Sunday, April 8, 2012

Songkran Thai New Year Festival - Thai Town LA

One of the great things about LA is its cultural diversity.  It may be more of a proverbial salad than a melting pot, but those interested will find an abundance of ethnicities to explore, often conveniently concentrated in neighborhoods that offer keys in form of good eats, and cultural festivals and celebrations - such as Thai Town, and their Songkran (New Year) celebrations held this past weekend.

Songkran (literally "astrological passage") is celebrated in Thailand as New Year April 13-15. There are spiritual and religious associations with it - a time for cleansing and renewal (one of the ways this is expressed is in the symbolic throwing of water on family, friends and strangers to wash the bad away), to pay respects to elders, family and/or monks (national religion is Buddhist), and in many places the celebration of beauty via pageants.
In LA's Thai Town, everyone gathered to celebrate with dance, music, entertainment and of course, food!  The dancing was on a smaller scale compared to other culture fests round the city like Brazilian Day (at least from what we saw - it's possible we missed earlier larger scale performances), but was still interesting to see the all male crew working it on stage in traditional garb.
In terms of live entertainment, there was also an al fresco ring where fighters competed for the honor of the festival Muay Thai champion title.  (And yes, pop culture/ reality TV junkies, Muay Thai is that full contact combat sport (similar to kickboxing) that you last saw on an episode of The Bachelorette.)  In fact the name apparent roughly means "Art of Eight Limbs" because you engage with fists, elbows, legs and knees (eight points of contact). Festival attendees gathered to look on as the 'streetfighters' battled it out in the ring.

Just when we thought the male fighters were going 'all-in', then came the women competitors - who seemed to us, judging by the visuals and sounds of contact, to strike with even more ferocity! Go ladies!
A cool thing about the festival, from a female point of view, is that yes, though there was the traditional beauty pageant - that they showed both sides - girls can kick ass in the boxing ring, and they can also be the epitome of beauty and grace, celebrating the arrival of a new year while paying tribute to tradition in gorgeous Thai gowns and crowns.
As part of the street fest, there were vendors selling handpainted Thai paper umbrellas, dresses and knick knacks, and of course plenty of food booths offering all kinds of Thai food, snacks and beverages.

I picked up a bag each of fried potato balls and banana chips (both for $5 total) - but rice crisps also seemed to be popular.

Singha being a key sponsor, of course they had the requisite beer garden, which we skipped as there were so many other options there were more interesting to us outside! I went for the fresh young coconut - possibly my favorite drink in the world for its pristine, clean flavor (but which I'm too nervous to hack open myself at home - for fear of chopping off fingers instead of shell - I took advantage of having seasoned event vendors there to crack them open like they were cutting through butter).  My friend 'Curses' went for the sweet and refreshing Thai Iced Tea. Also on offer, that we didn't try, were bottled chrysanthemum tea and coconut palm juice (I figured we can get these from a local market in Thai Town another day).
Since we had just had a full brunch earlier that day, we didn't go for all the delicious foods being cooked in open kitchens and booths - from pad thai to various curries. The critically acclaimed Jitlada restaurant was there to represent as well - but I knew from a Gold Standard event sample that their dishes like Crying Tiger Beef were aptly named and way too much spice for me to handle.  Will definitely have to come back to Thai Town another day for a lunch of more manageable fare.
We did stroll around checking out all the street food though and there were several stalls serving up meats on skewers.  One item I hadn't seen or tried before was Lobster Balls - no, they're not gonads, just meatballs made of lobster - and they were only $3 each or 2 skewers for $5! So grabbed these as a snack - they had nice texture and lobster taste, but curiously didn't have the bold flavors that are so iconic to Thai food...was glad we got to try them though.
Packaged food manufacturers also had stalls where they peddled their wares via free samples - from rice mixes to Thai barbecue chicken marinades and hot sauces. 
In line with tradition, monks were also on hand (and had their own stall) for guests to pay respects, make donations and get their blessings.   
We didn't get to see any parade they might have had, nor the water throwing ceremony - but had a nice hour or so strolling through the vendors.

All in all, Songkran street fest was a smaller scale, festive free event that would be fun to check out next year if you're already in the area.

In the meantime: suk san wan songkran (Happy Songkran Day!)


Songkran Thai New Year Festival
April 1st 9am-6pm
Hollywood Blvd. between Normandie and Western, Los Angeles, CA

Free Admission


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