New iPhone guided tour comes to Thailand

The cover page of the guided tour

For the last few months I have been lucky enough to be part of something big in the world of iPhone apps. In early January of this year, I discovered a call for writers who “know Thailand” on craigslist and, deciding that I had nothing to lose, I sent out an email expressing my wish to take the job. I didn’t expect to get a reply and so when I got an email saying that I seemed like the ideal candidate, I was a pleasantly surprised.

Even more surprising was the assignment I was given: I had to write a “historical” tour guide. Did I have to travel through time? Not quite.

Rama – an app designed by New York-based Crimson Bamboo – is available on the iPhone and puts a unique spin on the role of tour guides. The app harnesses the power of GPS, archival photographs and storytelling to create compelling tours that not only direct you to intriguing locations, but also inform and entertain you. Rama offers guided tours in a number of cities throughout the world and is looking to add new tours in the near future. This tour is the first for Thailand.

 “Bangkok in the 1930s” takes you through a decade of economic crisis, coup d’états, political intrigue and the birth of a new nation. The narrative is set against the backdrop of Bangkok’s most famous temples and palaces and the tour guides you to places such as the Annanta Sammakhom Throne Hall – where the People’s Party staged a coup d’état in 1932 and ousted King Prajadhipok (Rama VII).

If you’re planning a trip to Bangkok, this guided tour offers you the perfect opportunity to discover places that you may otherwise overlook, while learning about the country’s history in a compelling and interactive way.

“Bangkok in the 1930s” is available as an in-app purchase at $1.99 on Rama, an iPhone app found on iTunes: http://bit.ly/iTunesRama or through the developer’s website at http://www.crimsonbamboo.com.

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Chatuchak Park: Oasis in a Concrete Jungle

Chatuchak park

Take a rest in Chatuchak park

Alongside the traffic-congested Phahonyothin Road, Chatuchak Park offers Bangkok residents quiet respite from the manic pace of urban living. With the BTS (skytrain) and MRT (underground) directly in front of the park, it’s a doddle to get there and attracts large crowds on the weekend who come to take a brief rest from their bartering bonanza in nearby Chatuchak Market.

If you’re looking for a quiet place to read that second-hand book from Dasa Book Café, Chatuchak Park has plenty of shaded areas where you can escape from the sun and watch the world go by. The park’s central feature is its artificial lake, which stretches along the entire length of the park and makes for a great place to feed fish or even the occasional turtle. Peddle boats can be rented for a small price and offer the perfect opportunity to take your sweetheart on the lake and confess your undying love (puke).

Turtle in chatuchak park

Turtle in chatuchak park

The park is frequented by an eclectic crowd and you will see Thai families sitting in the shade eating Som Tum Mamuang (spicy mango salad), while farangs try their best to look farang, and lay semi-naked in the baking sun trying to catch a sun burn. Health fanatics don their headbands and looks of steely determination, as they try to postpone the inevitable by keeping fit on the parks tarmac tracks while weightlifters congregate at the bench press to compare each others pecs.

A children’s playground is located near to the south entrance of the park and is great for keeping the little ones entertained while you do boring grown-up things, like read news papers or talk about last year’s vacation in Kuala Lumpur.

If you’re feeling peckish while at the park, Kampaeng Phet Road 3 is lined with noodle stalls, where you can sit down on wee plastic chairs and eat with chopsticks in the open air. Ice cream vendors occasionally walk through the park selling ice cream with rice in it. Yes, I said rice. Actually, the ice cream rice is rather delicious. Failing all that, run to the BTS and grab a bag of Iced Bismarcks from Dunkin’ Donuts.

Boats at chatuchak park

Boats at chatuchak park

The north of the park is where you will find the beautiful flower gardens and is the best place to escape the hustle and bustle of the busy lakeside area. The numerous bridges spanning the lake offer great vantage points for watching fish or taking that “here-I-am-in-Chatuchak-Park” pic to show off to your “friends” on Facebook.

