Last weekend, I went to the Songkran festival at Wat Thai temple in North Hollywood. The temple is on Coldwater Canyon, close to the end of the earth. The temple faces diagonally, so the view of it from the street isn't great, but it's so huge and different from everything that surrounds it that there's no way you'll miss it. Parking was difficult, but we found free parking on a residential street several blocks away (and walking a few blocks isn't such a bad thing when you're about to chow down).
What is the Songkran festival about? Wat Thai's website explains it better than I could:
Songkran Tradition is held as Thai New Year Tradition which is a very important and beautiful national culture of the Thai people for a long time. The foreigners are also very interested in this tradition. Songkran Day is the day of concern that people will perform a bathing rite for Buddha images and the monks, sprinkle scented water over the elders and ask for their benedictions, and splash water over every person in sight. To show of the delight by blessing one another to be happy and good luck is a beauty of Songkran Tradition, thus the adherent of this tradition can help keeping good mind, good manner, kindness and gratitude.
I hear from Chowhound that they have vendors selling food from booths every weekend, so I suppose the festival was, in some respects, a more intense version of that. Overall, what I saw wasn't very exciting as far as festivals go. The live performances were pretty painful to watch, and the event seemed to be more about consumerism than anything else. The area around the temple was packed with vendors, some selling food, some selling the usual things you can buy on the street: 2 for $5 earrings, mirrored handbags, fake Coach bags, CD's and DVD's, clothes, incense, and more.
Then there was the fat burning supplement stand, complete with disgusting stomach photos, the Western Union stand, teeming with workers in bright yellow shirts, and the "Stop! I know you want to help save the elephants!" girl. At least entrance was free, unlike many festivals I've been to in other cities.
As the only white girl at the event, I felt a little out of place and very tall. I was hoping for some good photo opportunities, but everything was so chaotic and close together that it was hard to know how to take an interesting photo without being obtrusive. As an outsider, I also had my inhibitions about being one of those obnoxious people who likes to photograph people who look different from them and then pretend that the photos have some interesting National Geographic-esque quality to them just because the subjects aren't white. That's not me.
I wish I had gone into the temple, but I'm not Buddhist and I thought it might be rude. I think sometimes I try too hard to be sensitive to other cultures and miss out on cool opportunities. That's just part of my introverted nature, I suppose.
I had a hard time finding the food--from where I entered, the food stands were all the way in the back. Though it was late in the afternoon and vendors were starting to run out of things, I did manage to get some fried banana and fried taro, fish cakes, and mango sticky rice. What I didn't get were these delicious smelling pancake things with an unidentifiable bright green paste in the middle, and I was pretty peeved since I had waited in line for 15 minutes and no one bothered to tell me that they were running out.
We also had some boba from Modern Teaism, the company that used to be Upper House and isn't as good anymore. The drink lost its flavor toward the end, which is common with frozen blended drinks (in my experience, the more cream a drink has, the more likely it is to hold its flavor until the end, but of course, the cream makes it terribly unhealthy).
To add to the general chaos of trying to move through the crowds, some booths only accepted plastic tokens that you had to purchase at a separate booth. Maybe if I read Thai I would have known this before getting to the front of the line, but I don't. I wasn't sure what the rules were, since I purchased earrings and boba with cash, but I couldn't purchase any of the other food that way. (Is boba tea not considered food?) For those of you familiar with Wat Thai--do the food booths only use tokens every weekend?
I wanted to try some new things, but when you've been eating foreign cuisines for long enough, the novelty starts to wear off. I already knew that palm sugar pretty much tastes like regular sugar, so I didn't feel the need to try the palm sugar sweets, and I already knew that egg yolk candy grosses me out (I like omelets, but that's the only form of egg I've ever liked), so I ended up sticking to tried and true things: fish cakes, deep fried banana and taro, and mango sticky rice.
You can't go wrong with mango sticky rice. The name is a bit deceiving: since the mango isn't mixed into the rice in any way, the dish would be best called sticky rice with mango (and probably sometimes is). The rice is mixed with a thin sauce whose mostly sweet but slightly salty flavor is completely addictive, and fresh chunks of mango are served alongside it.
I probably would have gotten some pad Thai or some of the soup that I saw lots of people with, but the lines for the hot food were painfully long, and it's not like I've never had pad Thai before. I should also point out that since I am somewhat allergic to shellfish and the Thais love shrimp, eating unfamiliar Thai food is not always the best idea for me.
The fish cakes were cheap, at 6 for $3, but they were small and barely warm, so I didn't eat them until that evening when I could nuke them. I was turned away at the first booth I tried to order them from, but the seemingly identical booth next to it sold me their last batch. The fried banana and taro were incredibly greasy. The taro was dry and hard to eat without sips of water in between each bite. The banana was better, and I liked that it was tangy, like a slightly underripe banana, but still soft. There were lots of jam-packed picnic-style benches for eating your food, but I don't like crowds, so I got my food on my way out and ate in the car.
I'm sure this sand pile is significant somehow
Overall, if you're just looking for good, authentic Thai food, you might have a better time eating at a restaurant in North Hollywood or Thai Town. If you want to sample smaller portions of lots of food at low prices and you don't mind crowds and lines, Wat Thai is a great bet. The festival itself didn't impress me (maybe more interesting things were happening earlier, or on Sunday), but I was glad that I actually got out and did one of the interesting things that this city has to offer. I love that in Los Angeles, I can get a taste of another country, but unlike actually traveling to that country, I can go back to my own comfortable life when I get tired. Those of you who have traveled abroad know how exhausting culture shock can be.
If you missed it, don't worry--the next festival, the Loy Kratong festival, is in November.
Wat Thai of Los Angeles
8225 Coldwater Canyon Ave
North Hollywood, CA 91605