Bangkok’s Festivals and Cultural Life
Bangkok is a fascinating city full of contrasts; a blend of old and new, low life and high life; of historic Buddhist temples and of transvestite shows, with practically everything in between.
A good introduction to the history and culture of Thailand is the entertaining theatre spectacle Siam Niramit, regularly staged at Bangkok’s Ratchada Theatre. The show, which recreates scenes from around the country over several centuries, uses monumental sets and a whole host of performers, including elephants and goats.
Traditional Thai culture is inseparable from religion, and reflects both the Hindu and the Indian and Chinese Buddhist influences of centuries past. Until 1925, the kings reigned and ruled as absolute monarchs. Today, the role of the king and queen, who reside at The Grand Palace, is mainly ceremonial. Set on the banks of the Chao Phraya River in the heart of Bangkok, the palace, with its sprawling halls, pavilions, gardens and courtyards, is typically Thai, the earliest building dating from 1782. Within the palace grounds is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), which is considered to be the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand. There are a number of Buddhist temples in Bangkok, each one full of interest, but perhaps the most sublime from an architectural viewpoint is The Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun) on the river bank. The impressive pagoda is intricately ornamented with tiny pieces of ceramic and Chinese porcelain and.
Various communities throughout the city still practice the traditional crafts that evolved within religious and royal contexts as part of Thai art, including alms bowls, khon masks, and classical musical instruments. The National Gallery, which houses a permanent collection of both traditional and modern art, is only one of a wide variety of museums and galleries around the city. Traditional Thai theatre and dance are regularly performed at the National Theatre and Salachalermkrung Royal Theatre; and many other venues throughout the city feature performance arts.
Thais celebrate traditional festivals in the capital throughout the year (the dates vary as some festivals follow the lunar calendar):
The Chinese New Year Festival, held in January or February, mainly in the Yaowarat district, presents colourful Chinese dragon and lion processions. Then in mid-April, the Songkran Festival, a huge celebration of the traditional Thai New Year, brings merriment all over the city. Houses are swept clean in preparation for Songkran, when Thais greet the springtime and make a fresh start. Families meet together and traditionally, young people would perform a ritual of pouring fragrant water over the elder family members’ hands in an action of humility, while asking for their blessings. Then Thais would pour a small bowl of water over the heads of their relatives and friends – a symbolic gesture of purification to wash away the old and bring in the new. These days many Thais have fun holding wild water fights in the streets all over Bangkok. However, the merit-making that is an intrinsic part of this festival means that Buddhists follow ritualistic practices to enhance their inner life. These practices involve a visit to nine of the city’s sacred temples, and the careful bathing of the statuettes of the Buddha. Crowds gather, particularly at Sanam Luang, near the Grand Palace, to display the revered Thai image of the Buddha; and in the Wisut Kasat area, where the devotional Buddhist practices of merit-making take place alongside a beauty contest and lots of entertainment.
Sanam Luang is also the site of the Thai Kite, Sport and Music Festival, usually held in March. The month of May sees the Royal Ploughing Ceremony at Sanam Luang, with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn conducting this ceremony – an ancient Brahman ritual that farmers believe can forecast whether the coming season will be plentiful or not. Rice grown in the Chitralada Palace grounds is sown in the ceremony, and afterwards, onlookers gather the seed, which is thought to be auspicious. In September or October, Bangkok’s Chinese community celebrate the Vegetarian Festival.
Loi Krathong is the Festival of Lights, and takes place on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the Thai lunar calendar which usually falls in November. In this ancient ritual, Thais make a krathong using the layers of the trunk of a banana tree or a spider lily plant, or sometimes using bread; shaping it like a lotus flower and placing an incense stick and a candle inside. A coin may be added as an offering to the river spirits. Then, Thais launch the krathong on the river and make a wish. The candle shows veneration of the Buddha, while the person lets go of their hatred, anger, and defilements as the object floats away.
At the Trooping of the Color, which is held in Dusit in December, the King and Queen preside over this event of pomp and ceremony as the Royal Guards march past members of the Royal Family and swear allegiance to the King. On December 5, Thais celebrate The King’s Birthday. On this day, the Grand Palace and Ratchadamri Road are elaborately decorated and illuminated; and in the evening, locals line the route from Sanam Luang to the Chitralada Palace to catch a glimpse of the King as he is driven slowly past.
A completely different side of Bangkok is the diverse and pulsating nightlife of the pubs and clubs, especially on Khaosan Road and Patpong, as well as jazz venues like the renowned Saxophone Pub at Victory Monument. But the outrageous transvestite shows like the Calypso Cabaret in Ratchathewi definitely take the biscuit.