Chatuchak Park is a great place to stop off and unwind from a frenetic day in the labyrinth that is Chatuchak Market, take time to acquaint yourself with all the souvenirs you recently had forced upon you, watch the Bangkok sun drop behind the skyline of concrete tower blocks and breathe the smog-filled air. Ahh, Bangkok . . what a perfect way to spend the day.

Sunset at Chatuchak Park

Sunset at Chatuchak Park


Suan Rot Fai – The Old Railway Park

Deep in the heart of Bangkok’s urban jungle, you will find a surprising contrast of greenery and wildlife in Wachirabenchathat Park – more commonly called Suan Rot Fai or Railway Park. The park grounds once belonged to the State Railway of Thailand but were procured by the government as part of a project to improve the urban landscape by providing green areas for the city’s inhabitants.

The park is located just off Phahon Yothin Road, on Kampaeng Phet Road 3 and can be easily reached by taxi. A good alternative to taxi is the skytrain, which is air-conditioned, cheap and convenient to use. Get off the skytrain at Mochit and take a short walk along Phahon Yothin Road, through Chatuchak Park and onto Kampaeng Phet Road. If you want to save even more money, try riding the bus for anywhere between seven and 20 baht; this option can be hot, though, as there’s no air-conditioning on many of the buses.

Cyclists and joggers at Suan Rot Fai

Cyclists and joggers at Suan Rot Fai

With the park spread out over 60 hectares, the bike-rental service – provided near the north entrance gate – is a great choice for getting around. Bikes can be borrowed for as little as 20 baht and come fitted with passenger and baby seats. The 3 kilometre track is popular among joggers and walkers but is usually alive with the sounds of bicycle bells and children’s laughter.

Shade trees make the park a perfect place to relax with family and friends, and straw mats for sitting on can be borrowed at a small fee. If you want to spend more than a few hours at the park, take a picnic along with you or try the vendors stationed near the bike-rental sheds. There is a small cafe to the right of the entrance gate, where you can buy coffees and snacks.

Once you enter the park, there are three main paths which you can follow, with smaller interconnecting paths along the way. On the east side of the park you will find the boating lake, where you can borrow a paddle boat for 40 baht per hour. The central path passes through the most popular sitting area; to the right of this path you will see a miniature version of Rattanakosin Island with models of the Rama VIII Bridge, the Giant Swing and Golden Mount Temple. The west side of the park is a maze of pathways and the children’s playground is located about halfway down.

Map of Suan Rot Fai

Map of Suan Rot Fai

Amidst Bangkok’s labyrinth of streets and concrete tower blocks, Suan Rot Fai offers a welcome oasis for wildlife. There are numerous species of birds including Tree Sparrows, Rock Pigeons, Black-naped Orioles and Yellow-rumped Flycatchers. A birdwatching fair is held at the park every year by the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand. The butterfly garden, in the southeast corner of the park, is home to around 20 species of butterflies including the Plain Tiger, Clipper and Orange Oak Leaf; keep your eyes peeled if you want to catch a glimpse of these elusive creatures.  The butterfly park is open Tuesday to Sunday from 08:30 a.m. to 16:30 p.m., admission is free. If you see a two-foot long monitor lizard walking through the park, then no, you’re not imagining it. They’re occasionally seen in the park as they favour the swampy lakes dotted throughout the vicinity. Don’t be afraid, they’re “usually” harmless.

A Monitor lizard
A Monitor lizard

Suan Rot Fai is a great alternative to the hotter and noisier Chatuchak Park. If you’re looking for something a little different, this park is the antithesis of “typical Bangkok tourist.” The park is open from 05:00 a.m. to 21:00 p.m. and welcomes families, joggers, tourists or those who just want a quiet place to read a book. If you’re living or staying in Bangkok, the question you really need to be asking is: “why haven’t I been there yet?” A fascinating day out in Bangkok on a shoestring.


