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If you’re travelling to Thailand, look beyond a simple dish of rice. From rice festivals and rituals to Michelin star restaurants and high-end spas, there is a lot to explore. Here’s how to do it.
Rice Rituals in Thailand
In Thailand, rice isn’t simply a food, it’s a symbol of bounty and fertility – and a key part of the culture. And exploring this fascinating world is a unique thing to do in Thailand.
You will never think Thai rice is boring again.
Thai rice is more gourmet than you might think, with colours that range from white to purple and more than 3,000 varieties.
Because it’s such a historic part of Thai cuisine, culture and economy, it’s also the root of some bizarre rituals that the average tourist will never see. (But let me tell you what I know.)
If you’re travelling to Thailand, to experience the culture through rice is to experience the heart of the country. (Or should that be stomach?)
My own love affair with Thai rice started when I attended a rice conference in Bangkok at the invitation of the Thai government, and I’ve been intrigued by this delicious staple ever since.
From boisterous rice festivals and Michelin restaurants that serve nothing but the best, here’s how you can delve into the fascinating world of Thai rice for yourself
Rice Festivals in Thailand
The Royal Plowing Ceremony in Bangkok
Thai festivals are popular with tourists, especially the crazy fun Songkran water festival that celebrates the Thai New Year each April.
To really experience something different, however, check out some lesser known festivals like the Royal Ploughing Ceremony in Bangkok, usually held in May.
This ritualistic Brahman ceremony marks the start of the rice season each year, and it’s both deeply significant and fun.
When I attended the ceremony in the centre of Bangkok, instead of the usual traffic jams and shopping stalls I saw:
- Two sacred white bulls yoked to a plow handle
- Four celestial maidens toting golden baskets
- One Lord of the Royal Plowing Ceremony tossing rice kernels onto the earth
As the procession made its way around Sanam Luang Park just outside the Grand Palace, the ground was plowed by the oxen and the rice kernels were scattered.
Participating in the Royal Ploughing Ceremony
Here’s the fun part: At the end of the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, you can join the rush of local Thais running to collect grains of rice from the ground.
Racing in and out of the field in my skirt and flimsy sandals before the farmers could knock me over in their enthusiasm, I proudly made off with my prize – six grains of auspicious rice from an event presided over by the Crown Prince of Thailand himself.
My curiosity piqued by this sacred ceremony in Bangkok, I decided to travel deeper into the rice culture of Thailand to connect with the country’s culinary roots. Here’s how you can, too.
Thai Rice Culture Explained
In Thailand, rice is more than a staple food; it’s something to revere.
Thai meals almost always have rice as an accompaniment, and the words ‘to eat’ literally translate as ‘eat rice.’
Rice has been grown for more than 5,000 years here, and was first cultivated around 3500 BC.
Considering rice is Thailand’s most important crop, with 60% of Thai farmers cultivating it, it’s no surprise rice is deeply ingrained in all aspects of the local culture.
A key provider of sustenance and nutrition for Thai people, rice has inspired myths, rituals and superstitions, and a number of celebrations are devoted to the rice crop and to asking the gods for rain for good harvests.
Rice is also important to the country economically. Thailand is one of the biggest exporters of rice in the world, and Thai rice is known for its quality.
The Rice Goddess Mae Posop
During rice rituals, offerings are made to the rice mother goddess, Mae Posop (or Mae Phosop), to ask for a good rice harvest for the farmers.
The life cycle of the rice goddess echoes the growing season.
When the rice begins to seed, Mae Posop is considered to be pregnant.
At this critical time in the season, farmers put offerings such as bananas, citrus fruits or cane sugar in bamboo baskets and hang them in their fields.
When the rice is harvested, different offerings are made such as boiled duck eggs, sweets and fruit.
Different Types of Thai Rice
There are actually more than 3,500 different varieties grown in the country. Some estimates go as high as 6,000. Let’s have a look at a few to try when you’re in Thailand.
Jasmine Rice – Hom Mali
The main type of rice grown in Thailand is Hom Mali. This is a long-grained white jasmine rice that stands out for its sweet ‘popcorn’ fragrance.
Plain white rice is a long grain rice. It separates nicely and its mild fluffy characteristics have made it a staple around the world.
Sticky Rice – Khao Neow
Sticky rice, also called sweet rice, has no amylose. This means it doesn’t separate like white rice but sticks together. It’s popular in deserts like mango sticky rice.
Brown Rice – Hhao Dum
Brown rice is slightly crunchy, and has a nutty flavour that pairs well with a variety of dishes. It is also healthier than white rice as it’s rich in fibre.
Thai Red Rice
Red rice has a unique red colour and a slightly nutty flavour. It’s often used in traditional Thai dishes like red curry. Rich in nutrients and antioxidants, it also looks really gorgeous and has serious curb appeal.
The latest superfood in the Thai rice industry is riceberry. It’s a cross between purple rice and Thai jasmine rice.
Developed in Thailand but making its way into supermarket shelves around the globe, this nutty-flavoured supergrain is said to be high in antioxidants and minerals.
Rocket Festival in Northern Thailand
In northern Thailand, where sticky (glutinous) rice, reigns supreme, the Rocket Festival, Bun Bang Fai, is a raucous celebration that uses an explosive combination of bamboo and gunpowder to fuel homemade rockets.
