That Thai summer night, from the 52 nd floor of State Tower, Bangkok looked resplendent with a million neon lights, its snazzy skyline teasing the dark night.
At the ritzy Lebua restaurant, the stars were mirrored on the glass wall, the wind was mischievously flirting with my long hair and champagne bubbled in the dainty glass. And I was getting tempted. Actually, greedy. No, not about the scrumptious sesame-laden toasted cashew nut that lay lazily on my plate.
I was wagering a million bucks on what could lay on my plate: white Almas caviar that comes from 100-year old sturgeon in the Caspian Sea and costs — hold your breath — $2000 for 10 grams; a bottle of wine for $20,000, truffles with edible 23-carat gold for $30,900. All on diamond studded gold cutlery and wine glass rimmed with real gold dust!
Buddha, forgive my greed, but I had not turned a sybarite a day before the traditional Songkran Festival. I was not tipsy, either. With all things going as planned, 10 highfliers would soon partake in the million dollar meal that would be laid lavishly at Mezzaluna, the restaurant at the 65th floor of The Lebua. If I had the money I could have signed a cheque and booked a table at the world's most expensive dinner. I looked at my thin wallet and sighed. Then, reluctantly, settled for the cashewnut.
The next morning, greed was all but forgotten. Piety was the day's leitmotif. I was thinking of Buddha, of righteousness, of the annual tradition of cleansing, of paying respect to the elders, of Songkran Festival, the Thai New Year which is celebrated between April 13 and 15 every year. Piety, however, was not so prosaic; I threw in a dash of merriment. A bucket full of water, literally. For it was no ordinary day. Songkran (it borrows from the Sanskrit Sankranti) is the beginning of the Thai new year when 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 without the colours and a Thai twist.
The day was not ordinary and I sure wanted to celebrate it in Ayuthhaya, the ancient capital of Thailand, which was built by King U Thong 650 years ago. For 417 years Ayutthaya (Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya) was Thailand's capital, 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 and the attractive adjective of more like Venice with its numerous canals cutting through the island.
Exactly 33 kings ruled Ayutthaya between 1350 and 1767; they fought 70 battles and in the inglorious sacking of the city by the Burmese in 1767, the city lost its glory. All that remains are the fragments of grandeur, the debris of a majestic past, of which the City Historical Park is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The kings, the wars, the ruins and the famous fresh water lobsters could 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 were had crowded street corners with water pistols and hoses.
Everyone was wearing floral shirt, everyone had a water pistol in hand and everyone was ready to gambol. That day, the ancient city, resembled a flight giddy girl - exuberant, euphoric, 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 pasty, pudgy kid and mingled with the crowd.
That, however, was not the end of my tryst with Ayutthaya. Back in Bangkok, I would see it again on stage in the must-see Siam Niramit, a show that provides a theatrical glimpse into the Thai culture and history. With sprightly actors, booming canons, stodgy elephants, mischievous goats and thundering music, Siam Niramit is one of the longest running stage shows in the world.
With 150 performers and 500 costumes, Siam Niramit has also found a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Slumped on a red seat, I sat with bated breath as tales about the ancient kingdom of Lanna, South Sea, Issan and Ayutthaya unfolded spectacularly on the 65 x 40 metre stage. In Siam Niramit, the best is saved for the last: Journey Beyond Imagination - Hell, Himapan Forest and Heaven, a metaphorical interpretation of the Law of Karma.
Out of the dark theatre, I did not step back into the present; I walked through the villages recreated within the Siam Niramit premises. An old woman with cragged hands was hunched over a basketful of cocoons, sedulously spinning a yarn; a young man was strumming a traditional musical instrument; in another corner, a woman was rustling an egg dish on banana leaf and pouring batter in round moulds for what looks like miniature coconut pancakes. In tiny leaf bowls lay coconut dessert and in the paddy field, a heron was prancing.
Faraway, I could see a Buddha cast in bronze. Orchids and marigolds were strewn at his feet. He sat tranquil. I concluded the day with a ritual - I poured holy water on the Buddha. I am sure he has forgiven me for the greed. I am sure he blessed me on Songkran.