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A Winsome Sweet ‘17

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2The New Year’s Day 2017 has arrived with hopes – giving new courage and belief for a fresh start. The transitory period when the old year gives way for the new often kindles a curious manifestation of optimism in us and inspires hope for a “happy and better New Year” – free from the misfortunes of the year just gone by. Inwardly, this feeling is merely a repetition of the optimism that inspired us at earlier New Year’s Eves when it was wished that the ensuing New Year would bring its own heaven. Even though the year’s outcome was contrary to our expectation, yet again, when the clock struck the first note of midnight at the New Year’s Eve, and the bells ring, the fire crackers were lit, Auld Lang Syne was sung to be followed by other old, new, nostalgic medley of seasonal carols and songs, and toasts were raised, we take fresh heart to, once again, hope for the best.

New Year’s Day is the eighth day after Christmas and traditionally, bears the name “Octava Domini” (In Octavas Domini) in the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries. The first of January appeared as an ecclesiastical festival at Rome for the first time at the beginning of the ninth century, where it is called from the first Circumcisione Domini. The idea and date of this festival are derived from the Gospel of St. Luke (Chapter II. 21), since eight days after birth, the Christmas child of Virgin Mary was circumcised and received the name Jesus, a personal name. The year ends with the birth and begins with the naming.

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This year’s crib in our house

The traditions and customs related with New Year’s Day were concerned with bringing good luck for the coming year. When the year dies out at the chimes of the midnight hour, and when the traditional toast and ubiquitous salutations of “Happy New Year” and “Good Health” resonate the air and people hugged, kissed and shook hands; whatever be the attitude of the body, certain thoughts in some of us would become silent prayers turned heavenward, thanking for the past years and hoping for the best times and good health. Holy Toledo! The truth is you cannot savour the joys of life without good health.

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It is also a time for New Year resolution – decisions intended to abandon a bad habit or adopt a good one in the New Year, most popular being the decision to give up smoking and to diet which are always updated as time passes by. According to a survey, two people out of three made such resolutions but most soon break them.

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Back in December 2013 we were in Bangkok for the festive season. There was political unrest in the country at that time between red and yellow shirts. But rather than let the tourism go haywire and celebration of people curtailed, the sensible local authorities, very efficient to cope with the matters of their positions and departments, did not clamp on any undue restrictions which was laudable.

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On that warm Saturday morning of December 2013, I was waiting to keep my appointment at one of my favourite Foot Reflexology parlours in Bangkok which I had managed to reach from my hotel with some difficulty. As many of you will know, Bangkok is notorious for traffic congestions, but since yesterday (Friday, 27th) the streets were unusually packed as the New Year revellers flocked out of Bangkok to their villages. A friend of the owner of the parlour, a middle-aged Thai was also in the lobby with me waiting for the arrival of his friend. A great conversationalist, he is known to me from my earlier visits. That was the extent of our acquaintance. Having known that I write about Bangkok, he wisely used my waiting time to give me a run through about some of the many traditions and customs of his land – most of which I had come to know over the years in some finery.

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9When our conversation touched upon Songkran festival (marks the start of the traditional Thai New Year which falls during April), he suddenly switched the topic to the hair style he would be getting at the adjoining salon either on 30th or 31st (specifically on Monday and Tuesday which he believed are the only good days for getting haircut!!) in time for the New Year’s Eve. At that time, his hairdresser would remove the red-shades from his natural jet black hair worn too long by Thai standards. Although I tried to avert the conversation from being nosy about his personal choice, he went right ahead and told that he is clearing the red shades for his elder sister who has invited him to her house for late dinner on the New Year’s Eve which he intended to attend, after cutting-short his own razzle-dazzle with his friends at the local pub.

8As assigned, he would be the “first-foot” to enter his sister’s household to usher in the New Year. This fairly clear-cut custom, which has many versions, is based on a Hogmanay (a New Year’s Eve in Scotland) tradition, and still kept up in some Far Eastern and Australian households.

It is believed that if the first person to cross the threshold of a house after midnight, when the old year ends and the New begins, is a dark haired man, a year of good luck will follow. Since her brother’s last “first-foot”, she had experienced lesser gale over the domestics. And certainly, once more the elements of specific gifts a “first-footer” usually brings which symbolised life, hospitality and warmth is in his consideration to take along with him.