The Nine Kings of the Chakri Dynasty: Rama I – The Founding Father

Between Two Kingdoms

Burmese invasion of Ayutthaya

Burmese invasion of Ayutthaya

After the city of Ayutthaya fell to the Burmese in 1767, Siam went through an itinerant period in which the population was displaced and wealth and resources were lost. The Burmese, confident that they had subdued the Siamese forces, withdrew their main armies back to Burma, and left only a few thousand soldiers under the command of a Mon general. This was a fatal error and their occupation of Siam was to be short-lived. Six months after the Burmese had sacked Ayutthaya, a senior officer from the Ayutthayan army, led 5,000 men and more than a hundred boats to the stronghold at Thonburi. He captured and executed the general in charge then proceeded to make Thonburi his headquarters. Before long, he stood out as a strong leader and sometime in 1768 he was chosen as king by popular consent; his name was Taksin. He ruled Siam in an unorthodox fashion and gained the reputation of being impulsive and short-tempered.

King Taksin of Thonburi

King Taksin of Thonburi

During the reign of King Taksin, two brothers rose to prominence as generals in his army. These two brothers were Bunma and Thong Duang. Bunma had been a close ally of Taksin’s during his military campaigns and it was he who convinced his brother to join Taksin’s army. They both became respected generals and in 1778, Thong Duang led an army to the northeast and invaded Laos. He returned to Thonburi triumphant and brought with him the Emerald Buddha statue. This acquisition undoubtedly increased Thong Duang’s prestige and would have been taken as an auspicious sign for the kingdom. He was later promoted to the rank of Chaophraya Chakri, which would be the equivalent of a modern day Field Marshal.

Taksin became more eccentric towards the end of his reign and when he came into conflict with numerous Buddhist monks, his popularity diminished. This, among other things, planted the seeds of his demise. He was later forced to abdicate and took refuge as a Buddhist monk in Wat Chaeng. A succession struggle ensued in which Thong Duang emerged as the strongest contender for the throne. Once he had asserted his power in the capital, he recalled Taksin from Wat Chaeng and put him on trial to face charges of misconduct. Found guilty, he was beheaded on April 7, 1782.

A New Beginning

Not long after taking command, the new king, who later became Rama I or Phra Buddha Yodfa, distanced himself from the reign of Taksin by reversing a number of his decisions and stressing the dignity of the highest office. Fifteen days after been accepted as Siam’s new ruler, Rama I moved the capital from Thonburi to the east bank of the Chao Phraya River. He established the first city pillar and named the new capital Krung Thep. Only foreigners continued to use the old village name, Bangkok.

Construction of the king’s palace proceeded at a feverish pace and it was decided to model the new city on the old capital – Ayutthaya. It seems the king wanted to regain some of the grandeur of Ayutthaya and perhaps rekindle the flames of a golden age in Siamese history. Whatever the reasons, it is known that Rama I ordered ship-loads of bricks to be brought from Ayutthaya and Thonburi to use as basic building materials for the palaces, fortifications and temples. Whether this decision was made due to economic constraints or for ritual value is impossible to say.

On June 6, 1782, Rama I formally ascended the throne in a traditional ceremony in which monks chanted over a container of water for three days before using it to transform the general into a king. The king was carried by palanquin from Thonburi to Bangkok at an auspicious hour. He was then anointed in his palace and presented with a suitable array of royal names. This marked the beginning of the Chakri dynasty, which the present day monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is descended from.

A Stable Siam

Two years after the king’s ascension to the throne, Bangkok was starting to look like a capital city. An audience hall, library and temple had been constructed within the palace compound and an official opening ceremony was held in which the king was anointed a second time. He developed a daily routine which included giving alms to Buddhist monks, discussing court finances and matters of general importance, and listening to sermons in the audience hall. During his daily meetings, the king would regularly request the Department of Registration to disseminate the royal edict. One of these edicts enforced a law prohibiting civil servants from gambling. In the opening preamble of the edict the state of affairs in Siam is revealed: “Nowadays there are but few amongst the populace who are truthful and who make a living in a law-abiding manner.” Gambling was big business at the time and many people made their fortunes from it. Indeed, Rama I later had to revise the law when it became apparent that State revenue was suffering.  He allowed gamblers to continue borrowing money but the license-holders were instructed to lend money based on the means of individuals to avoid excessive debt burden.

