I can always remember the smell of the first raindrops touching the dry ground which longs for the showers to cool down the heat. It fires a dramatic imagination just bringing to mind the moments of inhaling this wonderful scent of the earth.
The first few rains of the season can be very tropical – overwhelming and windy. Although the days are wet and full of frequent showers at different hours, the rains are never for too long. Longer are the night rains which seem more violent. The tropical rain appears to have its own predictable habit – starting with winds, then storms and immense sheets of showers before the bright, fresh sky renews not long after.
We never liked the sound of fierce storms. We never liked the leaking roofs. But we were rather excited at what would come from all this rain and thunder. The rainbows of the tropical sky are spectacular, especially with the showers of the sunny afternoons – it’s the time to make a wish. The fragrance of the lush, wet forest is spiritual and therapeutic.
Despite the frustration of being limited to indoor activities, the rainy season in Thailand has its rewards. Fruits during this time are abundant and cheap. Among the best are mangoes, durian, rambutan, mangosteens, jackfruit, sala, dragon fruits, noi nah, lamoud and longan, just to name a few. Vegetables bring forth the delicacies such as lotus roots and lotus stalks. Stalls packed with the colourful tastes and fragrances of fruits – along with competitive advertisements from reputable orchards and farms – are such common scenes of Thai roadsides during the season.
The next morning after the violent stormy rains is the time for inspection of the orchard fields; ours and our neighbors’. We looked forward to bags full of fruit which had fallen from the trees the night before. We were never short of delicious mangoes during these rainy season days.
Like all children, water is like a great present sent from above, and playing with water is a great joy. It makes me smile thinking of my sister, my little brother and myself wearing nothing but ninja panties, our colorful plastic buckets over our heads, dashing out of the house to join friends as the rain began to fall. We filled those buckets with the raindrops and splashed each other with glee. We also used the perfectly sized containers as helmets to protect our heads from falling fruits before we filled them with fruit on our way home afterwards.
The fruits we picked were usually under ripe so we had to use our inventive home tip to ripen and sweeten them up. The method we loved, and one that worked magically, was to hibernate, or bury them, in the jar of uncooked rice for a period of time. We were expected to know how to read the buried fruits, how to tell when they were at last ripe and ready to eat.
We had to avoid the temptation of digging up the fruit too early lest they turn black and spoil instead of ripen. It was our family game to see who was the most patient and who had the best prediction on their buried fruit. My grandmother was the best. She always knew for how long to bury her fruits for the perfect ripeness. There were disastrous moments, though, when she forgot about the whole thing and left her fruits in the jar for a month!
One of the best games during the rainy season is fish fighting, not that I am any good at knowing which fish to adopt or to endorse as sponsor, apart from picking the most beautiful creature. But I did enjoy some fascinating fish stories. It is still a wonder to me what seems to be their supernatural ability to produce offspring by just looking at another fellow fish’ eyes.
My little brother was a keen fish keeper as well as a fish-fighting promoter. He had numerous clear bottles containing the assorted-coloured fish, swimming so cutely. He would spend all his weekends searching in the fields for a great looking fish and would even trade his money or toy possession for the star quality shining ones. He would then divide each bottle by cardboards, like he didn’t want them to know that other fish existed. He said this is mainly to mature and nurture them, and, to a great extent, to prevent them from making babies before their due duties of winning the matches. My brother loved his fish heroes whilst at no time did I ever tell him that I preferred looking at them from a kitchen perspective!
The rainy season in Thailand is represented by the freshest and greenest of green paddy fields the earth ever created. The rain is a sign of an active agricultural cycle, with days full of fresh showers and scents, and nights orchestrated by tribes of bellowing frogs. The mellow fragrance from the first flourishing rice distracts every passer by. Countryside scenes of blossoming lotus – in pink, white and lilac, lazy water buffalo bathing in muddy ponds with farmers and kids riding them for fun or for work.
Rice farmers, always in dark-blue loose cotton uniforms with Ngop hats made from palm leaf, bending over in black muddy fields, is a typical Thai image. Scenes that bring to mind the old proverbs Lang Soo Faa, Naa Soo Din or ‘back against the sky, with face to the soil’ and Nai Naam Mee Pla Nai Na mee Khao or ‘fish in the water, so rice in the fields’.
The month of August, time of heavy showers, marks the birthday of our great Queen Sirikit. It is also the month of Mother’s Day in Thailand, and also my birthday. I always find it such a privilege to have this wonderful treat for both the presents and a couple of extra days off from school. August, counted as the ninth month instead of the eighth according to the Thai calendar, is a blossoming month, active, wet, and for many, rather inconvenient. The frustration of muddy roads and limitation of outdoor activities inspires activities that only the Thai people can conjure.
Rainy days become funny days seen in the amusing festivals in certain parts of the country. The Hae Nang Maew festival or ‘The Parade of the Cats’ is a celebration where the parade goers carry the sacred pussy cat through the streets, with the roadside well wishers splashing water on her. It is believed the magic of the ritual brings forth the plentiful rainfall to enrich the bounty of farming. This must be my first love and sympathy to the feline friends of ours.
Another festival I enjoy is the exciting Boon Bang Fai or ‘Rocket Festival’ in the Esaan region. The festival is held throughout the region, small events in remote villages and grander ones in the cities. The event would be announced months earlier so that recruitment of teams can start producing traditional rockets to compete with others. It is believed the loud noises and the ‘super natural’ ability of these objects would send messages to the heavens to look after us and our crops down here. The festival is full of entertainment, drinks and food – all through the rainy days. It is a tradition that if any rockets fail to perform up to certain standards, the makers will be dumped into the prepared nasty muddy pond nearby. The pouring rain during the festivity has never been a cause to stop play, but rather, gladly welcomed by huge cheers from the soaking wet participants! The rocket is working.
‘Boon Khaeng Rua’ or ‘Long Tail Boat Racing Festival’ is another favourite seasonal celebration throughout Thailand. The vibrant scenes of excitement, speed and team spirit bring colourful cheer to the throngs of people lining the river banks. Then there is, of course, local delicacies. This enjoyable event has been a milestone of much great dance music of the Thais.
The rainy season also includes a more sombre festival such as Buddhist Lent, which starts from a day in August and lasts for three months. This tradition was born from complaints from a farmer that the monks had stepped on their crops whilst making their routine morning meditation walks. The solution was an issue of order by the Lord Buddha to ban all the monks from leaving their monasteries during this crucial agricultural time of the year. It has since been the tradition of Buddhists and followers during this time of Lent for more than two thousand five hundred years to stay indoors, meditate, pray and reflect on what they are doing in life for at least three months of the year.
Another tradition that is being increasingly followed by people today is the ‘vegetarian festival’. Particularly in the Southern part of the country, the big merchant province like Phuket, which has been influenced by Chinese culture, has held the annual vegetarian festival month during October for decades. During this season, we will be discussing some delicious vegetarian recipes and menus that Thai families bring forth as offerings, religious celebrations and family gatherings.