, Bangkok;

d)  Photos of “Mama Mia!” New Year party provided by Ms. Somsri (Susie) Hansirisawasdi, Director of Public Relations, Mandarin Oriental Bangkok;

e)  All Photos, except those credited on them, © Joseph Sebastine-Carina Simeon/Manningtree Archive.

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31 thoughts on “Viva Thailand 2: Bangkok – Forever Festive

  1. Holding the thought , as I marvel on the painstaking and meticulous research you do on your writings. Bravo, Jo !!

    • Someone once wrote: When you discover something that nourishes your soul and brings joy, care enough about yourself to make room for it in your life. Thailand has lots of smiley people and a diverse culture that is fascinating – the very fact which makes me go back there almost every year. Wanda, I am happy to know that you like this article. 🙂

  2. What a vividly entertaining article!! You have obviously put so much work into this mammoth task. Thank you for bringing these wonderful festivities into my own home. They are a feast for my senses and my soul. Bless you, dear Jo.

    • The joy is found not in finishing a work but in doing it with satisfaction. To me, that is possible only because of the encouragement and motivation of special friends like you. Thanks and Bless you, Lizzie.

  3. My goodness, Joseph; this would make a wonderful ‘coffee table book’. The images are delightful, and your narrative allows the reader to journey along with you… Wonderful..! 🙂

  4. Joseph, thank you for stopping and liking a recent post. This was a great first stop for me with the wonderful pictures and explanations behind them. I look forward to following your blog and being curious each day as to what will be presented.

    Take care,

    Ivon

  5. Truly awesome post, I am learning alot about other cultures and how they celebrate special events thanks to your extensive research and collection of wonderful images.

  6. Wow! What an inspiration! Jo, please tell me you write for Travel Magazines? With talent like this your work most definately should be on news stands and bookstore shelves. This was an amazing journey. And thank you for sharing the facts on the tradition of throwing colored-powder. Just last week my sister was saying, I wonder why they do that? Haha, now I get to share your post with her.

    This post took a lot of hard and painstaking work to put together, but the joy you had in doing that shines through every word and picture. Thanks for sharing these beautiful cultures with us. 🙂

  7. This was fantastic. I clicked on it simply because I went to Thailand in July this year, & so loved it, & wanted a taste of it through someone’s blog. These photos are beautiful, all of them. Just wonderful.

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