Hanuman - God-king of the apes fighting with Mayura, from Ramakien

Hanuman - God-king of the apes fighting with Mayura, from Ramakien

Another important reform under Rama I was the revision of the Siamese version of the Buddhist Tripitaka. When the king had been informed that many of the old texts contained mistakes, he organised a council of learned men to edit the extant versions and compile a definitive set. The revisions of the text were finished within five months and a festival was organized to commemorate the new Tripitaka. During the festivities, the roof of the library caught fire as a result of the firework display. Rama I took this as a sign that the old building had not been sufficient and ordered the construction of a sturdier edifice.

With a stable Siam now emerging, Rama I also dedicated some of his time to promoting the arts, particularly the literary arts. Many of the ‘great classics’ were re-written including one of Siam’s best-known tales, Ramakien, which is derived from the Indian Ramayana. The king supervised the rewriting of Ramakien and is believed to have written parts himself. The story of Ramakien is also told in murals on the walls of the Grand Palace.

It was this dedication to the kingdom that helped Rama I to build a strong Siam. His statecraft set the wheels in motion for future kings of Siam, but it wasn’t without opposition and the threat of Burmese invasion was as real as ever.

Conflicting Forces

In the same year that Bangkok was officially opened, King Bodawpaya of Burma, encouraged by numerous military successes, decided to launch an attack on Siam.  The Burmese opened five different fronts at strategic locations including Chiang Mai, Petchaburi, the far southern provinces, the Three Pagoda Pass and the town of Tak. The Siamese responded by deploying three forces and Bodawpaya met with the army led by Siam’s uparat (deputy-king), who was none other than Bunma, the king’s brother. At first, the Burmese appeared to have the upper hand, but after food shortages and an outbreak of smallpox, the Siamese sent Bodawpaya and his troops into retreat, harassing them all the way to Burmese territory.

During these battles, the uparat came into conflict with his brother over a request to execute a number of ministers who had failed to fulfill their duties. Because these ministers were close friends of the king, he denied the uparat’s request but gave him permission to punish them. The guilty ministers were stripped of their ranks and their heads were partly shaved before being marched around the camp.

Rama I and his brother were frequently at odds during his reign and feelings of rivalry existed between them. The king had consistently used his power to undermine his brother’s position and towards the end of his life the uparat planned a coup d’état to overthrow Rama I and place his son on the throne. However, he became ill and died before he could carry out his plan. A number of co-conspirators were discovered and executed.

The Legacy

Rama I

Rama I

Rama I was born Thong Duang March 20, 1737 to a high-ranking government officer and his Chinese wife. Though he wasn’t born of royal blood, he rose through the ranks and became king of Siam by virtue of his steadfast character, decisive actions and leadership skills. His rise to the throne also fitted the Buddhist belief of karma and his legitimacy depended not on his bloodline but on ties of incarnation. He claimed to be a Bodhisatta, who had attained good karma through merit making in previous lives, and would become a Buddha in his next life.

Rama I was a conservative king, quite the opposite of the eccentric Taksin, and he held the pride of the kingdom above all. Through his numerous reforms, Siam started a new chapter in its history which, though veiled in the guise of orthodoxy, was in fact a time of innovation and would eventually lead to westernization and the fall of the absolute monarchy. He died aged 72 on September 7, 1809. He was the father of some 42 children to 28 mothers; divorce lawyers would have loved this guy.

On his death bed Rama I prophesised that his dynasty would last but 150 years. To find out how that prophecy did (at least in part) come true, stay tuned to this blog as we follow the lives of the Nine Kings of the Chakri Dynasty.


