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Discovering the delights of Thailand

Update: April, 28/2011 - 19:54

High steppers: Thais make a point of visiting a temple on the first day of the new year to wish for good luck. — VNS Photos Hoang Nhu Quynh Hoa
by Hoang Nhu Quynh Hoa

I am not a big football fan, but I was very impressed with the skills of England's Rooney, Argentina's Messi, Portugal's Ronaldo, Brazil's Kaka, Japan's Honda and Holland's Robben.

And I was beside myself with excitement when they went into a celebratory dance after one of them scored a goal.

The one place where you can see these football geniuses in action at the same time on a single field is in Thailand.

Watching elephants dressed in jerseys of star players play football was just one of the surprises in store during my maiden trip to the Southeastern kingdom last week.

The game involves kicking an oversized football that is tossed at them into a suitably sized goal and getting back in line for the next kick. Some of them find the net, others miss and Torres actually earned a yellow card by breaking the rule and carrying the ball straight into the goal.

Kicking a football is not the only skill Thailand's pachyderms display at the Samphran Elephant Ground&Zoo located to the west of Bangkok in Nakhon Pathom Province, less than an hour's drive away from the capital city.

A popular sightseeing destination for both adults and children, the zoo puts on a regular elephant show complete with dramatic sounds and narration. It demonstrates elephants at work, playing football and other games, dancing and racing.

The elephant show climaxes with "Yutha Hathi", a royal battle scene performed with actors riding on the elephants.

I got the feeling that this was not a zoo, but an open-air circus.

I was able to get myself photographed with a pair of Bengal tigers and watch a Crocodile Wrestling Show – a tussle between a fearsome specimen and an employee of the crocodile farm – presumably the reptile's trainer.

Despite knowing it was just a show, I was nervous as I watched two trainers stick their hands and heads into the crocodile's jaws. Courtesy Animal Planet, I knew the speed and power with which a crocodile could snap its jaws shot, and I found the stunt truly dangerous.

As the tricks and games with the animals continued, my surprise and amazement turned to a sober reflection that the animals must have suffered a lot to put on this show that had the audience smiling and laughing.

There was no guilt whatsoever in the next part of our trip. I was with a group of Vietnamese journalists invited by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to enjoy Songkran celebrations in the country.

And we did enjoy the festival thoroughly.

Songkran, the annual festival that celebrates the start of the Thai Lunar New Year, is most of all a fun-filled affair that highlights the role of water in Thailand's social, cultural, economic and spiritual life. It is also a time to pray for good luck for families and friends.

The most striking part of the three-day festival is the practice of dousing others with water, using everything from ladles, huge water-spray guns to going around in pickup trucks full of water and hit all and sundry with it.

People stand outside their homes and throw water at vehicles and people that pass by. At temples and in homes across the country, images of the Buddha are likewise cleaned.

I found that foreign visitors were taking part in this festival with gusto. Everyone had a lot of fun. There were parades, singing and dancing in streets all over the city.

I was caught totally unaware by a boy who'd followed from behind, very quietly, and without warning poured a bucketful of water over my head. It was like being hit by a storm. My assailant's merriment only increased at my shock.

The dousing experience was thereafter an enjoyable one for me as we walked around Khao San Road, getting sprayed with water. People also slapped a white paste made from flour or talcum powder on my face.

Songkran is also a time to visit temples and offer prayers. Bangkok is home to 40 magnificent Buddhist and Hindu temples including Wat Pho temple, also known as the temple of the Reclining Buddha.

The Reclining Buddha, 46m long and 15m high, his body entirely covered with gold paper, is an impressive sight. He also forces us to think of the impermanent nature of life and the need to make it as meaningful as possible. — VNS

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