Euphoric times

Euphoric times


Euphoric times

Bustling: The Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in Thailand. Photo by author

Her hat looked like an upturned lampshade, her shirt had yellow sunflowers; she looked frail, her hands cragged, her face wrinkled. She dipped the oars quietly in the river, threw the shrimp in the tiny wok and hollered, “One plate, 30 baht.” But her voice got drowned in the clamour of an early morning market and the swoosh of numerous wooden boats manoeuvring the hyacinth-laden river. In the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in Thailand’s Ratchaburi province, the boat-shops and the shoppers were, well, floating.

Spiky rambutans were jostling for space with luscious mangoes on a boat; fairy grass broth was brewing in one, on another boat, lobsters were sizzling next to pots overflowing with noodle soup; hand-painted parasols and tees hung carelessly on a tiny boat, while miniature wire bikes were elbowing out sticky rice wrapped in leaves in another boat. Eager buyers were haggling hoarse, moon cakes were flying off the boats, and that summer morning, the floating market was at its busiest best. Not without a reason, though. For Songkran Festival, the Thai New Year, was merely a sunrise away.
And when the sun rose the next day, I headed to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand, known for its lush paddy fields, fresh water lobster, the reclining Buddha, the ruins of the city which were built 650 years ago by King U Thong, and, of course, the City Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yes, Ayutthaya is also the place to be for the Songkran Festival, which is celebrated between April 13 and 15 across Thailand. In 1940, Thailand took to the Western notion of January 1 as the beginning of the new year, but the traditional celebrations have not withered with time. On Songkran (Songkran comes from the Sanskrit Sankranti), idols are cleansed, ancestors are worshipped, Khao Chee, a scrumptious rice dish, is cooked and rambunctious youngsters spray water on revellers and bystanders. Think of it as Holi, with a Thai, colourless twist.  
Local culture

Slumped in the van, I made a resolve — this time in Ayutthaya, I would stay away from the sphere of banal woes and clichéd delights. This time, it had to be different. And as if on that ‘different’ cue I remembered the knife-making village at Aranyik, the dolls of Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya district, the square-jaw Buddha in Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit, the windowless Maha Ut Chapel, the flowers made of Sano tree and the masks made for Khou dancers. With every bend on the road, new things were getting stacked in my ‘to-do’ list. 

But all that had to wait, for Ayutthaya was rollicking with the new year exhilaration. With cassava paste smeared on their faces, children and youngsters were packed like sardines on pick-up trucks, the hip were on bikes with broken silencers and the more staid crowded street corners with water pistols and hoses. That day, the ancient city, which was Thailand’s capital for 417 years, resembled a flight-giddy girl — exuberant, euphoric and elated. The city’s ecstasy was getting under my skin; with a water pistol in hand, I whooped ‘Happy Songkran’, borrowed the gooey cassava paste from a kid and mingled with the crowd. 

In Ayutthaya, everyone was wearing floral chintz, everyone had a water pistol; elephants were scrubbed and painted with paisleys, little girls powdered their nose to hop on the elephants for the ceremonial parade, a sergeant major was generously offering sticky jasmine rice and noodle soup to weary merrymakers. The streets were lined with earthen pots spilling with water, children looked muddy with cassava paste on their face, orchids and marigolds lay strewn at the feet of Buddha idols, stern cops manned the streets, and monks in sorrel robes chanted hymns. 

Suddenly, Nan, the elephant, got mischievous and squirted a trunk-full of water on me. I was caught unawares. That, however, was just the beginning. A bunch of children had their water pistols trained on me — the squirt had turned into a deluge and I was drenched to the last sinew. But, did I even flinch or blink? Naah. It was joy to be in Ayutthaya, that before the sacking by the Burmese in 1767, was more like Venice with its numerous canals cutting through the island, complete with a brick palace with glazed yellow ceramic tile roof, stupas, the dockyard that could house 500 barges, the pricey tag as one of the most powerful states in southeast Asia. That day, history was all but forgotten. All that was celebrated was the beginning of a new year. Soaked completely in the bliss of a new year, I returned to Bangkok.

That night, in Sirocco, Bangkok’s hippest and highest bar, the wind borrowed from the bar’s name. It blew about like a sirocco, flirting with my long hair and adding gusto to the oomph beat of the snazzy gig. From the 62nd floor, Bangkok looked lazy at night. Perhaps the city was tired after the Songkran merrymaking.