What’s In a Name? That which we call Bangkok by any other name would smell as putrid.

To adoring farangs the world over, Thailand’s sin city is known simply as “Bangkok.” But what is the meaning of the name? And would Bangkok smell any better if was called something else? In the following passages I will attempt to unravel the mystery of the name and reveal a few misconceptions, too.

The Birth of an Angel

Rama I

Rama I - The founding father of Bangkok

When Phra Buddha Yodfa (Rama I) moved Thailand’s capital from Thonburi in 1782, he wanted to build a city worthy of the previous kingdom of Ayutthaya. He set about driving piles into the marsh-ridden ground and began the construction of the Grand Palace. The plot of land that Bangkok was built on was then known as Bang Kok, which means “The Village of Plum Trees.” Over time, this name was forgotten by the locals but survived in the international appellation Bangkok. In fact, the Thai people don’t usually call their capital city “Bangkok” at all.

To Thai people, Bangkok is known as Krung Thep. But that’s not the end of it. The Thai name for Bangkok is the longest name for a capital city in the world and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records. Below is the full, ceremonial name of Thailand’s capital:

“Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.”

Long, isn’t it. If that doesn’t mean much to you, here’s the translation:

The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarma.”

This ceremonial name is derived from two ancient Indian languages, Pāli and Sanskrit. The only Thai word in the name is the initial Krung which means “capital”. It is still taught in schools, though nowadays, most of the younger generation do not understand the meaning of the archaic words. The older generation may remember the name thanks to a popular song, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon (1989) by Asanee-Wasan Chotikul. If you ask a Thai person about this song, you may be lucky enough for them to give you a rendition. If you can’t get that, click on the name of the song above and listen to it on YouTube.

The common misconception that most farangs have is that “Bangkok” means “The city of angels.” So, next time you hear two farangs arguing over the meaning of “Bangkok,” you can amaze and perhaps perplex them, by revealing that Bangkok does in fact mean “The Village of Plum Trees.”

Whatever we call this concrete jungle, it will always smell like warm dog vomit mixed with chilli sauce; my favourite dish on the soi.

Bangkok - The City of Angels

Bangkok - The City of Angels


The Drive-bys, Douche bags and Devis of Songkran: What you really ought to know about Thailand’s traditional New Year celebrations

Songkran

Driving to the shop can be a bit hazardous at Songkran

If you’re travelling to Thailand around mid-April, don’t be surprised if the Thais wish you a happy new year. Thailand’s traditional New Year celebrations are held from 13 to 15 April and include three or four days of hedonism, when drivers obey no rules and the police just do what they always do: nothing. Be prepared to get wet as the normally discreet and self-contained Thais let go of all inhibitions and drink enough alcohol to kill a cow, dance, party and water fight wherever the mood takes them.

A police man

A police man doing nothing

Songkran is the perfect time of year for the boys to get close to the girls, as cultural taboos are forgotten for the entirety of the festival. Although physical contact and overt expressions of attraction are looked down upon in Thailand, at Songkran your mother will happily pretend she didn’t see you sneaking off into the house with your girlfriend then sneaking back out again two hours later looking hot and happy.

And don’t be offended when an ugly, drunken Thai adolescent, with white powder all over his face and spooky tattoos all over his body, runs up to you and throws an ice-cold bucket of water over your head then pastes you with white powder, temporarily blinding you and poisoning you with this non-edible substance as he rubs it on your mouth. No! Do not worry, this is how they celebrate the New Year in the Land of Smiles: by killing each other in road accidents and throwing water in the faces of passing motorcyclists as they whizz by at 50 mph on their Honda Wave or Fino. In 2010, 361 people were killed in road accidents related to drink and reckless driving. This year, things have improved; so far only 148 people have died in the name of fun. Don’t worry, the guy who killed your son never knew it, he just carried on laughing and threw water at his next victim. Yes, water is a dangerous element, all said.