These are set off to ask the sky to send rain for the new season of rice growing.
The biggest Rocket Festival takes place in the town of Yasothon at the beginning of the wet season in mid May.
It’s a lively three-day event with dancers, parades and music – and plenty of alcohol to fuel the fun.
The Cat Procession in Central Thailand
An intriguing rain ceremony is the Cat Procession in the central region of Thailand called Hae Nang Maew.
A centuries-old tradition that only occurs in times of severe drought, the Cat Procession harkens back to Thailand’s animistic roots.
Stemming from the belief that a crying cat can bring rain, the ritual consists of a female cat being paraded around in a basket while villagers throw water at it.
One theory is that the cat represents ‘dryness’ and soaking it chased the dryness away.
Another theory is that when the cat gets wet, it yowls, which is seen as a plea to the rain deity for rain.
The Strange and Bizarre Dark Side of Rice Rituals
The rice rituals of Thailand get deeper and more mysterious.
If you didn’t think rice had a dark erotic edge, think again.
According to the Thai Rice Foundation, rain-making ceremonies asking for fertile rice crops can “involve strange and bizarre methods not seen in everyday life, and some have parts involving sex, seeing that it is a symbol of fertility.”
Wow. Who knew exploring Thailand culture through its rice customs could be so dramatic and where do I get tikets for that?
Actually, when I first wrote about Thai rice rituals for the Toronto Star someone did contact me inviting me to one of these mysterious rituals.
Sadly (or thankfully) I’d left Thailand by then.
Where to Eat Thai Rice in Thailand
You’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant that didn’t serve rice in Thailand, but here are some standouts when it comes to the restaurant scene.
Note: Menus change all the time so these particular rice dishes at these recommended restaurants were available when I wrote this.
Siam Wisdom Restaurant in Bangkok
At the Michelin-starred Chim by Siam Wisdom in Bangkok, you can add an order of Organic steamed riceberry cooked in coconut juice.
Or, add a steamed Thai jasmine rice with jasmine flower in a clay pot to your meal.
And check out their lunch specials for some good deals.
Chim by Siam Wisdom is at 66 soi Sukhumvit 31 (Sawadee), Yak 4, Klongtoey-Nua, Wattana, Bankok, Thailand 10110. Telephone +6 622 607811
PRU in Phuket
With a Michelin Green star, PRU promises you an upscale meal with a sustainable heart. A desert to try here is Si Sa Ket, toasted rice with mountain berry and coconut.
Address: 60/1 Moo 6, Srisoonthorn Road, Cherngtalay, Thalang, Phuket. +66 (0)76-310-232
Sri panwa in Phuket
On Thailand’s biggest island, Phuket, the very hip and pricy Sri panwa resort is a hit with Asian celebrities and the ‘It’ pack.
At the resort’s Baba Soul Food, where many of the produce is sourced from The King’s Royal Project organic farms of Northern Thailand, you can try a dessert of Crispy Khao Mao made from shredded rice grain and caramel coconut with warm milk.
Rice Spa Treatments in Thailand
After a few sweltering days touring rural Thailand in search of rice rituals, then eating far too many rice dishes, you might want to relax and detox at one of Thailand’s top spas. I know I did.
What’s the deal with rice rituals and spa treatments? It’s the exfoliating properties of rice that have been harnessed into a range of exotic spa treatments.
Jasmine Rice Scrub in Koh Samui
In the posh surroundings and lush jungle locale of the Four Seasons Koh Samui Resort on the southern island of Samui you can opt for a Coconut Oil & Jasmine Rice Scrub to hydrate and nourish.
Rice Bran Body Polish in Phuket
In Phuket you can indulge with a Jasmine Rice Scrub at the upscale Andara Resort.
Rice Wine Body Soak in Bangkok
Rice Beauty Products
At the swanky Banyan Tree Spa you can buy Jasmine Rice Facial Collection skin products that contain vitamin E, jasmine extracts and rice ferment filtrate, a fermented product that is supposed to moisturize, detoxify and soothe.
Rice As an Antioxident
Rice in Thailand may be part of its ancient food culture, but what’s old is new, and rice is gaining more momentum in the health department.
Scientific studies about rice have shown that brown rice may have anti-diabetic, anti-cholesterol, heart protective and antioxidant properties.
Studies also show that rice bran, the brown outer layer of the rice kernel, contains more than 100 antioxidant compounds.
Gamma Oryzanol, the Most Powerful Property in Rice
The most powerful antioxidant in rice is gamma oryzanol.
This potent plant sterol promises to lower cholesterol, reduce menopausal symptoms and is poised to be the new “it” weapon in our anti-aging tool kit.
Just keep in mind that to get the most benefits from rice you’re going to have to opt for something other than eating Thailand’s delicious jasmine white rice. Sigh. But it’s also possible to get brown jasmine rice.
Don’t worry, there are plenty of other colours to choose from: yellow rice, green rice, blue and even purple rice.
Purple rice, for example, which gets its colour from the pigment in the husk, has long been used as a traditional herbal remedy and is said to reduce cholesterol and atherosclerosis.
Thai Rice Culture Conclusion
The benefits seems clear.
Whether you eat rice, exfoliate your body with it, or conduct some mysterious bizarre rice rituals of your own, think of Thai rice as a journey into the roots of Siamese culture, and thank the rice goddess, Mae Posop for providing such a bounty.