For his sister, who displayed great strength and furious energy to go through the ritual of sweeping her whole house thoroughly on 31st of every December, the recruitment of her brother to make the necessary entrance at her house is rooted on her belief that it should be someone with dark hair and not of her household.

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Family ties are stronger at Christmas and New Year time – and louder, too. First of January is Global Family Day, too. Mind you, he would have his fun in her home ground – the whisky, the songs, the smile, the smells – and the mishmash of games: shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, Bingo, cards, and God knows what else. To reach her home at that time of the night without the bow-wow of stray dogs in her street would be a benefit since any stray dogs living in the premises on New Year’s Eve were particularly cleared because, according to his sister, they brought bad luck.

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People do strange things hoping for best things ahead. Not long ago, a European chef of Mandarin Oriental spoke about a Thai chef’s unbridled enthusiasm for anything associated with superstitions. The Roman belief that misfortune would come into a house by anyone entering with his left foot first, is a custom which is strictly followed with right foot by his family. They have a tradition to criss-cross certain rituals of the Thai Songkran festival also with the customs of New Year’s Day.  The ingredients they used in this respect, forming part of the ritual of bathing of Buddha statues during Songkran, consists of five bowls containing different-coloured floating flowers – each colour to represent prosperity in a variety of forms: Rose Red to bring a tranquil life devoid of obstacles; Marigold Orange to signify success and wealth; Anchan Blue representing strength to overcome obstacles; Pandan Green for peace without problems; and Jasmine White to symbolise a joyful life.

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The question about how a fairly intelligent and even moderately educated person could inwardly believe these superstitions – that number 13 is unlucky, or that one should not start a new venture on Friday, etc., in spite of its universal acceptance, is, how-do-you-say-it, much like a pyramid balanced in unstable equilibrium upon its point. Nevertheless, people do knock on wood; take a pinch of salt and throw it over their left shoulder; or refuse to walk under a ladder, and hope that, “touch wood”, this New Year would hopefully go down in memory as the year they moved into the house of prosperity, good health, peace, joy and all things of goodness – with the baggage of serious misfortune safely left behind. I remember the saying, if you must leave your old house and move to a new one do not take your old broom with you.

Thank you for riding with me during the past year. I raise a toast: Here is wishing my friends and readers a lovely, peaceful and prosperous new 2017. Jo

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

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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)

Following two pictures – Courtesy: Bank Ake, Bangkok

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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)

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.

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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.

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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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Viva Thailand: Bangkok – Big as Life

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The first time I saw Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport was in April 2009– a bird’s-eye view from the multi-layered-glass window of an airborne Boeing 777-200 of Singapore Airlines.

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Having taken off from Singapore’s Changi Airport for a journey covering 878 miles (1413 kms), we had cruised over the Gulf of Thailand and once above Bang Phli district of Samut Prakan province in mainland Thailand, we flew past the new Bangkok airport before the airplane took a circle for the final approach for touchdown. Until the night of 27-28 September 2006, Don Muang Airport was the primary port of entry to Bangkok by air, a responsibility the new “airport of smiles” took over when Suvarnabhumi was officially opened on September 28.

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Now back here once again in early January 2013 to catch our outbound flight to Singapore, the place was milling with people returning home after the New Year holidays.

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Although the exterior architecture of Suvarnabhumi airport looked modern and high-tech, I could see that the starkness of the concrete, light-weight steel and clear and e-coated glass of the interior is rightfully neutralised by an indelible stamp of “Thainess”.

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Constructed in accordance with the design of Nuremberg (Germany) born architect Helmut Jahn of Chicago based Murphy/Jahn Architects who won the design competition held by the Thai Government in 1994, the airport is truly a combination of transportation centre and shopping mall.

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In order to create a building that required low energy but benefited from cutting edge state-of-the-art technology, the architects collaborated with two Stuttgart engineering firms, Werner Sobek Ingenieure (for structural issues) and Transsolar Energietechnik (for climate control). The result was a huge complex of functionally separate buildings, unified under a large roof trellis on steel support structures with exposed precast concrete elements.