So how did this hysteria sweep across the nation? And what is the origin of the Songkran festival? The following passages attempt to enlighten and entertain you, while hopefully teaching you some useful knowledge that you can use to impress the locals.

The Legend of Songkran

Kirinee Devi

Kirinee Devi

Long ago, in ancient times, a high-so Thai couple had everything money could buy. They had the house, the BMW, iPhones, expensive jewellery and took regular trips abroad. But, as the wise Buddha himself often said, money does not bring happiness. For all their possessions, this wealthy couple lacked a child. One day, they visited the local temple and made merit by giving food and gifts to the monks. They prayed to the god who guarded the local banyan tree and asked for a child. Because of their good deeds, the god rewarded them with a son, who, chance would have it, turned out to be a precocious and gifted boy.  They named him Thammaban.

So gifted was young Thammaban, that he was able to speak with birds. Most of the people in his village thought he was wacko when they saw him sat in a tree making whistling noises, but when his mother explained that he could actually talk to the birds, word got about that Thammaban was special. His fame caught the attention of the four faced Hindu God King Kabinlabrahma, who was instantly envious of the young boy’s talents. Kabinlabrahma descended to Earth and posed Thammaban with a riddle: he asked him where the grace of man was in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. He warned Thammaban that if he could not answer the riddle within seven days, he would cut off his head.

Poor Thammaban was distraught and just wanted to be left alone to play with his toys; he had never asked to be so gifted. He puzzled over the question for six days, sure that he would lose his head, when he overheard two birds talking in the branches of a tree.

The birds said that man’s grace was in his face in the morning so people wash their faces with water. In the afternoon grace is in body and so people bathed and powdered their bodies with sweet scents. In the evening it was in their feet and so people washed their feet in water.

When Kabinlabrahma returned after seven days, Thammaban gave him the correct answer. Kabinlabrahma was so upset that the boy had solved his riddle he decided to end it all and cut off his own head. Despite being an ugly four faced monster, Kabinlabrahma had seven smoking-hot daughters. Before he committed hari-kari, he told his seven daughters that his head must never be thrown up in the air or else a drought would follow. If his head fell on the ground, it would cause blazing fires and devastation. If it fell into the sea, it would dry up. In other words, he was telling his daughters to take damn good care of his ugly head after he chopped it off.

Kabinlabrahma's seven daughters

The seven smoking-hot daughters

His daughters, like good Thai girls, obeyed his wishes and placed his head on a silver platter, carried it clockwise around Phrae Sumane Mountain and then placed it safely in a cave on mount Krailat. Ever since, Kabinlabrahma’s daughters took it in turns to parade his bowling ball of a head around the mountain. The daughters are known as Nang Songkran and the tradition has become the Songkran festival.

Each one of the daughters is associated with particular foods, colours, stones, animals and flowers. Their names are: Tungsa, Koraka, Ragso, Monta, Kirinee, Kimita and Mahatorn. All their names are appended by the title “Devi” and, according to this lovely art work, they’re drop-dead gorgeous.

No-one knows what happened to Thammaban. Some said he got a job at McDonalds and kept his talents a secret all his life to keep other envious gods at bay.

The History and Tradition

A traditional family gathering at Songkran

A traditional family gathering at Songkran

The name Songkran is derived from the Sanskrit word “Sankranta” and means “a move or change.” As with many things in Thai culture, the Songkran festival has been inherited from the Indians, changed beyond recognition and is now done in what the Thais fondly call “Thai-style.” Traditionally, Songkran is a time for people to return to their home towns, pay respect to their elders, spend time with the family and visit the temple. Although this still continues, it is becoming increasingly focused on having fun, playing with water and getting drunk.

