Thailand's river of life
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, fuelled 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.
|Songkran festival in Chiang Mai|
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.
|Loi Krathong Sai in Tak|
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.
|The beautiful red lotus sea in Udonthani|
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.
|The Chao Phraya river in Bangkok|
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.
|The Royal Barge Procession|
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.
In 2016, the Thai New Year or Songkran will take place from 13 – 15 April, with celebrations to be held up and down the country. Meanwhile, Loi Krathong will be held on 15 November nationwide, with special celebrations held in the ancient capital of Sukhothai.
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