Wednesday, January 1, 2014

My New Year's Day in Bangkok

Grand Palace Guards, Photo by D.R.R.
Before my friend and I traveled to Thailand, we’d already read about the famous sanuk, the fun-loving attitude of the Thai people. We’d heard that they liked to make jokes and have big get-together. Our own fun started when the cab driver who took us from the airport to the city insisted on treating his cab as a roller coaster! But where we really got a sense of this Thai spirit was on New Year’s Day in Bangkok.

We had decided to revisit the Grand Palace that day because we were sure we’d missed a lot of details during our first visit some time earlier. We also wanted another chance to glimpse at one of the most famous icons of The Grand Palace, the statue of the Emerald Buddha.

This Buddha carved out of jade was only two feet high, but he was culturally important because he’d come to Thailand in the late 1700s after residing in several other countries along the way. He even had different clothes to wear according to the weather: summer, winter, rainy season. He sat high up in the corner of a temple where a light shone on his case. Normally people would go into the temple, say a quick prayer, and then make way for other visitors.

Wat Phra Kaew (left), Photo by D.R.R.

The only problem was that my friend and I had made a grave miscalculation. We didn’t realize that Thai people celebrate Western New Year’s in addition to their own New Year’s, known as songkran, that would take place in April. It never occurred to us that many townspeople would have the day off or, even more importantly, that they would all be piling into The Grand Palace to see the Emerald Buddha.

Model of Angkor Wat, Photo by D.R.R.
The Grand Palace is actually a huge complex that houses museums, the royal palace (now used ceremoniously), pagodas, a library, and a variety of courtyards. (It’s actually easiest to understand the Emerald Buddha from a life-size replica that’s inside the museum. The museum also has copies of the wardrobe.) The complex is filled with fanciful architecture including three-story high giants who guard the entrance and a generous supply of elephant statues. It also has a model of Angkor Wat, the important Cambodian temple that was under Thai rule until the French colonization.

The key attraction of the whole complex, though, is the Wat Phra Kaew, which houses the Emerald Buddha. It was hard to work our way into the temple due to an unruly line that stretched out the door and across the front of the building. Although we only managed to spend a few seconds inside before being swept back out by other visitors, 

Grand Palace Festivities, Photo by D.R.R.

I loved the enthusiastic crowd that bustled around. The day was bright and spirits were high. By visiting the Emerald Buddha, the townspeople expected to ensure themselves of good luck for the next twelve months. My friend and I were caught up in the same enthusiasm. We couldn’t understand Thai, but we could easily understand the cheerfulness radiating from all the natives.

Indeed, it was the start of a wonderful year.

Read more about Thailand in my novel THAI TWIST. The novel recounts the adventures of two sisters traveling through the country on a mission to deliver a small elephant statue to a long-lost relative. 

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