The throwing of water originally started out as a ritual to cleanse the spirit and wash away any bad karma from the previous year; a bit like cleaning your house in spring and hoping it will stay that way. At first, people would simply pour water over each other’s heads or bodies as part of this ritual. However, due to the hot weather in April, people recognized the cooling benefits of soaking each other with water and – I imagine – some mischievous little boy – probably from Isaan – decided one day to soak people with a big jug of water for fun. Because Thai people are fun-loving, rather than giving this kid a proper spanking, they joined in with the game and Songkran as we know it was born. This, over hundreds of years, developed into a game of water wars that is now played the length and breadth of the country.

Modern Day Interpretations

Sometime around April 13, small children and adults will don their flowery shirts and proceed to set up base camp on the side of the road. Mummy, always happy to encourage recklessness and stupidity, will fill them a nice ten-gallon tank with water and plonk it by the side of the road so the little cherubs will never go short of water to harass passersby with. As the Songkran spirit increases, these innocent little groups of water pistol-clad children turn into intoxicated adults with a much deadlier aim, and, I may add, a much smaller brain.

A typical Songkran scene

Songkran Mafia

The fun reaches a climax when gangs of 20 or more young males stand on the back of a Toyota Vigo and drive around the streets with no other purpose than to soak everybody and anybody with water pistols and buckets of ice-cold water. Music blares from the car’s boom box as the drunken driver swerves deftly in and out of the cars and zones in on his target: a pickup truck full of Isaan grannies, returning up country to pay respect to their families. Traffic jams are the objective at this time of year and occasionally three or four cars will hold up the entire road while rival gangs throw enough water at each other to dry up the local reservoir.

The Thais, much like the French, are known for their fine taste in alcoholic beverages. At this time – and every day of the year – the Thai males like to drink white whisky. This classy little tipple is made from rice and costs the equivalent of £1. They usually start drinking at a sensible hour, such as . . . 6 a.m., and continue for the entire day until they can no longer walk, see, or speak; which takes a lot. Even those sweet little Thai ladies, who normally claim to be teetotal, let their hair down and drink Leo beer in a sawn-off Pepsi bottle. They won’t be shy in sharing it with you, as they won’t be shy in sharing a lot more if you stick with them for the rest of the day.

But why not, I hear you say? What’s wrong with such gay abandon? How often do we, in our regulated Western countries, get the opportunity to be so free from regulation and concern? Songkran, for all its madness, helps us to forget our commitments to work, family, society and become euphoric.

Songkran is now developing quite a bit of international clout and people come from all over the world to say “I’ve been there and worn the flowery t-shirt to prove it.” Yes, these delightful foreigners like to say such things as: “I’ve done Samui”, which means they went to Koh Samui for three days and, in their minds, they have now “done it.” Yes, never mind the locals, who toil and struggle to make their lives there, you, Mr. Farang, have “done it.”

Farangs doing it Thai-style

Farangs doing it Thai-style

So, at Songkran time, you will see small groups of bemused farangs, walking happily down the street, getting drenched just like everybody else. If Songkran were a shoot-em-up, then you, Mr. Farang, would be a bonus point. The Thais will make a bee-line for white faced individuals and ignore any of the Thai people standing nearby while they “Songkran” a farang for the first time in their lives. But don’t be angry, dear farang, try to understand that you increase their enjoyment of Songkran tenfold. Although the Thai males can seem a little heavy-handed at times, they really never meant to kill anyone. So try to contain your Western anger and just smile and keep reminding yourself of Buddha’s teachings on acceptance and patience, you are, after all, in a Buddhist country.

So, the question of how Songkran got to its present-day form has now been answered: like many other things in life, it evolved, took a little spice from India, added some herbs from elsewhere, then mixed it all up in a big Thai cooking pot. Nowadays, the religious aspect of the festival seems to be losing ground to the self-indulgent practice of water fighting, alcohol abuse and disregard for human life. It seems that the pandemic of madness that has seized most of the world is slowly finding its way into countries that had once managed to hold off the encroaching tentacles of Westernization. But with all these Eastern festivals and religions seeping into our own culture, we really have to ask if we’re not being equally “Easternized.”