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Built as per innovative designs with new materials and systems of advanced technology, the airport has ample provision for future growth. The structures are protected from direct tropical sunlight while the interior climate is controlled with minimal air-changes.

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Designated high traffic areas of the floor are provided with highly wear resistant finishes. In spite all this, the airport attracted the grievance of culture-conscious citizens who found the design devoid of the values and aesthetics that supports the Thai tradition and culture.

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The Thai government, always engaged in shaping and promoting traditional art and “Thai culture”, soon swung into action.

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The result was the formation of an expert committee drawn from the best of competent specialists in Thailand.

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Aware that the salient features of traditional Thai architecture like sloping multi-tiered roofs, soaring towers and pointed spires, and so forth, is not suitable for large scale project like an airport terminal, the cultural leadership decided to create a symbiosis of Thai traditional flair and modernity by embellishing the interior of the structure.

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A series of art representing the various aspects of Thai culture, history and landscapes, etc were set up inside the airport which was adeptly designed to let in lot of controlled daylight.

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Huge statues of mythical figures and masked dance drama from Ramakien  to mural works to classical oil paintings to Thai pavilions representing different styles of traditional houses, formed a pattern of cultural fabric that spread inside the airport.

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(After the destruction of Ayutthaya (see picture above) by the Burmese in 1767, the Indian epic Ramayana was rewritten (not translated) in Thai format by Phraphutthayotfa Chulalok, King Rama I (1737-1809) calling it the Ramakien which unmistakably reflects local values.)

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While the airport and those who pass through it are favoured to be under the protection of these mythical figures, these representations offer a last-minute aide-memoire of Thainess for the departing foreigner – whereas to the returning Thais, it is a welcoming reminder of their unique and engaging culture.

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According to recent media reports, the airport is geared for its second-phase (which includes a new terminal and third runway) and also possibly a third-phase infrastructure development projects to boost its capacity.

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Although some dark clouds are visible against these projects due to complaints from residents of the area not in favour of noise and pollution, this would hopefully be surmounted to the satisfaction of all concerned by the generally genial Thais who are renowned for their knowledge and practice of diplomacy.

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Beyond the Immigration Control on the second floor in Terminal 2, at the bottom of the gently sloping white-tiled concourse area, we will finda huge centrepiece of art. Called “Churning of the Milk Ocean” (aka: Samudra Manthan) and designed by an artisan of Thailand’s Department of Fine Arts, it measures 21 metres long, 3 metres wide and 5.5 metres high.

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It was reportedly funded by the Chairman of King Power, reputed to be the World’s Top Ten Travel Retailers, whose Duty Free outlets occupy an extensive area of retail space in this airport.

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I was photographing this centrepiece and making notes from the official placard placed in front of it when a feminine voice suddenly greeted me.

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Sawasdee”

A brunette in her late thirties, she was taller than I am, more broadly built. Her hair was pulled back in a bun, (Well, it is too hot outside to wear it down) and I could smell that special something which Coco Chanel once phrased “that unseen but unforgettable fashion accessory” – the perfume.

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Few moments ago, I had seen her reading that placard. She greeted me politely with a wai, her head slightly bowed. I always liked a Wai – the gesture of respect performed with folded palms before the chest which has its origins in India.

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Leaving my camera dangling on its sling, I smiled and returned her wai which she had performed with immaculate accuracy.

Is this important?” Her smile flashed, beckoning at the centrepiece. No shilly-shallying – simple and straightforward.

Certainly

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To me, this sculptor is every bit as fascinating as the Tower of Gustave Eiffel or Dome of Filippo Brunelleschi.

I soon learned that it was my acute concentration and also as her knowledge about the sculpture’s association with my country which made Khun Mirella (name changed for reasons of privacy), a native of Barcelona, unable to resist the question.

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I must admit, I was as curious as Mirella when I first saw this. There is something about it that draws the eye. I had pointedly checked on the story depicted in this decorative art inspired by religious devotion. With my Nikon in hand and some free time to spare, I wouldn’t have found a better chance to devout my attention to it though by this time of the day, the sunlight was a bit off to the back, obscuring the frontal features.

