I had a plan for how I would spend my birthday in Bangkok, but the plan got turned on its head before it started, due to the ongoing effect of jet-lag.
I checked online to find out how Thais celebrate birthdays. I discovered that, traditionally, many Thais would get up early on their birthday to give alms to the Buddhist monks and then ‘make merit’ at a temple in order to receive blessings. I planned to get up early and do the same thing, to experience that part of the culture. Later in the day, my plan included a visit to the Jatujak Market and then, in the evening, I would go to one of the bars/clubs that feature live bands to finish up my birthday celebrations.
However, at midnight (the night before) I still couldn’t get to sleep due to my body clock having not yet adjusted to Thai time. Realising that a 6.00am wake-up for the alms ceremony could be difficult if I got minimal sleep, I decided to take advantage of being wide-awake and go to a nearby club and start my birthday celebrations within the first minutes of the day. So, I walked the short distance to the Climax club and spent four hours there, listening to a couple of live bands with DJ music between the sets. When I left the club, my ears were ringing and my skin and clothes smelled strongly of cigarette smoke! Whilst it was still possible to stay awake and go to the alms ceremony, I headed back to my condo for a shower and some sleep.
I woke up in the early afternoon and then headed out to the Jatujak Market (also called Chatuchak) as I wanted to see the tropical fish section of the market. Getting to the market was easy. The Skytrain runs to the Mo Chit station which is very close to the market. The market is huge, covering 35 acres. The pet/fish area is in an adjoining section of the market (see the blue section in the map below).
But before I tackled the market, I needed to eat some lunch. There are plenty of food options in and around the market. I opted for a street food stand just outside the market, where I ate a very tasty soup that included fish balls. The table had heaping bowls of beans, bean sprouts and chopped peppers that can be added and mixed into the soup.
I spent about three hours in the market, the bulk of which was walking around the pet/fish section. I’ll be posting a separate blog with the fish photos and videos, as there are a lot of them. There were lots of small fish shops within the market, some selling fish and some selling tanks and equipment. Very few seemed to sell both livestock and equipment together. It was a very interesting visit as I got to see a wide variety of good quality fish. The hobby must be quite serious over here, as some of the fish were expensive. The price for one of the stingrays was 30,000 Baht (over $900) and a Discus was priced at 7,000 Baht (over $200). I didn’t even ask the price of the Red Asian Arowana or the Arapaima!
On the way back to my room, I picked up some Papaya Salad, sticky rice and some dried fish from a street vendor and took it back to my room. Take-away food is served in plastic bags. The Papaya Salad is VERY spicy. The hottest food I’ve tasted in Thailand. The dried fish was nice – reminiscent of pork scratchings.
Whilst I missed out on the early morning alms ceremony with the monks, I used the evening hours to visit the Wat Hua Lamphong temple. The main temple buildings are closed at night but the sections for praying and ‘making merit’ are open around the clock and were very busy around 10.00pm when I attended.
There are a number of ways in which Buddhists ‘make merit’ but one can ‘make merit’ by visiting the temple, making donations to the temple, offering incense and candles, donating food, etc. Wat Hua Lamphong was very busy with people doing those things at the time of my visit. An explanation of making merit is provided at this site – http://www.thaibuddhist.com/making-merit/
When I arrived, it took a bit of time to work out what the procedure was. Fortunately, there are some signs in English and the security guards are quite helpful. And there were plenty of people to observe to get the hang of it. So, I’ll try to explain the procedure.
On arrival, you locate a small pink pre-printed sheet of paper. It is written in Thai but includes a space at the top for your name and a space at the bottom for your signature. You complete the form and then get in line to see the cashier.
However, for birthday blessings, there are some gold coloured pieces of foil-like paper in boxes. You take one of those pieces of gold paper and write out your name and date of birth. You place the completed gold paper in a box and drop 10 Baht (about 33 cents) into an adjacent collection box. Monks collect those pieces of gold paper and will pray for blessings for you on your birthday.
Now, back to those pink paper slips. Once completed, you stand in line for one of the cashiers. Once you reach a cashier, you hand over the pink slip with your cash donation. A sign suggests either ‘donate one coffin for 500 Baht’, or donate whatever you wish. From what I could see, 100 Baht seemed to be a frequent donation. The cashier then transcribes your name, and the amount of your donation, onto a ‘temple-issued value certificate’. She hands back the pink slip and the value certificate.
Next, you head over to the stack of coffins that are covered in pink slips. You go to a table where there are pots of glue, put some glue on the back of the pink slip and stick it onto one of the coffins. As the coffins become covered in pink slips, staff remove them to make space for more.
Next up, you pick up 20 joss sticks (incense) from a stack. You then head outside the building in preparation to re-enter the adjoining room where the praying takes place. The reason for 20 joss sticks is that you place one stick in each of the two praying pots at the front door (one on each side), saying a prayer before placing each of them (with hands together in prayer whilst holding all of the sticks). Then you enter the room and walk around to locate each of six praying pots in the correct order (each of them has a number in front). At each praying pot, you say a silent prayer and then place three joss sticks per pot. After completing the praying pots, you will have used up your joss sticks. Then you can say a prayer to the Buddha and set your temple-issued value certificate alight and place it in an urn to burn.
The following video clip shows some of the activity in this room.
In another outdoor area in the temple grounds, a short distance away, are more opportunities to make merit. One option is making a donation of food to the cattle, which I didn’t bother with.
There is another small temple where, for a 10 Baht donation, you can pick up 3 joss sticks, one small candle, one floral offering and ten small pieces of gold leaf. You then head on over to the small temple and make the offerings one by one, with a prayer before each. You first light the candle and place it in a vacant holder. Then light the joss sticks and put one in each of the three pots. Then place the floral offering on the pile on the table (they are recycled for later donors). Finally, place the small pieces of gold leaf on the various Buddhas.
With my temple visit completed, I headed back to my neighbourhood for a late-night meal from a food cart on Soi 11. This is street food in its truest sense, as the cart is set up on the sidewalk each evening and the tables and stools are also placed on the sidewalk. It is also a popular cart, as there were no seats available. I had to wait in a short line for an available stool, but that allowed me to watch the cook in action.
Once I’d seen those prawns on the grill, my meal choice was decided. I had an order of the prawns with a side dish of Morning Glory vegetables. With the food and a large bottle of beer from the next-door 7-11, I finished my birthday off in style.
I was back to my room (and bed) before midnight to complete a 24 hour period of birthday activities (with some sleep in the middle). The day didn’t quite go to script, but it was a very enjoyable day.