In the semi-darkness, a spotlight focused on a half-naked man with his back turned against us. He whipped up an ancient instrument and delivered several mighty blows to the gong. With successive blows, he beat faster and faster, and the sound echoed in our ears. Several maidens, dressed in ancient Thai costumes and carrying lighted lamps, walked slowly in procession towards the stage. Their movements were slow and graceful, and soon, half-naked men carrying the carriages of the Queen and the King by their shoulders came on stage. They had come to offer homage to the relics of their Lord Buddha.
In the next 80 minutes, we were transported to the enchanted kingdom of Siam in a spectacular stage production called Siam Niramit. I couldn’t forget how angels dressed in traditional Thai costumes flew across the stage, suspended like acrobats while performing graceful aerial dances. I saw mystical, golden creatures, live elephants, ancient ships, ancient temples, ancient villages, Thai dances and boxing, and a river on stage! The experience was enchanting, exotic, and truly Thai. I even got to participate in a candlelit ceremony called Loy Krathong. It’s too bad no cameras were allowed inside the 2000 seat theatre. Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation that was never colonized. Is it any wonder that Thai people remain as gentle, friendly and traditionally Asian?
“In the olden days, they used to dance before the royalty,” says Joey, our Filipino friend who lives in Thailand. This could perhaps explain the slow, regal movements of the dancers. Even the Royal Anthem before the performance sounded more like an elegant, classical music than the usual march-like beat. It does help that the country has a monarch who is well-loved by the people; the monarchy unifies the people, deepens their appreciation for history, culture, and tradition and best of all, the monarchy works for the welfare of the people. When we were at the Vimanmek complex, for instance, we visited the Souvenir Shop that was supported by the Queen. “All products sold here are made by a certain village,” says a Filipino colleage Tata Lantin, “and all proceeds go to helping this village, as part of the Queen’s project.” As a keepsake, we purchased a small, porcelain child wearing an ancient Thai costume, seated in a prayer-like pose called the wai.
When we visited the Grand Palace or the Vimanmek Mansion, what struck me was the subdued elegance of the royal taste, set in a combination of European and Thai architecture. According to our tour guide Jitra, Cambodia (Kampuchea) used to be a part of Thailand, and this explained the influence of Cambodian designs on their temples such as Wat Arun, Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew. Because of the good relations of the monarchy with the rest of the world, Thailand remained free from colonization. What would it be like to live in such palaces? Well, we can take a cue from Anna Leonowens of the King and I fame. She was once the royal tutor and governess at the royal court of Siam. Personally, I am glad that Anna respected the customs of the Thai such as the wai (a prayer-like greeting) and their respect for the monarch despite the cultural differences. These traditions lived on till modern times.
One can’t speak of Bangkok without talking about the latest malls, shopping bargains and Thai food. Do check out the latest mall, Siam Paragon in Pathumwan. The items sold here are branded but if you’re lucky enough, they might have a sale. The more you buy, the greater your discount, would you believe? I have never seen a mall so grandiose in design; it’s like a six star hotel. Central in Central Chidlom is also good for branded items. The Foodloft on the 7th floor is an open kitchen restaurant and serves many cuisines. But if you want to shop for Thai souvenirs, food items like the tamarind or clothes, the best place is still MBK Center where you can bargain. These malls are all connected with pedestrian walkways. On weekends, there’s the Jatujak weekend market for exotic finds but be prepared for the heat.
There is a popular Thai restaurant in nearby Siam Square that is standing room only, Som tum nua, (papaya salad restaurant). “This place is always full,” says Mike, a Filipino-German friend who works in Thailand. “Food is very good and very reasonably priced.” It’s no wonder they had cushions outside the restaurant for customers to wait while waiters got the orders in advance. The food was indeed delicious, and we tasted sticky rice served in native containers for the first time. Thai food can be spicy with those red chillies, but if you know how to counter the spice (like eating sugar or fresh vegetables), you can still enjoy favourites such as tom yam soup, pineapple rice (or jasmine), chicken in pandan leaves, Thai fried noodles, to name a few.
After all that sightseeing and shopping, we gave in to a traditional Thai massage at the hotel’s spa. The one and a half hour dry massage was very different from the usual Western, aromatherapy massage. The masseuse was really good; the right pressure and stretches on the body, starting from the foot to the head, was therapeutic and relaxing. Best of all, there is no sticky oil that lingers on the body and hair. We were soon off to a finale: a dinner river cruise on the Chao Phraya River. The Grand Palace and Wat Arun were breathtaking at night, and we enjoyed dinner on the deck with magnificent views. We were sorry to leave the next day; we had fallen in love with Thailand, the country and its people, thanks to the hospitality of our Filipino friends. When our plane took off from the new Suvarnabhumi airport, we saw those rice fields again, hundreds of them. Traditional yet forward-looking, I thought. That’s Thailand.