The tableau depicted an episode from the “Hindu Puranas” (Hindu literature). This legend takes many versions in different adaptations including a bass-relief at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

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The tableau showed a three-headed snake (Vasuki, aka Naga) coiled around a mountain (Mount Mandara) on which stood Lord Vishnu (Phra Narai/Witsanu in Thai) incarnated as a huge turtle (Kurma Avatar). The tail-end of the snake was held by a group of Devas (demigods depicted in human form) while the Asuras (Daityas, demons with demonic faces and coloured bodies) held Vasuki by the hood.

28 Durvasa-curses-ShakuntalaBy pulling the serpent to both ends in a tug of war, the Devas and Asuras were churning the Ocean of Milk to extract the nectar of immortality (Amrita) sought by the two groups. This information is readily available on the placard.

For a detailed version, the scene depicting “the Vishnu Kurmavatara and the Churning of the Milk Ocean” saga is set in a time too long ago. While passing through Lord Indra’s  kingdom, Sage Durvasa Muni chanced upon Indra, the king of Devas, who was travelling on the back of his white elephant Airavata and present Indra with a garland. Indra placed the garland on the trunk of his elephant which the animal simply threw away to the ground.

29 Indra-King-of-the-GodsHaving considered this a great disrespect to him, the Muni, supposed to be an incarnation of Lord Shiva and known for his short temper, cursed Indra, casting him down from dominion over the three worlds (Trailokya). Consequently, Indra and the Devas were bereft of all strength and fortune. Taking advantage of this weakness, the Asuras, with the help of Bali, gained control of the universe, defeating the weak Devas.

30 VISHNU-MahabharataAccepting the advice of Lord Vishnu, the Devas formed an alliance with Asuras to jointly churn the Ocean of Milk and share between them the nectar (amrita) of immortality derived from the process. But Lord Vishnu had promised the Devas that he would ensure that only they would drink the amrita and obtain immortality to defeat the Asuras.

Using Mount Mandara as the churning rod, and Vasuki, the snake as the churning rope, the Asuras opted for the head-end of the snake while, once again according to Lord Vishnu’s advice, the Devas took hold of the tail-end since those at the hood are destined to be fumed by the poison emitted by Vasuki, the Emperor of Nagas.

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During the process of the churning of the cosmic ocean for thousands of years, the Devas and Asuras pulled the snake’s body back and forth rotating the mountain.

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At one stage, when the mountain began to sink, Lord Vishnu took his second incarnation in the form of a turtle to support the mountain on his back.

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In addition to the deadly poison Halahal which Lord Shiva drank but was timely stopped from swallowing by Goddess Parvati; numerous opulent things were also produced by the churning, one of which was Dhanvantari (Heavenly Physician) carrying the pot of the nectar of immortality, Amrita.

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After a bit of intrigue, Lord Vishnu, having taken the form of the beautiful femme fatale Mohini (the only female avatar of Lord Vishnu), helped Devas to acquire the Amrita and the Asuras are banished into the underworld.

Fast forward to my present location at Suvarnabhumi airport, Mirella had introduced herself as one of those rare and inevitable people, who can design their own clothes, use an electric drill and paint.

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In 2008 when economic crisis hit Spain, her business had taken the slump. However, she had used considerable expertise and a modest budget to transform her daunting ladies-wear business into a thriving shop selling Chinese goods at reduced prices that was appealing to the cost-conscious Spanish customers. These inexpensive goods where imported from suppliers in China who were drawn to her to avail the low-cost gateway for their products to the European Union. As part of her annual “quick discussion” visits to China since 2009, it is her custom to take ten days break in Thailand on her return journey home.

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While we were talking, I had noticed that apart from few tattoos of Chinese dragons, she had tiny diamonds on posts impaled through piercings in the crease of her left nose and under the lower lip. But it was her split tongue that held my attention.

37 Tounge-SplittingMuch later I couldn’t help thinking about the object behind this “signature make-up” she has created on her to “make my own imprint on life – my own inimitable style It’s not that she would go to any length to be in fashion – it’s the quest for individuality! I am glad that she was receptive to my suggestion to mention about our encounter in one of my future posts.Thank you.

