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Thailand tourism: Why rivers and water are at the heart of Thai culture

Mar 15, 2016

As a nation, Thailand grew along the banks of its mighty rivers. For centuries, the kingdom’s waterways have provided the Thai people with their staple foods of rice and fish, fueled by the abundant monsoon rains that have made the land fertile. So it’s little wonder that so many local ceremonies and traditions are water-based – be they intimate family rituals or nationwide celebrations.

The most important festivals of the Thai calendar are celebrated with water. Best known of course, is the Thai New Year celebration of Songkran. For three days, during the hottest month of the year, the kingdom plays host to the world’s biggest water festival. Every town and village hosts a frantic three-day water fight with young and old taking part, as a way of cooling off and coming together. Tourists love the fun and party atmosphere, but for local people, this is a family event. In homes and temples nationwide, people gather to sprinkle sacred water on images of the Buddha as a form of ritual bathing. In Thailand’s mostly rural culture, this is a way of praying for ample rainfall in the growing season to come.

This is also a time to pay respect to family elders. In what’s considered the oldest ritual of Songkran, elders will daub the face and necks of younger participants with a white perfumed powder called dinso pong – this has long been seen as a way of warding off evil, but has also the added benefit of protecting the skin from the sun and even warding off spots – a Thai folk cure that has been passed down the generations.

Later in the year comes Loi Krathong. Held under the creamy full moon of the 12th lunar month, the celebrations are aimed at giving a little back to the water gods, to thank them for their bounty over the year. Banana stalk floats, crewed by incense and orchids are released onto the kingdom’s waterways. As these flowery floats bob out into the current, they take their owners’ wishes for love, fortune and success with them.

The charming festival of Loi Krathong is celebrated in varied ways. In the western province of Tak, the festival is called Krathong Sai, and the local krathongs are made of coconut shells, which are abundant in the area as well as throughout Thailand including popular beach destinations of Ko Samui, Ko Phangan, Phuket, and Ko Chang. These coconut shells are filled with wax and floated out into Tak’s portion of the majestic river Ping. In the northern area of Chiang Mai, Loi Krathong is called Yi Peng and fire lanterns are released so the lights in the sky mirror the candlelit city canals below.

H2O plays its part in more personal Thai ceremonies, too. At weddings, water is sprinkled upon the wrists of the bride and the groom to bless the union. Of course, now couples come from all over the world to wed in Thailand, and they often do this by taking part in traditional Thai ceremonies. But Thailand offers a wedding to match every taste. Real water lovers can tie the knot below waves in the famous annual underwater wedding off the coast of Trang. Other watery weddings can be enjoyed as couples float on the amazing Red Lotus Sea in the province of Udon Thani – be there from November to late February to enjoy the pink blossoms at their finest. For more memorable nuptials, how about a wedding on Thailand’s highest mountain, or atop a mighty Thai elephant, the symbol of the nation? In this land of love you can do it all.

Of course, Thailand’s waterways and rivers have long shaped the kingdom’s landscape and history. And it’s the mighty Chao Phraya River, which flows through Bangkok, that’s the most important to the kingdom’s history. Three of Thailand’s capitals were built along the banks of this River of Kings – Ayutthaya (1351-1767), which was both an administrative and religious centre, Thonburi (1767-1782) and then Bangkok, which was established in 1782 and thrives to the present day.

As Thailand opened up to the world, the Chao Phraya River became the gateway to the kingdom. Traders and ambassadors followed the local example and made their homes along the river. Even today you can find embassies, five-star hotels and trading firms on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. Bangkok grew up as a network of canals or khlongs, and the local residents made their homes either on boats or stilts above the waters. In the 1840s, about 90 per cent of the city’s residents lived on the canals. Theatres, shops and restaurants were run from boats and people would go between them on small rowboats. This watery lifestyle led to Bangkok being called the Venice of the East.

Now once again, the river is buzzing with new trade and industry. The most popular themed shopping venue of recent years, Asiatique, The Riverfront, built on the docks of the old East Asiatic Company, teems with local and international visitors, who come to shop, eat and to enjoy the riverside atmosphere. There is also the Yodpiman River Walk which recreates the glories of old Siam in its waterside mall created in a colonial style. It’s a perfect place to get a feel for the river as a community. The Chao Phraya is opening up in other ways, too. The tranquil little park of Suan Nagaraphirom by Wat Pho is a good place to reflect and relax, and even hosts a Loi Krathong Festival from which you can watch the annual illuminated boat processions.

Above all, the Chao Phraya is a royal river, and plays host to one of the most spectacular displays in Thai culture – the Royal Barge Ceremony. More than fifty gilded barges are rowed majestically down the river by 2,200 sailors of the Royal Thai Navy. The Ceremony is to transport members of the Royal Family during special events; such as, when new robes are delivered to monks at the end of Buddhist Lent (Ok Phansa). It’s a rare display these days as the delicate barges are only brought out on special occasions, but it’s a very special sight if you’re lucky enough to be in Bangkok when it takes place. It’s worth going to see the barges at the Royal Barge Museum. They are amazing pieces of Thai craftsmanship. The original royal barges were commissioned by King Rama I the Great and the most impressive are decorated with figureheads from Thai mythology.

Further afield from Bangkok, many water-based communities can be found. Thailand’s famous floating markets remain popular and offer a great way to interact with local people, see how traditional foods are cooked and soak up the atmosphere. Many floating markets, like Amphawa in Samut Songkgram province, encourage local artists and artisans to come and show off their creations, which make for original souvenirs and can help fund grassroots organisations.

Thailand’s waterways are vital for everyone, from kings and commoners to everyone in between – rivers flow though the nation’s history and have fuelled its culture and traditions. So tourists seeking real Thainess should take to the water – the real spirit of the nation.

This is the story of Thailand’s waterways, but there are thousands of other stories to discover. So tourists and travellers from around the world are invited to come and discover the many amazing stories in Amazing Thailand.

Thailand tourism: Why rivers and water are at the heart of Thai culture

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