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Mirella had done the tongue bifurcation (forking/splitting) during last year in England though she got the idea from a Dutchman she had met at the Chatuchak Weekend Market (aka. Jatujuk or J.J) of Bangkok. That was in 2009.

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She had stayed at a hotel in Sukhumvit Soi 11, Bangkok’s expat hub for clubbing and dining. It was her first visit to Bangkok and she had hit the city hard and had lot of fun – a typical tourist experience.

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Sukhumvit Soi and Chatuchak Market are not unfamiliar to us. Chatuchak Market is fun – a mammoth market covering an area of about 35 acres containing more than 15,000 shops and stalls.

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It generates nearly 175,000 visitors on a market day, and an estimated 30 to 32 million Bhat per day.

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A place where professional and amateur art-lovers and artists meet, the items on display consists of a vast array of art objects and antiques such as Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese porcelains; Khmer bronze and pottery; accessories; household items; cloths; leather goods; potted plants; pets such as dogs, cats, birds, aquarium fishes; native food, amongst other bric-a-brac.

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Though the prices are marked in most cases, you are free to ask for a proper discount since the market follows the art of bargaining long practised in Asian countries including Thailand.

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We had come across stalls in this market for tattoos where you will be fascinated by the various traditional and mythical designs available for decorating the body.

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Once I had found a stall run by a team of Indian Mehndi artists offering traditional, modern, contemporary and retro Mehndi styles. But I don’t think such body modification as tongue-splitting is available there though at Chatuchak Market you could find practically anything.

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Having had another closer look at the sculpture, Mirella had bid farewell and left for her boarding gate. Looking past the aircrafts parked on the tarmac of the parking bay, I could see that the sky was clear and cloudless – something I preferred when I fly.

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As I sat in the air-conditioned commons sipping my iced drink, I saw Carina beckoning at me to join her at the Blue Elephant Duty Free.

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The couple of bags in her hand were clear indication that she had found the special curry pastes and seasoning sauces we couldn’t find at the MBK (Maboonkrong) Shopping Mall yesterday.

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That is the one good thing about Bangkok. Being a national treasure house and Thailand’s spiritual, cultural, political, commercial, educational centre where the “threads” to the past have not been cut, it is common knowledge that in Bangkok you are bound to come across that special something you have been looking for.

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Amongst the Asian countries, Thailand has a long history of being the most “foreign friendly” country and had profited from this. So tall, so modern, so crowded, Bangkok is not an ancient city.

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Krung Thep (City of Angels) was founded in 1782 in succession to the older city Ayutthaya by King Rama I, the first monarch of the present Chakri dynasty, and offers a multitude of something for everybody.

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Be it glittering ancient-looking Buddhist temples, historic monuments, canal and river scenes, quaint charm of older districts, classical dance, Muay Thai (Thai boxing), vibrant nightlife, big shopping malls, street markets, the three wheeled open air TukTuk (Sam Lors), win motersai (motorcycle boys with numbered jackets), Thai massage, culinary delights – they are all there – just waiting around the corner. And all this being a bit “easy on the pocket” can be an appealing factor to foreigners.

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But the most alluring of all this is the energy of Thai people, their sense of optimism, their penchant for feasting guests and their respect for friendships – clockwork of elements that will seize your admiration and hold onto you long after you have boarded your aircraft.

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As I bid goodbye for now, I know I will also miss their instincts of politeness, introduced from early childhood – an integral aspect which had fascinated me and prompted me to visit this beautiful country year after year – quite happily. Until next time, Ciao, Jo

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1.. Many thanks to  the Director and staff of the International Public Relations Division, Tourism Authority of Thailand, New Phetchaburi Road, Bangkok for their kind and valuable assistance and photographs (two of which regarding “Ayutthaya” and “Traditional Thai Massage” are incorporated in this article) to support my posts about Thailand.

2.. Paintings of Sage Durvasa Muni, Lord Indra, Lord Vishnu are from Wikipedia: Public domain

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Thai Phuang malai (Jasmine) Garlands: Symbol of respect and good luck

(All other photographs © JS-CS-Bianca Celine Diane-Andrea Lalis Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)